T ake a metaphorical walk around London this summer – or a literal one if your feet can endure the heatwave – and you will see a lot of faces: faces of bustling residents, teeming tourists, and hot weary workers. But also, this summer you will find a captivating cast of faces peering out of the city’s galleries. Numerous exhibitions, including two at Sotheby’s, are being staged across the city as part of Portrait Mode, a summer celebration of portraiture, to coincide with the much-celebrated reopening of the National Portrait Gallery, Britain’s foremost venue for peering into the eyes of the great and good.
"There are only two styles of portrait painting; the serious and the smirk,” wrote Charles Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby. Hardly. A portrait can deliver vanity, shock, disgust, beauty, humour and whimsy. It can show us how we used to look and where we ended up. And it is a mercurial ever-changing genre. Collectively, the exhibitions in London, and further afield, ask what a portrait even is? At Sotheby’s New Bond Street visitors can view – and bid – on faces both famous and anonymous. The June sale series includes a specially-curated selection of works in the Modern and Contemporary Evening auction titled Face to Face: A Celebration of Portraiture.
Watch Simon Schama, Eleanor Nairne, and Helena Newman in Facing Now – Why Portraits Still Matter
Sotheby's Talks: Facing Now: Why Portraits Still Matter
“While the human image has been democratised in our age of iPhones and selfies, the tradition of portraiture runs deep and across many centuries,” notes Tom Eddison, senior director of contemporary art at Sotheby’s London. With Face to Face, Eddison has brought together an arresting group of portraits, by masters from the 19th through to the 21st centuries, and from monumental to miniature in execution. In a single gallery, the mysteries of the human face are explored in bronze by Alberto Giacometti – who captures his brother Diego in an expressive bust – and oil paint by masters including Lucian Freud, Jenny Saville, Kerry James Marshall, Edvard Munch, Leonor Fini, and many more.
But how do you define a portrait? Looking at Freud’s masterpiece Night Interior, you might ask this question. Can you describe this intricately executed study of a post-war London room, with its wonky boiler and creaking floor boards, as a portrait? And yet it is the nude figure of Penny Cuthbertson, draped over an armchair, that is the focus of the picture. The interior provides a framing device, leading the eye to the figure. “Everything is a portrait,” Freud once declared. “Even if it’s only a chair.”
Downstairs, in Sotheby’s entrance gallery, portraits from the incomparable Chatsworth collection show the genre pierced by time’s arrow, with works chronologically running from Rembrandt’s deeply melancholy Portrait of an Old Man of 1651 – possibly a ‘tronie’ depicting a style of character rather than a formal portrait – to Michael Craig-Martin’s 2009 LCD-displayed study of the Countess of Burlington, a portrait in digital permutations.
Cross Oxford Street and walk to The Wallace Collection in Marylebone and you will find a hairy pack of portraits. In Portraits of Dogs the museum delivers a kennel’s-worth of hounds and puppies as captured by artists ranging from Gainsborough (fond of collies) to Hockney (who preferred dachshunds). There are toy dogs posing like influencers, aristocratic and royal dogs showing off their breeding, and artists dogs living the bohemian life. Through the Wallace’s ‘Adopt a Dog’ scheme, Sotheby’s has sponsored Lucian Freud’s 1988 oil sketch of his beloved whippet Pluto. Hung next to it is a heart-breaking canvas, painted fifteen years later, depicting Pluto’s grave. None of these sitters shown at the Wallace know they are sitters, of course. One imagines they didn’t stay sitting for long.
Heading east, you can pop into the British Museum to see China’s Hidden Century, a blockbuster exhibition where you can see the faces of 19th century China: faces seen in the court and the military, as well artists, city dwellers, expats, reformers and revolutionaries.
Walk further east still and you find Carrie Mae Weems: Reflections for Now at the Barbican, a show that brings portraiture into the realm of race relations and civil rights. This is the first major solo exhibition for the artist in a UK institution, a landmark event sponsored by Sotheby’s. Cultural identity, power, desire and justice all weave through what the Barbican describe as “a body of work that develops questioning narratives around race, gender, history, class and their systems of representation.”
Portraiture here becomes an act of resistance, both in its illumination of how others project racial stereotypes and in how other portraits counter those narratives. In her ‘Kitchen Table’ photographs from 1990, Weems surveyed the various, sometimes conflicting, identities of a woman – mother, wife, daughter, individual – through a series of staged photographs of herself, all taken in the confines of her own kitchen. They are fictional self-portraits.
Taking a circular route back west brings you to the National Portrait Gallery, which reopens on 22 June with the week-long First Look Festival, featuring talks with artist Tracey Emin, architect Jamie Fobert and a special conversation between Paul McCartney and Stanley Tucci.
McCartney’s personal archive of his own shots taken in the early days of the The Beatles forms one of two reopening exhibitions (Paul McCartney Photographs, 1963-64: Eyes of the Storm) which opens alongside a survey of the work of Madame Yevonde, the London photographer who pioneered the use of colour photography in the 1930s.
The NPG will also open its reconfigured and renovated galleries following what it describes as a “transformational building project” over the past three years. Prepare for a new entrance, new galleries, new displays and – of course – lots of new faces.
Bringing the tour full circle, and back to Sotheby's, The Story Café plays host to an exhibition of portraits by photographer Luc Braquet in partnership with Tatler. Braquet has reimagined the dream-like colour photographs of Madame Yevonde, using her Goddesses series of 1930s society swans as inspiration for a modern update, creating ethereal images of today's faces of London society.