"Museums and galleries are for everyone and I think drawing in them encourages people to take ownership of them."
From Dame Judy Dench to David Hockney and Marcus Rashford to Margaret Thatcher, London’s National Portrait Gallery holds the greatest collection of portraits in the world. After a three year closure, the gallery reopened its doors early this summer and we were lucky enough to have the newly renovated gallery take part in this year’s Big Draw Festival. We spoke to families programme manager Emma Chiplin about her favourite portrait in the gallery, the role of drawing in museums what they got up to for their Big Draw event.
We’re really happy to have The National Portrait Gallery as a part of The Big Draw Festival this year, especially after your exciting reopening this summer! For anyone who hasn’t visited the gallery since it’s since its closure three years ago, what are the main changes that people can expect to see in the gallery?
One of the most noticeable changes is when you first arrive at the Gallery – you’re now greeted by a new north facing entrance, which we call Ross Place. It’s much more open and accessible than before and the new bronze doors now feature 45 female faces, hand drawn and cast by Tracey Emin. The Gallery spaces have been upgraded and the Collection redisplayed. Hung chronologically from Tudors to now, there are new portraits alongside old favourites making it more relevant to a wide range of audiences.
We also have our brand-new Mildred and Simon Palley Learning Centre, which includes three new purpose-built studio spaces. It’s amazing to have dedicated spaces we can use for all our learning and engagement programmes. I started working at the Gallery in March this year, so it’s been exciting to be part of this landmark moment in the National Portrait Gallery’s history.
The National Portrait Gallery has a staggering 12,690 portraits in its primary collection, with around 1000 of these on display in the gallery. Of all these portraits, which one stands out to you the most?
It’s hard to choose just one, but a portrait that stands out to me is The Brontë Sisters (not least because Wuthering Heights is one of my favourite books). It’s the only portrait of all three sisters, which is really special, and the portrait itself tells an interesting story. It was painted by their brother Patrick Branwell Brontë, who it seems painted over his own self-portrait with a pillar. You can see the faint figure of a man showing through the layers of paint, as well as all the creases from when the portrait was folded and forgotten in a cupboard. I think these imperfections add to its curiosity, it sparks discussion and debate. I also enjoy that it caused a bit of a stir when it was first displayed because of its quality, but thankfully the Gallery agreed it was worth keeping!
The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë) by Patrick Branwell Brontë. Oil on canvas, circa 1834 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Could you tell us a bit about your role at the museum and what it entails?
My role is to lead on all the family engagement activities at the Gallery, ensuring it’s a place families can play, create and explore together. In consultation with families and early years specialists I developed our new under 5s programme, Little Explorers, which launched in September. I also look after our family take over days, which run during school holidays, and produce Gallery resources for families to use when they visit. A lot of my role is working with amazing artists, storytellers, illustrators and gallery educators to design and deliver fun and exciting opportunities for families to engage with the Collection. There are other parts of my role too, but collaborating with others and seeing families take over the Gallery and have a joyful time is the best bit.
What did you get up for your Big Draw events this October half-term?
We ran a Big Draw family day at the Gallery where families took over our learning studios and gallery spaces. We had different workshops across the day with families, free to drop in and try things out, experiment with different drawing techniques, and most importantly have fun! There was a weaving workshop where families could create their own woven wall hanging, a mindful drawing workshop creating patterned postcard portraits, a jungle drawing room where families could go wild drawing on a humongous paper tongue that covered the floor, and drawing in the Gallery where families were prompted with fun drawing challenges to get them playing with different ways of drawing and looking. The whole Gallery was buzzing with about 500 children and grownups joining in across the day.
Our Big Draw Festival theme this year is Drawing with Senses which is all about looking inward and tuning into our five senses - how did your events this year fit in with that theme?
It was fun thinking about how we could engage with the portraits in the Collection through the senses. Each workshop focused on a different portrait and a sense that related to it in some way. For our woven wall hangings workshop it was all about touch, with Grayson Perry and his colourful patterned clothes and work with textiles providing the tactile inspiration.
There are lots of lovely portraits of people in gardens and nature, which inspired our patterned postcard portraits workshop with a focus on smell. Surrounded by sweet smelling flowers and fresh herbs, families could mindfully and reflectively draw someone important to them.
Sound was the inspiration for our jungle themed room inspired by a portrait of Jane Goodall. Encouraged by the noises they could hear, people were free to scribble, scrawl, draw and doodle, creating a huge collective art piece.
In the Gallery, the focus was on looking, with prompts and challenges designed to get families looking and drawing in different ways.
How do you think drawing can help people engage with what they see in museums and galleries?
Drawing teaches us to look closer, notice things that perhaps we missed at first and take time to slow down. It’s a great activity for mindfulness and museums and galleries can provide the perfect setting. With inspiration everywhere, drawing in a gallery can be a great way to try things out and experiment.
There are always new things to discover, both in museums and galleries and in drawing. Capturing things in a sketchbook can also be a nice way to record your experience and to see how your perspective and style changes over time. Museums and galleries are for everyone and I think drawing in them encourages people to take ownership of them.
David Hockney is one of The Big Draw’s patrons, and we’re huge fans of his art, so we’re looking forward to the upcoming David Hockney: Drawing from Life exhibition at the gallery! What can Hockney’s work teach us about the importance of drawing?
I was lucky to get an early sneak peek of the exhibition and it really is wonderful! I think Hockney’s work teaches us the importance of having fun and drawing what we love. His work is bold and colourful and he’s not afraid to play with different mediums, like his photo and ipad drawings. He challenges us on what drawing can be and that can help us to play and experiment and think outside traditional drawing techniques. Hockney often goes straight in with ink, he’s not afraid to make mistakes and try things out. I think his approach is great for getting us out of that mental block and fear that I think we can get sometimes. In Hockney’s collection of Normandy portraits he drew everyone, from his partner to his gardener and chiropodist. Drawing people or things that are important to you is a good place to start, as everyone has their own perspectives and story to tell. Hockney is in his late 80s and is still drawing constantly, so he must be doing something right!
Do you have any other arty events coming up at the gallery that you’d like to share?
On the 27 November we have a Youth Late which has been produced by our Young Producers, responding to our David Hockney: Drawing From Life exhibition. It runs from 7 – 9.30pm and will involve free creative workshops (think temporary tattoos inspired by Hockney’s paintings, live drawing sessions, t-shirt printing and fun with polaroid cameras), music, popcorn and more! We‘re also opening David Hockney: Drawing from Life and the incredible Taylor Wessing Photo Portrait Prize exhibitions for this special Late, so if you’re keen to see exhibtitions free of charge and meet like-minded creatives aged 16-25, then this is the event for you!
Our next Little Explorers session is on 6 December at 11am and focuses on the story of Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer. There will be an interactive storytelling performance follwed by a making workshop and free tickets can be booked via the website.
We regulalry run drop in drawing workshops and life drawing classes for adults. The next ones are on the 17 November, 6 – 8pm.
With all of these events, you can find more information on our website where you will also find lots more exciting things we offer! You can also sign up to our mailing list to be kept up to date with activities and exhibtions.
And finally, we’re asking all our sponsor-partner organisations to tell us their favourite…
Taste? A warm bowl of pho.
Smell? Freshly baked apple crumble, or freshly baked anything really!
Sight? Flowers, everywhere and anywhere. I’ll often stop and photograph a wildflower growing out of a crack in the pavement or climbing a wall.
Feeling? Taking my boots off after a long winter walk and curling up in a woolly jumper.
Sound? Rain on fallen leaves
Thank you Emma!
Photo Credit: Johnny Guardiani
Interested in taking part in The Big Draw? Registrations for our 2023 festival 'Drawing with Senses' are still open! Find out the benefits of becoming an organiser here and about this years sense-sational theme here.