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Faces of the Century: A Personal Choice

The exhibition 'Faces of the Century', at the National Portrait Gallery, presents the 100 choices of ten leading figures from British politics, art, music, business and media that represent Britain in the 20th century.

One of the most popular ways of celebrating the end of the century and the millennium has been to publish what a group of people consider to be the top ten, five, three and – ultimately – one, greatest names of writers, philosophers, scientists, books, plays, inventions, pieces of music or whatever they have been asked to identify. Similar exercises of a kind that the media like were not unknown a hundred years ago, and it has now been extended by poll to any one who cares to respond. There have even been lobbies. The exercise has something in common with being asked what items to put inside a time capsule. It is, indeed, a time game, with fewer surprises than there are when Time magazine proclaims what used to be called its ‘Man of the Year’ and shows him – or now often her – on its front cover.

It is difficult for historians, who are interested in time, to avoid such games, and when I was invited by the National Portrait Gallery to select ten photographs for an exhibition, Faces of the Century, one reason why I gladly accepted was that I thought a professional historian should take advantage of the occasion. I was not expected to judge photographs – painted portraits were not part of the game – in terms of quality, in the way I would have been if I had been asked to select ten novels or ten pieces of music Nor did I have the whole world allotted to me as my province. I was expected to focus on Britain. The word ‘faces’, however, was not interpreted literally. ‘People in places’ would have been a more accurate title.

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