Nicholas Cullinan Visionary Director of The National Portrait Gallery Speaks To Nico Kos Earle – Artlyst Exclusive

Nicholas Cullinan © Zoë Law

Since 2020, Nicholas Cullinan has overseen an acclaimed £41.3m renovation, which reopened on time and on budget, no mean feat. A sensational new entrance and thrilling rehang of new commissions and historical acquisitions sets the scene for a dynamic and timely exhibitions programme that re-examines what it means to be British – both now and then – and how we celebrate individual achievement in a fast-paced, increasingly digital and global society. 

“In the present times of political excitement, the exacerbation of angry and unsocial feelings might be much softened by the effects that the fine arts might produce on the minds of men.” – Sir Robert Peale, 1833 

In recognition of his many achievements, Cullinan won the Critics’ Circle Visual Arts Award 2023; previous winners include Frank Bowling, Iwona Blazwick and David Chipperfield. Cullinan was awarded a trophy created by Adi Advani, a postgraduate ceramicist at the Royal College of Art, at a ceremony during the British Art Fair at the Saatchi Gallery. Advani was invited to make the work by Corinne Julius of the Critic’s Circle, who saw the commission as an opportunity to shine a light on emerging talent. The tradition remains central to how Alex Leith, the new chair of the Critics Circle, has reimagined the awards ceremony as “the Oscars of the British art world”. The sculpture comprised a divided cube motif “symbolic [of the] divisions between bodies,” according to Adivani. This ties elegantly with why Cullinan was awarded for his role in reshaping the ‘NPG’, addressing the tensions of a gallery in which the works are both profoundly historical and a constantly evolving “living portrait” of contemporary Britain.

Cullinan’s aim was a complete re-presentation of the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection and a significant refurbishment under the Inspiring People project banner. Rather than highlight the divisions in society today, Cullinan looked to balance tensions between past and present, us and them, national and global, British history and contemporary art; and in matter-of-factly addressing the question of how to be both, he has expanded the institution’s capacity for multicultural dialogue whilst reinvigorating its roots.

Exceptionally clear-minded and exacting, Cullinan is at once creative and pragmatic, responding to situations with vigour and flourishing. As a director, he acts simultaneously as a cultural guardian and renegade, traditionalist and iconoclast. He says, “The NPG was a wonderful institution and very quirky in its way; it had its charm, and we were mindful that we did not want to lose that. The impetus for the project came from visitor research, not just what we elected to do. Some of that was more practical regarding accessibility and wayfinding, but there was more to your point: the collection did not represent contemporary Britain. Only some of the population was represented, and we wanted to widen the picture of who we have on our walls.”

Arguably the first public Gallery in the world to have been devoted to portraiture, the National Portrait Gallery’s ability to occupy two things at once is a testament to its founding principles and the vision of its directors. Taking over from Sandy Nairne, Cullinan quickly points out that the Gallery was founded on the 19th-century view of the importance of history and, “in particular, its definition of achievement”, something Cullinan found “challenging”. Conceived during a series of parliamentary debates about the need for a pantheon of the great and the good from British history, the concept was approved by the House of Commons in 1856. When Cullinan first took on the role – after time at the MET in New York – his remit was to reconfigure the space and refresh the collection.

“The gallery is predominantly a visual history of Britain through portraits of individuals, so in thinking about what portraiture is and how this could be reflected in different mediums and contemporary practice, I also had to examine the gallery’s role in British society and how it can enable discussions around identity, nationhood, and belonging,” he explains.

Whilst the definitions of some words expand over time, others lose their relevance. In looking through the history of the collection, Cullinan understood the Gallery was “not just about celebrity, or success, but inspiration”. Thus, the Inspiring People project was born, a redefinition that allowed the re-display of the collection with works relevant to a broader audience whilst presenting hidden or missing stories from British history. Maintaining a chronological approach, now set amongst the Gallery’s best-loved paintings are works from a collection of over 250,000 photographs. Not all revisions were from a contemporary perspective: the project also involved stripping away a lot of clutter to reveal hidden gems of the original 1896 architecture.

Just as the Renaissance was characterised by illumination, Cullinan’s Inspiring People project conceptually and practically addresses the institution’s visibility through light. Designed by Ewan Christian, the grade-I listed building’s former entrance off busy Charing Cross Road compounded the Gallery’s lack of visibility. “If you want to know what is happening inside,” says Cullinan, “you must start with the entrance”. Enter Jamie Fobert Architects and conservation architect Purcell, with structural engineers Price and Myers; services engineers Max Fordham; project manager Gardiner & Theobold; Gilbert-Ash, Turner & Townsend, and Nissen Richards Studio, whose remit was to expand and rationalise the NPG with rearrangements and a conversation with the past. Somehow, they had to create an extension without building a new wing; careful replanning led to the reclamation of some 960m2 of underused space. This necessary innovation revealed hidden beauty; for example, excavating the basement revealed a concealed mosaic floor in the East Wing, now meticulously repaired by Purcell.

Windows that had been bricked up or shuttered and skylights covered in the lead were uncovered or reimagined. Former hospitality areas were relocated to the building’s perimeter, and views opened up on the city – make sure you visit the newly appointed top-floor restaurant. Perhaps the most striking feature is the building’s new entrance and forecourt on the North Façade (Ross Place in recognition of the Ross Foundation’s support), facing the West End. Three of the former windows were repurposed into 4m-high bronze entrance doors, boasting 45 portraits of women commissioned by Tracy Emin. Rather than compromise the integrity of the Italianate façade, they both act as a focal point and balance the all-male parade in the roundels above the first-floor windows. Something is pleasing about the permanence and weightiness of Emin’s doors, in how they conceptually smash the idea of a glass ceiling and throw open the conversation about gender parity.

The new entrance takes us through a spacious entry hall, which displays trans-historic busts on plinths in bronze and plaster and onto the Ondaatje Hall. Turn left, and you will find a beautiful link between past and present: the new logo stems from a sketch in the archive by the Gallery’s founding director, Sir George Scharf, a motif still found in the paving of the old entrance hall.

This detail speaks to Cullinan’s brilliance in preserving the institution’s DNA whilst moving the conversation forward. When the collection began, the director’s remit was to “look to the celebrity of the person represented rather than the artist’s merit”. Further, it was deemed that no portrait should be acquired until ten years after the sitter’s death (bar reigning monarch or consort), so there would be some gap in judging someone’s achievement. The director Roy Strong overturned that second rule, Cullinan explains. “In 1969, he managed to persuade the trustees that they should acquire portraits of living people, as to keep pace with society as it changed, or indeed to commission portraits, and this remains a unique feature of the gallery.”

Cullinan’s unique perspective might have something to do with the fact that he once held a different role. Whilst a student at the Courtauld, he worked as a visitor’s service assistant. “That means a guard,” he laughs. “It made a huge impression on me. While the NPG is art history, it is also history – there is an interesting tension between these two things. What drew me back was believing in the institution’s purpose and what one could do there.” As a director, Cullinan began filling historical and representational gaps with acquisitions alongside ambitious commissions. Alongside a new study of Dame Doreen Lawrence by Thomas Ganter and a portrait of the author Zadie Smith by Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola is Khadija Saye’s self-portrait, an artist who tragically died in the Grenfell fire. Meanwhile, a three-year collaboration with the CHANEL Culture Fund of a large mural featuring 130 women from British history – Work in Progress – by Jann Haworth and Liberty Blake increased the number of women artists represented in post-1900 galleries from 35% to 48%.

Perhaps his most successful commission was born out of a question Cullinan was asked in his interview for the director role, “‘If you could commission a portrait of any sitter by any artist, who would it be?’ My response was Malala Yousafzai by Shirin Neshat. We made this happen, which was wonderful. It is very different with acquisitions – you are working with what you have been offered or what is available.”

Filling the gaps has proved equally newsworthy – in April, the NPG, in collaboration with the Getty Museum, jointly bought the famed Joshua Reynolds c.1776 portrait Mai (Omai) for a staggering £50 million. Its timeshare scheme, brokered by Cullinan, was a stroke of creative genius.

Like countless masterpieces, it languished in a vault for 20 years and had rarely been displayed in a museum. “To have this image of a Polynesian individual in Georgian Britain that is given dignity is compelling,” says Cullinan. Seeing it placed so prominently, one marvels at how contemporary the work feels. It joins Van Dyck’s Self-portrait, “a stunning unfinished portrait of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence, and the beautiful portrait of Dylan Thomas by Augustus John, and a good portrait of Jane Seymour from the workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger.”

With Inspiring People, Cullinan has also re-introduced a word that sometimes seems missing from the contemporary art lexicon: beautiful. “Historically, the sitters have always been where we begin, but obviously, every portrait is made by an artist, so the artists are really at the centre of everything we do. This is where we have become international in our thinking; we have tried to ensure that the artists we commission are at the highest level.”

In many ways, portraiture is about relationships – between the sitter and the artist and between the painting and the viewer. The depth of Cullinan’s relationship with the collection and its history is remarkable.

“When we reopened our Gallery after our major transformation, we wanted to ensure that our collection represented Britain’s past and present and in all of its variety and complexity. We like to think of our collection and Gallery now as a living portrait of Britain. Since our reopening in June, our response from visitors has been phenomenal, and people now feel that the NPG better reflects Britain as it is in their lives. And that’s a very positive thing.”

Positive indeed, and as the interview draws close, I wonder who Cullinan would choose to paint his portrait. He will undoubtedly leave that up to the next generation – but I am confident his tenure will forever be associated with the National Portrait Gallery’s beautiful and timely Renaissance.

Words: Nico Kos Earle 2024 Photo: © Zoë Law Courtesy NPG

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