The 'beauties' - women of note - who were welcomed to the National Portrait Gallery's early collection were those whose lives and portraits were recognized as significant to the 'civil, ecclesiastical and literary history of the nation'.
This brief was interpreted to include figures as diverse as the devout Lady Margaret Beaufort, and the entertaining Lady Emma Hamilton.
History's Beauties, the first detailed study of this collection, maps a culture of femininity that reframes the Victorian fascination with women's domestic and sentimental presence by locating it within a Parliament-centred 'national' culture.
Including an essay on the Gallery's Trustees, the book traces the translation of their governors' culture to a public institution through discussions of three themes in the National Portrait Gallery's collection of women's portraits: portraits of the Royal family and the cult of legitimacy in antiquities and in national identity; the educated woman as model of domestic and national cultivation; and finally the role of female beauty in defining social and artistic power in nineteenth-century Britain. The first monograph study of gender in a major museum, History's Beauties engages themes of gender, national identity, class cultures, and aesthetics in Victorian England to interpret the National Portrait Gallery's fascinating collection.