Meet your ancestors, at the National Portrait Gallery?

Posted on April 1, 2011


The hurried footsteps of eager tourists echo through the cavernous rooms, their hushed voices following them from one room of imposing figures to another.

Rudolph Ackermann, as he exists in the National Portrait Gallery

I watched them squint at the small, rectangular descriptions accompanying every exhibit.

I am stood alone, in a room covered with regal-looking strangers, statically posing next to their achievements.

The dry, electronically controlled air bites the back of my throat, the moisture removed to preserve these historical masterpieces.

The elegant, calm expression of the man who’s portrait I am looking at takes all my attention, my mind leaves my body for a moment and begins to wander…

Not a usual circumstance in which to meet a relative for the very first time. But for 23 years I have listened to family tales passed down through the generations and spent time poring over the family tree my mother painstakingly compiled.

Last summer I found myself stood in the National Portrait Museum, just off Trafalgar Square in London looking up at the giant oil on canvas depiction of Rudolph Ackermann, the ancestor that moved my family from Saxony to Britain over 200 years ago.

From the information gathered through my mother’s research, including a dialogue with the mayor of a tiny town in Germany, thanks to some help from Google translator, and reading through a published family history, he sounds quite incredible.

Man of many talents

He was a forward thinking publisher, artist, inventor and entrepreneur who was a widely recognised designer of carriages – he designed the funeral carriage that bore Lord Admiral Nelson on his last trip.

His publishing company was highly successful, publishing over 300 books before his death. It surprised me to find out recently that his publishings of Ackermann’s Repository documented the changing fashions in dress and furniture of the Regency,

and has been widely used by the BBC and other broadcasters even now in their adaptations of works such as the Jane Austen books to design the clothes, so beautiful are the illustrations.

Jane Austen’s World has this to say of my great, great, great, great, great grandfather:

‘Jane Austen fans know Rudolph Ackerman’s name through the exquisite hand colored illustrations and fashion plates that populate Regency blogs, websites, illustrated histories, and publications.’


Apparently his company was in demand by the movers and shakers of the era, he seems to have popped up at many a fancy dinner party or ball, sitting next to distinguished individuals.

And so it was with an air of expectation that I turned the final corner in the Portrait Gallery to view his picture for the very first time, that a shiver ran through my spine.

Looking into his eyes, I strained to identify features exhibited by him that I could see in myself. To my surprise, his determined, off centre stare – you could assume that he is in the middle of deep thought – houses the same olive green iris’s that I have.

A moment to ponder on

It was a strangely surreal moment to be in a place trodden by thousands of people every day, where I, like countless other school children, probably passed by Rudolph without a second glance.

So, if you either know me or are a fan of Jane Austen, take the time when you are in the gallery to spare a moment for an Ackermann who I’m sure must be frustrated by his anonymity.

He hasn’t been invited to many parties recently.

Posted in: The Odd Box