ART & LIFE

POSTCARD BIOGRAPHIES FROM THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY; 12. G B Shaw (1856-1950) on Henry Irving (1838-1905)
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The Independent Culture
From the late 1920s, the National Portrait Gallery invited leading writers to create 70-word biographies, of subjects whose portraits hang in the Gallery, for the backs of postcards. In this series, we present some of the most exceptional and unexpected of these unknown literary gems

Actor; born in Somerset as John Brodribb. After 10 years in the provinces took a leading place on the London stage 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 place 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 actor to be raised to the rank of knight bachelor. Bernard Shaw

This is a biography which never appeared. Shaw's contribution was far too long but he proved resistant to cuts: "You will understand that I do not want to sign something that any clerk could compile from the Enc Br," he wrote tersely to Sir Evan Charteris, chairman of the board of trustees. In an internal memorandum, Sir Evan commented: "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." And the job went to somebody else.

Portraits, drawings and letters from the "postcard biography" archives are on display at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC2. Free.

A new series of Art & Life will begin in a few weeks' time.

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