Breakfast with Betjeman, sherry with Waugh
By Thea Lenarduzzi
The TLS tends to be associated more with words than pictures (which is not to say that the artwork is not fantastic – just look at this week’s cover). But it has been a while, perhaps, since pictures took centre stage as they did (or should have done) for a brief period in 1959, when the editor Alan Pryce-Jones commissioned a series of drawings called Writers of Our Time.
Colin Spencer, whose portraits of E. M. Forster and John Betjeman on the cover of the London Magazine had caught Pryce-Jones’s eye, was to travel to the homes, clubs or offices of the twenty-five writers in question and capture them in their element. Among them were W. H. Auden, J. B. Priestley, Rebecca West and Stevie Smith, as well as the younger V. S. Naipaul and Iris Murdoch.
Some were more difficult to pin down than others. T. S. Eliot, for example, was impossibly busy (he had, to be fair, just accepted a commission from the Archbishop of Canterbury to produce The Revised Psalter) – but it was, perhaps, more because he disagreed with the TLS printing drawings at all.
Fortunately, others were more forthcoming. Betjeman liked to meet Spencer for breakfast at his flat near Smithfield, after which the drawing could begin. John Osborne, who was in the middle of rehearsals for his musical satire of the critics and the popular press The World of Paul Slickey (due a revival, surely?), took advantage of a lull in the music for a cigarette and a striking profile pose:
Graham Greene, meanwhile, sipped his drink (tea?), and Naipaul leafed through a magazine in a shabby Streatham flat:
Evelyn Waugh lived in the less humble surroundings of Combe Florey, a large manor on the outskirts of Taunton. Taking the 9:30 train from Paddington as per Waugh’s strict instructions, Spencer was greeted on the platform by Mrs and Mrs Waugh “as if I was the children’s tutor”. A rich lunch – fish in a cream sauce; silver-service all the way – and numerous sherries later, Waugh was more candid: “You’ll notice that I have a small face inside a larger one . . . . It’s the result of fat, it grows rings around you”. He subsequently fell asleep, enabling Spencer to sketch a couple of him unawares and smuggle them out in his pad.
(“He looked like a podgy, spoilt child”, recalls Spencer of this version, which was Waugh's favourite.)
A number of the portraits did not make it into print. Pryce-Jones accepted a position as an adviser to the Ford Foundation in New York, leaving Arthur Crook to take over the editorship towards the end of 1959. Perhaps Crook agreed with Eliot and plumped for more words instead; Spencer’s drawings of Stevie Smith, for example, never appeared in the TLS, but here is one, by way of atonement.
(All pictures are courtesy of the artist, Colin Spencer http://colinspencer.co.uk/home.html)