NPG 6400 (1a)

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Fax from Ross Wilson to Charles Saumarez Smith, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, dated 17 July 1997, giving an account of his commission to paint Derek Walcott.


- Ross Wilson; Looking for Mr Walcott. The Sun Poet. -

On being first informed of the Derek Walcott commission I found it hard to believe, Charles Saumarez Smith passed me a page of telephone numbers and fax numbers, all of them related to Mr Walcott, this happened over a very cool lunch in Pegs Club on a very hot summer day in London. After many attemps by Charles and others Mr Walcott was still silent.

I knew I had to make contact and also also get the right reponse from Mr Walcott. It was to be a long trail via Boston, the Virgin Islands, Faber and Faber, Straus Publishers New York, Harvard University, the Internet, the British High Commission, the girl at The Rainbow Book Shop St Lucia, Cuba and finaly Mary the switchboard operator at The Mayflower Hotel New York; after two weeks of telephone and fax activity I finaly ask Mary at the switchboard to put me through to Mr Walcotts room. There was silence, then two beeps, a long tone, a click and then the word "Yes" it was a deep sounding yes it had texture and it was Mr Walcott saying "Yes' to me. I had at last come voice to voice with the poet Derek Walcott. My mind went blank, I was speechless. "Yes who is it" he continued, I had rehearsed my first lines so well, so many times, my heart was jumping I started to speak then it came out "Derek Walcott?" - "Yes" he said once again "Mr Walcott you don't know me but the National Portrait Gallery in London have ask me to make contact with you".

I had made contact, he said that New York was out of the question he had too much to do no time to sit. I was to meet him on his island, I must come to St Lucia, the place that gave him his voice, all this took two more weeks to confirm but at 2'o'clock in the afternoon on Wednesday 25th Sept' 1996 I was to meet him in St. Lucia... I knew that Mr Walcott had been known not to turn up for certain appointments. I made him confirm twice before I booked flights, he said he could let me have 3 hours. 3 hours were better than no hours so I set off for St. Lucia.

When I stepped off the plane surrounded by the Caribbean I stepped staight into a Derek Walcott poem...
"...The midsummer sea, the hot pitch road, this grass, these shacks that made me, jungle and razor grass shimmering by the roadside, the edge of art." (Derek Walcott, Midsummer 1984).