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From Errol Flynn to Bottles of Gin:

Literary Portraits and their Afterlives

Presented by Annalie Talent

12th September 2023

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So much of contemporary media is taken up with celebrities curating their image and yet it came as a surprise that this is not new. In a lively talk after the AGM and glass of wine we found that William Shakespeare led the way by commissioning his memorial effigy while still alive! He looks plump, pink, and prosperous in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon prompting one critic to say he looked like a “self-satisfied pork butcher”. Safe to say that Shakespeare had the last laugh as “Bardolatry" is a recognised thing 400+ years later.

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Annalie Talent, our lecturer for the evening, went on to demonstrate a range of romantic figures who curated their own image and legacy carefully in an age where portraiture naturally flattered (unless done by a sibling which Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte both discovered). In the romantic period of late 18th and early 19th century your books and poems sold much better with an idealised engraving of the author as a frontispiece. 

Cue Lord Byron looking very much the brave Marriner or a velvet clad dreamer depending on his mood or whether he had an epic narrative poem to sell.  His Albanian portrait by Thomas Phillips 1813 was the link to Errol Flynn as not only was Byron wearing a smartly striped Albanian outfit, but his pencil mustachio was envy of Hollywood. Byron left instructions for some images to be burnt but the Phillips portrait he promoted shamelessly.  ‘I am so changeable, being everything by turns and nothing long, – I am such a strange mélange of good and evil, that it would be difficult to describe me’, though famously his ex-lover Lady Caroline Lamb had less trouble and described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know “.

The image of Robert Burns pictured full length in tartan trews with Brig O’Doon behind him used to enhance the popularity of his poetry but more recently has been added to both whiskey and shortbread. Jane Austen’s face is plastered on bottles of Bath Gin - presumably things sell better with this literary link.

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Maggi Hambling, no stranger to controversial works of art created art for, not of, Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green in East London. It is a striking naked silver female figure with glorious curves. You will remember MW was a controversial figure in life whose self-proclaimed intention was encouraging women not to have power over men but over themselves. She was known in the contemporary establishment as “a hyaena in petticoats”. We are still talking now about her and her image, though her portrayal, real or fictionalised, is promoting her.

The talk prompted lots of questions, plans for trips and debate about image. There is nothing new under the sun.

Lucy Picton- Turbervill

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A member of The Arts Society
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