International travel can still be a challenge, but Australians have a unique chance to see the best of London’s National Portrait Gallery at home this year. Unlikely bedfellows Winston Churchill, David Beckham, Princess Diana and the Bronte sisters are all part of Shakespeare at Winehousewhich opens this week at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.
Among the 80 portraits from the 16th century to the present day are photographs of a very young Kate Moss, Greta Garbo and Elizabeth Taylor, paintings by Ed Sheeran and Amy Winehouse, and a bronze “death” mask by the artist Tracey Emin; there is also the only known portrait of the bard and a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I from 1575. Works by artists such as David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Lucian Freud, Rubens, Rodin and Lord Snowdon are also on display.
The renowned pieces are here because the National Portrait Gallery in London is closed until next year, having its biggest refurbishment since it opened at its St Martin’s Place location in 1896.
Stephanie Carlton, conservator of international project frames at the National Portrait Gallery in London, came from the Netherlands with the exhibition, where it was on display at the Frieze Museum, before being shown in Korea. She grew up near Hanging Rock and began her career at the Art Gallery of Ballarat and has worked in the UK since 2003; his last gig was with the Royal Collection Trust, dealing with the art that hung in the homes of the Royal Family.
An artist herself, Carlton studied fine art with a major in painting and has now turned to ceramics. “At Ballarat, it was an opportunity to be closer to things, to participate in the staging of a collection, like an open world. I knew I wanted to be around art – paintings and frames, I love them and it’s endlessly fascinating.
As a courier – as she describes her role in this exhibition – she oversees all objects in transit, literally from the gallery or museum, onto the pallets to board the plane and then depart once they land. . Because there is wood and organic material in the frames, the works, like the people, had to spend two weeks in quarantine upon arrival. “We are always aware of their importance and their vulnerability, but we must also deal with them as a whole. Individual pieces may be larger [than others]. The duty of care is the same regardless,” says Carlton.
Divided into themes – fame, power, love and loss, identity, innovation and self-portraits – Shakespeare at Winehouse traces different approaches to portraiture and how the genre has been reinterpreted by artists across five centuries. A range of media, from sculpture and photography to works on paper and painting, are included. What Carlton describes as many “magic frames” are also of great historical significance.