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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 second series, we present some more of the most exceptional and unexpected of these unknown literary gems, together with the stories behind the commissions

15. Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) on George Frederick Handel (1685-1759)

Born at Halle and died in London a naturalized Englishman. Greatest of the international composers, he wrote with equal success in the styles of France, Germany, Italy and England. His career, like his personality, was stormy and brilliant. The downfall of Italian opera led him to English oratorio and his masterpiece, "Messiah". He loved pictures and children, endowing liberally the Foundling Hospital. Afflicted with paralysis and blindness, he died wealthy and the idol of the nation. Buried in Westminster Abbey.

Conductor Thomas Beecham's biography of Handel is eminently concise; only two words - "Born at Halle in Saxony" - had to be excised. Another postcard biographer, the composer Dame Ethel Smyth (who had written on Emmeline Pankhurst, memorably describing the result as "as characterless as one of my dogs towels"), used Beecham's effort in one of her own publications. "The Trustees will be delighted for you to quote his 80-word appreciation of Handel in your forthcoming book," the NPG director wrote to her in 1935.

A small selection of portraits and letters from the postcard biography archives is on display at the NPG, St Martin's Place, London WC2. Exhibition ends today. Free.