Platform
The great and the good

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 37

Platform
The great and the good

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 37

Platform
The great and the good

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 37

Platform
The great and the good

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 37

The National Portrait Gallery, one of the world's best-loved collections, has a new director. Nicholas Cullinan outlines his vision to Louisa Buck

When he took up his post in April this year, Nicholas Cullinan became the twelfth director in the National Portrait Gallery's 158-year history, and at 37, one of its youngest. "I'm really enjoying it – it's a fantastic job!" he enthuses as he pours me tea in his modest office tucked up a side street around the back of the NPG building near Trafalgar Square. "I feel that the National Portrait Gallery is especially relevant right now, because so much of what we learn about history and society is through images of people. We have a very different remit from other institutions and I think that's why the public loves us so much and what makes our displays and exhibitions so special."

The gallery's collection of more than 200,000 portraits of famous or historically significant 'Great Britons' stretches back to the 16th century and ranges from Holbein's cartoon of Henry VIII to Spencer Murphy's photographic portrait of Benedict Cumberbatch. The NPG has become not only one of the country's most visited art galleries, beloved by tourists and the British public alike, but also – as its founder, the fifth Earl of Stanhope wished – a repository of British history. It boasts the finest collection of Tudor portraits in the world, as well as famous images such as the 'Chandos' portrait of William Shakespeare, and Branwell Brontë's portrait of his sisters. Although there are other portrait galleries – the Smithsonian in Washington, and the National Portrait Galleries of Scotland and Australia, for example – the NPG is the world leader.

Recently, the gallery has cannily tapped into our obsession with celebrity, with exhibitions devoted to Mario Testino's portraits and images of Audrey Hepburn packing in the crowds. Some portraits – such as Sam Taylor-Wood's film of a sleeping David Beckham are almost celebrities in their own right. Portraits are commissioned – about five a year – purchased and donated, with the gallery's trustees deciding who is worthy of inclusion.

Cullinan's youth and disarmingly modest manner belie a formidable track record. He came to the NPG after two years as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The Courtauld Institute graduate had previously been a rising star at the Tate. Yet alongside his impressive CV, international contacts and desire "to commission the best possible portraits and to work with great artists", Cullinan is also committed to extending the scope of the NPG. "I'm constantly talking to people from other disciplines," he says. "We are not just about art: we're about all forms of culture, society, literature, science, engineering, sport – from Mo Farah and Helena Kennedy to Judi Dench and Tim Berners-Lee."

Indeed, he can barely conceal his glee at the goodies that hang on his office wall. These include the grand 18th-century portrait of the First Earl of Liverpool by George Romney, "because he's one of my favorite painters". Two walls are occupied by a pair of formidable women: the late Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire surrounded by chickens and photographed by Harry Borden, "because she's just fabulous: a personality and an animal lover", and a particularly fine photographic portrait of Doreen Lawrence, Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon, whom Cullinan describes as "a personal hero", taken by Suki Dhanda. He carefully points out that none of these works are needed in the galleries at the moment.

Besides leading such a venerable institution, Cullinan has to grapple with the NPG's different and potentially contentious remits. Its works include photographs, paintings and sculpture, such as Marc Quinn's portrait of himself in blood, along with works that have vigorously divided opinion, like Paul Emsley's recent portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge.

While Cullinan declares that "it is this very particular marriage between art and history that makes the NPG unique", he also agrees that what constitutes British history – and indeed Britishness in general – is a ticklish issue. "We don't want to be partisan, but we do want to accurately reflect how society is changing," he says. "We have a unique role in making sure that it's about people from across the country as a whole who have contributed in a really significant way over the centuries."

With this in mind, Cullinan is eager to expand the NPG's collaborations both nationally and internationally. "I'm very keen to get things out of storage and share the collection, especially nationwide. The NPG is already in partnership with the National Trust: the Van Dyck self-portrait that we acquired recently has been touring the country and I'm on a train every week following our works and shows – whether it's to catch the David Bailey retrospective in Edinburgh or to Sheffield for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize."

Cullinan also believes in engaging with the present through the filter of the past. "Contemporary art is very dear to me, but I don't think you necessarily have to show it to be relevant to the present. I'm looking at a lot of the historic works we have and asking: what should we see now?" So be prepared for an NPG that may be more proactive in getting to grips with history as it unfolds – as well as recording what happened next.

Central to this role is the NPG's rolling program of temporary exhibitions, which are often more international in scope and can address wider issues concerning identity and portraiture. These range from the recent blockbuster devoted to John Singer Sargent's portraits of artists and friends, to Ketaki Sheth's photographs of the little-known Sidi community of Africans living in India. But as the gallery's exhibitions are already programmed up to 2017, we will have to wait and see how the new director will make his mark. "There are some great things coming up – including Giacometti this October – but none of them are my shows," he says. "I'm working with colleagues to shape the program but it's too early to talk about it now."

One thing to expect under Cullinan's directorship is a commitment to the NPG's collaboration with artists. Cullinan acknowledges that Grayson Perry's recent project,Who Are You? is "a model we'd like to pursue. It was before my time," he admits, "so I can't take any credit, but the whole project was fantastic." It is early days, but it seems that under this new director continuity will co-exist with change.

Louisa Buck is a British art critic and the author of Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collector's Handbook.

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