Nicholas Cullinan, the new Director of the British Museum, speaks to Violet Caldecott as he bids farewell to the National Portrait Gallery, which he has helmed for nine years. He reveals his favorite nine portraits from the esteemed institution - his personal curation no visitor should miss.  




In 2015 Nicholas Cullinan was appointed Director of the National Portrait Gallery, tasked with the challenge of bringing one of the nation’s most-loved cultural institutions into the modern age. Combining an academic background with a forward-thinking outlook and an inherent sense of energy and flair, he has excelled, spearheading the most ambitious refurbishment of the gallery to date.

But most significantly, Cullinan has breathed new life into the institution, with a thrilling rehang and exciting acquisitions. He has made the National Portrait Gallery more accessible, true to its founding purpose as a museum for the people, and skilfully steered it into the 21st century. Portraits of Malala Yousafzai, Zadie Smith, Anna Wintour and David Bowie hang alongside William Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I & II and Omai (the much-lauded portrait by Joshua Reynolds, which was at threat of falling into private hands when it was acquired by the NPG).

When asked about his approach, he often quotes the 1958 novel, The Leopard: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ As he moves on to direct the British Museum, Nicholas takes a trip down memory lane with Cabana, reflecting on some of his favourite pieces in the National Portrait Gallery.


NPG 7125. Lucy Russell (née Harington), Countess of Bedford, attributed to Isaac Oliver (c. 1610 – 1615)  


“This beautiful miniature depicts Lucy Harington, Countess of Bedford. As a collector and patron of artists and writers, I thought this portrait would make a good first stop on our tour of the NPG’s Collection. You’ll find this portrait in Room 5, just to the left of our Tudor galleries. The Countess of Bedford was a courtier at the court of James VI and Anne of Denmark, and was a central figure in the cultural life of the Jacobean age. Excitingly, we were first able to display this portrait when we reopened in June 2023, having only recently acquired it. It’s one of the jewels of our early collection.”


NPG 6987. Self-portrait (circa 1640) by Sir Anthony van Dyck 


“This portrait is one of three known self-portraits painted by Sir Anthony  van Dyck when he was in England, and it probably dates from the last years of his life. Even the painting’s frame is likely to have been designed with the artist’s involvement.

"After four centuries in private ownership, we acquired this portrait for our Collection after a public appeal was launched with the Art Fund in 2013. Nearly 10,000 people from across the world made donations, all of which enabled us to raise £10 million to purchase this painting.”


NPG 1. William Shakespeare (circa 1610) associated with John Taylor. Given by Francis Egerton, 1st Earl of Ellesmere, 1856 


“I couldn’t take you on a tour of the Gallery in 10 portraits without mentioning NPG 1, the very first portrait to be acquired for our Collection, when we were founded in 1865. It’s also special because it is the only portrait of Shakespeare that has a good claim to having been painted from life.”


NPG 7153. Portrait of Mai (Omai) by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c.1776.


“Reynolds’ spectacular portrait of Mai, the first Polynesian to visit Britain, holds a pivotal place in global art history and has been on display at the Gallery (for the first time ever in a public collection!) since we reopened in June 2023. It’s widely regarded as the finest portrait by one of Britain’s greatest painters and, artistically, it’s one of the most important paintings in our Collection.

"Reynolds never sold his portrait of Mai, keeping it on display at his studio until his death, as an example of his artistic genius. Having never been in public ownership, this portrait now belongs to you, as it was purchased jointly by the Gallery and the J Paul Getty Trust, with support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Art Fund, and other generous supporters.”


NPG 959. George Romney by George Romney, 1784 


“As this portrait hangs in the same gallery as Mai, I couldn’t resist mentioning it to you, as it’s one that inspires nostalgia for me. In 2002, when I first worked at the Gallery as a Visitor Services Assistant, we had a wonderful exhibition of works by George Romney, which I spent a lot of time in.

"This extraordinary self-portrait was part of that show, so it’s great to see it hung in a spectacular display of our great late 18th-century portraits. Romney’s unflinching gaze reveals a watchful figure wrapped up in his own thoughts – for me, it’s all the more powerful for being unfinished, and in fact I included it in an exhibition about unfinished works of art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art when I worked there.” 


NPG 7032. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1829) by Sir Thomas Lawrence 


“Continuing the theme of unfinished portraits, my next stop takes you to this portrait of Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, who was President of the Royal Academy in 1820. The artist died while still painting the portrait, but painting’s commissioner, Sarah Child-Villiers, Countess of Jersey, refused the executor’s offer to have the portrait finished by a studio assistant.

"For me, this unfinished state increases the emphasis on the sitter’s features, while giving insight into Lawrence’s working practices at the end of his life. This is another painting that wouldn’t be on our walls without the generous support of so many.”


NPG Ax61380. Aina (Sarah Forbes Bonetta, later Davies) (15 September 1862) by Camille Silvy 


“We’re now going down a level, to Floor 2, where our Victorian and 20th-century collections can be found. As we walk through the enfilade of galleries, a key vista catches the eye – Aina, now known best as Sarah Forbes Bonetta, the goddaughter of Queen Victoria. Aina was a West African Egbado princess of the Yoruba people. Caught up in intertribal warfare, in which she saw her family slaughtered, she was captured in 1848 by Dahomey raiders, then traded, as a present, to Queen Victoria.

"The Queen, impressed by her many qualities, funded her education and encouraged her visits. This photograph is one of several that were taken by the London-based portrait photographer, Camille Silvy, to mark Aina’s wedding, pasted into one of the daybooks that record his work. When we rehung our Collection ahead of reopening, we intentionally focused on placing women and those whose stories hadn’t traditionally been well-represented into areas of high visibility – the small albumen print depicting Aina has therefore been enlarged and displayed on a light box, so that her gaze meets yours as you walk past the gallery’s entrance.”


NPG 7130. Självporträtt, Åkersberga (‘Self-portrait’) by Everlyn Nicodemus, 1982 © the Artist, Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery.


“Självporträtt, Åkersberga by Everlyn Nicodemus was one of five self-portraits by female artists that we acquired in 2022 as part of our transformative Reframing Narrative: Women in Portraiture project, in partnership with the CHANEL Culture Fund. This work is particularly important, as it was the first painted self-portrait by a Black female artist to enter the Gallery’s Collection – a milestone moment for the project, and a portrait that looks right at home on our walls. You can see the painting displayed on Level 1, in a gallery dedicated to female self-representation.”


NPG 7052. Malala Yousafzai by Shirin Neshat, 2018 


“My final portrait on this ten-portrait-tour is just opposite Toyin’s Zadie Smith. When I was interviewed for the Director’s job at the NPG, I was asked ‘who would you commission a portrait of and which artist would you ask to create it’ – my answer was Malala Yousafzai by Shirin Neshat and, in 2018, this portrait was made a reality, thanks to our partnership work with the Outset Contemporary Art Fund.

"This was the first of three commissions supported by Outset over three years. Standing up for women’s rights, as both the artist and sitter of this work do magnificently, is more urgent now than ever and this has become an empowering and iconic image."

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