Literati Photographs by Mark Gerson

2 August – 13 October 1996

Mark Gerson has been creating photographic portraits for nearly fifty years, and for almost thirty years the National Portrait Gallery has been steadily acquiring the fruits of his labour. There are now some two hundred Gerson photographs in the Gallery’s collection and we are delighted to be able to show a selection of these in celebration of the photographer’s seventy fifth birthday.

Since the publication of his first literary portrait – a photograph of his aunt, the novelist and biographer Betty Miller – in John O’London’s Weekly in 1952, Mark Gerson has become widely known as a photographer of writers. His work is to be found in periodicals, reference books and on dust jackets of some of the most celebrated literary works of the century. Released from the printed page and seen in their entirety Gerson’s portraits acquire a new authority. The opportunity to look at a span of his work reveals a consistent approach from the outset. Although the clothes and accoutrements of his sitter may change with the decades, his hallmark has always remained a communicable sensitivity to his subjects and their environment.

From the exhibition catalogue, Honor Clerk and Terence Pepper, August 1996 

Handlist

(Please note: sitters’ biographical dates have been updated from the original hand list. Updated December 2012).

1. Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), August 1953
Poet and novelist
x88207

2. Doris Lessing (1919-), April 1956
Novelist and short story writer
x88216

3. Kingsley Amis (1922-1995), June1957
Novelist
x88202

4. Rumer Godden (1907-1998)
Novelist, autobiographer and children’s writer
x88211

5. John Wain (1925-1994), October 1958
Poet, critic and novelist
x88308

6. Alan Stillitoe (1928-2010), October 1958
Novelist, poet and essay writer
x88227

7. Iris Murdoch (1919-1999), October 1958
Novelist and philosopher
x88220

8. Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) with his family, March 1959 (colour)
Novelist
x88242

9. Evelyn Waugh with his family, March 1959 (colour)
x88245

10. Harold Pinter (1930-2008), June 1960
Playwright
x88224

11. J.B. Priestley (1894-1984) and Jacquetta Hawkes (1910-1996), July 1960 (colour)
Playwright and novelist; archaeologist
x88237

12. Faber poets, September 1960
(Left to right) Stephen Spender (1909-1995), W.H. Auden (1907-1973), Ted Hughes (1930-), T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)

13. Faber poets, September 1960
(Left to right) W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot, with his wife Valerie
x88203

14. Faber poets, September 1960
(Left to right) Louis MacNeice, Ted Hughes, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender
x88256

15. John Betjeman (1906-1984), November 1960
Poet Laureate and writer on architecture
x88199

16. John (1923-2009) and Penelope (1918-1999) Mortimer with Sally, Julia and Jeremy, January 1961
Novelist, playwright and barrister with his novelist wife and their children
x88309

17. H.E. Bates (1905-1974) with his wife, daughter and grandchildren, May 1961
Novelist and short story writer
x88310

18. Muriel Spark (1918-2006), August 1961
Novelist
x88230

19. Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), May 1962
Poet
x88228

20. Jonathan Miller (1934-), May 1962
Neuropsychologist, writer, actor and director
x88219

21. Eric Ambler (1909-1998), June 1962
Thriller writer and screenplay author
x88201

22. John Braine (1922-1986), September 1962
Novelist
x88197

23. Evelyn Waugh, October 1963
x13768

24. Roy Fuller (1912-1991), December 1963
Poet
x88252

25. Monica Dickens (1915-1992), April 1964
Novelist, autobiographer and children’s writer
x88246

26. Anthony Burgess (1917-1993), April 1964
Novelist and critic
x88205

27. Margaret Drabble (1939-), July 1964
Novelist and critic
x88208

28. Rosamund Lehmann (1901-1990), May 1965
Novelist
x88215

29. William Empson (1906-1984), May 1965
Poet and critic
x88210

30. C. Day-Lewis (1904-1972), May 1965
Poet Laureate
x88307

31. David Jones (1895-1974), October 1965 (colour)
Poet and artist
x88234

32. Brigid Brophy (1929-1995), February 1966
Novelist
x88204

33. C.P. Snow (1905-1980), July 1966
Novelist
x88229

34. Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990), March 1968
Poet, novelist and travel writer
x88209

35. David Mercer (1928-1980), April 1968
Playwright
x88218

36. Charles Causley (1917-2003), August 1968
Poet
x88250

37. Tom Stoppard (1937-), June 1969
Playwright
x88254

38. Henry Williamson (1895-1977), August 1970 (colour)
Novelist
x88241

39. William Golding (1911-1993), August 1970
Novelist
x88212

40. Malcolm Bradbury (1932-2000), August 1970
Novelist and critic
x88249

41. James Baldwin (1924-1987), July 1971
Novelist
x88248

42. Miss Read (Dora Jessie Saint) (1923-2012), May 1973 (colour)
Novelist
x88239

43. Edna O’Brien (1932-), November 1973
Novelist, short story writer and playwright
x88222

44. Richard Adams (1920-), July 1974
Novelist
x88200

45. Noel Streatfeild (1895-1986), September 1976 (colour)
Children’s writer
x88240

46. Paul Scott (1920-1978), July 1977
Novelist
x88226

47. Howard Brenton (1942-), August 1977
Playwright
x88196

48. Barbara Pym (1913-1980), August 1979 (colour)
Novelist
x88238

49. Ian McEwan (1942-), August 1979 (colour)
Novelist, short story writer and screenplay author
x88235

50. John Osborne (1929-1994), August 1981 (colour)
Playwright and actor
x88236

51. Salman Rushdie (1947-), October 1981
Novelist
x88247

52. William Trevor (1928-), February 1982
Short story writer, novelist and playwright
x88231

53. A.N. Wilson (1950-), August 1982
Novelist, biographer, critic and journalist
x88255

54. Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), June 1983
Crime fiction writer
x88213

55. Peter Nichols (1927-), August 1983
Dramatist
x88221

56. David Lodge (1935-), March 1984
Novelist and critic
x88217

57. Edward Bond (1934-), September 1984
Playwright and director
x88198

58. Anita Brookner (1928-), February 1985
Novelist and art historian
x88195

59. V.S. Prittchett (1900-1997), October 1989
Writer and critic
x88225

60. A.S. Byatt (1938-), June 1992
Novelist and critic
x88206

61. Arnold Wesker (1932-), August 1992
Dramatist
x88232

62. P.D. James (1920-), December 1993
Crime fiction writer
x88233

63. Ben Okri (1959-), June 1995
Novelist, poet and short story writer
x88223

64. Kazuo Ishiguro (1954-), September 1995
Novelist
x88214

65. Michael Frayn (1933-) and Claire Tomalin (1933-), May 1996
Playwright, novelist and journalist; biographer
x88251

66. Seamus Heaney (1939-), June 1996
Poet
x88253

Press reviews

‘Mark Gerson has been photographing writers for five decades – from Stephen Spender in 1949 to Seamus Heaney, only last week. The worst thing was always seeing his work reproduced the size of a postage stamp on jackets. “It was a bit annoying, but you get used to it,” he says. But justice will be done finally when his show Literati opens at the National Portrait Gallery this week.’

‘The Loafer’ in The Guardian, 2 August 1996.

‘The Tate and the National Gallery may be grander or more glamorous, but for sheer entertainment value you can’t beat the National Portrait Gallery.[...] Gerson brings to what might otherwise have been ordinary studio photographs a sensitivity to nuances of character and setting that makes them, if not works of art, then journalism of the highest quality.

‘Sometimes the interest of the photos is primarily historic, as when he catches T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender and Ted Hughes together at a Faber drinks party in 1960. It is extraordinary enough to see four generations of the best-known British poets in one photograph, but in the label Gerson admits that on this occasion he missed the chance to take the ultimate literary photograph. For had he only turned around he’d have seen the opportunity to include Hughes’s wife Sylvia Plath, who was watching him as he worked.’

Richard Dorment, ‘Portrait of the artist as a work of art’ in The Daily Telegraph, 4 September 1996

‘When he was commissioned to photograph Waugh on his 60th birthday Gerson was aware of his irascible personality. When he arrived Waugh was friendly but distant. He opened a bottle of claret and gave Gerson a cigar. After half an hour Gerson felt so drunk he was unable to take a single photograph and had to have an aspirin and go and lie down. This pleased Waugh immensely, and when Gerson reappeared he was in a far more expansive mood. He took him into the garden to show him two sphinxes he had just bought. “They lay willy-nilly on the grass, with a startling resemblance to their owner. I put them side by side and asked him to step into the middle. ‘What’s all this about?’ he queried suspiciously. ‘Just stand there.’ He glared – I took two shots and knew I had a winner.” It is one of Gerson’s best-known images.’

Emma Burn, ‘Literati: Photographs by Mark Gerson’ in London Portrait, August 1996.