A Brush with London’s Culture: Year 10 National Portrait Gallery Trip
By Isabel H, Year 10 Journalist Leader
What does identity mean to you? On Friday 10th November, budding year 10 artists ventured into London, colouring pencils and sketchbooks in hand, to explore this theme in depth. The National Portrait Gallery, located in St Martins Place, is a cornerstone of London’s cultural heritage. Founded in 1856, it is home to collections of portraits of some of the most historically famous and important British people.
For the first time, we had been allowed to travel to our destination without teacher supervision which was an exciting prospect but my friend and I were so paranoid of arriving late that we got there 45 minutes early – thanks to the Elizabeth Line taking us from Ealing Broadway Station to Tottenham Court Road in 20 minutes! Outside the gallery entrance, we waited impatiently in the pouring rain listening to the hammering of droplets against our umbrella for what felt like an eternity, though soon enough, everyone had gathered and we were ready for the day to get underway.
An identity themed workshop led by a skilled instructor kicked off the morning. Having just finished studying skulls in art, year 10 will be moving onto the theme of portraiture so this trip offered an amazing opportunity to grasp an early understanding and appreciation of the topic. The workshop started with us each making a small booklet out of an A3 piece of sugar paper by doing nothing more than simply folding the paper and cutting along various lines (it was very frustrating when the folded paper did not line up). On the front page of our booklets, we each noted down the word IDENTITY in the centre, as directed, and spent a few minutes scribbling down whatever we each individually associated identity with; unsurprisingly our interpretation of this term varied, whether we associated it with hair and eye colour or school and family, everyone had their own understanding. After spending some time discussing this theme, we partook in various tasks that related to identity and helped develop our perspective such as producing quick 30 second and 1 minute sketches of the person in front of us (we were all mortified by this at first) aiming to capture the person’s character as quickly as possible and attempting to ingrain into many of us perfectionists that fact that art is a process that takes time by changing and adapting work.
In a similar vein to the quick sketches produced beforehand, we were then guided to a section within the gallery in which we each chose a portrait we connected with to produce a slightly more sustained pencil sketch. Despite the collections of celebrities, royals and dancers that were highly interesting, I focused on an oil painting on canvas titled Seamus Heaney by the artist Tai Shan Schierenberg. This portrait of a famous poet depicted an old man with white hair, wearing delicate spectacles with a downcast expression. Given that the theme of identity has just been discussed, it doesn’t make obvious sense that I singled out this particular artwork to sketch. I chose this painting primarily because of the way in which I identified with and loved how it had been painted – I loved the complementary tones of pink and green but more specifically the layering of the different exciting brushstrokes, something I try to implement into my artwork when appropriate. So identity does not have to be only about obvious things such as appearance or your environment, but the things you associate with.
In the afternoon, we finally had the opportunity to use our colouring pencils; instructed by our teachers to produce a sustained drawing using any portrait in the gallery that we identified or connected with. The feeling of freedom when given permission to explore the entirety of the gallery independently was akin to the feeling felt when walking out of the school gates on a Friday! Aliyah, a year 10 art student, recalled that she “enjoyed being able to choose which piece of art [she] created allowing [her] to produce a more personal outcome”. Hidden in all corners of the gallery, we relished the couple of hours provided to spend sketching and colouring our chosen portraits in our creative responses. What made this particular task so was that we were able to study the portraits up close and in person.
Surely one of the most exciting aspects of all school trips to museums and galleries is being able to go to the gift shop at the end! Everyone clustered eagerly into the shop, grabbing postcards left and right from the array of options, envisioning which would work best for our sketchbooks, our sketchbooks never far off of our minds.
Overall, our trip to the National Portrait Gallery was an amazing, eye opening experience that we are very fortunate to have been included in. Thank you to all the art teachers that organised this opportunity and supported us on the trip!