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From Shakespeare to Winehouse to Brontë to Sheeran: over 400 years of British portraiture

The ‘Shakespeare to Winehouse’ exhibition is on at the National Portrait Gallery until July 17 2022 (photo by Sara Garrity)

From photography to sculpture to painting to digital portraiture, the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Shakespeare to Winehouse‘ exhibition has it all. As the National Portrait Gallery in London goes under reconstruction for the first time in 125 years, 84 of their finest pieces have made a new home in Canberra from March to July 2022. The exhibition showcases portraits from as long ago as 1575 of the likes of Queen Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare, to more recent portraits of Ed Sheeran, Malala Yousafzai and Queen Elizabeth II.

With so many portraits to explore, it is impossible to detail them all in one article. Here is a handful of the best of the best.

William Shakespeare c. 1600-1610 

associated with John Taylor 

oil on canvas 

National Portrait Gallery, London. 

Given by Francis Egerton, 1st Earl of Ellesmere, 1856 

© National Portrait Gallery, London 

One of the most exciting pieces in the exhibition is John Taylor’s portrait of Shakespeare from 1600 to 1610. As one of the sitters the exhibition takes its name from, it was not a surprise to see this in the exhibition, but I think that made it even more special. When I think of Shakespeare, this is the image that pops up in my head. Having the classic old-picture darkness to it, the aged colours only added to the overall excitement of being able to see this piece so close. As Shakespeare is such a well known British name, and this portrait comes from a time where he actually existed and sat for the painting, this was undoubtably one of the highlights of the exhibition.

I like this place, and willingly could waste my time in it.

William Shakespeare, As You Like It (Act II, Scene IV)

‘Amy-Blue’ (Amy Winehouse) 2011 

by Marlene Dumas 

oil on canvas 

National Portrait Gallery, London. 

Purchased with help from the Art Fund, 2012 

© Marlene Dumas; courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London 

The other portrait that lends its name to the exhibition is this one of Amy Winehouse. The portrait was painted commemoratively after her death in 2011, and uses blue tones as an attempt to amplify the melancholy aspects of the singers life before death. The composition was chosen to accentuate her most recognisable features, including her sharp dark eyeliner and hair. This is a small portrait, but also one of the more memorable at the exhibition.

Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen.

Amy Winehouse

With around 400 years difference, the portraits of Shakespeare and Winehouse perfectly represent the size and depth of the collection on display at the exhibition. A single step could take you 300 years in the past, and another back to just ten years ago.

The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë) c. 1834 

by Patrick Branwell Brontë 

oil on canvas 

National Portrait Gallery, London. 

Purchased, 1914 

© National Portrait Gallery, London 

The portrait of the Brontë sisters had the most interesting story of them all. It is the only surviving group portrait of English novelists and sisters Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, but was thought to also be lost until it was found folded in a cupboard in 1914. The fold marks in the painting can still be seen.

You may notice a ghostly figure in the background between the sisters as well. This is thought (but not confirmed) to be the inclusion of the painter of the portrait and their brother Patrick that he decided to black out, but has reappeared over time as the paint has become discoloured. Slightly creepy, but very cool.

I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.

Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre

Ed Sheeran 2016 

by Colin Davidson 

oil on linen 

National Portrait Gallery, London. 

Purchased, 2017 

© Colin Davidson 

On the other side of the wall to the Brontë sisters (which is a sentence I never thought I would say), is an incredibly large portrait of more recently famous Ed Sheeran. This portrait was around the same size as me, and was one of the focal portraits in the exhibition. Ed Sheeran was introduced to the painter of the portrait, Colin Davidson, through his father who was an art historian and curator. Davidson chose to capture Sheeran in a moment of thought rather than mid-performance, which he said “was odd for him”. With big strokes of paint led to resemble the singer, the style of this portrait closely resembles that of Van Gogh.

Music is a powerful tool in galvanising people around an issue. There’s no better way to get your point across than to put it in a beautiful song.

Ed Sheeran

Queen Elizabeth I c. 1575 

associated with Nicholas Hilliard 

oil on panel 

National Portrait Gallery, London. 

Purchased 1865 

© National Portrait Gallery, London 

The portrait of Queen Elizabeth I was one of the oldest in the exhibition, and also the one I spent the most time looking at. Despite its age, the portrait has so much going on, from the details in her dress that almost look 3D, to the inclusion of the rose in the painting to represent the house of Tudor. Elizabeth I was the only surviving child of King Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, and was around a really, really long time ago. Standing next to something so old was unreal.

I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.

Queen Elizabeth I

Malala Yousafzai 2018 

by Shirin Neshat 

archival ink on gelatin silver print on fibre based paper 

National Portrait Gallery, London. 

Commissioned with support from Scott Collins and Lotta Ashdown, in partnership with Outset Contemporary Art Fund, 2018 

© National Portrait Gallery, London 

One of the most recent pieces in the exhibition, this portrait of Malala Yousafzai, was also one of the most powerful. A human rights activist for female education from Pakistan, Malala rose to fame through her writing about her life under the Taliban in 2009. In 2012, she was shot by a Taliban gunman on her school bus, but made a full recovery in Birmingham England, where she now resides. She won the Nobel Peace Price in 2014, and is still advocating for what she believes in.

In my eyes, the print captures Malala’s strength and kindness, and represents exactly who she is and what she believes in. Malala is someone I have and will always admire, and this was one of my favourite portraits at the exhibition. It was definitely the one that stayed with me the longest once I left.

With guns you can kill terrorists, with education you can kill terrorism.

Malala Yousafzai

My experience at the ‘Shakespeare to Winehouse’ was educational, incredibly interesting and absolutely memorable. Going to galleries to look at paintings often gets a bad wrap, but there is something different and extremely beneficial about learning from an artifact that comes from the past. Portraiture and art also tell stories in themselves, and being able to look at more recent celebrities like Ed Sheeran and Amy Winehouse without the mask of their persona shows you in such a powerful way that they are simply human beings like us too.

‘Shakespeare to Winehouse’ was a memorable experience for me, and was more powerful than just looking at pictures. I would absolutely recommend it.

Digital scans of portraits courtesy the National Portrait Gallery