BOOKS: PICK OF THE WEEK

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The Independent Culture
Literary portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC2 (0171-306 0055). Free guided tour of literary portraits today and Friday 28 August, starting from first floor landing outside the Lecture Room at 2.30pm

Novelist AS Byatt is hanging out in some unlikely company nowadays. Bobby Charlton settles down in an armchair opposite her, in crumpled tracksuit and scuzzy trainers. Iris Murdoch darts a sympathetic glance from down the corridor. Byatt purses a crooked lip, firms her jaw purposefully and raises a quizzical eyebrow.

A splash of yellow behind her head, surrounded by banks of scarlet and aquamarine, this is a near-abstract Byatt, as seen, contrejour, by painter Patrick Heron, in the airy portrait recently commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery. "It is a painting of the writer, of how I feel when I start work, a vanishing, watching body in a sea of light and brilliance," says Byatt, fresh from a sitting at the colourist's St Ives studio. She is equally impressed by an enigmatic charcoal sketch, the face dissolving into blankness: "He had somehow drawn the body as it feels from inside, looking out," she insists.

This new commission is Heron's second literary portrait in the gallery. Upstairs is his semi-cubist T S Eliot, completed nearly half a century earlier, in 1949: a crabbed figure, densely painted in brackish Braque-ish greys and greeny-browns, with hooded eyes and a disturbingly luscious curling Cupid's bow.

William Shakespeare was the founding face of the National Portrait Gallery's collection, and free guided tours of the writerly portraits this week prove the extent to which literary big-shots have continued to dominate the NPG's walls. All those famous historic canvases are still here, of course, from Branwell Bronte's trio of sisters, discovered folded up on top of a wardrobe, to the sullen young Dylan Thomas, painted by Augustus John after a chance meeting in the bar of the Fitzroy Tavern. The number of contemporary writers may surprise, however.

Check out Justin Mortimer's Harold Pinter, his perturbed head bobbing above a swamping sea of scripts; Paula Rego's wide-knee-ed Germaine Greer; Michael Taylor's rippling P D James. On temporary display, meet a stocking-footed Jeffrey Archer lording it over the London panorama from his feng-shui'd riverside penthouse; an edgy Hanif Kureishi in deckchair; or a wistful Alan Bennett with mug of tea, brown paper bag and three-pin plug.

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