The bestselling art historian and author of The Story of Art Without Men shares her insights into several paintings of great women authors, from Mary Shelley to Zadie Smith
Last month, on Thursday, 21 September, the Booker Prize 2023 shortlist was announced at a special event at the National Portrait Gallery in central London.
The announcement took place in Room 24 of the gallery – a space devoted to ‘Challenging Identities’, which focuses on individuals at the forefront of changes in society, science and culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its walls display portraits of several important literary figures, such as Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy and George Bernard Shaw, as well as artists, politicians and women’s rights campaigners. The event spilled over into Room 28, titled ‘Making the Modern World’, which features portraits of more recent authors, many of them recognised by the Booker Prize, including Jan Morris, Salman Rushdie, Doris Lessing and Kazuo Ishiguro.
The gallery reopened in June 2023 following a three-year renovation – it’s biggest in 127 years. As well as significant physical changes to its spaces, including a new entrance, with new doors featuring bronze panels by the artist Tracey Emin, the gallery has increased the representation of female artists on display in its post-1900 galleries by 129%. The number of female sitters on display in those galleries has risen by 134%, with women now featuring in 48% of portraits on display, up from a third three years ago.
To celebrate the Booker Prizes’ association with the National Portrait Gallery – and our organisations’ shared aim of championing great writers past and present – we wanted to do more than just host an event. So we invited art historian and broadcaster Katy Hessel, author of the bestseller The Story of Art Without Men and presenter of The Great Women Artists Podcast to curate a tour of portraits of women writers currently on display in the gallery, for attendees of the shortlist announcement event. Katy’s tour provided expert insights into the sitters and artists behind several extraordinary works, including paintings of the Brontë sisters, Mary Shelley, Iris Murdoch, Jeanette Winterson and Zadie Smith.
A film of the tour can be found at the top of this page.