The Aesthete: Nicholas Cullinan talks personal taste

The director of the National Portrait Gallery joined in 2015 after curating at Tate Modern and the Met in New York

Nicholas Cullinan
Nicholas Cullinan | Image: Richard Grassie

My personal style signifier is a pair of tortoiseshell Persol spectacles. I always wear this classic design, which has changed little over the years; Steve McQueen wore the same back in the 1960s. At the National Portrait Gallery we currently have a witty display of portraits by Luc Tuymans of sitters wearing spectacles; it’s fascinating to see how much they can alter someone’s face.

The sites that inspire me are the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome and the Rüstem Pasha Mosque in Istanbul. Although I’m not religious I find it inspiring being in atmospheric, religious places and I’m impressed with people who can mix belief with tolerance.

Schostal knitted ties, from €27
Schostal knitted ties, from €27 | Image: Richard Grassie

The best souvenirs I’ve brought home are knitted ties from Schostal in Rome. I buy most of my ties there; they are simple and come in great colours. The shop itself is charming and old-fashioned – like something from a bygone era. From €27; Via della Fontanella di Borghese 29, 00186 Rome (+3906-679 1240;

The best book I’ve read in the past year is The Volcano Lover, Susan Sontag’s depiction of Lord Nelson’s love affair with Emma Hamilton. Sontag’s writing is so engaging and this absorbing account not only evokes Naples at the end of the 18th century, but offers searing insights into human nature. I can’t wait to see the current exhibition on Emma Hamilton at the National Maritime Museum.


A recent “find” is Fowlds Cafe in Camberwell. It’s under one of London’s longest-established upholstery workshops. I usually go on a Saturday for coffee and homemade cake or soup. It’s an unusual place and really gives you the feeling of being in a workshop; I’ve had some old chairs brilliantly reupholstered there. 3 Addington Square, London SE5 (020-3417 4500;

The last item of clothing I added to my wardrobe was a double-breasted, grey flannel suit from Gieves & Hawkes. Their suits fit me really well. 1 Savile Row, London W1 (020-7432 6403;

The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag
The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag

The best gift I’ve given recently was my mother’s 80th birthday party at Holdsworth House in Yorkshire – the county where I grew up. It’s a beautiful 17th-century Jacobean manor set in landscaped gardens that’s now run as a country house hotel. Stone windows, original fireplaces, antiques and tapestries give it a wonderful atmosphere. Holdsworth Road, Holdsworth, Halifax HX2 9TG (01422-240 024;

And the best one I’ve received was an old black and white photograph, from the artist Tacita Dean. She’s known for her 16mm work but published a book, Floh, of photographs she found at flea markets in Europe and the US. She gave me one taken by an anonymous photographer near the National Portrait Gallery, from the top of an old-fashioned double-decker bus; it’s extremely evocative and very special.

Guerlain Vétiver perfume, £42 for 50ml EDT
Guerlain Vétiver perfume, £42 for 50ml EDT

The one artist whose work I would collect if I could is Joseph Cornell, who was a master of assemblage. A few of his intriguing and precious boxes scattered around my flat would fit right in.

The last meal that truly impressed me was at Ganapati in Peckham, which in my view offers the best south Indian food in London, served by staff with a great attitude. A favourite is prawn curry with a paratha. 38 Holly Grove, London SE15 (020-7277 2928;

The interior dome of Rüstem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul
The interior dome of Rüstem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul | Image: © UIG via Getty Images

The grooming staple I’m never without is Guerlain’s Vétiver. It’s timeless, smells amazing and always makes me feel fresh. £42 for 50ml EDT;

My favourite websites and apps are for brushing up my Italian; for making sure no good song overheard gets away unplayed; and for the same reason.