A batch of Americans chose England - such a genteel place - between 1760 and 1940 and the National Portrait Gallery last night opened a show about some of them.

Benjamin West, Fulton, Audubon, Henry James (now there's a big one for you), Whistler and Eliot are among the notables who left, and for those fond of lesser jewels, there are Consuelo Vanderbilt and her tribe of the marrying sort.

A really dandy book, 'Return to Albion,' by Richard Kenin, a pictur editor for Time-Life Books, amplifies the pictures and memorabilia of the show which runs until Sept. 20.

hOne thing they had in common,' said Kenin, 'the smell of democracy was too strong for them.'

He was greeting a handfull of guests at a cocktail party before the opening with Marvin Sadik, gallery director.

t'Ah,' said an elegant woman, 'there is Lady Alexandra Metcalfe.She thinks the party is for her and I don't think anybody will persuade her otherwise.'

Lady Metcalfe, smashing in green silk, is the daughter of an American who married Lord Curzon, viceroy of India.

With her - travelling about the country perfectly respectably, according to Nicolson - was Nigel Nicolson, whose parents were Sir Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville - West. Their somewhat startling arrangements (both were homosexual) is told in 'Portrait of a Marriage' by their son, a book that rattled many in England, but which is often considered an impressive chronicle.

'There is so much cant about marriage,' he said.

Lady Metcalfe was sailing along the horizon of the reception room and seemed to need no assistance at the moment, so he continued:

'My point in the book was that a marriage may depend, not on the usual things people think of, but on mutual solicitude.'

Lady Metcalfe then appeared looking worried and declared she needed Nicolson desparately. The two of them sped off, Nicolson cheerful and prepared for whatever came.

Dr. Frank Stanton, long chief officer of Columbia Broadcasting System and now a sort of dcan of the television wise men, a select company, was asked how serious he thought the Supreme Court decision was, allowing the minds of reporters and editorial decision-making to be examined in cases charging libel.

'Well, of course, it depends on how the (court) decision is implemented, but I am one who thinks the decision is pretty goddamn serious.'

What of a small newspaper, he asked, that only has two reporters, both working on an expose of some institution. And what if that paper is sued for libel, tying up its few resources as a matter of harassment?

'But won't it be the big newspapers, the news magazines and the networks that may be injured most?' he was asked.

'Yes. They are the pay dirt,' he said.

He said that once he told an opponent in Congress when he was being grilled for his network's series on 'The Selling of the Pentagon,' that they would not dare ask him the questons they were asking if he represented a newspaper rather than a TV network. And the congressman said no, of course not.

'Well, now newspapers apparently will be treated the same a s you,' it was suggested.

'Yes. A Pyrrhic victory,' he said.

Katie Loucheim and Oatsie Charles,two of the town's live ones, were in close confabulation untill they broke to do their duty making sure everybody met everybody.The British ambassador, Peter Jay, and his wife Margaret, also were on hand to add a touch of class.

Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, told Evangeline Bruce how marvelous the roses were in Bhutan.

Bruce was glad to hear it. As a matter of fact, there is a British rose named "Evangeline Bruce" in her honor, and she admires it for its sterling qualities.

"You know, it doesn't do much in gentle climates good for roses," she sad. "It has no delicate scent, either, which I regret. But put her in a rigorous climate and she takes off.

"I am glad to say she is an excellant bedder. I always admired those comments of gardeners, you know the sort: 'Lady Watterlow is an excellent bedder and is surpassingly fine with General Jacqueminot.' She is bush. Not a climber.

"And I'll say one thing for her (the rose), she did well in Peking and in any climate posing a real challenge to a rose, she makes her mark."

An excellent thing in roses.

Kennin somewhat wickedly quoted Emerson, in his guide to the show:

"Men run away to other countries because they are not good in their own, and run back to their own because they pass for nothing in the new places."

But you could hardly say of Henry James, Whistler, Sargent or Eliot that they couldn't make it at home.

So more charitably Kenin conceded: "They were all out after a dream."