Portraiture has always dominated in British art, despite its lower status in the hierarchy of genres. Joshua Reynolds’s late eighteenth-century Discourses extolled high-minded history painting, yet inevitably circumstances of patronage, and what people would actually pay artists to do, meant that the portrait prevailed, both in the domestic environment and in public exhibitions rooms such as the Royal Academy.

Some of the greatest masterpieces in British art are portraits and many British artists based their reputations on portraiture, with some of the most noted, such as Thomas Lawrence and John Everett Millais (in his later career), attaining a very high level of achievement. Nearly every British artist produced portraits at some stage in their working life, even if these were not central to their output, so there are interesting portraits by the Pre-Raphaelites, artists of the Aesthetic movement, Frederic Leighton, and so on.

Within the century, artists responded to Old Master exemplars as well as to their own British lineage of the 'Grand Manner' in portraiture. Some of the most innovative portraits moved away from formulaic types and became more reflective of an artist’s personal style or outlook. George Frederic Watts created a group of portraits of eminent individuals for his own collection which he eventually gave to the nation. Beyond such personal projects, there were still plenty of commissions from establishment organisations keen to record the status of people associated with them.