ART & LIFE

POSTCARD BIOGRAPHIES FROM THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
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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

6. Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969) on Thomas Babington Macauley (1800-1859)

Thomas Babington Macauley, appropriately born in 1800, died - as first Baron Macauley - in 1859. Boswell honoured his grandfather, a Scottish Divine, with a mention. Eminent as a scholar, barrister, writer and politician, Macauley's Lays of Ancient Rome have become household words. They emphasise his failings; a too retentive memory and no ear for music. His Essays, notwithstanding their magnificence, exhibit a cold, monumental, Manchester-school of classicism, somewhat analogous to the architecture of the Reform Club. Osbert Sitwell

Osbert Sitwell, writing in 1936, clearly had little affinity with his subject, the historian, essayist, poet and politician Thomas Babington Macauley. You might think that anyone capable of leaving a participle so glaringly unattached has no business criticising anyone else's writing style: if the Reform Club had been built like Sitwell's third sentence, it would have fallen down by now. Macauley was a child prodigy whose first words, legend has it, were: "What ails thee, Jock?"; and when once scalded with hot coffee, aged four, he reassured a sympathiser: "Thank you, madam, the agony is abated."

! 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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