The UK’s special place in portraiture may date back as far as the reformation. At this time a sudden decline in commissioned religious art, due to the newly austere interiors of religious buildings, meant that artists had to diversify into different genres. This coincided with a new aspirant middle class, created by the redistribution of Catholic wealth, that became a source of patronage for portraiture. In addition to this, the favourable climate for Protestants drew artists over from the continent. Hans Holbein was one of the first, leaving Germany 1526. The tradition of portraiture grew alongside a tradition of great houses. Many of which date back to the post-reformation period, such as Audley End, which was built on a monastic site, and, later, Longleat and Burghley house. The portrait has always had a very close relationship to the great country houses.
The UK’s reputation for a good climate for portraiture continued to attract artists from all over the world, with many of the leading artists of their day basing themselves in London. Artists such as Franz Xavier Winterhalter from Germany, John Singer Sargent from America and Philip de Lazlo from Hungary, all making substantial parts of their careers in the UK.
It was only in the eighteenth century, the time of Gainsborough and Reynolds, that native artists came to the fore. Native british portrait artists have been leading painters ever since – Orpen, Millais, Watts, Whistler, Freud and Hockney to name but a few.
London, in particular, is a hub for portraiture. It hosts regular blockbuster art exhibitions with a portrait theme: such as David Hockney portraits at the Royal Academy, Self Portraits at the Royal Gallery, and Singer Sargent watercolours at Dulwich Picture Gallery. London is also the chosen location for many of the most eminent portrait painters of their day for example Philip de Lazlo had a studio in the Albany, Sir William Orpen worked in South Kensington, John Stuart Wortley was in Westbourne Terrace, John Singer Sargent had a studio in Tite Street and Lucian Freud lived in Kensington.
The National Portrait Gallery, on Trafalgar Square has a substantial permanent collection of portraiture and holds a series of interesting temporary portrait exhibitions.
Adjacent to the National Portrait Gallery is the National Gallery which shows many portraits from its permanent collection in addition to regular exhibitions also featuring portraits.
Mall Galleries, in central London, also located on Trafalgar Square is the third of this cluster of major institutions. It is the base for the UK’s pre-eminent organisation for portrait painters, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Here, their annual exhibition in May comprises about 200 recent portraits by their established members together with portraits by emerging artists around the world. These form a snapshot of portraiture today. It is a must-see benchmark not only for artists but also for those who enjoy this genre and those wishing to commission a portrait.
Portrait commissions remain an important art form and co-collaboration between artist and sitter. It has remained strong despite the onslaught of the photograph, the digital age and the selfie. (see Portraiture Flourishes) The Royal Society of Portrait Painters, a charity seeking to encourage the practice and appreciation of portraiture, sees the commission as a vital part of this genre so offers a dedicated portrait commissions service to help those commissioning a portrait.
There are five organisations offering portrait painting courses in London namely: Heatherley Art School, LARA, Art Academy, Prince’s Drawing School, and Lavender Hill and City Lit. Surely this makes London a focal point for acquiring the skills for this genre as well as a centre for enjoying the fruits of the portrait artists’ labour
Wherever you are in the world, if you are fascinated by creation or appreciation of portraiture London seems to be the place to be.