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The Face Behind the Lines

The Image of the Poet: British Poets and their Portraits

by David Piper
Oxford University Press, 219 pp., $25.00

Once everyone knew what a real poet ought to look like. Half a century ago the beautiful, doomed profile of Rupert Brooke seemed to define all that was heartbreaking in a generation of lyricism extinguished by what Sir David Piper calls “a fate that knew what it was up to.” When Henry James heard of the death of Brooke at twenty-eight, he murmured, “Of course, of course.” Ironically for the question of the relation between looks and books, a far better poet of the period, Wilfred Owen, survives in depressingly conventional photographs of a young soldier who looks incapable of reading his own poetry, let alone composing it.

Piper’s book takes as its theme “unashamedly [sic] the likenesses of poets, what poets have looked like, what poets have thought they ought to look like, and the not infrequent discrepancy between the two. And what the poets’ public or even the public at large have thought poets ought to look like.” It is about images and icons, only peripherally about painting itself, and it is more interested in poets than in poetry. To purists who feel that poet’s lives and personalities have little to do with what they write, it may be meaningless. To less austere readers with wider curiosities it is absorbing, for many of us who care about poetry share Piper’s wish to know what its makers look like, not to mention the relation between the poets and their times.

As director successively of the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge, and now the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, David Piper has written many books of formal art history, but early in his career he wrote novels, and since then he has produced such engaging and personal, even idiosyncratic, works as his study of his favorite buildings in London and a long treatise on the British face. All this contributes directly to the ease with which he writes of the background of the poets and their portraits. What might have been either merely a coffee-table book or a desiccated study of a sideline of art history becomes in his hands a fascinating exploration of popular belief in the connection between two major arts. The book is lighthearted in the best sense, for he has the rare ability of writing with humor and common sense about matters of which he is an acknowledged master, and he never confuses profundity with lugubriousness.

Literary portraiture and biography spring from similar frustrating impulses. Portraits aim at preserving the transient appearance of people whose works are unchanging, biography tries to reach backward from posterity to recover an understanding of an artist who is ultimately irretrievable. But both assume a deep connection between personality and the creation of art, and for that reason are often mutually informing. At their most irresponsible, biographers may derive wholly imaginary traits of character from an accidental curve of a lip, a passing expression, or the cut of an eyelid, but that need not be so, since a portrait may properly be used as the visual index of a pattern of thought or personality. One of the most disconcerting aspects of a recent biography of Robert Browning was the absence of illustrations, which doubled the difficulty for both author and reader in trying to understand the poet’s psyche.

Portraits of poets have been around a long time according to David Piper, at least since 340 BC, when bronze statues of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were commissioned for the Athenian theater in which the 110th Olympiad was held. But portraits of famous men, poetic or otherwise, pose a problem that has often resulted in a disdain for the art. They must be rooted in imitation of the particular even when an exact likeness is impossible; the faces of the Greek tragedians, who had long been dead when their statues were ordered, had to be definitive portraits, although no one knew what the playwrights looked like. At the same time, they had to be generic in suggesting immediately the calling and status of their subjects. Something has to give when such mutually antipathetic traits are required in the same work; nature is often even more careless than art in combining them. No matter whether it is the individual or the generic that is slighted, there is certain to be some dissatisfaction with the result. Portraits have paid well for nearly three centuries, but some of the best artists have avoided them because of the near impossibility of pleasing both their clients and themselves.

There are 225 plates in Piper’s book, of which many portraits or likenesses are inevitably far from masterpieces. Probably poets are no more cooperative than other sitters, and they certainly have their fair share of vanity; it is easy to see why the artists’ inspiration might flag, even when their talents were up to the task. As we might expect, for example, Sir Godfrey Kneller is well represented in the chapters on the age of Dryden and Pope, which will raise no anticipation in many readers, particularly those who have trailed around the galleries of English country houses lined with Kneller portraits in their dreary hundreds. Kneller was a shrewd businessman with a busy workshop that turned out competent portraits with mechanical efficiency, most of them impossible to distinguish one from another except by whether the subjects were facing to the left or to the right. It’s hard to imagine that they had any occupation apart from that of ancestor, proving by the emptiness of their expression the irreproachable breeding of their families.

With literary men it was sometimes a different matter. Kneller’s portrait of Congreve shows little of the man except an elegant, brittle surface with a possible touch of affectation (although, to be fair, that was perhaps all there was to see). That of Addison reveals only decent deportment and a formal, polite face devoid of individuality. In both the subject is clearly a gentleman, but it is hard to tell more than that. These portraits in no way prepare us for the brilliance of Kneller’s study of Dryden in old age; for at least two of his portraits of Pope, or for an undoubted masterpiece, the Trinity College portrait of Matthew Prior, which David Piper calls “an extraordinary and arresting image, the poet, naked of a wig, rising dark and vertical from subsiding draperies.” It is probably more than coincidence that all four of Kneller’s finest literary portraits are of subjects who have taken off the huge wigs then worn on formal occasions, so that we see them as men rather than as icons.

Pope apparently had an uncanny ability to inspire better work from his portraitists than they usually produced. It may be that they were impressed by his knowledge of the art (he was himself an amateur painter), or they may have been needled by his abrasive wit into surpassing themselves; or perhaps they were simply fascinated by the intensity of personality projected from his stunted and distorted body. Few of his portraits suggest that he was several inches short of five feet tall, except in such rare instances as Charles Jervas’s picture showing him perched awkwardly on the front of a chair that is clearly much too large for him. In spite of—perhaps because of—an appearance that would make most men hesitate to have their likeness taken, no fewer than sixty-six original portraits were made of Pope, a phenomenal number equaled at the time only by royal portraits.

Even more surprising is their consistent quality, including first-rate works by Van Loo and Jonathan Richardson, whose laureate profile of the poet, now in the National Portrait Gallery, is so bold and immediate that Piper is reluctant to believe that he could have painted it. Equally beautiful are the superb busts of Pope by two of the greatest sculptors then alive, Rysbrack and Roubiliac. Pope’s almost neurotic wish to project his person into eternity seems, as Piper observes, to have been “intensified by the need to rectify the tragic twisted reality of his crippled body with an image worthy of the lucid, beautifully articulated construction and spirit of his poetry—the need, very literally, to put the image straight.”

Much of the contemporary popularity of Sir Peter Lely and Kneller came from that aspect of their work which most estranges them from us, the belief that the personal qualities of the sitter were in general less important than the calling, class, and background to which he belonged or at least aspired. Decorum was infinitely more important than mind or personality or physique.

With the coming of the cult of the individual during the Romantic period, all that should have changed. Vanity, as well as his desire to set things right, was responsible for the multiplicity of Pope’s images; by the time of the Romantics public curiosity had become as strong as self-regard. Innumerable likenesses were taken of Scott (most of them bad), and had Byron survived, the combination of his notorious behavior and his spectacular good looks would probably have resulted in enough portraits to blanket England. What is most noticeable about those painted before his early death is how unrevealing they seem to us. There was as much intense curiosity about his private life as there is nowadays about that of the Princess of Wales or a rock singer, and though it was his personality that inspired the curiosity, it is the generic image of pale, aristocratic, impetuous genius that has survived. Little remains to make us know Byron as a man we might recognize on the street. As Piper points out, both Byron’s lame foot and his tendency to run to fat are carefully excluded from his likenesses, as rigorously as Pope’s twisted frame was kept out of his. Each era seems to demand that its heroes fit a preconceived pattern in their appearance, and the portraits of Pope and Byron seem pictures of the Zeitgeist as often as they do of particular men.

It is suggested by the author that in the forty-two years he was poet laureate Tennyson was recorded in one medium or another almost annually. Since his tenure of the office was practically coincident with the widespread adoption of photography, I should guess his images at several times that number. During his heyday as most popular poet in the world, the fashion for cartes de visite began, to be pasted into albums as if their subjects were members of the family, and Tennyson grudgingly sat for a large number of photographers anxious to record his appearance.

Tennyson’s portraits provide a good example of the curious process by which successive eras seem to will the images of their great men into being. When the Victorians felt the need for an admonitory poet-prophet, Tennyson obligingly grew from a handsome and arrogant young Romantic into the bearded Old Testament seer whose short-sighted eyes seem to be peering into eternity. And surprisingly enough, the greatest novelist of the Victorian period, in response to a similar need, grew to look so much like its greatest poet that when Tennyson saw a sketch of Dickens on his deathbed, he said, “This is the most extraordinary drawing. It is exactly like myself.”

Emily Tennyson was a remarkably determined woman, in no doubt of the image she wanted her husband to leave to the world, and she vetoed several portraits that didn’t fit her preconceptions. She insisted that Thomas Woolner change a medallion of her husband because it “looked scornful tho’ very grand.” According to Piper, the poet and his family agreed on very few portraits, an exception being the one by Samuel Laurence painted when Tennyson was about thirty-one, some fifteen years before he grew the beard that his likenesses by Watts, Millais, and Julia Margaret Cameron have perpetuated. But Tennyson objected to even this handsome face as “blubber-lipt.” Piper did not know when he gave the Clark Lectures, on which this book is based, that after his death Emily Tennyson so disliked the Laurence portrait that she had Burne-Jones repaint and soften it, after Watts had refused to do so. The picture that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery today is as much her version of the poet laureate as it is Laurence’s.

There is plenty of evidence of what the poets and their families thought they should look like, but a more objective view of them is harder to come by, since the camera is as capable of manipulation as the brush. For Pope and Byron and Tennyson, the corrective is provided by quick sketches and drawings: not the vindictive cartoons for public lampooning but the informal, often affectionate, work of their friends. Lady Burlington and William Hoare indicate accurately and without malice in their drawings how tiny and hunched Pope was. Count d’Orsay’s lively likeness of Byron shows how the poet avoided putting his weight on his lame foot, and both James Spedding and D.G. Rossetti made sketches of Tennyson that make him appear more lovable and distinctly more human than his usual image as prophet. (It is a pity that Tennyson’s own unflattering self-portraits, now at Yale, aren’t included here too.)

Most of the great British poets, from Chaucer’s time to the 1940s, are to be found in this book. Of those not already mentioned, Milton, Keats, and Blake are among the most interesting subjects. As might be guessed, that very self-conscious poet John Donne was one of the first to fix his own appearance for posterity by the emblematic portraits he commissioned, from those as fashionable young man to the final haunting shrouded monument in St. Paul’s Cathedral, a progression that neatly paralleled the change in his poems as much as it did his conversion from rake to divine.

The question of Shakespeare’s evolving images recurs throughout Piper’s book. He considers two, the Droeshout engraving and the Stratford bust, to be accurate likenesses, even though they were made posthumously. He also believes that a third, the “Chandos” portrait, may be genuine. Any discussion of Shakespeare’s image as each age recreated it must consider the era that produced it. It is almost as if there had never been an original, and the icon of World’s Greatest Poet had over and over to be created afresh in the likeness of each new generation.

In our own century, Piper finds that the poets of the Thirties, including Auden, Spender, MacNiece, “all seemed almost too ordinary, tending to appear in amateur snapshots wearing mackintoshes in rough weather on Hampstead Heath.” As the century wears on, we have become accustomed to poets who are insurance executives, publishers, reviewers, librarians, discontented bank clerks, or teachers of English literature to recalcitrant undergraduates, since they must earn a living elsewhere when they are not lucky enough to marry money. To many of them it is a matter of pride that they are nearly undistinguishable from other men. Soon what Wilde said of the English face may also become true of the physiognomy of poetry: once seen, never remembered.

At a time when book prices are monstrously high, it is pleasant that the beautiful plates, handsome printing, and generous margins make the American edition of this book seem a bargain, especially since David Piper’s prose is part of the package.

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