Artists have always painted writers, whether through desire or as the result of a commission, and their portraits often convey something no photograph ever could. William Powell Frith’s 1859 painting of Dickens in his study is an image that seems to capture the very essence of the writer: his energy, certainly, but also a certain coldness, which is there in his eyes.
Graham Sutherland, the English artist, is best known for his landscapes, and for the work he produced as an official artist during World War II. But he painted many portraits, including one of Churchill that was later destroyed, apparently on the instructions of Lady Churchill. Look at this study of the novelist Somerset Maugham, made when he was 75, and you’ll perhaps see why.
The novelist’s personality — remote, complex, shrivelled in the eyes of some — is revealed in a moment. The saffron background, like the bamboo stool on which he sits, was intended to convey the East Asian setting of many of his novels. But this liverish hue is also all of a piece with Maugham’s pernickety, precise body language and the slight sneer on his face (his head is slightly tipped back, as if he thinks the whole exercise of sitting is beneath him).
The portrait is explicit about Maugham’s privilege — for a writer, he was vastly wealthy, the owner of a yacht and a villa in Cap Ferrat — but his defensive pose hints at the skeletons in his cupboard, dark secrets which would be revealed by his biographers only much later.