Today (April 4) in London History – the National Portrait Gallery

April 4, 1896 – The National Portrait Gallery’s first day in its new home in St Martin’s Place. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


And here’s the three-gun salute.

Welcome to London.

Welcome to London Walks.

Welcome to the London Walks Podcast.

This one’s our daily Today in London History podcast. 

On it – just as we do on our walking tours – we make the new familiar and the familiar new. Take you to places you wouldn’t have found on your own, show you things wouldn’t have seen, tell you things you didn’t know. 

Prior to heading back into London History we check in at a little reception area called This Day in London. When we check-in we give you a little going away present – a London tip, a London recommendation. For when you come back. If you will, it’s Today in London as opposed to Today in London History.

And right now, you’re in that reception area. So here’s your Today in London recommendation. Couldn’t be simpler: whatever you do come next year’s visit to London, don’t leave London without paying a visit to the National Portrait Gallery. I say next year’s visit because the National Portrait Gallery is closed until Spring 2023.

Ok, time to Time Travel. Today in London History.

It’s April 4th, 1896. A modest opening for a special place. The new National Portrait Gallery has opened its doors for the first time. 

Let’s meet some of the principals. This is like being taken backstage – or into the Director’s Box. The National Portrait Gallery gets well over a million visitors a year and I can guarantee you only you London Walkers will have made the acquaintance of these three principals in the National Portrait Gallery story. I like to see places other people don’t get to see, I like to meet VIPs other people don’t get to meet, I like to know things other people don’t know.

Privileged access, getting the inside story – that’s the holy grail if you’re a guide or have the instincts of a guide.

Ok, introduction time. There they are, the three of them. In the foyer, waiting to greet us. 

Our guide’s whispering in our ear. First thing that’s nice to know is they’re all Londoners, bred and borne. But they’re three very different cups of tea.”

First up, the Director of the National Portrait Gallery. Lionel Henry Cust. There’s a knighthood in his future, so we’ll call him Sir Lionel Henry Cust. 

He was the only son of the barrister Sir Reginald John Cust and his wife Lady Elizabeth. He was born in 1859 – nice coincidence, that, because 1859 was the year the National Portrait Gallery came into existence. He was born at 13 Eccleston Square. Personal note here: I so like learning things like that. From now on, whenever I’m at that end of Ecclestone Square, I’ll be thinking, I know who lived in that house. And I often take that knowledge further. One of the most rebarbative characters in the history of English architecture also lived in Ecclestone Square. They were different generations but it’s fun to think of the two of them sizing one another up at a lawn party in the square. Who was that most rebarbative character? No, I’m not giving that one up. There’s an odious little creep who for years has helped himself to my research. I’m not giving him all of the family silver.

Anyway, Sir Lionel Henry Cust went to Eton. And then Cambridge.

He’s by far the best connected of the three principals. 

The study of portraiture in Britain was right up his street. A perfect complement to his passion for history and genealogy. And, yes, to his abiding interest in established families, including his own. His Times obituary described Cust as “a walking genealogy to the extent that he may be said to have slept with Burke at his bedside. In 1901 he took up the post of surveyor of the king’s pictures. He combined that role with his directorship of the National Gallery. When Sir Lionel died His Majesty and the Queen made a public expression – in the Times – of condolence to his wife.

So, yes, you can really pick him out by his manner and bearing. Sir Lionel was polished, assured, gracious, oleaginous. He purrs when he speaks.

The second gentleman is my personal favourite. George William Alexander is his name. And he’s there today only in spirit. He died in 1890. George Alexander was a very successful banker and a big-time philanthropist. He was born in Bunhill Fields. He went to work in his father’s firm when he was 14 years old. Part of his daily round was to take down the shutters and to sweep out the offices. His family were Quakers. They didn’t just talk the talk. They also walked the walk, did the deed. For forty years George William was the ‘indefatigable’ treasurer of the British and Foreign Anti Slavery Society. He opened his home – it was described as ‘an abode of spotless order and of industry and hospitality’  – to a succession of runaway slaves and political refugees. He was the founders of Victoria Park Hospital in London. For our purposes, George William went deep into his pockets – £100,000 deep – to pay for the building that’s opening today. The National Portrait Gallery. This was a man.

Our third individual in Ewan Christian, the architect. Again, a nice coincidence that surname of his, Ewan Christian was principally an ecclesiastical architect. Churches were his speciality. His star went up fast – briefly burned bright – and then came down. Over time he came to regarded as “a safe man” – as the Building News put it – “but in no sense a heaven-born genius.” He’s the third man in the line, the one with the slightly drawn face and unassuming slightly nervous manner.

And again – a personal note of thanks to this series – because of the National Portrait Gallery’s owning April 4th in this series, I now know that the architect of the National Portrait Gallery lived and died in Hampstead. I know the house. I’ll be pointing it out on my Hampstead Walk. 

But let’s end by going back to the very beginning. The genesis moment for the National Portrait Gallery was an 1856 letter Earl Stanhope wrote to the Prince Consort proposing a gallery of this nature. The Prince Consort gave his cordial approval and the wheels started turning. The first home – very much a temporary home – for the NPG was a few rooms at a house in Great George Street, Westminster. The collection grew. Outgrew that first temporary home. In 1869 the by then 288-strong collection was transferred to the Long Building of the South Kensington Museum. In 1885 the collection had a close call when a fire broke out at the South Kensington Exhibition in close proximity to the collection. The government took fright and packed the portraits off to the Bethnal Green Museum, where they languished in a building with a leaky roof. A letter to the Times called it a national scandal. That letter concentrated minds and six years later the National Portrait Gallery had its new home, the building it’s in today. 

That said, there was carping from the very first about the building. Particularly the limitations posed by its size. Taking aim at the NPG’s Achilles heel, one critic said, “an expert authority has lately declared that there are 600 persons now living in the county of London alone whose lives ought someday to be written in a National Dictionary and whose pictures, therefore, are, presumably, worth a place in the National Portrait Gallery? A generation hence we may take it that there will be at least 600 more. Where are their pictures to go? Certainly not in Mr Alexander’s building.”

These are big picture questions that do occasionally tease us out of thought, to bring Keats’ wonderful phrase into play. As London guides we’ve got 2,000 years of history to ride herd on it. How in the world are our successors 120 generations down the pike – in the year 5022 – how in the world are they coming to cope with 5,000 years of London history? Are we talking about anybody today that will be in their patter on April 4th, 5022? If I had to hazard a guess I’d say there’s only one name today that will still be around then: William Shakespeare.

And for a final, charming detail – back in the National Portrait Gallery’s early days in its new home, no portrait of any living person was eligible, save that of the reigning sovereign and his or her consort. Happily that’s no longer the case today. William and Kate for example, let alone famous actors and sporting figures and pop stars and politicians and scientists and, well, the list goes on and on. They’re there. When room can be found for them. And the NPG’s a better place for it. Making for a better experience for us. Though I have every intention of finding out when that no living person rule was breached. And who breached it. Next stop: ring Mark, my contact at the National Portrait Gallery. 

And on that note, good night from London. See you tomorrow. 

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