The golden sketchbook – writers’ portraits

Filed under: Fiction

What can portraits tell us about writers? The RSL and National Portrait Gallery joined forces to find out

Writers and portraitists are not always entirely respectful of each other. When Doris Lessing lost her cat, she asked the photographer Fay Godwin – who had recently captured the two together – whether she could have one of the pictures to hang on local railings. Margaret Drabble was photographed, to her great irritation, as ‘a woman shut out of her own house’ by Mayotte Magnus. Tom Phillips’s Iris Murdoch struck Bidisha ‘a cross between a light-bulb and a lump of dough’, until she saw the intelligence and humour in the eyes and recognised ‘a rare example of a writer caught at the moment of thinking something up’.

These were a few of the intriguing anecdotes and observations to emerge from a series of RSL/National Portrait Gallery talks given to coincide with the exhibition On Paper: Portraits of Writers. The speakers were invited to choose any pictures from the gallery’s collection – including ones of themselves – to be discussed in any way they wished. Their approaches could hardly have been more diverse.

David Harsent, speaking on Seamus Heaney, gave a close analysis of nine of his poems – ranging from The Skunk and Field Work to Sunlight and The Wife’s Tale – with a particular emphasis on his depiction of women. Bidisha offered an overview of Iris Murdoch’s life and work as ‘a novelist who was inspired by philosophy…from whom one always comes away enriched, thinking about thought’. The NPG’s photographs of Murdoch – including ones by Jane Bown and Mark Gerson – showed her ‘intelligence, humour, shrewdness, and a mixture of earthiness and transcendence’.

In a informal discussion with Philip Hensher, A.S. Byatt reflected on her experience of being painted by Patrick Heron and the feeling of vulnerability it engendered. Heron’s Portrait of A.S. Byatt: Red, Green and Blue: 24 September 1997 had been highly controversial when it was unveiled (Philip Hensher remembered being shocked by it), but the novelist herself was delighted with its emphasis on strength and intelligence rather than femininity. She and Hensher – who had chosen eighteenth-century painting and satire as the subject of his PhD – also considered the very English tradition of working from interior imagining rather than life.

Margaret Drabble looked closely at different portraitists’ views of Doris Lessing before exploring the more general question of how writing and visualisation connect. The Armenian photographer Ida Kar – used to taking portraits of actresses – made the beautiful, ambitious young Lessing perhaps too glamorous, though an image of the writer surrounded by hyacinths brilliantly captured her affinity with plants. Kar’s portrait of Olivia Manning – plus her cat – provided an interesting comparison: while the two novelists had much in common, giving famous literary parties and generously encouraging young writers, their cats pointed to a fundamental difference, Manning favouring sleek, pedigree animals while Lessing warmed to undistinguished moggies.

As for the pictorial quality of Lessing’s work, Drabble noted that though it is strong, ‘The city- and landscapes talk more strongly to us than the appearance of the characters.’ She herself needed to have a physical image as the basis for creating a character – but novelists should always be wary about portraying a real person in a book.

The lively questions from each audience were a measure of the talks’ success. One member of the public, taking issue with the portrayal of Doris Lessing’s hands in Leonard McComb’s 1999 painting, was unexpectedly answered by the artist himself. ‘I did take a liberty,’ he confessed, ‘in order to capture her spirit.’ What writer could blame him for that?

Related RSL Fellows

Dame Margaret Drabble 1973
Doris Lessing 2010
Philip Hensher 1998
A.S. Byatt (Dame Antonia Byatt) 1983
David Harsent 1999
Seamus Heaney 1991