Right in the heart of London, a few minutes’ stroll from Leicester Square or Charing Cross Underground stations, the National Portrait Gallery has been one of the world’s most important public portrait collections since it opened in 1856. It’s got nearly 200,000 portraits dating back hundreds of years, including some of the most iconic images from English history and literature, from Elizabeth I to Jane Austen.
What’s perhaps less celebrated is how much effort the Gallery puts into entertaining its younger visitors, with bespoke guidesheets, regular story-telling sessions and much-loved children’s guests. On our last of countless visits, Gruffalo
author Julia Donaldson had just presented a (sadly fully booked) session.
Astonishingly, access to the galleries and many other great schemes, like the brilliant monthly Family Art Workshops, is completely free. This combined with the fact that it’s never as crowded as its more imposing neighbour, the National Gallery, makes it pretty much the ideal place to dive into on a wintry day’s London sightseeing with kids.
Even smaller children with find it hard to resist the Tudor and Stuart rooms, where the unmistakeable, big-bellied figure of Henry VIII stands watch, glaring out fiercely with his hands on his hips like some scary Santa. For my eight year old's peer group, nothing brings their topic work to life better than being up close to Anne Boleyn, or the many others who met similar Horrible Histories fates.
There is much important contemporary portraiture, but it's the timeless quality of the unique records of historical celebrities that always gets me. It’s not difficult, for example, to see why feisty actress Nell Gwyn and her seventeenth century “wardrobe malfunctions” caught the eye of Charles II. Queen Elizabeth’s blinging boyfriend Robert Dudley, his courtly attire dripping in gems and rich fabrics, seems to have offered style notes to Elton John and Freddie Mercury. The boy King Edward VI, seemingly almost unable to remain upright under his weight of finery, particularly fascinated my daughters.
Far too many museum and attraction gift shops force you to run the gauntlet through them, tearing little ones’ hands away from plastic rubbish. In a pleasing exception to this grim rule, the main, spacious retail space is located right outside the main entrance, so visiting it is very much on your terms.
Ironically, there is also plenty in there you would want to stop and buy for kids, with lovely traditional ornaments, arts and crafts materials, fun stationery and inspiring books.
To enhance a sense of engagement for age 3 and up, the Explore Trail pulls children in with a range of features, architectural as well as quirky objects from the permanent collection. It’s a subtle way of alerting both kids and their carers to the beauty and value of the building as well as its priceless contents.