“It will definitely challenge people who expect to see dead white males and paintings in gold frames,” says Joanna Gilmour, curator of collection and research at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. She’s speaking of Shakespeare to Winehouse: Icons from the National Portrait Gallery, London, a new exhibition that features subjects ranging from royalty and rock stars to lauded (and sometimes overlooked) figures of literature, cinema, science and other fields.

Showing 84 works from London’s National Portrait Gallery, spanning sculpture, digital works, photography, paintings, self-portraits and more, the touring exhibition comes to Australia after stops in the Netherlands and South Korea. Exclusive to Canberra, it runs through mid-July as the gallery’s British counterpart undergoes extensive renovations. It means this is your only chance to see these pieces in Australia.

“It really is an incredible swath of not just world history, but also cultural history, art history, and the history of portraiture,” says Gilmour. “It demonstrates how artists across centuries have been tackling the question of how to create a portrait that’s not just a record of what someone looks like, but an image that gets under the skin and tells you something deeper or hidden about the person.”

True to its name, the ambitious Shakespeare to Winehouse ranges from the 16th century through to today, encompassing subjects as diverse as Queen Elizabeth I and David Beckham and artists like Anthony van Dyck, David Hockney and Lucian Freud. Gathered into sections around uniting themes like fame, power, loss, love and identity, the works tell memorable stories on both an individual and collective level.

“They’re people who have had a global impact,” says Gilmour of the subjects. It means we have the likes of Vogue editor Anna Wintour without her famous sunglasses and music icons like Bowie, The Beatles and Mick Jagger in poses of vulnerability, alongside paintings of Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Joan Collins – in a screen print by Andy Warhol – and less-remembered figures like Chinese-born Hollywood pioneer Anna May Wong. Other sitters include Ed Sheeran, Nelson Mandela, Harry Belafonte and Princess Diana.

A portrait of Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai is the most recent work in the exhibition. Commissioned by NPG London in 2018, it’s a striking photograph by Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat, featuring the calligraphic text of a poem by Rahmat Shah Sayel on the subject’s skin. A posthumous 2011 painting of Amy Winehouse by South African-born artist Marlene Dumas is tender and dignified, in contrast to the late singer’s paparazzi-fuelled public image. The earliest piece, meanwhile, is a 1559 double portrait of the mother-son duo Mary Neville (Lady Dacre) and Gregory Fiennes by Flemish painter Hans Eworth.

Devised by NPG London curators, Gilmour explains that it was the role of the Canberra team to frame these varied works specifically for Australian audiences, drawing out each portrait’s unique story via elaborate labels, design and accompanying programs and gallery tours. Given the exhibition was organised during a pandemic, Gilmour is relieved to now see it up on the walls, noting that all of the oldest works ever displayed by Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery are in this exhibition.

“It’s a real opportunity to take these works in,” says Gilmour. “Many of them have great stories attached to them, and to see them in the flesh is a revelation. We’ve had visitors say they’ll have to come back again. You really just have to see them to appreciate them.”

Shakespeare to Winehouse: Icons from the National Portrait Gallery, London runs daily through Sunday July 17, 2022 at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. Tickets here.

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of the National Portrait Gallery.