My Favourite Painting: Tahir Shah

Author and film-maker Tahir Shah chooses a military portrait.

Tahir Shah chooses Major Wilfred Thesiger, DSO by Anthony Devas

‘Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s reputation was as the indefatigable hard-as-nails traveller, a throwback to the Victorian age. He famously crossed the Arabian Empty Quarter twice, was a personal friend of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and later lived in “retirement” with the pastoral Samburu of northern Kenya. Anthony Devas’s portrait of Thesiger, then in his mid thirties, lifts the veil on the public image and provides a fleeting glimpse into the gentle and vulnerable side that most people never encountered.

‘The Thesiger wearing military dress in the pastel-like portrait is the one of profound sensitivity and kindness — the one I was fortunate enough to know as a young man, in the last quarter century of his life.’

Charlotte Mullins on Thesiger and Decas

The explorer Maj Wilfred Thesiger and the portrait painter Anthony Devas were born less than a year apart to British parents, but there the resemblance ends. Whereas Devas was born in Bromley in Kent and studied at the Slade School of Art in London, Thesiger was born in Addis Ababa in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). He was educated at British boarding schools and read History at Oxford, but yearned to return to Africa. He spent time in Abyssinia before taking up a post in the Sudan political service in 1935 and fell in love with the desert, writing: ‘I was exhilarated by the sense of space, the silence, and the crisp cleanness of the sand.’

This portrait was painted in 1944, a commission from the War Artists Advisory Committee. Thesiger had joined the war effort as a junior officer and risen to the rank of major, spending time with Col Stirling and the elite SAS in north Africa. Devas captures a far-away look in Thesiger’s eye, as if he is imagining himself back in the desert, riding a camel and sleeping on the hoof. The abstracted landscape behind him could be both a nod to Thesiger’s war contribution in Africa — he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1941 — and his own love of the desert.

Devas mostly painted Society women, but his portrait of Thesiger is one of his finest. It is housed in the Imperial War Museum, but a more relaxed example from the same period is owned by Eton College, his alma mater.

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