Friday, 29 August 2014

Karsh Portraits - W. Somerset Maugham

Karsh Portraits
Karsh Portraits

Karsh, Yousuf. Karsh Portraits (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979)


For those who have looked at W. Somerset Maugham’s photos from time to time, or even possessed some, may find the name Yousuf Karsh familiar. For those who find that Karsh’s name does not ring a bell, they only need to take a look of Hemingway’s photo on the cover to realize the fame of the portrait artist, whose subjects ranged from Albert Einstein, Prince Charles, Robert Frost, Pablo Picasso, Marshall McLuhan, George Bernard Shaw, Igor Stravinsky to Winston Churchill.

Recovered from storage is this interesting coffee-table book, Karsh Portraits, that I did not even remember. Upon seeing Karsh’s name, I flipped immediately to the index, and of course, Maugham’s portrait was there.

W. Somerset Maugham and Yousuf Karsh



This is how Maugham is introduced:
William Somerset Maugham
C.H.
British novelist and dramatist (1874-1965). Educated at King’s School, Canterbury; Heidelberg University; and St. Thomas’s Hospital, where he studied medicine. His novels include: Liza of Lambeth, Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence, The Painted Veil, Cakes and Ale, The Razor’s Edge. He wrote also many plays, some of which have become classics of the modern theatre: The Circle, The Letter, The Constant Wife. His brilliant short stories remain very popular and have been the basis of several films.
W. Somerset Maugham by Yousuf Karsh
W. Somerset Maugham by Yousuf Karsh
Karsh writes a short piece for all the people he has included in the book, the circumstances in which he met them. His observation of Maugham as a portrait artist is very gratifying.

The face of Somerset Maugham – a deeply lined, wise, and almost ageless face – is as familiar to the world as are the writer’s teeming works. Yet the man I discovered in the grand suite of a New York hotel in 1950 entirely surprised me. He was quite unlike the man I had expected from reading his stories and many articles about him. ~ Apparently he had kept his appointment with me by interrupting his customary afternoon nap. The black eye-shield he wore at such times still dangled from his hand. Though he obviously would have preferred to rest (for he was by then an ‘old party’ as he always told reporters), he gave me his whole attention and almost charmed me away from the business of the sitting. ~ To begin with, his face was arresting – not handsome, of course, in any conventional sense but impressive, rather like the carved, wooden image of some tribal god in the South Seas where he roamed so often. The eyes were penetrating, almost hypnotic and intensely alive. That well-known expression of starkness (often taken for cynicism) broke frequently into the most engaging smile. To my surprise Maugham, the realist, the hard-boiled sceptic, possessed an irresistible warmth. This made the work of the camera easy but did not help my other purpose. I wanted to ask him a thousand questions about his methods, his life, and his views, but after half an hour I realized that I, not he, was being interviewed. Out of long habit, I suppose, he automatically began to draw a stranger out. His curiosity about human nature was insatiable in his old age. He found in everybody, even the chance passer-by, the possibility of some quirk or anecdote that had in it the making of a tale after passing through the alchemy of his imagination. I had the sudden vivid feeling that he viewed the human comedy with the objectivity of my camera. ~ At any rate, Mr. Maugham talked little and I am afraid that I talked much, simply because I could not resist a man who appeared to have no interest in the world just then but me. Doubtless that was his custom with everyone who crossed his path; the result is know to just about everyone who reads his stories. ~ Mr. Maugham was not in a talking mood that day, but I have heard that in this respect his mood could change. A close friend of his remarked to me, later, that Maugham ‘when he gets going is an extraordinarily interesting talker and talks as well as he writes. Yes, and he reads his stories aloud as well as any actor could.’ ~ I remember Somerset Maugham, then, rather as a polished, elegant, and sympathetic listener, with an immense cunning in penetrating another man’s inner-most thoughts.

This photo according to Karsh was taken in 1950 (could be an approximate year). It is included in the April 1952 issue of Coronet as a part of “The Face of Greatness,” as I gather, with text supplied by Louis Redmond.

Of course we can assume that Karsh took a series of photographs on this occasion, one of which was used for the April 1957 Wisdom cover (notice the same clothes),

W. Somerset Maugham by Yousuf Karsh
W. Somerset Maugham by Yousuf Karsh
which was also the model for the brass medallion produced for promotional purpose of Quartet (1948) and Trio (1950) by the Gainsborough Productions.

W. Somerset Maugham Medallion
W. Somerset Maugham Medallion



Karsh Portraits at AbeBooks
Karsh Portraits at Amazon.com

8 comments :

  1. This is somewhat related to this post in that it contains a portrait of Maugham as well as some of his dust jackets. It's definitely the most creative Maugham thing I've seen on the internet.
    https://www.etsy.com/listing/196303952/book-lovers-bracelet-w-somerset-maugham?ref=sr_gallery_26&ga_search_query=maugham&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery

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  2. Hi~Thank you for the post. Today I find something interesting when I was reading Wilson Menard's the two worlds of Somerset Maugham. The last two pages of this book lists the writings from Maugham, one of it is a book called "Rag-Bag"( page 374). According to the information given, this book should be published after Maugham's death. It is a retrospection on Maugham's early years, as a young man in London. I googled this title, but did not find any information about it.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Cheng,

      Glad to hear from you!

      This is very interesting indeed. I have the book but haven't found the time to read it yet (regretfully, the same for many others...).

      Does Menard mention it in the main text, such as how he got that information? What I come across is a review of Points of View by Frank Kermode, who writes that one of the essays, "Short Story," "is a bit of a rag-bag." I wonder if Maugham was amused by that and said something casually about it. He has used others' criticisms as titles of his books before, such as The Moon and Sixpence and The Mixture As Before. But this is pure conjecture. It would be immensely interesting to know more about this. Thanks!

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    2. Hi Cheng,

      I came across another reference to Ragbag. In fact, Menard is right. In Calder's biography (358) he mentioned that there were newspaper advertisements at that time announcing that his autobiography would be published posthumously, and that there were signs that Maugham was researching for it in 1959.

      I think you have the UK 1st Purely for My Pleasure, if I remember correctly. On the dust jacket's back flap there is an announcement of Looking Back to be published by Heinemann.

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  3. I've just found I've been a fan of Karsh for years without knowing it. Many great portraits in his portfolio. The one of Humphrey Bogart and G. B. S. are glorious. Not to mention the ones of Maugham...

    I am amusing myself with a post dedicated to Maugham's various potraits. Mind if I use the first one from here?

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    Replies
    1. Of course not. Let me know if you are interested in any pages of this book too.

      By the way, any idea about the "Rag-Bag" in the comment from Cheng Lu?

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    2. Does it contain Bogart's portrait? I'd like to print this in poster form.

      I read Cheng Lu's comment with interest. No idea what Menard meant. Your Kermode Theory is the best we have so far...

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