Gwarlingo’s “Photo of the Week” (a regular feature on the sidebar of the Gwarlingo homepage) is a captivating image of a sailboat on the Thames taken in 1906 by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw.
Not many people realize that the Nobel laureate was a passionate amateur photographer, as well as a prolific playwright, essayist, and corespondent. Shaw’s first surviving negatives date from 1898. When Shaw died at the age of 94, he left behind over 10,000 photographic prints and over 10,000 negatives in his home in Ayot St Lawrence.
In a time when few people in the art establishment gave photography the respect it deserved, Shaw was an early advocate of photography as a serious art form. He wrote many reviews and articles on the subject and enjoyed discussing the topic with photographers like Alvin Langdon Coburn.
“If Velasquez were born today, he would be a photographer and not a painter,” Shaw observed. When Shaw was asked about his fascination with photography, he said, “I always wanted to draw and paint. I aspired to be a Michael Angelo, not a Shakespear [sic]. But I could not draw well enough to satisfy myself… So when dry plates and push buttons came into the market I bought a box camera and began pushing the button.”
Shaw’s photographs, particularly his self-portraits, reveal a more playful side than the stern-faced Shaw commonly seen in the official portraits used in newspapers and books. There are several nude self-portraits in Shaw’s collection, plus images of him at the beach, picnicking, and enjoying the company of friends. In one striking self-portrait, the playwright is lying naked on a sofa with a strategically placed book in his lap.
When a member of the press asked Shaw why he agreed to pose nude for “Le Penseur” (“The Thinker”) for Alvin Langdon Coburn, Shaw replied, “Though we have hundreds of photographs of [Charles] Dickens and [Richard] Wagner, we see nothing of them except the suits of clothes with their heads sticking out; and what is the use of that?”
At Shaw’s death, his house and all of its contents were left to the National Trust. As a recent article in The Guardian reveals, “in 1979 the photographs, still uncatalogued and many on mouldering and potentially dangerous old film, were transferred to the archives of the London School of Economics for safe storage. In a marathon joint LSE and National Trust project all have been conserved, digitised – almost crashing the LSE website – and catalogued over the past two years.”
The “photographs document a prolific literary and political life offering glimpses into Shaw’s inner world,” the LSE library site explains. “Shaw’s images are almost endless in their subject coverage: from changes in fashions to portraits of the 1860s, from architecture to education; and their personas, from Vivien Leigh and Mrs Patrick Campbell to Sidney and Beatrice Webb. They also record his experiments with photography and…the collection provides a record of the development of photographic and processing techniques available from the 1890s.”
Shaw’s collection also contains many images of his wife Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a fellow Fabian he married in 1898, and writers like H.G. Wells, J.M. Barrie, and Rilke. Shaw photographed his travels to South Africa, New Zealand, and Europe, as well.
The sheer number of images and negatives in the LSE collection is staggering–over 20,000 in all. “Technically good negatives are more often the result of the survival of the fittest than of special creation: the photographer is like the cod, which lays a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity…,” Shaw wrote in the exhibit catalog for his friend Alvin Langdon Coburn.
Shaw’s productivity as an artist is impressive. In addition to producing all of these images and co-founding the LSE, Shaw wrote over 250,000 letters, more than 60 plays, five novels, and countless essays and reviews. He is the only person to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and an Oscar.
A small number of Shaw’s photographs were exhibited in his lifetime, but thousands have never been seen by anyone since Shaw last looked at them. For the first time, the public will have a chance to explore Shaw’s marvelous archive. An exhibition of his original prints just opened at the National Trust’s Fox Talbot Museum in Lacock, Wiltshire. The London School of Economics, which Shaw co-founded in 1895 with Beatrice and Sidney Webb, now oversees Shaw’s entire photographic archive and has mounted an online exhibition of the playwright’s images.
The exhibition, George Bernard Shaw: Man and Cameraman, will be on show at the Fox Talbot Museum in Lacock until December 11th. If you can’t make it to the exhibit in the UK, you can explore the online archive at the LSE website.
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