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National Portrait Gallery to feature more women in its collection

The National Portrait Gallery has pledged to significantly increase the number of women represented in its collection, with regard to both artists and sitters.

On Wednesday it announced details of a three-year project to improve representation and dig out “overlooked stories” of women who have helped shape British history and culture.

The gallery said there was a lot of catching up to do, with only 25% of the portraits in the permanent collection being of women. Of the artists, 12% are women and 88% are men.

Its historic building on Charing Cross Road is currently closed, undergoing a £35.5m top-to-bottom redevelopment. When it reopens in 2023 the walls will be noticeably more balanced, said Flavia Frigeri, the curator who is leading the project.

She said there were many women in the collection who had not been properly researched until now. “They might have made an important contribution to the war effort. They might have written treatises on mushrooms … the range is quite vast.”

British secret agent Noor Inayat Khan by unknown photographer, 1937.
British secret agent Noor Inayat Khan by unknown photographer, 1937. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery London

A second strand will be filling gaps by acquiring historic portraits of women who should be in the collection. Frigeri gave an example of Lilian Lindsay, the first British woman to qualify as a dentist. “She is someone we should be celebrating; unfortunately we don’t have her in the collection yet.”

Another example is the British constructivist artist Marlow Moss, whose work is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and in a number of Dutch collections including the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. She remains little known and poorly represented in the UK.

The third aim is commissioning more portraits of contemporary women. “I think it is vital that we make a greater effort to uncover the great stories that pertain to women.”

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Ray Strachey, dated late 1920s.
Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Ray Strachey, dated late 1920s. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery London/PA

The project is a partnership with Chanel and is titled Reframing narratives: women in portraiture.

The gallery said it would explore lives that should be better known, for example Ray Strachey, the painter of one of its Virginia Woolf portraits. Strachey’s story has largely fallen through the gaps of history, but she played an important part in the suffrage movement as a key ally of Millicent Fawcett and was an energetic organiser for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

Another fascinating artist to be better explored is Hannah Gluckstein, who adopted the genderless name Gluck in 1918 when she was in her early 20s. She is considered a trailblazer in gender fluidity and consistently broke gender norms, wearing masculine clothes, cutting her hair short and smoking a pipe. She is represented in the NPG collection with a striking self-portrait from 1942.

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The role of female photographers will be explored in greater depth, illuminating people such as Alice Hughes, a successful Edwardian photographer who only took pictures of women and children and at the peak of her career had about 60 female assistants.

Researchers will also examine the contribution of women to the war effort in both world wars. Stories will include those of Georgina Masson, the first black female officer in the British army; Noor Inayat Khan, a British secret agent who operated in occupied France before she was captured by the Gestapo and executed; and Sarah Wilson, the first female war correspondent.

The achievements of women are often overshadowed by men associated with them, such as Alma Reville, a pioneering film editor and screenwriter and the wife of Alfred Hitchcock.

To mark Women’s History Month, the gallery is releasing a series of filmed interviews with inspirational women including Sarah Gilbert, the lead scientist on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine; Kanya King, the founder of the Mobo awards; Amika George, a period poverty campaigner; and the actor Helena Bonham Carter.

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