‘Picturing Friendship’: a quick snapshot of friendships from the 1500s to 2000s

‘Picturing Friendship’: a quick snapshot of friendships from the 1500s to 2000s
'Picturing Friendship' in Room 16 of the National Portrait Gallery. Photo courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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Nestled between portraits from the Tudor and Regency periods of British history, Room 16 of London’s National Portrait Gallery holds a series of images that aim to depict ideas of friendship. The small show called ‘Picturing Friendship’ shows a range of relationships that fall into the category of friends. Meant to span from the 1500s to present day, viewers are greeted with the comfortable, less formal images of well-known pairs like Elizabeth Taylor and David Bowie, Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, and the ‘Fathers of the Turf’ – George Payne and Henry John Rous.

‘Picturing Friendship’ recognizes that friendship is less often the subject matter and theme of most portraiture. The relaxed, light-hearted, and at times, jovial atmosphere of friendships sets the tone for a softer show. One photo, in particular, that shows this is of friends Vladislav Zimenko, a Russian art historian, and Sir Charles Wheeler, former President of the Royal Academy, as Sir Wheeler slides down a banister at the opening of a display of Russian art.

In addition to highlighting the less serious state of the friends pictured in the gallery, the show addresses the ways in which friendship blossoms out of various situations. From challenging moments to mutual acquaintances or interests, friendships develop in many ways sometimes resulting in partnerships, businesses, and new ideas that have affected the world. A photo that highlights this and is particularly powerful is of three women MPs: Valerie Amos, Baroness Amos of Brondesbury; Rosalind Howells, Baroness Howells of St Davids; and Patricia Scotland, Baroness of Scotland of Asthal. Taken in the House of Lords, the photo represents the obstacles overcome by three of the first black women to become part of Parliament thus forging a friendship.

‘Picturing Friendship’ represents women and men more or less equally, though most friendships shown are between women and women or men and men. One of the only exceptions is that of Taylor and Bowie. Also, photography dominates the room with only four paintings and one drawing. This seems appropriate, though, as photography is commonly the manner in which relationships like friendships are documented in today’s world. Perhaps it is the nature of photography and the way that it floods our lives in the 21st century with endless streams of selfies between friends that makes this feel appropriate.

This being said, most of the images are relatively recent given that ‘Picturing Friendship’ seeks to show friendships going back to the 16th century. In fact, there is only one painting from the 16th, 17th, and 18th century. All other artworks are from the 1900s.

The small exhibition offers a fun range of relationships and the theme is endearing but it lacks in depth and feels somewhat monotonous. That being said, it is a small breath of fresh air between the heavy portraiture around the gallery and even the weight of the negatives of the world. ‘Picturing Friendship’ is a free exhibition and will be on display until 13 May 2019.

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