Despite its name the National Portrait Gallery does not actually represent the nation. It represents an elite, those deemed to have shaped Britain’s past or held to illuminate its present: kings and queens, statesmen and diplomats, poets and artists,. It is a gallery of the great and the good, the Dictionary of National Biography in museum form. This bias goes back to the institution’s nineteenth-century origins and continues to reflectthe Victorian values which brought it into being. As Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister of the day, proclaimed to Parliament: “There cannot be a greater incentive to mental exertion, to noble actions, to good conduct on the part of the living than for them to see before them the features of those who have done things which are worthy of our admiration, and whose example we are more induced to imitate when they are brought before us in the visible and tangible form of portraits...”
The NPG’s peculiar historical status as a museum of inspiring examples has led to the development of a problematic anomaly in the balance of its collections. Like any other museum it constantly conducts research into the paintings that it possesses, which means inevitably that previous attributions sometimes evaporate. When they concern the artist, no great adjustment is necessary: Charles II, by Sir Peter Lely becomes Charles II, by Anon, and the label is altered accordingly. But when they concern the sitter, the consequences are potentially much more damaging. If Richard, Third Duke of Cumberland, by Thomas Gainsborough should suddenly become Unknown Gentleman, bythe same painter, then the rules of the museum insist the picture is instantly removed to storage until such time as an alternative identity should be established. This applies regardless of how good painting in question might be.

As a result,...

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