George Bernard Shaw Exposed

George Bernard Shaw with Kim in 1922 (© Estate of George Bernard Shaw/ London School of Economics)

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.

Shaw's photograph of Auguste Rodin working in his studio (© Estate of George Bernard Shaw/ London School of Economics)

“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?”

 

Alvin Langdon Coburn's photograph of George Bernard Shaw posing as "The Thinker." When the photograph was exhibited in the London Salon in 1906, newspaper articles questioned: “The face, the beard, the neck, and the hands are undoubtedly the sole property of Mr. George Bernard Shaw, but we have no authentic knowledge of the rest of the Shavian frame, and the study of the anatomy shows more muscular development than some people would expect of a combination of high thinking and vegetarianism.” (Photo courtesy of The George Eastman House)

 

Crowds awaiting the unveiling of Rodin's sculpture "The Thinker" (Photo by George Bernard Shaw © Estate of George Bernard Shaw/ London School of Economics)

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.”

A photograph of Charlotte Shaw taken in 1898 by her husband during the couple's honeymoon. (© Estate of George Bernard Shaw/ London School of Economics)

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.

This 1900 image of Shaw warming his hands in front of a fuel-burner fire shows one of his many photographic experiments with light. (© Estate of George Bernard Shaw/ London School of Economics)

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.

One of the many landscapes in Shaw's collection (© Estate of George Bernard Shaw/ London School of Economics)

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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By | 2016-11-11T21:56:00+00:00 07.08.11|Found, Images|Comments Off on George Bernard Shaw Exposed

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.