A COLLECTION OF BIOGRAPHY AND HISTORY. Dr. Nicholas Cullinan was appointed the Director of the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2015. He was previously Curator of International Modern Art at Tate Modern in London, and then Curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Nicholas Cullinan trained extensively at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

The podcast of this interview is available here.

Nicholas Cullinan, is it true that you worked at the National Portrait Gallery while you formed yourself at the Courtauld?

I worked for the National Portrait Gallery part time as a visitor service assistant, as many students do to pay the bills, when I was finishing my B.A., during my M.A., and at the very beginning of my PhD, all three of which were at the Courtauld. I spent a lot of time in the galleries with the collection, looking at the paintings, reading labels, and talking to visitors. I never thought I’d end up back here, especially not running the place. Little did I know that twelve years later, when I was having my interview to become director, the trustees of the National Portrait Gallery would show images from the collection and say: “What is this?” And because I had spent so many hours here I was able to say, “George Romney, Self-portrait, 1784.”

Why did you want to come back?

What excited me about the National Portrait Gallery, beyond my history with the place and my love of it and an understanding of the potential of what it could become, was working in an institution that spans more than five centuries. Artists find it interesting to work within this very particular context of a portrait gallery that spans five centuries of British history. We start with the Plantagenets and Tudors, so Henry VII, and even go back a bit earlier.

Are there many dedicated portrait museums in the world?

Only London, Edinburgh, Washington D.C., and Canberra in Australia. I think the portrait museum is more of an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. Of course, many museums have extraordinary portraits, including the National Gallery, which will open an exhibition of Gauguin’s portraits in October. We don’t have the monopoly on portraiture, but what’s different about us is that we only have that. The other galleries and museums look at portraiture through the artists primarily, whereas we’re the opposite. We’re looking at portraiture because of the sitter. We’re just as much about biography and history as we are about art. It’s a very particular mix.

Why was the National Portrait Gallery founded?

The National Portrait Gallery is essentially a visual history or biography of Britain. One of the founding principles was that we acquire based on the sitter not the artist. The Chandos portrait of Shakespeare is important to us because of the sitter, not because of the quality of the painting itself. The second thing is about portraiture as a genre, which is why we have the exhibition program where we do Cézanne or Cindy Sherman, whose exhibition is on now.

“We’re just as much about biography and history as we are about art.”

HRH The Duchess of Cambridge and Dr Nicholas Cullinan attend the Portrait Gala 2017 sponsored by William & Son at the National Portrait Gallery.

Nicholas Cullinan, which are your iconic masterpieces at the National Portrait Gallery in London?

There are many, starting with the Holbein cartoon of Henry VIII and Henry VII. We have numerous images of Elizabeth I, including the ‘Ditchley portrait’. The Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare is NPG Number 1. In 1856 it was the founding work for the National Portrait Gallery collection and it is a special work because it’s the only image of Shakespeare made from life.

How many paintings or drawings do you have in the collection and on display?

In the primary collection we have about 12,000 objects, mostly paintings but also works on paper and sculpture. About 1,000 are on show here at any one time. In addition we have partnerships across the UK, so many things are on long loan or loans for exhibitions. We lend very generously, and obviously if you’ve lent one thing you have to replace it with something else.

Do you make acquisitions?

Yes. The Van Dyck ‘Self-portrait’ acquisition was made recently in 2014, and is a phenomenal painting by such an important European artist. Ever since our founding in 1856 a good image of Wellington has been on our list of gaps to fill, and two years ago we acquired a very beautiful unfinished portrait of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence. In the last year we acquired the beautiful portrait of Dylan Thomas by Augustus John that’s been on loan to us for many years and is currently in Swansea as part of our national loan program. We also acquired at auction, for a complete bargain, a good portrait of Jane Seymour that is workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger. We’ve conserved it and it’s beautiful. We’re constantly filling gaps, as well as adding new things. We are the only national institution or museum that doesn’t just acquire but commissions for its collection. One recent thing we commissioned was the portrait of Malala Yousafzai by Shirin Neshat.

What are the criteria when you commission a painting?

Every year the trustees discuss sitters that they feel should be represented because of their impact or achievements, and it’s always people in all different disciplines that have done extraordinary things, so it’s a continually evolving collection that focuses on British history. It is any period and any medium: painting, photography, sculpture, film.

Is photography very important for you?

Earlier in 2019 we had ‘Only Human: Martin Parr’; last year we had ‘Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography’ as an art form and as a science, as a medium in the 19th century. Photography is a very important part of our exhibition program and collection, and we have around two hundred and fifty thousand photographs in one of the great photography collections in the world. Our archive includes extraordinary things that are not so well known, and very well-known images like those of Oscar Wilde or Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Virginia Woolf.

Do you have a library?

The Heinz Library and Archive was founded and supported by Drue Heinz, who was a great friend to the gallery over the years. The general public, researchers, students, scholars, cataloguers, all come here, because it’s where you can research the iconography of an individual.


“We acquire based on the sitter not the artist.”

Nicholas Cullinan, is the National Portrait Gallery outward facing?

Yes, we share the collection around the country and internationally. When I started four years ago we got about £50,000 a year in from international tours, and now it’s more than £600,000. The web site and digital is increasingly important, and we’re on track to hit a record six million visitors this year.

When you say that a large part of the museum goes on loan around the country, what happens?

We work in partnership with the National Trust throughout the country, and two particular National Trust properties have a lot of our works on display. We get loan requests, we initiate things, we have a project called ‘Coming Home’ where we lend a portrait back to the place in the country that that sitter is associated with. For example, Dylan Thomas is in Swansea, Tracey Emin is in Margate, David Beckham will be in Essex, William Wilberforce will go to Hull, David Hockney to Bradford. It’s a way to make people feel proud of where they’re from, but also feel connected.

As director are you making any major changes to the gallery?

The trustees and staff appointed me to deliver a major refurbishment of the gallery that they had already decided, and to shape it with colleagues. Even as director, especially as director, you never do these things alone. It should never be about you or what you want to do; it’s got to be what the institution needs and that everyone is behind, including the trustees. The Inspiring People capital campaign, which we’ve almost finished now, is raising £35.5 million for this. It is not something that I decided upon on a whim or out of ego.

What sort of refurbishment is it?

It is a refurbishment using all parts of the building. Rather than just adding a new wing, it’s a complete refurbishment of the gallery, top to bottom. It’s about making the most of everything: the building, its contents, and the collection. It will be finished in March 2023.

What is the concept?

It’s a holistic approach, taking everything about the gallery and using all those aspects. We will rehang all 40 galleries for the first time – top to bottom, Tudors to now – improve the entrance, create a Learning Centre; and we bought back the East Wing from the National Gallery, restoring what was originally built for the National Portrait Gallery but that we swapped with them in the ‘90s.

Who is your architect?

Jamie Fobert, a Canadian by birth who has been living in London since the 1980s. He trained with David Chipperfield, and his star is on the rise. He won the RIBA National Award last year for Tate St Ives.

Is the Duchess of Cambridge very close to this institution?

Yes, she’s fantastic, a very committed patron, and that’s incredibly helpful. She comes to events and when we do a fundraising gala, but she has a real interest in what we do, especially photography. She studied history of art at St Andrews University and it’s fortuitous that we have such an understanding royal patron.

Alain Elkann and Nicholas Cullinan review the contents of a filing box in the National Portrait Gallery’s Heinz Library and Archive.

‘Portrait at the Opera’ by the leading contemporary artist Elizabeth Peyton whose show Elizabeth Peyton: Aire and Angels’ opens at the National Portrait Gallery on October 3rd 2019.

‘The Blue Bower’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The National Portrait Gallery exhibition ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters’ opens on 17th October 2019 and is curated by Dr Jan Marsh.

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, has expressed hope that her portrait by Shirin Neshat commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery will remind visitors that girls across the world are fighting for change.

King Henry VIII; King Henry VII‘ by Hans Holbein the Younger, ink and watercolour, circa 1536-1537.

‘Sir Anthony van Dyck’ by van Dyck, circa 1640. Van Dyck’s magnificent self-portrait went on a three year tour celebrating its acquisition for the nation in 2014. The tour gave visitors in Margate, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Edinburgh and London the chance to appreciate this important work in the context of British history and art.

“The gallery is about portraiture as a genre.”

Nicholas Cullinan, is the Prince of Wales involved here?

He’s the patron of the National Gallery, our neighbours.

What is the relationship between you and the National Gallery, two national galleries in the same neighbourhood of London?

We have an excellent relationship with their director Gabriele Finaldi, who I like very much and respect; we see eye to eye. It’s important to me that if we’re going to do something that Gabriele hears it from me first, not from the press. We are separate institutions, but we’re neighbours.

What are you exhibiting next?

We’re preparing for the exhibition ‘Elizabeth Peyton: Aire and Angels’ which opens on October 3. Elizabeth is looking at all kinds of things, contemporary art and film and music; and the catalogue is beautiful and very special – it’s like an artist’s book. Her solo presentation will be on the ground floor, and we’re also taking her works throughout the galleries, from the Tudor gallery all the way through to the Victorian.

What else do you have on this year?

A really fascinating exhibition called ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters’ that Dr Jan Marsh, one of the great Pre-Raphaelite scholars, is curating. It’s essentially a feminist reading, looking at the role that women play in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, not just as models but as active collaborators, artists, and instigators.

Next year?

Next year we have ‘David Hockney: Drawing from Life’ which looks at David as a draftsman from the 1950s to now. It’s based around five sitters who Hockney has depicted repeatedly over many years – Self-portraits from the 50s to now; his mother Laura; Celia Birtwell; Gregory Evans and Maurice Payne. After that we have ‘Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things’, and then lots more to come.


London, August 28, 2019

All images courtesy of and by kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

Portrait of Nick Cullinan by Zoë Law.