Cheltenham Festival: Telling pictures of writers

Charles Saumerez Smith believes the painter gives us an understanding of a writer than no photographer can
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My predecessor as director of the National Portrait Gallery, David Piper, like many of his generation, held an essentially negative view of portraiture after the late 19th century, as if it had been rendered redundant by the invention of photography. I do not share this pessimistic view of portraiture in the 20th century. Indeed, I think it is legitimate to be interested in the images of writers in the 20th century for precisely the same reason that one is interested in the imagery of writers of previous centuries.

One wants to know what writers looked like. One wants to know how they themselves chose to be remembered. One wants to know how artists responded to them. Every so often there is a conjunction between artist and sitter which is itself illuminating, not only of the nature of the artist's art, but also of the character and personality of the sitter.

Try this test. I want you to think of Lytton Strachey. Do you think at once of the qualities and characteristics of his writings, the short and acerbic essays on individuals which created such a sensation when they were published as Eminent Victorians in 1918? Or do you think, rather, of what you can remember of Michael Holroyd's great two-volume biography?

I suspect that, as like as not, you have an image of Lytton Strachey in your mind; and that this image is compounded of two sources. First, you will be aware, consciously or unconsciously, of the great portrait of Lytton Strachey by Henry Lamb. Here he is seen half-sitting, curled, on a large wicker chair, his legs stretched out sideways on the floor, in an image which is the epitome of intellectual languor, while two old ladies are seen walking up the path outside.

Or, alternatively, perhaps you will know or half-remember the portrait of him by Dora Carrington with his exaggeratedly long beard and even more exaggeratedly long fingers, holding up a book which he is not reading These both seem to me to be more eloquent, more evocative of his personality, as well as more memorable, than the photographs of him which are often just snapshots.

One of the things that we have been doing at the National Portrait Gallery with increasing determination since the early 1980s, is to ensure a degree of continuity in portraiture of the living as well as of the dead; and given the extent to which Britain remains a literary culture, the representation of living sitters inevitably includes a reasonable proportion of writers.

The first in this modern series of literary portraits is one of Iris Murdoch by the artist Tom Phillips, that was commissioned by the gallery in 1984. The next was the portrait of Harold Pinter by Justin Mortimer: even being married to Lady Antonia Fraser does not seem to have saved him from a horrendous form of metaphysical gloom, ageing and alienated, full of angst and agony, and surrounded by the detritus of books which are piled high beside him, discarded as if failing to solve the perplexities of his career.

Our most recent acquisition of a literary portrait is the picture of A S Byatt, the novelist, by Patrick Heron. It forcefully conveys the impression she made on the artist - vigorous, perhaps not quite in the best of moods, but indisputably a creative presence. It is a depiction not only of likeness - it is, in fact, instantaneously recognisable but also one of mood, of the life of the inside of her mind. The last word on this portrait should be those of Antonia Byatt herself, who wrote movingly of the experience of being painted by Patrick Heron for the June issue of Modern Painters: "When it was finished, I did not know what to think, for a moment. It had not been there, and now it was. We both stared. Patrick moved it to a different wall of the studio, and we went backwards and forwards, looking at it from a distance and close up. I had a curious experience of it settling into shape, becoming itself, as I looked at it.

"I began to read the fierce expanses of colours as masses, saw that the pink of the face of the figure was dark because it was contre-jour, with a yellow blaze of light behind it. The energy, the brashness, the uncompromising splashes of primary colour represented what I had wanted in an abstract portrait by a great colourist. But they represented something else as well: they were a painting of the writer, of how I feel when I start work, a vanishing, watching body in a sea of light and brilliance."

Throughout the 20th century, the writer has always been regarded as having a special status in society. And I think that portraits have, as in the past, helped to define that place. They are ways of thinking about and helping to communicate the nature of the writer, their personality, as well as the more literal aspects of what they looked like. I know from long experience that many people regard portraits as a reactionary art form, rendered redundant by the photograph. I do not share this view, just as I do not share the view which used to be equally commonplace that the novel had in some way been exhausted as a literary genre.

I am inclined to think, on the contrary, that as long as there are writers and as long as there are painters, they will wish to communicate their different approaches to their art. And painters, if they have a proper sense of the ways in which art can communicate, as well as commemorate, the human face and form into the future, then they will wish to leave some trace, some record, of the human appearance and presence of those writers, who, alongside artists, do so much to shape our common perception of the world.

This article is an extract from the Heywood Hill Lecture delivered by Charles Saumerez Smith, director of the National Portrait Gallery, earlier this week at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature