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National Portrait Gallery

“Inspiring People", the multi-million-pound project for transforming London’s National Portrait Gallery has been completed after the three-year redevelopment of its Grade I listed building and the redisplay of over a thousand artworks. The building was re-modelled by Jamie Fobert Architects, with Purcell acting as Cultural Heritage Consultant and the Nissen Richards Studio as the scheme’s Interpretation Designer. The tasks included, redesigning the permanent galleries, including the dynamic new colour scheme, designing the permanent exhibition, and creating the overall visitor experience.  

Studio ZNA was invited to design the lighting for the galleries throughout the building, as a result of its long-standing collaboration with Studio Nissen Richards, and its many years of experience working with the National Portrait Gallery team on both its permanent collection display and temporary exhibition programme. 

The ambitious project involved working with the Gallery's design team to comprehensively rearrange the collection, with a new chronological approach and a top-to-bottom rehang of the works that would appeal to a wider audience, highlight the stories of people traditionally under-represented in the collection and improve the gender balance of the artists on display. Set amongst the Gallery’s best-loved paintings, there are also a number of light-sensitive works on paper, including photography, dating from 1840 to the present day. 

Studio ZNA worked in close contact with Studio Nissen Richards to ensure pace and balance within the architectural characteristics of each building section and each time period and individual gallery that often have different styles and light levels. This was a highly refined design challenge. It designed, planned, implemented and defined the luminaires that would achieve the highest lighting quality within the gallery spaces and ensure the best colour rendering and visual aesthetics. Thanks to a careful choreography of luminance levels, every artwork and every frame shines and remains in focus even when very low lighting has been used to avoid any damage.  

The new entrance is bright and spacious with a display of busts of historical and contemporary inspirational figures, highlighted by strong accent lighting. 

The visitor journey is chronological. Starting on the second floor, the Tudor Galleries are more compact in size and here, amidst the dark finishes, the works are illuminated so they glow in space and evoke the idea of wealth and power. 

The rooms then open onto large galleries lit by natural light coming from the 17th-19th century skylights. Working with Max Fordham’s designers, who created a daylight model for the building, Studio ZNA first assessed the works to define acceptable levels of daylight. It then sought to maximise the use of natural light in the galleries by using louvres on the roof to control the entrance of light during the day and diffusing the light coming in through the windows by applying light stopping films or vinyl to them. 

In this area, the full daylight colour spectrum is supplemented by light from top-quality spotlights, including 600 Palco Main Voltage (Ø 102 mm) luminaires to present these works in the best possible way. Studio ZNA specified a series of optics that delicately wash the walls and merge with the diffused daylight and narrow beam luminaires to delicately highlight the individual portraits. This design creates a link between the portraits and visitors and a salon atmosphere appropriate to the period of the works on display. The excellent rendering of the 3000K lamps brings out the skin tones and rich colours of these artworks. The works on paper and sketches are lit at levels of 50 lux or less, and the Palco luminaires fitted with soft lenses, create a subtle gradation to the lower light levels required. 

An integral part of the redesign of this suite of large galleries, developed in collaboration with a large team, is the new colour scheme for the walls. Some are painted while others are covered with a bespoke, matt finish, pure wool fabric crafted by the specialist Suffolk-based manufacturer Gainsborough. Here, Palco spotlights fitted with an even softer lens enhance the colours, while the fusion of narrower optics on the works creates a dramatic but balanced display and sequence of spaces. 

The synergy between the works and their layout adds a sense of vibrancy to the rooms, while ensuring that even the most light-sensitive works are always protected. The lighting also modulates the visitor journey which is punctuated by accent lighting on the sculptural works and dramatic panoramas. 


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  • Year
  • Client
    National Portrait Gallery
  • Architectural project:
    Jamie Fobert Architects
  • Cultural heritage consultant:
    Purcell Architects
  • Interpretation and Exhibition Design:
    Studio Nissen Richards
  • Lighting Design for permanent and temporary exhibition galleries:
    Studio ZNA
  • MEP engineers:
    Max Fordham
  • Photographer
    Gareth Gardner

Project Quote

"The Museum Director Nicholas Cullinan’s main request was to bring light into the building. He also wanted to open up the collection already on display and combine it with the world-class collection of photographs and works on paper. This meant meeting the challenge of controlling and exploiting daylight and integrating it with the highest quality of lighting in the gallery. The key was to design a carefully choreographed light journey that would respond to the content and architecture, and create a new, engaging, balanced and beautiful visitor experience."

Zerlina Hughes, Studio ZNA Creative Director

"The colour scheme took a long time to establish, but its character really defines the project. We made a principle of using colour as a way of gently helping people find their way through the space, so the galleries within a certain time period use the same main colour, while also shifting tonally through the spaces within each time grouping. We took inspiration from the Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark for this principle, where saturated colours are used for their series of galleries."

Pippa Nissen, Nissen Richard Studio Director

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