Portraits: British 20th C, South East England: Artists and Subjects 41 Is this a portrait of George Bernard Shaw?

Self Portrait
Topic: Subject or sitter

This is Hugh Blaker's portrait of George Bernard Shaw. Blaker never looked anything like this portrait. He was round in the face, bald by middle age, and never sported a beard. There is another portrait of Shaw by Blaker in the Shaw archives at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin.

I have published widely on Blaker and his activities as artist, collector, connoisseur, critic and advisor to Gwendoline and Margaret Davies in the formation of their collection of French nineteenth-century art which they bequeathed to the National Museum of Wales. See: http://jhc.oxfordjournals.org/content/16/2/173.abstract

While George Bernard Shaw and his wife were regular visitors to Gregynog Hall, the home of Gwendoline and Margaret Davies (and indeed they all holidayed together), Blaker, who lived in Old Isleworth, is more likely to have met Shaw in London.

The collection comment:

We do not have a significant amount of information about the work, except that it was logged as a self portrait at the time of acquisition in 1963 and has remained so ever since. But we agree with Robert this appears to be a mistake, and will look to address this. That it may be a portrait of George Bernard Shaw is a definite possibility and warrants further investigation.

We have contacted the Harry Ransom Humanities Center to obtain an image of their portrait for comparison or to see if they have any further information relating to Shaw's relationship with Blaker. They said that a portrait of George Bernard Shaw by Blaker is not in their collection. They do, however, have a handwritten note which refers to such a portrait.

It appears that this note was written by Blaker himself. In it, he notes that he painted a portrait of Shaw from sketches and photographs. It is possible that the portrait referred to is the one in our collection, but we would need further evidence to substantiate this. It would be good to track down these preliminary sketches and photographs, for example.

Robert Meyrick, Entry reviewed by Art UK

41 comments

Osmund Bullock,

Surely this cannot be intended for Shaw? Everything is well out: the sitter's beard is too thick, broad and long - and Shaw's moustache ends always went up, not down; his remaining hair seems quite thick and wavy - Shaw's was straight, thin and silky, and he had far less of it by the time he was grey; the way it is parted, too, is not right, nor how it sits and falls; Shaw's eyebrows extended further along, and by this stage were famously wild and long; and just the basic facial physiognomy, the cheekbones especially, feels quite wrong. But the most non-Shavian aspect is the rather dead, dark eyes - Shaw's were very pale, glinting and ever-active...full of life, enquiry and humour, even in old age. Some of this, especially the last, can possibly be explained if the artist never met him, and painted it from photos. But unless Blaker liked to mutate his sitters' features and characters for some artistic purpose (or is a very poor portraitist!), I really can't see it. The man we are looking at is - to me - not GBS, even in an impressionistic sort of way.

Geraint Richard Hall,

I agree with Osmund Bullock. It doesn't look anything like Bernard Shaw.

And just looking at the 1906 self portrait of Blaker
https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/self-portrait-70088
I'd say that it is quite possible that the painting in question is of Blaker as well - 30 years later and withered by age.

I agree the old man's face does look considerably thinner - but note the shape of the nose; the eyelids and the brows; the somewhat forlorn expression. Also the rather curly hair. And if Robert has some photographic evidence that Blaker was bald by middle age I'd like to point out that baldness is not always permanent. If it's a sudden attack of alopecia, caused by severe emotional trauma for example, it's quite common for the hair to grow back later when the suffer has recovered from the shock. And it will generally grow back white in such cases regardless of what colour it was before. As for saying he never sported a beard, I don't see how Robert can possibly claim to know this for sure unless he is old enough to have actually known Blaker in the last few years of his life.

Osmund Bullock,

That 1906 self-portrait seems extremely odd if the photo shown here is him circa 1905: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Blaker

I don't doubt Robert Meyrick's word that the one under discussion is not a self-portrait - I'm sure he knows more about Blaker than anyone else likely to post here. My comment was solely on the idea that it is GBS. It would be good, though, if Robert could show us any photos he has access to of the artist in the late 1920s or 30s .

Patty Macsisak,

Oops, sorry...didn't check the artist dates.

Robert Meyrick,

Attached is the last photograph that I have of Blaker. Undated but probably taken when in his early 50s in the mid to late 1920s. He stands in the garden of his house at Isleworth. Some years ago I interviewed someone who as a young lad in the 1920s and 30s lived next door to The London Apprentice pub in Old Isleworth, opposite Blaker's house. He used to run errands for Blaker and sometimes brought paintings down from the upstairs studio when Blaker was hard up and needed to send works to the salesrooms. He also toured parts of his British and French collections around the UK. The lad was a friend and the same age as the soon-to-be actor Bill Hartnell to whom Blaker was unofficial guardian so he spent a lot of time at the house. He confirmed this was Blaker pretty much as he recalled him in the 1930s.

As far as I have been able to tell, Blaker had given up painting by the 1930s and was concentrating on writing. In his diaries he lamented how portly he was becoming! As a young man, he had been proud of his good looks. In his diary he wrote "I was a wondrous fair kid, strong, and good at games. I got something out of them. In the gym I builded up a body as strong and fair as that of any sweet boy of the 80s."

My best guess, and it is a guesstimate, is that it was painted in the 1920s even though this cigarette card portrait bears a similar pose and background colour!
http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portraitLarge/mw36919/George-Bernard-Shaw?LinkID=mp04075&search=sas&sText=george+bernard+shaw&wPage=2&role=sit&rNo=93

Though an able draughtsman who trained in London, Paris and Antwerp, Blaker rarely sought to achieve accurate representation from life. As the Harry Ransom Study Center response above indicates, "a" portrait study based on Shaw, possibly even "this" portrait of Shaw, was painted from a few quick sketches and photographs rather than from life. One can see from his oils illustrated on the PCF website, Blaker was forever seeking new effects in paint, very often influenced by the techniques of those painters whose works he was acquiring for the collection of Gwendoline and Margaret Davies of Gregynog. An exact likeness of the man would have been of little interest to him.

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Osmund Bullock,

There is 'exact', and there is giving some vague impression of the man. But perhaps it's just a very bad portrait. I can honestly say, Robert, that If I'd come across it untitled at the gallery, it would never have occurred to me that it was meant to be GBS.

Philippa Parker,

I would be surprised if this is Shaw. It simply doesn't look like him, particularly the nose and forehead. I am a volunteer at his house, Shaw's Corner in Hertfordshire (NT) so am surrounded by representations of GBS.
I am intrigued by the suggestion that Shaw and Charlotte, his wife, were intimate with the Davies sisters and would like to know when they "holidayed together". Was it in company with Sidney and Beatrice Webb (regular visitors to Wales). It was, of course, the Gregynog Press which Shaw used to publish his "autobiographical miscellany "Shaw Gives Himself Away" in 1939.

As an aside, does anyone know the location of a portrait of Shaw done by Vincent Moody (?who he) at Droitwich whilst the Shaws were staying there 18 August- 26 September 1938?

Martin Hopkinson,

I think that Vincent is really Victor Hugh Moody [1896-1950], who painted portraits of a number literary figures including J B Priestley. It would be worth checking the catalogue of Moody's 1939 one man show at the Goupil Gallery.

Osmund Bullock,

Philippa, presumably you mean this one (you're right about the 1939 Goupil show, Martin): http://www.lissfineart.com/5246sub0_17.htm
Or do you mean where has it gone since being sold by Liss?

Of considerable associated interest, too, would be this group of documents and letters (though perhaps Shaw's Corner bought them, and that's why you're asking...I hope so!): http://www.owenandbarlow.com/pd-george-bernard-shaw-autograph-letter-signed-with-archive-of-related-documents.cfm

Kieran Owens,

It can be seen from this link that Hugh Blaker did in fact paint a portrait of George Bernard Shaw (29" x 24 & 1/2"), which was sold for 15 & 1/2 guineas in 1912.

https://books.google.ie/books?id=EaBAAQAAMAAJ&q="Hugh+Blaker"+shaw&dq;="Hugh+Blaker"+shaw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjsiObyjvzZAhVYOMAKHfNiApE4FBDoAQhUMAk

It would have been bigger than this discussion's portrait (c.17" x c.13"), but it does show that they had an artist/sitter relationship.

However, comparisons between our image and photographs of Shaw in 1935 are not convincingly close. By 1935 Shaw had a considerably high receding hairline, further to the top of his head that this painting depicts. See the attached composite of this painting and a 1935 photo of Shaw by E.O. Hoppé.

Kieran Owens,

When visiting the link above, search for the word Shaw and the result will appear.

Osmund Bullock,

Kieran, the intro gives some details by Blaker of his portrait of Shaw, and I don't think anyone was questioning this, nor that they probably met...though as the portrait was painted "from sketches [by whom?] and photographs" it is perhaps not entirely certain.

The sale record you've found, however, is invaluable in showing that the portrait under discussion cannot possibly be it - as you say the size is wrong; and since it was painted in or before 1912, the utterly un-Shawlike appearance of our sitter (as previously observed by several of us) is even more marked. Attached is a composite of Shaw images from the right period (1910-12**) - his beard and neat almost centre-parted hair are greying but still full of colour (red, in fact), and like his alert bright eyes and taut slim face are quite different to our sitter, even allowing for broad artistic licence and a desire to seek "new effects".

[**Despite looking as if it's a bit earlier, the date of the 1912 one is as given by the archive of Life Magazine, which published it.]

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Given the lack of resemblance to both the artist and Shaw, is the most probable explanation not likely to be that it is just a 'Portrait of an old man' done for artistic rather than biographical reasons? Unless there is an identifiable alternative sitter it's hard to see how one can credibly call it anything else now. The initial identification as a 'self-portrait' was perhaps just a misunderstanding.

Osmund Bullock,

Blaker's portrait of GBS was described by American Art News in 1912 as "the celebrated portrait of George Bernard Shaw by Hugh Blaker of Bath". It was sold again in New York in April 1917, and this time was conveniently illustrated in the catalogue: http://bit.ly/2puU3ii

As Pieter says, unless other information is forthcoming, this work can really only sensibly be called 'Portrait of an old man', or perhaps '...old man with a beard'.

Martin Hopkinson,

What Shaw's appearance was like in old age can be seen in Felix Topolski's portrait of 1939 in Glasgow Museums. He was only 56 in 1912 and lived until 1950. It seems most unlikely that this is a portrait of a man younger than 60. as has been said repeatedly above, this is not a portrait of Shaw

Kieran Owens,

It strikes me that Margaret Davies (or her executors) would not have made a bequest to the National Museum of Wales (nor would the latter have made a justifiable acquisition) in 1963 of a c.1935 "portrait of an old man/with a beard" by Hugh Blaker unless the work was of some significance. Would the Davies sisters have collected a painting of an anonymous sitter, just because it was created by their friend and adviser? Surely a little more thinking has to be applied to who this subject might be before consigning the piece to the category of the unknown. Are there no records at NMW, or details of the will of Margaret Davies, that might throw a little more light on the subject?

Martin Hopkinson,

Blaker was their principal art adviser and doubtless a good friend. That might have been sufficient reason , whoever was the model

These things are often 'works in progress': the sensible thing at present would be to improve the title/description. If the sitter is identifiable that may emerge if/ when someone goes through whatever records there are, or by serendipity. That's where potential search terms like 'old man' and 'beard' start being useful, however marginally: given its not a 'self-portrait', that isn't. I'm sure the collection has more than enough to do than prioritize a record search so its really their call on interim retitling or letting the matter hang around indefinitely.

Kieran Owens,

Could Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales let the discussion know if there are any markings or labels on the reverse side of this painting?

E Jones,

Thought this might be of use....Had a look at this last year out of interest as am so familiar with the Cardiff painting, but was more out of curiosity than to post.

The portrait of Shaw was well known and did go on tour of a number of the East Coast Cities in the States. I followed it through the 1912 catalogue and passed through a few hands but was eventually bought by the Bookseller, historian and author Gabriel Wells of New York. He bought it due to his literary interests. He was the same gentleman that was responsible for breaking up a copy of the Gutenberg Bible and selling the pages off individually (the noble pages)

The Painting had been widely exhibited and attached is a photograph of the painting in 1937 in a G.B.Shaw exhibition in Yale University (in the case on the left). It stayed with Wells until his death in 1947 and then distributed with his estate to family and various institutions (Which is where It disappears). Clearly the Blaker Bernard Shaw.


Although we are used to seeing the more familiar photograph of Blaker as a clean shaven young man, I did wonder whether one of the drawings, in the collection of paintings and sketches at Aberystwyth University (from the Gregynog Estate), is more of an autobiographical piece of work. It was a piece of work that came through his sister's estate, former governess to the Davies Sisters.

A Bohemian type gentleman (as described in the description) with a beard and distinctive nose waiting in a queue to post his work to the editor in "All letters for the editor to be placed in the box".

I wondered if it could be a self portrait as it seems more of a personal statement. It was certainly an issue he felt strongly about, note the little picture on the wall in the accompanying "Time is money" of a person on their knees begging.

I do have all the links, but I would have to dig them out as it was a while back.

It may be a stretch but I'd like to think that there is still is a possibility that the painting in Cardiff is that of Blaker himself as was originally stated in the records.

Andrea Kollmann,

Blaker also exhibited a portrait of GBS (the same as in Osmund’s post above?) at the Exhibition of the Society of Portrait Painters in 1909: “He [Blaker] has not taken at all a happy view of his subject [GBS], showing him with eyes half closed and with an expression very different from his usual genial, yet rather penetrating, look.” (Northern Whig, 16 Nov 1909). The Derby Daily Telegraph is also not impressed: “Bernard Shaw, first in the catalogue, looks loke a not particularly amiable collie dog”. (23 Nov 1909).

Do you know where to find this catalogue? Have they been digitialzed yet?

I agree with Pieter's comment six days ago. I think we are all agreed that (a) this is not a self portrait by Blaker and (b) it is not a portrait of George Bernard Shaw. As Pieter suggests interim retitling to something like 'Portrait of an elderly bearded man' seems to be the most appropriate course of action at this time. Unless there is solid argument to the contrary I propose to recommend that we proceed in this way.

In view of the lapse in time since my post earlier this year, without further comment being received, I now recommend that we conclude as follows:

It has been established that this work by Hugh Oswald Blaker is not a self portrait and it is not a portrait by him of George Bernard Shaw. The title of the work could usefully be amended from 'Self Portrait' to 'Portrait of an Elderly Bearded Man'.

We have a new Art Detective contact at the collection, whose account still has to be set up (including the transferring of discussions linked to her former colleague into her name). We should be able to close this soon.

Jacinto Regalado,

Blaker's interest in social problems and social issues would seem to fit with those of Geddes, so there is that.

E Jones,

I found a photograph of this painting recently in the Davies Sister's archives. It had been taken for insurance purposes and matched up with the stockbook of their collection. I think that the title of "Self Portrait" was given to the painting after 1963 when it was in the posession of the Museum.

The back of the photograph says:
"Hugh Blaker, Study of a Man's Head, Canvas 14 1/4" x 10" "

The stockbook says:
"Man's Head", Oil, 14"x 10" on canvas
(There is a 1/4 inch difference in size but that is how it has been recorded)

Was the museum also bequeathed any drawings at the same time?
as Margaret Davies also had 2 other drawings called "Mans Head" by Blaker.

I do have photographs but am having difficulty in uploading images at the moment. I can send them through if needed.

Jacinto Regalado,

Then it would appear this amounts to a tronie, and can thus be titled "Head of a Bearded Old Man."

I think we are agreed that the sitter of this portrait has not been identified and without more 'hard' information it seems likely that we will make no further substantive progress in that identification.

The recent post by E Jones is really helpful in providing information from the archived records of Gwendoline and Margaret Davies. It is clear from the note on the old photograph they held of the painting, and the entry in their stockbook reading 'Hugh Blaker - Study of a Man's Head', that the Davies' sisters knew the painting was not a self portrait by Hugh Blaker nor a portrait of George Bernard Shaw, both of whom they knew well.

In regard to the title of the work my preference would be to revert to the title given to it by the Davies sisters, namely 'Study of a Man's Head'. That is my recommendation in order to bring this discussion to a satisfactory conclusion.

Jacinto Regalado,

I think all assigned titles should be worded to be as useful as possible for search purposes, which is why I would include the words "old" and "bearded" or "beard."

Jacinto, further information can be added in a description or as additional title information.

Grant, I agree that we should revert to the Davies sisters' stockbook title. If you are happy to close this, could you copy your summary and click the 'recommendation to Art UK' option please?

I think we are agreed that the sitter of this portrait has not been identified and without more 'hard' information it seems likely that we will make no further substantive progress in that identification.

The recent post by E Jones is really helpful in providing information from the archived records of Gwendoline and Margaret Davies. It is clear from the note on the old photograph they held of the painting, and the entry in their stockbook reading 'Hugh Blaker - Study of a Man's Head', that the Davies' sisters knew the painting was not a self portrait by Hugh Blaker nor a portrait of George Bernard Shaw, both of whom they knew well.

In regard to the title of the work, subject to the agreement of the collection, my view is that we should revert to the title given to the painting by the Davies sisters, namely 'Study of a Man's Head'. That is my recommendation in order to bring this discussion to a satisfactory conclusion.

E Jones,

The photographs of the painting as mentioned in my post, have been forwarded to Art UK.

Jacinto Regalado,

As I see it, the wording should take into account what part(s) of an entry the Art UK search engine will read and match to the terms entered by the user. The point or goal, naturally, is to make any search as effective and productive as possible. There are numerous entries on this site with rather suboptimal titles for search purposes, which can be so vague as to be practically meaningless.

Hi Jacinto,
Yes, definitely. The Art UK search engine should be reading 'Additional information' and bringing up those entries as part of a primary search. I tested this by typing in 'six portraits' and among the 64 results was Additional title information '(from a set of six portraits)'. The artwork(s) in question can be found by typing either 'A St Ives Fisherman: Tommy Daniel' or 'from a set of' or 'six portraits'.

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