Rollie McKenna: Artists and Writers

1 March – 13 May 2001

Press Notice

Rollie McKenna is best known for her portraits of some of the most famous literary and artistic figures of the twentieth century, and perhaps most notably for her close friendship with Dylan Thomas, who was the subject of many of her photographs. This exhibition is the first gallery retrospective of her work in England, and features 65 of her black and white portraits of British and American poets and artists from the 1950s to the 1960s including W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, John Minton, Truman Capote, Ezra Pound and Robert Frost.

Born in Texas in 1918, McKenna began her photographic career at the age of 30, when she purchased her first camera on a visit to Paris. Her travels in Europe and America and her work for Time and Life magazines as a researcher exposed her to the prominent literary and artistic circles of her time. Her interest in portrait photography came from taking pictures of London-based artists and writers for the Poetry Center in New York where she held her first solo exhibition.

McKenna’s close friend John Malcolm Brinnin introduced her to many prominent figures in the literary circles of the time. She formed close, even life-long, friendships with many of her subjects and re-photographed a number of them on several occasions. In 1965, McKenna produced a film entitled The Days of Dylan Thomas and in 1981 she published the photographic biography Portrait of Dylan: A Photographer’s Memoir. A section of the exhibition is devoted to this writer.

Although also known for her architectural photographs, this selection concentrates on portrait photography and it is that which best epitomises her style. Her career has spanned over 40 years. She almost never uses a studio, preferring instead to photograph her subjects in a more natural environment, and this results in relaxed, informal and unforced images, capturing the very essence of those who sit for her.

She has held group and solo exhibitions around the world and her work is held in the collections of many museums, galleries and libraries in the USA. She has contributed to many publications including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Time, People, Mademoiselle, and The Observer.


1. Self-Portrait, Florence, 1950
Looking out over the River Arno from the Hotel Berchielli window

2. Angelo and his family, 1950

3. John Malcolm Brinnin (1916-1998) and Truman Capote (1924-1984), Venice, 1950

4. Truman Capote, Venice, 1950


5. T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), London, 1951
British poet, critic and dramatist in his office at Faber and Faber

Kathleen Raine
by Rollie McKenna
NPG P1680

6. Kathleen Raine (1908-2003), 1951
British poet and critic

7. George Barker (1913-1991), London, 1951

8. Anne Ridler (1912-2001), Oxford, 1951

9. Robert Lowell (1917-1977), Florence, 1951
American poet

10. Alan Ross (1922-2001), 1950s
Britishpoet and editor

11. Robert Frost (1874-1963), Ripton, Vermont, 1951
American poet

12. John Berryman (1914-1972), New York, 1956
American poet

13. Marianne Moore (1887-1972), New York, August 1951
American poet

14. Jean Garrigue (1914-1972), Millbrook, New York, 1951
American poet

15. W.H. Auden (1907-1973), New York, 1951
British Poet

16. David Gascoyne (1916-2001), 1951
British poet

17. Louis MacNeice (1907-1963), New York, 1954
With his second wife the actress and singer Heidi Anderson

18. C. Day Lewis (1904-1972), in his office, London, 1951
British poet


19. John Minton (1917-1957), 1951

20. Henry Moore (1898-1986), in his studio, Much Hadam, June 1951

John Minton
by Rollie McKenna
NPG P1677

21. John Minton, 1951
With his painting

22. Marino Marini (1901-1980), Milan, 1951
Italian Sculptor and artist and his wife Marina Mercedes Pedrazzini Marini

23. Keith Vaughan (1912-1976), 1951

24. John Piper (1903-1992), near Henley-on-Thames, 1951

25. Bill Brandt (1904-1983), London, 1953

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)

Three of a series of portraits taken during a weekend stay at Rollie McKenna’s house at Millbrook, January 1952:

26. Dylan Thomas
Standing by wall

27. Dylan Thomas
Posing in a wisteria vine

28. Caitlin and Dylan Thomas

Two studies taken in May 1953 at the Poetry Center, New York during rehearsals for the first performance of Under Milk Wood. Thomas completed the ending for the first performance at McKenna’s apartment at 88th Street a few blocks from the Center at 92nd Street:

Dylan Thomas
by Rollie McKenna
May 1953
NPG P1684

29. Dylan Thomas
Directing rehearsals of Under Milk Wood

30. Roy Poole, Nancy Wickwire, Dion Allen, Dylan Thomas, Sada Thompson, Allen F. Collins
Original New York cast (left to right)

Ten photographs of Dylan Thomas and his family at home in and around the Boat House at Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, in September 1953:

31. The Boathouse

32. Dylan Thomas

In his study

33. Playing ‘Nap’ at Brown’s Hotel with its owners Ebie and Ivy Williams and her brother Billy

34. Dylan Thomas
In profile against background of Sir John’s Hill

35. The Dylan Thomas Family:

Dylan Thomas and his elder son Llewelyn Edouard Thomas (1939-2000), Aeronwy Bryn Thomas Ellis (1943-2009), Dylan’s mother Mrs Florence Thomas (1882-1959), Colm Garan Hart Thomas (1949-), Caitlin (1913-1994) and Mably the dog, Laugharne, 1953

36. Group at the Boat House including Caitlin, Aeron, Dolly Long and Sheila Sham

37. Caitlin and Aeron
In the woods

38. Caitlin with Colm and Aeron

39. Colm

40. Mrs Thomas
In bed at her house The Pelican with Aeron

41. Caitlin Thomas, Brown’s Hotel, Laugharne, 1957

42. Vernon Watkins (1906-1967), 1957
Welsh poet

Writers in America 1953-57

43. Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), Petropolis, Brazil, 1954
American poet

44. Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980), Southbury, Connecticut, 1956
American fiction writer

45. Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), Wellfleet, Massachusetts, 1957
American critic

46. Dame Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), New York, March 1953
British poet

The Movement & the Mavericks

47. Thom Gunn (1929-2004), Hyde Park, London, 1957
British poet

48. Dannie Abse (1923-), 1957
British poet

49. Kingsley Amis (1922-1995), 1957
British novelist and poet

50. D.J. Enright (1920-2002), London, 1957
British poet

51. D.J. Enright
Contact sheet, 1957

52. Michael Hamburger (1924-2011), London, 1957
British poet and translator

53.  Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001), London, 1957
British poet

54. John Wain (1925-1994), London, 1957
British poet, critic and novelist

55. Edward Lucie-Smith (1933-), London, 1957
Poet and critic

56. John Osborne (1929-1994), London, 1957
British playwright and his second wife the actress Mary Ure (1933-1975)

57. David Wright (1920-1994), Anthony Cronin (1926-), J.C. Hall (1920-2001), Dannie Abse and John Smith
A group of five leading Maverick poets.

58. Photo-essay on youth culture and the Skiffle craze, London, 1957.

59-61. Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) and Ted Hughes (1930-1998), 1959

62. Anne Sexton (1928-1974), Newton Lower Falls, Weston, Massachusetts, 1961
American poet

63. Robert Lowell (1917-1977), Castine, Maine, 1969
American poet and his daughter Harriet

64. John Heath-Stubbs (1918-2006), London, 1950s
British poet

65. Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), at home, Cloth Fair, London, 1960
British poet

66. Lizzie Spender (1950-), London, 1969
Actress and daughter of Stephen Spender

67. Helen Keller (1880-1968), 1958
American campaigner for the blind

68. Henry Reed (1914-1986), London, 1960
British poet, translator and radio dramatist

69. Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), at home in New York, 1957
American conductor, pianist and composer

Philip Larkin
by Rollie McKenna
NPG P1675

70. Philip Larkin (1922-1985), Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1960
British poet and novelist

Late 1960s

71. James Dickey (1923-1997), Columbia, South Carolina, 1969
Novelist and poet

72. Carson McCullers (1917-1967), American novelist and Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), American playwright, 1960s

73. Mary McCarthy (1912-1989), 1969
American novelist and critic

74. Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006), in his garden, New York City, 1961
American poet and translator

75. James Merrill (1926-1995) American poet, and David Jackson (1922-2001), 1969

76. May Swenson (1919-1989), 1950s
American poet

77. Seamus Heaney (1939-), Belfast, 1969

78. Robert Graves (1895-1985), Deya, Mallorca, 1969
British poet

79. Derek Walcott (1930-), Waterford, Connecticut, 1969
West Indian poet, dramatist and Nobel Prize winner

80. Ezra Pound (1885-1972), Venice, Italy, 1969

81. Howard Moss (1922-1987), John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read, 1961


82. Tom Wolfe (1931-), New York, 1970
American journalist and novelist

83. Laura Gilpin (1891-1979), Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1977

84. Alison Lurie (1926-), Key West, Florida, 1986
American writer

85. Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), 1990
Russian poet with his wife Maria Sozzani

Press Reviews

‘The retrospective [...] of American born photographer Rollie McKenna, [...] features sensitive portraits of literary and artistic figures in London and the United States, many of whom she photographed in their homes rather than artfully posed in a studio. They range from a series of images of Dylan Thomas, his chubby features still fresh and lively, to the lean anguished face of post-war artist John Minton, and the more knowing look of Truman Capote.’

Emmanuel Cooper, ‘Literary insights’ in Tribune, 9 March 2001

‘You might think writers, artists and conductors were not the most exciting subjects for a photographer – but Rollie McKenna would disagree. Although also a noted architectural photographer, she has spent much of her life taking portraits of some of the most distinguished writers, artists and conductors around and a list of those who have posed for her reads like a Who’s Who of 20th century Anglo-American culture. TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney, Ezra Pound, Truman Capote and Leonard Bernstein are just a few and, unlike today’s celebrity driven arts world, the majority are not known for their love of the limelight.’

‘In a way you could describe McKenna as the Annie Leibovitz of her day, but without the window dressing.’

Jamie Woolley, ‘Rollie McKenna: Artists and Writers’ in Metro, 28 February 2001.

‘Texas born Rollie McKenna, who began taking photographs in Paris in 1948, is best known for her relaxed, informal portraits of twentieth century luminaries, like the young Leonard Bernstein. She formed lifelong friendships with many of them, and produced a film and a book on Dylan Thomas, her most famous chum. There’s a section devoted to him in a retrospective of her work at London’s National Portrait Gallery.’

‘Mug shots’ in House Beautiful, March 2001