If you have just a short time in London and can only visit one museum, choose the National Portrait Gallery — and make it one of the first things you do during your visit. I know the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert get all the press. But both are huge and really take more than a day even to see the highlights. Here’s why I think The National Portrait Gallery gives you more bang for your buck and your time. Imagine a museum of contemporary portraits of famous English people that spans the centuries from Henry VIII to Paul McCartney and Princess Diana. Now imagine that gallery is conveniently set up chronologically, so you can literally walk through a history of England and see the faces of those history makers. Read the extensive notes by every portrait and you’ll get a Cliff Notes tour of English history. Now for a bonus, this museum is smack in the middle of most of the sights you’ll want to see: Trafalgar Square, Picadilly, the theater district around Leicester Square, the high end shopping districts of Regent Street, and the government buildings of Whitehall, 10 Downing Street and, if you are ready for a good walk, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. Still not convinced? The wonderful National Gallery with its amazing permanent collection of European masterpieces is right next door, so you can get a two for one on that Tube ticket you bought. If you’ve had enough of culture, nip over to the nearby Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum.
Now maybe it’s because I studied English Literature, History and Art History in college. But I like to think of many famous Londoners as my friends. I try to stop by and say hello every time I’m in town. So, it’s convenient that they all hang out in the National Portrait Gallery. There are portraits of just about anyone who was anyone in English history, art, architecture, literature or scandal — starting with Henry VIII, all his wives, most of his ministers, his children — Mary, Elizabeth and Edward — and a lot of the people who hung out at his court.
Once I’ve cruised through the galleries and reacquainted myself with English history from the Tudors to the present day, I’m ready to go out and walk the streets where they all walked.
Now don’t forget to run over to the church of St. Martin in the Fields. The earliest references to a church here are from 1222. King Henry VIII rebuilt that church, but the current church by famous Restoration architect James Gibbs dates from 1726. There are some great graves inside including that of Nell Gwynn, the orange seller who became a famous actress and finally the mistress of Charles II. But what I think is most notable about St. Martin in the Fields is that it was so admired by Americans that many Colonial era churches, most famously Boston’s Old North Church, are modeled after it. And you thought it looked familiar! There is also a fantastic on-going concert series here. We’ll be hearing the London Concertante performing Strauss, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Tchaikovsky tonight.
Now to get out into the streets and stalk some haunts of the famous. How about poet and playwright, John Dryden? There is a tiny little alley just up from the National Gallery in the theater district. There, on Rose Street, you’ll find The Lamb and Flag, one of the oldest pubs in London. Back in the Seventeenth Century, it used to be called The Bucket of Blood for the bare knuckle fights that were staged. I’m not sure what Dryden was doing hanging around here — probably it was his after theater hang-out. But legend has it that he was beat up either in or just outside the pub. They used to have great food. It was a bit disappointing this time around.
That’s about as far as I got today before my feet gave out. Especially since I started my day on a four mile power walk through Hyde Park. Which turned into a seven and a half mile odyssey as I took a wrong turn at the Serpentine and ended up criss-crossing all over Kensington Palace Gardens before I got my bearings and made it back to the hotel. But my point is, after you’ve met everyone who was anyone at the National Portrait Gallery, you are ready to see London like an insider. Case in point, we decided to stop sightseeing and start shopping on Regents Street. Who do you think we ran into?
Note: The portrait at the head of this post is the Prince Regent as a young man — before he got fat and dissipated.
Additional note: You actually aren’t allowed to take pictures in the National Portrait Gallery, but the signage is confusing. It looks as if it means just no flash. I was set straight by a guard.