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The latest addition to the Parliamentary prescient and located next to the High Count of Australia and the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery was opened in 2008. In contrast to the High Court I find this building (as opposed to the art therein) more appealing on the outside than on the inside – the latter being rather pedestrian from a design perspective though eminently functional as a gallery which, of course, is its purpose. According to the Gallery’s website, the “building favours intimacy and connection in lieu of reverence and the monumental’. I’ll let you be the judge if that equates with my assessment of “rather pedestrian” in regards to the interior at least.

Prior to 2008 (though only since 1999 as a truly separate and accepted national portrait gallery notwithstanding that a national portrait gallery was proposed back in the early 1900s) the gallery was located in Old Parliament House (OPH). All in all, I preferred the display in OPH with its air of a gentleman’s lounge and where it complemented the portraits of politicians and monarchs in the adjacent Kings Hall but times move on (sometimes alas) and admittedly the Gallery did outgrow that location.

The purpose of the Gallery is, not surprisingly, to increase the understanding and appreciation of the Australian people – their identity, history, culture, creativity and diversity – through portraiture. Given its geographical restriction to Australian people its level of appeal to international visitors is likely to be limited though most readers would recognise Captain James Cook and HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark together with others who are also well known outside Australia. Locals will recognise many more. On display are some 400 portraits of people – heroes and villains – who have shaped Australia and who continue to shape the country. I highly recommend a visit for all Australians and others with even a passing interest in those people.


The Gallery also has special exhibitions (some attract an entrance fee) from time to time. When I last visited (Feb 2013) a sunning portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia (among other places) was on temporary display pending relocation to a permanent home in London. The painting in question was a diamond jubilee picture of a contemplative Queen Elizabeth in Westminster Abbey – viewers are drawn to imagine what the Queen’s thoughts might be as she celebrated 60 years on the throne. The painting is by Australian artist, Ralph Heimans, who was the only artist granted a sitting with Her Majesty in her jubilee year. (View the picture here – http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/exhibition_subsite_glorious.php – though see it in real if you can). Another notable picture, and part of the permanent collection, by Ralph Heimans of Justice Kirby – of High Court fame – in the same style is also on display – notable in that Justice Kirby has been the only senior judicial officer in Australia to opening admit to being gay.

When I visited in 2013 (wow I can’t believe I’ve not been back since) photography inside the gallery was prohibited. As of 2017 this has changed and pictures may now be taken within the Gallery’s permanent collection.

On reflection, I actually did pop into the cafe last year between work meetings nearby to be told that I was not allowed to plug in and recharge my phone in an available power outlet – for ‘Occupational Health and Safety reasons’ . I bit my tongue and went elsewhere. Please Dear Reader, do not let that put you off visiting to see the artwork.

Opening hours

Daily -10am – 5pm except Christmas Day

The Portrait Cafe (02) 6102 7160 and Portrait Store (02) 6102 7170 are open daily from 10am – 4.30pm.

Entrance Fee : Free to permanent exhibition – some special exhibitions attract a fee.

Address: King Edward Terrace, Parkes
Phone: (+61 2) 6102 7000
Website: http://www.portrait.gov.au


For my next CANBERRA – PARLIAMENTARY TRIANGLE SOUTH OF THE LAKE  review click HERE.
For other Canberra reviews click HERE.


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