After my first visit to London in 2010, I wanted to write about some of the paintings I had seen at the National Portrait Gallery. This proved impossible as the gallery’s website contained only very small images that inadequately represented the paintings, and it refused to allow their reuse, even for non-commercial purposes. Only a few years ago, it threatened to sue a Wikipedia user for sharing an image.
Fortunately, the National Portrait Gallery has changed with the times and now actively encourages non-commercial reproduction of digital copies of photographs of the paintings it owns. It has inspired me to try to remember what I was going to write. When I arrived for the first time, I headed straight for the Romantics room and there, side by side on one wall, hung portraits of three of my literary idols: Mary, Percy and George.
They’re respectively the inventor of science fiction; a revolutionary poet, mad shagger, radical aetheist and vegetarian activist; and an even madder shagger, the world’s first rock star and a poet infamous in his own lifetime as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. In the hypothetical ‘who would you invite to a dinner party’ game, these three are top of my list.
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, replica by Thomas Phillips, circa 1835 (1813), NPG 142, © National Portrait Gallery, London, used with permission
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Richard Rothwell, exhibited 1840, NPG 1235, © National Portrait Gallery, London, used with permission