Thursday, 12 February 2015

W. Somerset Maugham: A Portrait Gallery

I have the idea that few people in a private station can have been drawn, painted or sculptured more often than I have. Artists have found me a patient sitter. They like to talk while they work and I am a good listener.

So wrote W. Somerset Maugham in Purely for My Pleasure (1962), a delightful album of his collection of paintings with short commentaries by him and the last book to be published in his lifetime. He did not exaggerate. Maugham was indeed painted, drawn and sculpted a lot. He was prodigiously photographed. His unmistakable features appear on countless paintings, drawings, lithographs, sketches, busts, photographs, even one cigarette card and one medallion, in oil and in watercolour, in pencil or in bronze, on canvass or on paper.


Maugham owned at least two of his portraits. It so happens that these two are among the finest yet most obscure ever painted. The charming watercolour by Marie Laurencin is from 1936. Maugham left an unforgettable account in his last book:

Some years later I received a letter from her in which she said that she would like to paint a portrait of me. In reply I told her that I was greatly flattered by the suggestion, but felt it only right to remind her that I was not a young thing with a complexion of milk and roses and the lustrous eyes of a gazelle, with a sensual, scarlet mouth, but an elderly gentleman with a sallow, wrinkled skin and tired eyes. She wrote back to say that nothing of that mattered, but would be grateful if I would come in a dressing-gown as she did not know how paint a jacket. On this we fixed a day and, with a dressing-gown over my arm, I presented myself at her studio. She set to work. While she painted she told me the story of her life. She was very frank and I enjoyed myself. The great love of her life had been for an eminent politician who was so busy that he only could come to see her at eight o’clock in the morning on his way to office. ‘Wasn’t that an inauspicious hour to make love?’ I asked her. ‘Not for Philippe,’ she answered proudly. Marie Laurencin was a hard worker. For six days in the week she painted pictures and on the seventh, as a rest, spend the day with old friends, a man, his wife and their children, who lived on the fifth floor of a house in Montparnasse. On arrival she took off her dress and put on an apron, then, seizing a broom, swept the floor and washed the children. For the mid-day meal she cooked the food which she had brought with her, for her friends were very poor, and passed the afternoon washing up, mending clothes and gossiping till it was time to put the children to bed. Then she took off her apron, put on her dress and went home delighted with her day, tired-out and happy.

After I had sat for four afternoons Marie Laurencin put down her brushes and looked at the canvas. ‘Vous savez,’ she said, ‘people complain that my portraits are not a good likeness. Il faut que je vous dise que je m’en fou éperdument.’ Freely translated this would mean, ‘I must tell you that I don’t care a damn.’ She took the canvas off the easel and handed it to me. ‘It’s a present.’[1]

The portrait by Edouard MacAvoy, completed in 1947, is by far my favourite. The half-lit face is a telling symbol of that bizarre mixture of light and dark sides that makes human nature. Maugham was a lifelong student of this duality and its many contradictions, and he no doubt discovered quite a few of them in himself. The torso and the hands convey extraordinary power, not physical power of course, but power of character, another major ingredient of Maugham’s make-up. In Purely for My Pleasure, he describes the genesis of the portrait thus:

When Edouard MacAvoy, with an introduction from a common friend, came to see me and said he would like to paint me, I asked him how he, a Frenchman, happened to have a Scottish name. He told me than an ancestor of his, a Scot, had come over to France in the suite of James II when that obstinate monarch, to the relief of his subjects, had fled his country. That seemed to me a sufficient recommendation and I told MacAvoy that I would gladly sit to him. He made a number of drawings and then told me that he had all the material he wanted and would paint the portrait in his studio in Paris. The Second World War broke out and I heard no more from him till it was over. Then I received a letter from him in which he said that he was dissatisfied with his painting of my hands and would like to make further drawings of them. I asked him to come and stay with me for two or three days and he made his drawings. I did not see the portrait till it was exhibited in the Salon. I must admit that I was startled, but I liked it and acquired it. Braque, I am told, saw it and thought highly of it. 'I only have one criticism to make,' he said, 'the left side of the face is slightly realistic.'[2]

It is only fair that the best portrait of Maugham should grace the finest critical study of his works, The Pattern of Maugham (1974) by Anthony Curtis. It is used both on the dust jacket and as a frontispiece, both times considerably darker than in Purely for My Pleasure, but that actually seems to suit the picture.

Maugham’s most famous portraits are the ones I like the least.

The Jester by Gerald Kelly was painted in 1911 when Maugham was the most popular dramatist in England. It shows a wan, pale creature that somehow doesn’t fit my idea of playwright in demand. The natty dress is characteristic of Maugham, but the opulent background is not; the tired eyes, even less so. The portrait looks nice on a dust jacket, for instance of the 1977 illustrated biography by Anthony Curtis, but it is nowhere near as stirring as photographs from the same time (see below).

Kelly knew Maugham for some 60 years, from 1904 when both of them were living la vie de bohème in Paris as obscure artists struggling for recognition until the writer’s death in 1965, and he reportedly painted him 18 times.[3] Very few of these portraits can be found online or in books. The biography by Anthony Curtis gives some idea about the scope of Kelly’s work. Note his remark that 15 of the Kelly portraits are in the Humanities Research Centre of the University of Texas, Austin.

One of the earliest (1907):

One of Kelly’s portraits is used as a frontispiece in A Traveller in Romance, a thoughtful study of a relatively young Maugham (1913, “of all the portraits he has painted of me, this is that which I like best"[4]), another is used on the cover of the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition of A Writer’s Notebook, a much later work but infused with the same deep seriousness. Unfortunately for posterity, a horrible copy of the latter was used on the cover of the 1951 Mentor edition of The Summing Up.

I cannot help feeling that Gerald Kelly came much closer to the essence of Maugham than Graham Sutherland. The 1949 canvas by the latter does have a pleasant exotic flavour and the gently malicious twinkle in Maugham’s eyes is captured to perfection. Heaven knows Maugham was not devoid of maliciousness; it was part and parcel of his biting sense of humour. He once sighed in print: “And, heaven knows, it is hard to be funny without being sometimes a little malicious. There is not much kick in the milk of human kindness.”[5] But this is just one side of him, and I don’t think it’s the most important one. Sutherland seems to have revelled in the deformity of his sitters. The scandal with his portrait of Churchill, shown as a decrepit old man ungainly sitting in a chair, is well-known. The famous politician couldn’t stand it. By comparison, Maugham’s portrait is mild and inoffensive, if superficial.

Maugham’s own reaction, expressed several times in public, was rather ambiguous. “The first time I saw it I was shocked”, he is quoted saying in an interview for the Daily Express on 16 November 1951, “and then I began to realise that here was far more of me than I ever saw myself.”[6] This carries Maugham’s traditional modesty a little too far. In his 1959 essay “On Having my Portrait Painted”[7], his admiration was more qualified, or, rather, more impersonal:

He had never painted a portrait before and so this was in the nature of an amusing experiment. His method, again somewhat to my surprise, was the same as Edouard MacAvoy’s; he made careful drawings of my head and my hands, which he preferred not to show me, and I saw nothing of the portrait till it was entirely finished. The experiment succeeded, and I think it is no exaggeration when I say that this portrait made Graham Sutherland’s fortune. Since then he has painted several excellent portraits, but I do not know that he has ever painted a better one than mine.

Considering this passage, Selina’s rhetorical claim that Maugham “came to be haunted by it, haunted by its merciless vision and by the terrifying vista it revealed of an inexorably approaching and miserable old age” is hard to accept. Her only argument is that Maugham purchased the portrait but soon removed it from his villa and wrote to Kenneth Clark (16 April 1951): “Although I wouldn’t like Graham to know it for worlds, I found it a terribly difficult picture to hang. It is a museum picture rather than a picture for a private house.”[8] Not terribly convincing. Maugham may have had quite a few reasons to dislike the portrait. I’m pretty sure he was not haunted by it, certainly not because of the encroaching old age. Maugham often said that he looked towards old age and death with no great apprehension[9], and if his detractors want to point out that he still took regularly the Niehans injections, I would say that accepting the inevitable and hastening it are very different things. It was surely no Maugham’s fault that his body outlived his mind by a few years.

I wonder what Maugham thought of Sutherland’s head sketches made in 1953. These are ugly. Old age is exaggerated to the point of “death mask”. To be sure, in 1953 Maugham was no chicken. He was approaching 80 and it showed. Nevertheless, Sutherland’s work seems to me, again, limited in scope, aesthetically unpleasant and, most important of all, untrue to life. Perhaps it is fitting that one of these distorted images was used on the dust jacket of The Critical Heritage volume dedicated to Maugham (Routledge, 1987). I suppose this is what most of the critics saw.

The Sutherland portrait has been used countless times, for example on the front cover of at least two biographies and two Penguin editions of The Summing Up. A sketch of the head appears on the back cover of the Penguin editions from the 1960s.

Both The Jester and especially Sutherland’s portrait have been praised greatly. The interesting thing is that there is little agreement between the different accounts. The late Antony Curtis, the greatest Maugham scholar of our time, saw in Sutherland’s work Maugham’s characteristic “quality of aloofness […] instinctively analysed and brought out so brilliantly”.[10] I can’t say I can see this. Kelly famously quipped that Willie looks like the madam of a brothel in Shanghai, Max Beerbohm was convinced that Sutherland had done what he had failed to do: make a caricature of Maugham.[11] Bryan Connon, author of the greatest character assassination of Maugham in book form ever published, finds The Jester ''illuminating'' because of Maugham's ''campy relaxed pose with a predatory gleam of his eyes''. Sutherland’s work, the hack continues, has ''caught the predatory expression of an old queen.''[12] Such are Mr Connon's ''insights'' from a homosexual perspective.


This section amply testifies why photography has made painting obsolete, at least as far as portraits are concerned. It is not just a question of likeness. It is a question of vividness that portraiture cannot aspire to. As far as Maugham is concerned, another advantage of photography is that we can see him in a great variety of activities: shopping clothes, swimming in his pool, playing with his grandchildren, having breakfast in bed, dining with friends, writing in his study, giving talks, making recordings, and so on and so forth. But here I want to concentrate on his more or less formal photo portraits.

Maugham was extremely photogenic. He seldom cut a poor figure on photo. For the greater part of his life he was a handsome fellow, with carefully combed hair and even more carefully trimmed moustache, impeccably dressed and with the proverbial fag (or an occasional pipe) in hand or mouth. Even when old age devastated his features, his eyes remained mesmerising. There are at least two fine pictorial biographies[13], but I do wish somebody would do for Maugham what Ernst Burger has done for Liszt, namely collecting his portraits in a massive quarto volume of impeccable quality. Until this happens, the following brief survey will have to do.

Unfortunately but expectedly, most of Maugham’s photos come from his middle and old age. We do have an occasional glimpse of him as a student and even as a boy, but these are exceptions. In later years he attracted the attention of pretty much every celebrity photographer of his time: Carl van Vechten, Cecil Beaton, Yousuf Karsh, Dorothy Wilding, Howard Coster, Madame Yevonde, John Gay, Alfred Eisenstaedt and quite a few others. Some of these photographic portraits are revelations. Let’s have a look at them, more or less chronologically organised and occasionally interrupted by book covers on which they were re-used.

The only photo of Maugham as a student shows a serious and determined young man. He already seems preoccupied with life patterns. It is fascinating to keep this image in mind while reading Maugham’s copious notes from the 1890s.

A little later:

A little earlier (aged 17 or so)

Still earlier:

King's School, fifth form, 1889. Spot Willie:

With all due respect, the painters of today should stick to landscapes. Compare The Jester above with these photographs from about the same time. The difference is startling, to say the least:

E. O. Hope (c.1911)

 Others (c.1908-12)

The 1920s and the 1930s were Maugham’s prime. The pattern of travel and writing was perfected, and so was Maugham’s urbane, debonair and worldly persona. Novels, stories, plays, travel books and essays flowed from the pen, and so did the photo portraits. It is difficult, nay impossible, to choose favourites. I am very fond of Carl von Vechten’s 1934 portraits (the one in profile was reportedly Maugham’s favourite photo of himself), but Madam Yevonde is no slouch either. Many of the portraits, unfortunately, can no longer be sourced properly; they are roughly attributed to different studios.

Carl van Vechten (1934)

Madame Yevonde (1932)

The Bassano sessions from 1929 and 1939 are worth noting. The hat shot from 1929 makes it clear that had Maugham been born 30-40 years later, Marlon Brando wouldn’t have had a chance for the title role in The Godfather, Part I. It was used to a great effect on the cover of the first of Methuen’s two volumes with plays introduced by Anthony Curtis (see Howard Coster below).

Bassano (1929)

Bassano (1939)


With his wife, mid-1920s:

c. 1933, Cecil Beaton?

Howard Coster (1930)

Eric Schaal (1939)

Curiosities (1920s, 1930s)

With Gerald and friends in Salzburg, 1930s:

The turbulent 1940s, mostly spent in the States, also produced a host of fine portraits. Alfred Eisenstaedt smokes the competition with some of the most penetrating photo studies of Maugham’s face ever. Serge Balkin (1942), Daniel Farson (1947), Sapho (1947) and John Gay (1949) also made fine contributions. From this period come Maugham’s best colour photos in which his Mediterranean/South Carolinian tan is shown to its best advantage.

Alfred Eisenstaedt (c.1942-44)

George Platt Lynes (1941)

This looks genuine, but it must be fake. :-)

Frontispiece from Strictly Personal, Heinemann, 1942:

Serge Balkin (1942)

Daniel Farson (1947)

Sapho (1947)

John Gay (1949)

Cecil Beaton (1949)

Curiosities (1940s)

With Gerald Haxton, early 1940s
(probably Carl van Vechten)

The late photographs from 1950s give completely the lie to Ivor Brown’s presumptuous claim that they are “pictures of misery”.[14] You wish, Ivor! Quite to the contrary! Many of Willie’s best photo portraits come from these autumnal years. Just note the series by Yousuf Karsh (1950), Mark Gerson (1955), David Wharry (1956), Dorothy Wilding (1958) and Ida Kar (1958). Magnificent, all of them! Only from the late 1950s onwards does, occasionally, Maugham look unusually tired, or simply bored; not unnatural for a man in his late eighties who led such an amazingly rich life. That said, Horst Tappe’s 1962 shots are stupendous; too bad one of them was used on the cover of the worst book on Maugham ever published.

Yousuf Karsh (1950)

Tom Blau (1950)

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1951)

Leonard McCombe (1951)

Mark Gerson (1955)

David Wharry (1956)

Dorothy Wielding (1958)

Ida Kar (1958)

Herbert K. Nolan (1958)

Horst Tappe (1962)

 Curiosities (1950s, 1960s)

This photo evidently was Ivor Brown's favourite "picture of misery";
it is reprinted twice in his beautifully illustrated but indifferently written booklet:


Drawings, sketches and caricatures of Maugham are countless. I have selected here only a few of the more interesting, if not necessarily illuminating or aesthetically pleasing. The caricatures are particularly disappointing, either crude or ugly. The only one I really like is Ronald Searle’s whimsical take, first published in Punch. I am mystified by its reprint on the dust jacket of Mr Whitehead’s study (for his style is drier than the Atacama Desert), even more so on the cover of the old Penguin edition of The Painted Veil (not Maugham’s most tongue-in-cheek novel).

Ronald Searle (1954)

David Low (c.1933)

Anonymous (1967)

Stuart Patterson (1995)

The 1946 portrait by Bernard Perlin in silverpoint is remarkable. Maugham reportedly said of it: “It is the only portrait ever made of me which shows how handsome I was in my youth.”[15] He was, of course, joking, and in fine style at that. There is no other portrait of Maugham by Perlin, and the latter being born in 1918, he could not have painted Maugham in his youth anyway. I think the portrait captures Maugham’s loneliness better than any other. It was used as a frontispiece in the Eightieth Birthday Edition of The Summing Up, Doubleday, 1954, limited to 391 signed copies (Stott A53c[16]).

In more recent times, James Cahill (2012) and Tara Isha (2013) have produced moving works. The former is supposed to be based on a Karsh photo, but I have not been able to trace it.

My absolute favourite in this category is the lithograph by Andrew Rhodes that graces the dust jacket of the Rothschild Catalogue.

Now and then there are curious connections. It comes as something of a surprise that the portrait on the Everyman's Library edition of Collected Stories (2004) was taken from a cigarette card c.1939 (artist unknown). Who knew?

H. Andrew Freeth


So far as I have been able to discover, there are two relatively well-known busts of Maugham. One is the 1949 work of Szigmond Strobl, the other was made by Jacob Epstein in 1951. In both cases Maugham’s sitting sessions were documented on photos. Strobl’s bust is a naturalistic but powerful work. Epstein’s is almost surreal and depends a lot on the photographer. The reproduction that appears as a frontispiece in the Rothschild Catalogue makes the bust look jolly awful. I am ready to believe the photo does no justice to the sculpture.

Szigmond Strobl (1949)

Jacob Epstein (1951)

Frontispiece from the Rothschild Catalogue:

 (Photos by Ida Kar) 

[1] The account is taken almost word for word from “On Having my Portrait Painted”, (see note 4). Significantly, however, the account in the book is longer and more explicit.
[2] For the most part, this was also taken from the Horizon article. The version in book form is again longer, but the article contains a nice original touch in the end: “I own the picture and I find it a very easy one to live with.”
[3] Selina Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, John Murray, 2010, p. 508, footnote. According to Maugham himself (“On Having my Portrait Painted”, see note 4) Kelly painted him 11 times.
[4] “On Having my Portrait Painted”, Horizon, January 1959, reprinted in A Traveller in Romance, Clarkson and Potter, 1984, ed. John Whitehead, pp. 64-66.
[5] W. Somerset Maugham, Ten Novels and Their Authors, Heinemann, 1954, p. 49.
[6] Hastings, ibid., p. 508.
[7] “On Having my Portrait Painted”, see note 4.
[8] Hastings, ibid., pp. 508-509.
[9] Most notably in the postscript (“1944”) of A Writer’s Notebook (1949) and the Preface to The Partial View (1954).
[10] Anthony Curtis, The Pattern of Maugham, Hamish Hamilton, 1974, chapter 10, p. 210.
[11] Hastings, ibid., pp. 508-509. No direct quotations and no source are given for the words of either Kelly or Beerbohm.
[12] Bryan Connon, Somerset Maugham & the Maugham Dynasty, Sinclair-Stevenson, Hardback, 1997.
[13] Somerset Maugham and His World (1976) by Frederic Raphael; Somerset Maugham (1977) by Anthony Curtis. The illustrations are equally fine in both; the text in the former book is considerably inferior than the one in the latter.
[14] Ivor Brown, W. Somerset Maugham, International Profiles, 1970, p. 61.
[15] Hastings, ibid., p. 508, footnote. Selina quotes from Continual Lessons, ed. Robert Phelps, p. 164. Heaven knows how accurate Maugham’s words are.
[16] Raymond Toole Stott, A Bibliography of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham, Revised and Extended edition, Kaye and Ward, 1973, p. 124. Stott notes the frontispiece in his collation, although he doesn't mention Perlin. Some booksellers online do.

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