Introducing the Archive Survey Project

The Heinz Archive and Library

The National Portrait Gallery has recently launched a project to identify, and find the identities of, sitters from the global majority in historic British portraiture using the Gallery’s Heinz Archive and Library. This relates to all sitters who were racialized as ‘other than White’ by the society they lived in (particularly those of African and Asian descent).

The Archive is home to over 1 million photographic records of portraits from public and private collections ranging in date from the 13th century to the present day. These portraits are organised into alphabetical artist and sitter boxes, an organisational system that can mean portraits of those from the global majority, many of whom are unidentified, have become lost. Building on Caroline Bressey’s Research Study on Representation of ‘Ethnic Minorities’ in the Collection of the NPG (available in the Library), a group of volunteers will methodically search the sitter boxes, identifying images and working with the project curator, Kate Bernstock, to make them more accessible to researchers. It is hoped that these images will be an invaluable resource for those studying histories of the global majority through British portraiture, encouraging innovative research.

Beyond the identification of works, our goal is to redress the paucity of information that is currently available about sitters from the global majority who are often unnamed and made visible only by reference to their subordination (‘groom’, ‘servant’ etc.). This obfuscation is the result of decisions made by artists, owners and curators throughout the centuries. We hope to be able to identify some individuals; however, where this is not possible, we will be able to provide valuable contextual information on dating, attribution, and provenance of works that can offer a springboard for future research.

As part of this project we are adding to our data set of portraits featuring sitters from the global majority which will be shared in an accessible format in the Heinz Archive and Library. If you have any photographs of portraits (particularly from sales rooms) that you think should be added to our collection, please do get in touch. You can contact Kate at [email protected].

As part of the project we will also be uploading blog posts onto the NPG’s website. We will provide links for those in the UBP newsletter.

The National Portrait Gallery would like to thank Samuel H Kress Foundation and Pilgrim Trust for their support, which has made this project possible.

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