National Portrait Gallery Opens Only Connect An Experimental New Display

Only Connect, is an experimental new display at the National Portrait Gallery in London presenting a web of portraits connecting sitters across three centuries. Comprising paintings, sculpture, photographs, engravings, drawings, miniatures and works in other media from the National Portrait Gallery’s holdings, the display uses musical connections to explore new ways of looking at the Collection. Open 16 April – 27 November 2011.

The display proposes a network of threads connecting singers, composers, artists, doctors, sculptors, poets, engineers, ambassadors and many others. As a result, everyone in the display is linked in one way or another. The connections range from the profound and the personal to the accidental and the incidental. Some were friends and some were lovers, several wrote about each other or had similar ideas, others were enemies or simply met on the street. For example, composer Benjamin Britten and violinist and conductor, Yehudi Menuhin performed at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after liberation in 1945. Yehudi Menuhin gave ground-breaking performances of composer Michael Tippett’s Corelli Fantasia. The sets and costumes for Tippett’s opera Midsummer Marriage were designed by sculptor Barbara Hepworth. An alternative route is formed by writer George Bernard Shaw who corresponded with the pianist Harriet Cohen. She premiered Elgar’s Piano Quintet and Elgar made his most famous recording of his Violin concerto with the teenaged Yehudi Menuhin. Such links evoke an invisible layer of human interconnectedness, a virtual six degrees of separation through the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

The choice of pictures reflects a ‘reading’ of the National Portrait Gallery collection in the light of interaction and connectedness. Any sense of hierarchy, whether between creative or interpretative artists and musicians, or between great engineers and dentists, has been avoided. This is reflected in the choice of works in the display, which purposefully presents mass-produced material such as engravings alongside masterworks. The title of the display Only Connect is taken from E M Forster’s novel, Howard’s End which is concerned with the difficulties, troubles and benefits of relationships between members of different social classes. The display, Only Connect, presents one possible reading: it is open to the viewer to make other connections.

The display has been devised by Peter Sheppard Skærved, violinist, in collaboration with Paul Moorhouse, 20th Century curator at the National Portrait Gallery. Peter Sheppard Skærved is the dedicatee of over 200 works for solo violin, and has appeared as soloist in over thirty countries.

Image: Dame Barbara Hepworth by Dame Barbara Hepworth 1950 NPG 5919

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