ART LIFE

POSTCARD BIOGRAPHIES FROM THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY: Edmund Blunden on Leigh Hunt
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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 12-week series, we present some of the most exceptional and unexpected of these unknown literary gems

Leigh Hunt's father, an American loyalist, sacrificed his career to his convictions; the son resembled him. From the reformist battles of the Examiner (involving imprisonment and fines) his fortunes never recovered. Hunt's daring leaders are forgotten. His essays, personal, witty, idealistic, are not. His shorter poems are frequently delightful. He excels in appreciations; "discovered" Keats, Shelley and Tennyson, and gave Lamb's genius its first liberal opportunity for expression.

The crusading liberal journalist Leigh Hunt was imprisoned in 1813 for calling the Prince Regent a "fat Adonis"; he served two years in Horsemonger Lane Gaol, where he promptly adorned his cell with books, busts, prints, flowers and music, and entertained Byron. His friend Keats wrote scornfully to the gaolers: "Think you he nought but prison walls did see / Till, so unwilling, thou unturn'dst the key? / Ah no! ... In Spenser's halls he strayed, and bowers fair / Culling enchanted flowers; and he flew / With daring Milton through the fields of air ..." Dickens modelled Bleak House's feckless Harold Skimpole on Hunt.

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

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