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National Portrait Gallery

Roy Strong was appointed director of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in 1967 at the age of thirty-two. Today it would be astonishing to head one of the United Kingdom’s national collections at that age; five decades ago it was outrageous. Only Kenneth Clark at thirty was younger when he became director of the National Gallery. Strong’s ascent to the NPG has stayed in his mind as the fulcrum of his professional life.

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Helen Ennis’s book Reveries: Photography and mortality, published by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra to accompany her recent exhibition, is a fascinating choice of subject for an institution that deals with portraiture. As the author notes, ‘In the face of mortality the touchstones of portraiture are gently nudged aside … to encompass the possibility of dissolution or dispersal of self.’ This expanded definition of portraiture is apparent from the cover of this sensitively designed book, which features a photograph by Ruth Maddison. Titled The beginning of absence, the photograph shows a domestic interior dissolving into light and suggests Maddison’s feelings when confronting the imminent death of her father. It is a ‘portrait’ composed not of physical detail but emotion, and is no less descriptive of a person and a relationship for that.

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