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‘Great Britons,’ and Then Some, Go on Display

Who ranks among the “Great Britons”?

It’s a question at least partially answered by a new exhibit of the same name opening Friday at the National Portrait Gallery.

The show, which features about 60 works on loan from London’s National Portrait Gallery, includes the expected mix of British royals (from a fou-fou Elizabeth I to an imperiously regal Elizabeth II) and military heroes (a dashing Adm. Horatio Nelson), but it also highlights a fair number of self-made men (and ladies). Sandy Nairne, the British gallery’s director, is quick to point out that its “essential” and first acquisition — an early 17th-century portrait of William Shakespeare that may have been painted from life — is hardly of a person who hailed from the well-heeled classes.

Most of the individuals represented here are white — among the rare minority is a psychedelic rendering of the Indian-born British citizen Salman Rushdie. Those who fall outside of the aristocratic and political circles tend toward literary (think Charles Dickens and J.K. Rowling) or theatrical types (a rather grand Dame Judi Dench).

The pictures are mainly traditional. Among the exceptions are an almost silkscreen-quality painting of Winston Churchill by Walter Sickert and a video installation by Sam Taylor-Wood of soccer star David Beckham, who appears to be sleeping. Rowling is the lone individual depicted in a 3-D format with a series of cutouts placed in a plain, cafe-style space by Stuart Pearson Wright reminiscent of a scene you might view through a peep box.

A few of the inclusions might surprise you. There’s a smashing portrait of American expatriate Henry James by John Singer Sargent, an abstract take on American-born writer T.S. Eliot (who became a British citizen in 1927) and even Jacques-Émile Blanche’s iconic portrait of the bespectacled Irish novelist James Joyce looking all bookish and cerebral among papers and tomes, a cigarette in hand. (Joyce was born in 1882 in Dublin before the Irish Republic got its independence from the United Kingdom in 1921.)

And those “blurring” of the lines are OK, said Nairne, who noted the central requirement was that those included have “contributed to British history and culture.”

Marc Pachter, director of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, said “Great Britons” marks “the return favor” for a show of prominent Americans that was sent to London in 2002, while the United States’ portrait gallery was closed for a major renovation.

“Great Britons: Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, London” runs from April 27 to Sept. 3 at the National Portrait Gallery, located at Ninth and G streets Northwest. For more information, go to

— Bree Hocking

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