Facing Up to Fame

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 6, 2007

The British may not be especially great at painting, but when it comes to honorifics they're pretty hard to beat.

Nobody is better at assigning superiorities of quality and rank. Distributing distinctions -- baronetcies, knighthoods, badges and initials, sashes, robes, and garters -- is something they pursue with enthusiastic flair.

All of this takes effort. The queen can't do it all herself. What's required is a vast and delicate apparatus for dispensing recognition to certain individuals. London's National Portrait Gallery is part of that machine.

So if you go to see "Great Britons: Treasures From the National Portrait Gallery, London," which is now on view at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, don't go searching for great art or you'll be missing the main point.

The point this show keeps making -- and making rather splendidly -- isn't that some paintings are better than other paintings. It's that some people are better than other people.

That's because London's portrait gallery is more a hall of fame, or a reliquary, than a gallery of art.

To accompany the queen, who is visiting America, and to commemorate the London gallery's founding 150 years ago, it has now sent 60 of its likenesses to its daughter institution at Eighth and F streets NW.

"Great Britons," one should know, takes a twist of one's aesthetic. A bit of snobbery should help you appreciate its virtues. For this is less a show of art than a gathering of notables. And by the standards of the guest list, it is pretty impressive, I am sure you will agree.

For aristocratic shimmer here is Queen Elizabeth I (unashamedly overdressed and adrip in countless pearls), and Queen Elizabeth II (in a pyramid of velvet), and a dutiful Queen Victoria (busy at her writing desk, doing queenly work).

Also clad in pearls, and busy, though in a different way, is Diana, Princess of Wales. Posing for a photograph for Vanity Fair magazine, she stares deep into your eyes.

But royals can seem slightly stiff. Here that problem has been solved by a very British dose of rock-and-roll. All four of the Beatles are present. So is Mick (Sir Michael) Jagger.

For scientific heft, here's Sir Isaac Newton, lavishly bewigged. Just across the room stands old Charles Darwin. White-bearded and bald, he looks exceptionally wise. (John Collier, the good artist who was Darwin's portraitist, knew the old man well: Collier was the son-in-law of Thomas Huxley, the remorseless controversialist and committed evolutionist who was known as "Darwin's bulldog.")

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