6 of the best portraits of British writers

Our recent sensational discovery of Shakespeare’s likeness has got us thinking about how other legendary wordsmiths are depicted. Annunciata Walton admires six of the best portraits of British writers.

best portraits of british writers

The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë) by Patrick Branwell Brontëoil on canvas, circa 1834 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The Brontës
The British public didn’t have to wait quite so long to see the Brontës siblings as they did Shakespeare, but the discovery of this portrait was dramatic nonetheless. Its importance lies in the fact that it’s the only surviving group portrait of the three novelist sisters, Anne, Charlotte and Emily, who look typically (and satisfyingly) gloomy. Thought to have been lost for 80 years, it was discovered folded up on top of a cupboard by the second wife of Charlotte’s husband, the Rev A. B. Nicholls, in 1914. What’s more, in spooky Brontë fashion, the artist and brother to the three, Patrick Branwell Brontë, emerges, ghost-like, from the centre of the painting, obscured behind a painted pillar (www.npg.org.uk).


best portraits of british writers

Sir Walter Scott, 1771 – 1832. Novelist and poet, about 1844, by Sir William ALLAN (1782-1850). Painting, oil on canvas, 93.1 x 73.3 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, given by the Art Fund (London Scot Bequest) 1938. Photo: John McKenzie

Sir Walter Scott
‘The Wizard of the North’ has been painted, sketched and sculpted by a multitude of whimsical Waverley-loving artists, but my favourite is this jaunty view of him on home territory by Sir William Allan, part of the National Galleries Scotland collection. Two Dandie Dinmonts—a breed named for a character in Scott’s 1814 novel Guy Mannering and now on the Kennel Club’s list of vulnerable native breeds—hop about at the feet of ‘The Minstrel of the Scottish Border’ (as the painting is known), oblivious to the staggering Tweed valley scenery that surrounds them.

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«Sgt. Pepper«s Lonely Hearts Club Band «, album by The Beatles (1967)

The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Lewis Carroll
As portraits go, the Sir Peter Blake’s riotously colourful album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is about as inconspicuous as it is conventional. Actors, composers, writers and a former Beatle jostle together with gurus, occultists, a British Prime Minister and a garden gnome, as the inconspicuous face of Charles Dodgson peers towards the Fab Four, caught in a crush between Lawrence of Arabia and screen sirens Marlene Dietrich and Diana Dors—is there anywhere more suited to the creator Alice’s topsy-turvy wonderland?

Honourable mention to the other British authors depicted: Aleister Crowley, Aubrey Beardsley, Aldous Huxley, Dylan Thomas, H. G. Wells, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. Can you spot them?


best portraits of british writers

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, oil on canvas, circa 1797 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Mary Wollstonecraft
The simplicity of this portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft is extraordinarily powerful. In a white-cotton gown and with plainly styled hair, this pioneering feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women is the unassuming embodiment of her common-sense philosophy that men and women should be treated equally as rational beings, thus forming a social order based on reason, and that, as such, women should neither distort nor hide their appearance, but rather ‘adorn the person and not rival it’. It is particularly poignant that, when she sat for John Opie, Wollstonecraft was pregnant with her daughter, Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley, whose birth she did not long survive (www.npg.org.uk).


J. R. R. Tolkien
It’s hard not to be drawn to the playfulness of this black-and-white shot of Tolkien, perching on his throne of roots, which looks as though it might conceal the entrance to a homely hobbit dwelling. It was taken by Lord Snowdon in 1971, just two years before the linguist, scholar and creator of Middle Earth died, aged 81. Whatever your age, climbing ruins, trees, walls, rocks or, in this case, enormous tree roots is one of life’s simple and irresistible pleasures. I have a recent photo of myself in similar surroundings—and I hope to still be in the habit of veering from the path to scale Nature’s heights when I’m an octogenarian, too (www.npg.org.uk).


true face of shakespeare

William Shakespeare can be found on the title page of The Herball by John Gerard, 1597.

William Shakespeare
Last but not least must come Shakespeare, the recent discovery of whose portrait by Country Life’s Mark Griffiths—the first person in 400 years who has been equal to the task of cracking the many-layered Tudor code that masked the Bard’s identity—has created a furore of excitement and academic debate worldwide. This simple portrait, which shows Shakespeare in his prime, aged 33, is the only known and demonstrably authentic likeness made of the writer in his lifetime. He looks good. What’s more, the portrait’s ingenious discovery has brought to light a new Shakespeare play, which must make this one of the most important and talked about pieces of art of the 21st century.