Let it be (oil free)

The National Portrait Gallery goes into shutdown over climate activists chanting to the tune of The Beatles inside the Paul McCartney exhibition.

We love this art and believe that the values of these songs should be about preserving the planet. 

Birds were chirping, Trafalgar Square was abuzz, and visitors were queuing at the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery.

The morning of Sunday 27 August 2023 started as a regular Bank Holiday Monday in London. But a group of around forty Fossil Free London campaigners were heading for Paul McCartney: Eyes of the Storm 1963-64 to protest. 


The National Portrait Gallery is no stranger to protests and civil disobedience. Famously, the suffragettes paid a visit in 1914 when Anne ‘The Hatchet Fiend’ Hunt slashed a portrait of its founder painted by John Everett Millais. The gallery has since endorsed her legacy and exhibited the painting again in 2018. 


More recently, Extinction Rebellion doused four barely-clothed protesters, curled up on the gallery floor, with gallons of fake oil to protest the NPG’s long partnership with oil giant BP. Following prolonged pressure from artists and activists, they finally ended the partnership in February 2022.

Sadly this promising gesture proved empty. While the gallery might approve of positive social change on paper, its progressive values only hold when they align with financial interests. 

As soon as the opportunity arises, they are more than happy to gamble the fate of the planet and covertly line their pockets with climate-wrecking oily money. Now, a new villain prowls the gallery: big finance.

The National Portrait Gallery has stood closed for three years but now, with its reopening, it has taken Bank of America as its Principal Partner. 

The exchange is simple: Bank of America transfers cash to the National Portrait Gallery and in return, they can use their positive association with the arts as a cheap way to greenwash their brand and deflect attention from their financing of devastating fossil fuels. 


Their first exhibition? Paul McCartney and The Beatles.

Beloved figures like The Beatles symbolise the best of our culture: peace, love and the power of ordinary people to create change. 

Imagine our surprise to find that Paul McCartney’s blockbuster exhibition of never-before-seen photography from the early Beatles tours was sponsored by oily money. 

We love this art and believe that the values of these songs should be about preserving the planet. 

We cannot love the arts on an uninhabitable Earth. So we could not remain silent.

Since the Paris Agreement, the Bank of America has invested $280 billion in fossil fuel expansion. 

That makes it the world’s fourth largest fossil fuel funder and an active supporter of ecocide - even as climate breakdown destabilises the world with droughts, wildfires and rising sea levels. 


BofA also gives money to Equinor, an oil company currently pushing to develop the Rosebank oil and gas field in the North Sea. If approved, Rosebank will release an amount of emissions equal to those produced by all 28 low-income countries in the world, combined.

As we entered, the gallery was packed with hushed visitors, drifting between the photos and whispering in reverence.

With the band’s portraits and an increasingly agitated security team looking on, we lined up, donned Beatles wigs, unveiled our banner, took a deep breath, and broke the stillness.

We began singing reimagined versions of famous hits. The familiar melody of Let It Be caught the attention of the visitors as it rose through the corridors: Wake up to the climate crisis; National Portrait Gallery, Drop your oily sponsors, let’s go, Fossil Free!

Members of the public looked up in surprise. Many smiled at the wigs we’d sneaked in and at our Beatles-inspired costumes and lyrics. Phones emerged to record the peaceful performance.


But as soon as the security realised what was happening, they attempted to contain or “kettle” us behind a foldable screen. Trapped within the small space, we strained our voices to reach the people who could now no longer see us.

We were shocked by how swiftly the gallery attempted to shut us down. As if we were voicing a dirty secret. Were they so ashamed of their new sponsor? We raised our banner over the barrier to let everyone see their hypocrisy: “Bank of America funds climate crisis'.

“We love this art and believe that the values of these songs should be about preserving the planet. Shame on the National Portrait Gallery for taking the oily money of the Bank of America!”, one of us piped up to the on-lookers.

Our audience looked visibly moved. Some sang along. The repeated refrain of ‘Planet B, PLanet B, There is no, Planet B’ to the tune of Let it Be proved to be a crowd-pleaser. Security gave up on their make-shift kettle.


Faced with the ferocious threat of rousing singing, the gallery decided to evacuate the entire ground floor, shoo-ing out the curious public. 

Under the unblinking gaze of a dozen Paul McCartneys we sang on as the gallery called the police. When they finally arrived, no arrests were made, and we marched out of the National Portrait Gallery singing in unison - there’s no planet B.. 

Hosting petroleum giants such as Shell alongside fossil financiers, such as Barclays, London continues to be the engine of climate collapse, pumping dirty oily money into the world.

The city is awash with crude investments. Yet its public institutions happily continue to associate with the industry. The Science Museum is sponsored by BP, Equinor and Adani, and the Natural History Museum was, until recently, sponsored by BP.


Sponsoring the National Portrait Gallery is a cynical way for Bank of America to distract from its abysmal record on fossil fuel financing. 

If the National Portrait Gallery believes accepting money from the Bank of America rather than BP will make them less complicit in the destruction of life on this planet, they are wrong. It is banks like BofA - which pour money into fossil fuel exploration instead of the transition to renewable energy - that make the destruction possible.

If companies like BoA continue to finance the oil and gas industries, we won’t have another hundred years to wait for the National Portrait Gallery to change its tune and celebrate the activists it currently ignores. 

Fossil Free London is calling on the National Portrait Gallery to cut its ties with fossil fuel finance. We are calling on all our public institutions to do the same. We must stop granting climate criminals a social licence to continue exploiting communities and ecosystems.

This Author

Joanna Warrington is an activist with Fossil Free London. Fossil Free London is a grassroots climate action group protesting big oil and its funders in the UK capital. The campaigners will be continuing their stand against fossil financiers at the Oily Money Out mobilisation from 14 to 20 October 2023 during the Oil and Money Conference, recently rebranded the ‘Energy Intelligence Forum’.