National Portrait Gallery buys painting of young Dylan Thomas

Cherubic painting by the Welsh poet’s friend Augustus John has been acquired for £214,750

A portrait of a young Dylan Thomas, with red curly locks and a fresh, butter-wouldn’t-melt expression, has been acquired for the National Portrait Gallery.

The cherubic painting, by Thomas’s friend Augustus John, has been on long-term loan and permanent display at the gallery for 20 years.

In a deal brokered by Christie’s the painting’s owner has sold it to the gallery for £214,750 with the money coming from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (£94,800), the Art Fund (£70,000) and the Thompson Family Charitable Trust (£49,950).

It is one of two portraits by the bohemian artist John. The two men met in the early 1930s in the Fitzroy Tavern in Charlotte Street in Londonand became friends and drinking buddies, remaining so even though Thomas won the heart of John’s much younger lover, the chorus line dancer Caitlin Macnamara, Thomas’s future wife.

Thomas, one of the 20th century’s finest poets well known for his drinking and womanising, sat for John twice in late 1937 or early 1938 when he was 23. The painting was made shortly after his marriage to Macnamara, during visits to her mother in Hampshire, who lived close to John’s studio.

John wrote of the occasions: “We frequently met ... I got him to sit for me twice, the second portrait being the more successful: provided with a bottle of beer, he sat very patiently.”

A full view of the NPG’s Dylan Thomas portrait
A full view of the NPG’s Dylan Thomas portrait. Photograph: Augustus John/National Portrait Gallery London

The other portrait is in the collection of the National Museum Wales. It is not known for which one Thomas had his beer.

The NPG plans to loan the portrait to the Glynn Vivian art gallery in Thomas’s home city of Swansea in 2019, part of the gallery’s Coming Home project in which 50 portraits from the national collection will travel to places they are most closely associated with.

Jenni Spencer-Davies, the curator at the Swansea gallery, said John’s portrait of Macnamara was in the Glynn Vivian collection, “so Coming Home has a special resonance not only for the poet returning to his home town, Swansea, but he will also be joining the portrait of Caitlin who became his wife at this time in 1937.

“We are incredibly grateful to the National Portrait Gallery for bringing Dylan and Caitlin back together, captured at this special moment in time by Augustus John.”

Stephen Deuchar, the director of the Art Fund, said his organisation was proud to support the acquisition. “Augustus John’s portraits capture likeness and character with great economy, and this warm portrayal of the poet Dylan Thomas shows the painter at his most assured.”

Contributor

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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