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14 September 2022

Architecture Notes: The Queen at the National Portrait Gallery

A royal opening in London at the turn of the millennium took place in a golden age for public architecture.

By Pippa Bailey

The escalator in the Ondaatje Wing of London’s National Portrait Gallery is a monument of my childhood. It rises up to the Tudor Gallery from a central hall that is Corbusian in its stark whiteness, and compels visitors to begin at the top of the building, as at the Guggenheim in New York.

When the Portrait Gallery was built in the 19th century, it had an East Wing, a sliver of space that looked, on any plan, like it should have belonged to the adjacent National Gallery. Indeed, the Portrait Gallery’s architect, Ewan Christian, designed the wing in the style of its neighbour, as though he envisioned the National one day owning the space. Eventually, it did. When the Ondaatje Wing was developed, the National gained the East Wing and, in return, allowed the Portrait to be extended in such a way that would block light to one of its buildings. I know all this because my father was project architect at the practice behind it, Dixon Jones.

The wing’s opening, in May 2000, was attended by the Queen – and by eight-year-old me, there to present her with a bouquet. I remember little: my curtsy, my grey dress. She wore red, and smelled like talcum powder. I appeared, briefly, on the news – so briefly that when I took the tape recording into school, it had to be played multiple times before my classmates spotted me. John Stanton Ward was commissioned to commit the occasion to canvas; Elizabeth II is a diminutive figure at the back. I am – quite rightly – nowhere to be seen.

High above us was the new Portrait Restaurant, with its views over columns and domes. In the 2004 film of Patrick Marber’s Closer, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen’s characters meet there to sign their divorce papers. My father has a still from the scene in his portfolio.

Dixon Jones worked on three projects of cultural significance in the 1990s: the Ondaatje Wing, the Royal Opera House and the Annenberg Court at the National Gallery. It was a golden age for public architecture, but even the longest golden ages must come to an end.  

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[See also: Sporting Notes: At the crease with Harold Pinter]

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This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession