Have you ever wanted to read Virginia Woolf on George Eliot? Or T S Eliot on Coleridge? Well, now you can. The National Portrait Gallery's archives have been sheltering such literary gems, forgotten until now. The idea began simply: as 70-word biographical notes for the back of postcards, by the eminent writers of the day. More than half a century later, the 200 'notes' make up a treasure trove, a masterclass in the art of biography. Over the next 12 weeks we shall be running a series of the best, with their portraits.

In The Archive of the National Portrait Gallery lie two letters, both reacting to the same tantalising puzzle. One reads: "Will the enclosed do? A pretty little problem!" The second: "Here is the best I can do. It seems to me as characterless as one of my dogs [sic] towels - and rather resembles them. Forgive me, for never in my life have I tried so hard to pull off anything. But honestly I think it is an almost impossible job unless one has a particular sort of literary knack which I haven't got. Betty B thinks I am a little hysterical about it. I hope you will!" [sic again].

The first, Lytton Strachey at his most mandarin; the second, Dame Ethel Smythe, composer and suffragette. Both had been asked by the National Portrait Gallery's Chairman if they would contribute to a series he had devised: biographical notes of 70-80 words, of subject whose portraits were in the Gallery, to be printed on the back of postcards. From the late 1920s for the next 25-odd years almost all the eminent figures of the time were approached, and most of them made the attempt; the result is a rich store of more than 200 "postcard biographies", by nearly 100 contributors, and it is hard to think of a notable writer of the period who did not tackle the "pretty little problem". There are T S Eliot's thoughts on Coleridge and J M Barrie's surprisingly pragmatic view of Mary, Queen of Scots. Edmund Blunden tackles Leigh Hunt; H G Wells takes on Henry James. Ethyl Smythe's anguished letter was caused by her contribution on Emmeline Pankhurst. Churchill writes of his ancestor, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, Aldous Huxley pronounces on Chaucer, while Lytton Strachey, fresh from writing Elizabeth and Essex, still manages to get Elizabeth I's birth-date wrong. The list goes on and on.

Not only are there contributions from the great and the good; there are also wonderful notes by writers now forgotten by all but a handful of readers. The correspondence files on many of these vividly reveal the preoccupations of the day. Arthur Bryant, biographer of Pepys (and, according to his entry in Who's Who, the son-in-law of the last White Rajah of Sarawak) wrote a mini-biography of Charles II that was too much for the rather strait-laced guardians of the gallery: Charles II, he commented, "ruled for twenty-five years with considerable insouciance", and was "notable for maintaining his mistresses at great expense long after he had tired of them". "Insouciance" and the mistresses have been underlined by the Deputy Keeper of the Gallery; then there is another note in the handwriting of the Chairman of the Trustees: "I think this might be discussed at Bd meeting." They had their way: in the final version, Charles II simply rules, with no qualification, and the mistresses are nowhere to be seen.

Decency, in the eyes of the time, had always to be preserved, and Charles II's reputation was far from being the only one kept neat and tidy by the Deputy Keeper, who served as editor of the project. A comment that Nelson's "heart was tender as a woman's" was toned down (beefed up?) to the more manly "his men loved him"; and no longer was Milton known at Cambridge as "the lady of Christ's" because of his looks.

However, not all eccentricity was ironed out. One note observes that Ruskin's "first serious critic was his wife, who left him for John Everett Millais", and then adds the curious assertion that "his philosophy mellowed under the shocks of time until only its sweetness was left". Roger Ingpen's verdict on Shelley begins: "His early passion was for reforning the world, but he drifted into authorship...". Hilaire Belloc ends his biography of Archbishop Cranmer (which, like all the notes, had to be written to a strict maximum of 70 words) by using 13 of those precious words to conclude: "He was an admirable Horseman and perhaps the greatest master of English prose." Clearly, Belloc knew where the priorities lay.

Looking back from the end of the century to the dawn of modernism, it is not always easy to remember that that was also the age of women's suffrage. The Crimean War was in living memory, and your father could have fought at Waterloo. More than three-quarters of the contributors were born before Victoria died, and over a third had been too old to fight in World War I. In microcosm, paradoxically, the changes between now and then are somehow magnified. Chesterton writes on Browning, and in the whole 87 words produces one "fact". There is almost none of what we would today call "biography": no childhood, no education, marriage, family, friends or influences. Instead, many of the notes are made up of sweeping statements. Tennyson, asserts Walter de la Mare, was "a fine and various artist"; Chaucer, throws in Aldous Huxley, was "in all our literature ... the one true, pre-platonic pagan" (whatever that may mean). Ruskin's Praeterita is, without qualification, "his greatest work", Macaulay had "a too retentive memory", and George Eliot, says Virginia Woolf sternly, "early lost vitality and her novels suffered".

There is a great deal of Victorian self-confidence in this. Partly it is because these people were Victorians. Partly it is the job they were given; in 70 words, it was impossible to use up five on "it may be thought that", and another four on "it seems to me". But still, they are all so sure of everything. Virginia Woolf tells us what fiction is "for": "it tells a story and reflects manners" (so now you know). And they were so quick to pass judgement: according to Harold Nicolson, Byron's seven years in Italy were "feckless" (those were the years in which he wrote 17 works, at least two of which are masterpieces). Sometimes, of course, the judgements were positive: John Beresford (who discovered Woodforde's Diary of a Country Parson), had no trouble summing up John Howard, the 18th-century prison reformer: "Dissenter, Fellow of the Royal Society, and Saint".

But perhaps these lives in miniature were appropriate for England in the aftermath of the World War I; perhaps the certitude was really just whistling in the dark. Here was the ruling class at the end of the War to End All Wars suddenly miniature itself, its Empire disappearing, its values in doubt, looking back to a time when Major-General J F C Fuller could write of General Wolfe, in all seriousness: "His ever-lasting monument was the Dominion of Canada." Snobbery abounds, unremarked by authors and editor alike: Turner was "the son of a Covent Garden barker, who passed his life in sordid retirement, while acquiring great wealth"; Virginia Woolf notes that George Eliot was "sprung from country people but insatiably intellectual" (my italics). Carlyle, according to Chesterton, was a "Scottish peasant" who wrote in "an original, vivid but somewhat uncouth style"; but Locke, thank goodness, was "well-bred".

Then against this background of drawn-in lives, genuine eccentricity blazes out, equally unremarked. There are telegram addresses like HELLENIST (the Athenaeum). ELEGIACS (the publishing house Methuen), AEDIFICAVI (Lutyens) and SOCIALIST (Bernard Shaw, of course). One contributor's main claim to fame was to have written The Pirates Who's Who. Another was the proud author of The Vampire, His Kith and Kin. (His recreation was "talking to intelligent dogs".) Sir William Hardy, of the "Department Scientific and Industrial Research", solemnly assures us that "the disuse of wigs led Arkwright to give his time and money to perfecting spinning by rollers". Of course. It would do the same to anyone.

The postcard biographies, and the fascinating correspondence related to them, have lain undisturbed for decades. Then, last year, while I was working at the Gallery, one of the curators mentioned that she had found a tiny biographical note by Virginia Woolf in the archive, and that several other writers of the 1920s and 1930s had also written such notes.

The archive, which is separate from the NPG's main collection, consists of more than one million items: photographs, journals, manuscripts and assorted ephemera. Much of it is uncatalogued, but two box files marked "Postcard Biographies" were quickly located. At the top of the first box was a neatly typed note: "Found in Mrs Kay's office on her retirement". And there they were: not only the notes (some printed, some in proof, some in manuscript), but also correspondence, comments, telephone messages (which were still very rare), and draft after draft of different versions of some contributions - all carefully preserved.

Archiving is not a business for those who want instant gratification. The principle must always be to keep everything, as it might be interesting one day. It is not possible to make distinctions between what might or might not be interesting, nor when that day might be. And so, the Deputy Keeper, who had joined the Gallery in 1919, fresh from the army), became the Keeper, or director, of the Gallery. He retired; his secretary, the Mrs Kay of the file note, retired. And the best part of a century after the project was conceived, the notes are once more being read. It is perhaps a pleasant irony to think that the ephemeral notes and correspondence of the very people I have seen here as judgemental have survived simply because no one passed judgement on them.

Finally, as a small taster of the series we shall be running in these pages over the next 12 weeks, here is one postcard biography that never saw the light of day. George Bernard Shaw was invited to write a mini- biography of Henry Irving. He responded as follows:

Sir Henry Irving, famous English actor, 1838-1905

Born in Somerset as John Brobribb. After ten years in the provinces took a leading place on the London stage staying there for 37 years. Succeeding to a tradition of superhuman acting by actors of extraordinary physical and vocal endowments, neither of which he possessed, he created for himself an artistic personality with which he could create an illusion of sardonic wickedness as Macaire or Mephistopheles, or of unapproachable dignity or profound learning and intellectual appeal as Beckett, Hamlet or the Vicar of Wakefield. Unable to keep pace with the change of taste following the arrival of Ibsen's plays in England, he was forced at last to return to the provinces and died acting in Bradford. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, the first English actor to be raised to the rank of Knight bachelor.

The most delicate, cautiously worded letter went out from the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, asking if Shaw would consent to a cut version of the text, as 141 words was far more than could be accommodated. The reply came back:

"The abridgment [sic] will not matter if my signature is omitted. Nobody buys such a postcard for the sake of the letterpress. You will understand I do not want to sign something that any clerk could compile from the Enc[yclopedia] Br[itannica]; but you can do anything you like with my stuff if the result is anonymous.

G. Bernard Shaw"

The Chairman wrote to the Deputy Keeper: "He says he 'cannot put his signature to anything so different' - so there is no reason why he should - he puts it to enough irritating nonsense as it is."

There will be a display of material from the "postcard biography" archives, including some portraits, drawings and letters, at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC2, from 11 January. Admission free.

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