It is said that ‘artists and poets still find life’s meaning in a glass of wine’.

John Keats once quoted ‘give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know’, he would subsequently return with sensual lyricism and classical odes. Hemingway, Stephen King, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec; wine and art have a long and complicated, sometimes destructive, relationship.

It is perhaps fitting that the National Portrait Gallery should open its doors late on a Friday evening for those with any artistic inclination who enjoy the splendors of likeness art with a drop of vintage pinot noir. Artistic spinsters, pseudo intellectual bachelors and fine drawing enthusiasts, they are all here, complete with a fine glass of bubbly and a thirst for past and present artistic temperament.

It seemed that the ground floor of the National Portrait Gallery was really the only place to be on a Friday night. I felt as if I had been transported into one of the Bloomsbury Group’s intellectual meetings, where aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge remained paramount. We had been stripped of our bourgeois habits of our 9-5 day ritual and entered a domain of visual conversation.

The National Portrait Gallery is home to portraits of the most famous, and let us be frank, questionable people in British history. It is perhaps desirable to be guzzling back your third glass of sparkling before you rest your eyes on the rather futuristic avant-garde style portrait of Princess Kate, and maybe go for a fourth glass before you attempt to view Gilbert and George’s self portrait ‘In the Piss’ (warning: nudity).

The 20th century collection of portraits is something to be admired. The arrival of the photographic image combined with the aesthetic temprement of the traditional painter makes it one of the Gallery’s most interesting and diverse collections. There is a lovely photo of WWI poet, Wilfred Owen, the moment captured so well that you can almost hear his famous first lines of his Dulce Et Decorcum Est where ‘knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge’. How powerful the simple photo can be.

Continue on and you find large oil on canvas of Emmeline Pankhurst by Georgina Agnes Brackenbury. The voice and face of women’s suffrage, Pankhurst is pained in somber earthy tones, but with fine brush strokes that mellow the darker palette. The muted background enhances the green and purple pendent in the foreground of the image.

The Portrait Gallery is an intimate space. The familiarity of numerous portraits promotes a feeling of well being in the viewer. Of course it a more enjoyable, one could even say ‘artistic’ experience if we compliment art with a small glass of vino and this is exactly what the National Portrait Gallery’s Friday Night Late shift offers. I would suggest getting there by 6pm so you have ample time to enjoy the collection, but still make full use of the bar.

Besides, I am sure the presence of alcoholic concoctions would not have disturbed the Bloomsbury group. In fact, they would have seen it as aesthetic bonding.

For information on the gallery and upcoming exhibitions please visit their website:

Words: Catherine McMaster
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