Dylan Thomas is in good company at the National Portrait Gallery. He is a walk from the gallery entrance but up two flights of stairs he has T.S. Eliot, Laurie Lee and Stephen Spender as neighbours of greatness. Facing him, or at least in the form as painted by Augustus John, is an arresting self-portrait by Harold Gilman. Dylan has long been there for the public viewing. On August 16th The Guardian reported that the picture, in place for 20 years, had been on long-term loan. It has now passed from private ownership into the NPG’s collection. The price was £214,750 with the National Heritage Memorial Fund contributing £94,800, the Art Fund £70,000 and the Thompson Family Charitable Trust £49,950.
There is an impact for Wales. The article reports that the portrait is to be loaned to Swansea’s Glynn Vivian gallery in 2019. It will form a part of the gallery’s Coming Home project whereby 50 portraits from the national collection will be shown in locations that they are associated with. Dylan Thomas will be exhibited in proximity to a portrait of Caitlin Thomas.
In the historical background to the artwork the relationship between artist and poet had small harmony to it. They had met in the Fitzroy Tavern in Fitzrovia. “I was always glad to meet Dylan in the day-time,” wrote Augustus John, “but often gladder still to see the last of him at night.” The allure of Thomas’ company soon faded “when his magic had departed, leaving nothing but the interminable reverberations of the alcoholic.” John did not even care overly for the work. When it came to Under Milk Wood “the whole hotch-potch is a humourless travesty of popular life and is served up in a bowl of cold cawl in which large gobbets of false sentiment are embedded. Pouah!”
“Dylan was at at the core a typical Welsh puritan and nonconformist gone wrong” was his conclusion. “He was also a genius.” And he was also a good sitter for an artist. “Provided with a bottle of beer, he sat very patiently, which is more than I can say for several other distinguished people I could name.” John committed these thoughts to print in his memoir Finishing Touches.
The picture is small, just thirteen by eighteen inches in size. Its style is at odds with its frame. The application of the paint is free, so as to leave a small snail’s trail of pigment. It sticks out three millimetres from the surface of the canvas and is substantial enough to create its own shadow. John’s background includes zigzags of white. The poet wears a loose-collared pullover of wool. The artist has created the pattern of the pullover with a hundred spots and oblongs.
The director of the Art Fund, is cited to the effect that “Augustus John’s portraits capture likeness and character with great economy, and this warm portrayal of the poet Dylan Thomas shows the painter at his most assured.” The assurance of the painting is non-contestable but the accuracy of likeness is less sure. As it happens a writer gave a description of precision of Dylan Thomas at the time. Pamela Hansford Johnson wrote:
He revealed a large and remarkable head, heavy with hair the dull gold of threepenny bits springing in deep waves from a precise middle parting. His brow was very broad, not very high: his eyes the colour and opacity of caramels when he was solemn, the colour and transparency of sherry when he was lively, were very large and fine, and the lower rims heavily pigmented. His nose was a blob, his thick lips had a chapped appearance.
Hansford Johnson picked out one feature that to her eye distinguished the young Dylan: “His chin was small and the disparity between the breadth of the lower and upper parts of his face gave an impression at the same time comic and beautiful.” The most revealing psychological aspect of the portrait is the contrast between expression and features. The face in its softness might be mistaken for the depiction of a fourteen year old boy. But the gaze into the middle distance is that of maturity. Portraits always juggle formal ingenuity with fidelity to likeness. With its snail trails of pigment, its zigzags, its spots and its dashes this picture compels. Its visit to Swansea next year is to be warmly anticipated.
Photograph: Augustus John/National Portrait Gallery London