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Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People

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Start Date:3rd November 2011
End Date:1st August 2012
Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People

Purchased by the National Portrait Gallery between 1858 and 1971 the fourteen portraits in Imagined Lives were originally thought to represent famous people, such as Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Over time the identity of the sitters has either been lost, disproved or disputed, resulting in the portraits being either removed from display or lent to other collections.

In response to the portraits, eight internationally renowned authors have written imagined lives of the mystery sitters available to read in a new publication. The authors have invented imaginary biographies and character sketches exploring who these men and women might have been and why were they painted. With fictional letters, diaries, mini-biographies and memoirs, Imagined Lives creates fictional stories about these sitters from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Imagined Lives was originally conceived for and shown at Montacute House, Somerset, in 2010 as a collaboration between the National Portrait Gallery, the National Trust and the University of Bristol. The display will now be seen in London at the National Portrait Gallery for the first time accompanied by a new story by Alexander McCall Smith and a new publication. Research undertaken by History of Art MA students at the University of Bristol, working with Dr Tatiana String and supervised by the Gallery’s 16th Century Curator Dr Tarnya Cooper, led to a clearer understanding of the past of these portraits. This research, along with conservation work has meant that more evidence is now available about the possible identity of the sitters.

The character sketches and imaginary biographies by the authors provide new ways of looking at these mystery portraits. The authors have responded to what can be seen in each portrait, picking up on details of the costume and pose in intriguing ways.

Alexander McCall Smith has imagined an alternative life – as a body double for Mary, Queen of Scots – for a beautiful young woman depicted in a portrait once identified as the Scottish queen. In a story entitled Rosy Tracy Chevalier has written about a portrait of a handsome young man with a flushed complexion as the object of homosexual desire.

The crime writer Minette Walters has written a poignant letter from the perspective of the wife of a man shown in a portrait, which brims with despair at her husband’s extravagance. The author and scriptwriter Julian Fellowes has created a subtle biography (written in the style of a traditional biographical entry in a dictionary) about a resourceful woman whose husband was executed in the reign of Henry VIII.

Sarah Singleton has written about the adventures of a spice merchant and amateur musician struggling to make his way in the world despite his illegitimate status. Joanna Trollope has written a touching tale about the offer of a marriage proposal in the form of a letter from the sitter’s intended bride.

In a complete change of tone, the science fiction writer Sir Terry Pratchett has written an amusing tale about an explorer who presented Elizabeth I with a skunk. John Banville has seen in the features of a man laying upon his death bed the face of an admired officer serving with Cromwell’s New Model Army.

Venue Map

Address:St Martin's Place
Venue Website:www.npg.org.uk
Phone:+44 (0) 20 7306 0055

Images from Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People

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