Hacking the National Portrait Gallery in 20 Minutes (or less)

London’s National Portrait Gallery sits just around the corner from the bigger National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. It was the world’s first portrait gallery when it opened in 1856 and is home to portraits of historically important and famous British people.

I’ll admit, I’m not good at galleries. I arrive then almost immediately want to leave. Perhaps it’s the serious atmosphere and feeling of having to study every single artwork. Perhaps I’d rather be somewhere else having a coffee.

So when I landed on the doorstep of the Portrait Gallery yesterday afternoon, I saw an opportunity to do a spot of ‘gallery hacking’.

Gallery hacking is designed to let you soak up the essence of an art show without getting bored or feeling obligated to look at every single thing. It employs all or any of the following methods:

  • Moving around very, very quickly, almost at a jog, stopping only to gaze at artworks that attract me for about 20 seconds or less
  • Barely reading the descriptions on the labels at all, instead taking photos that I can look at later
  • Moving around the artworks in random order, allowing myself to be drawn by whatever catches my eye
  • Creating my own soundtrack by listening to music – I read someone saying this some time ago and it works brilliantly
  • Setting myself a mission, such as to compile a list of my top 5 artworks or to find and sketch my favorite piece
  • Setting a deadline for getting out of the gallery eg in 20-30 minutes. Knowing your time is limited makes you better appreciate the time you have

To hack the National Portrait Gallery I gave myself 20 minutes to find and document my 5 favorite artworks. Here are the winners (in no particular order):

1913-2004, By Howard Hodgkin b. 1932, Oil on canvas, 1962


I was drawn to the deceptive simplicity of this portrait. The sitter doesn’t seem to be trying to be anything other than he is.


1961-97, By Mario Testino b. 1954, Bromide print, 1997


The natural beauty and openness radiating out of this photo is stunning.


b. 1931, By Tony Bevan b. 1951, Oil on canvas, 2005


At first I mistook this portrait for the actor Michael Caine! The expressive colors and brushwork put a huge grin on my face.


b. 1630-85, Attributed to Thomas Hawker d.c. 1722, Oil on canvas, c. 1680


Such confidence! Could he have sat with his legs any wider?


1819-1901, By Sir Francis Chantrey 1781-1841, Marble bust, 1841


I was completely mesmerised by the artist’s skill in portraying such beauty of this sculpture.

Do you have any gallery hacking techniques of your own?

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