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Benjamin Britten

10 of 120 portraits of Benjamin Britten

© Karsh / Camera Press

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Benjamin Britten

by Yousuf Karsh
bromide print, 1954
13 3/8 in. x 10 5/8 in. (339 mm x 269 mm)
Given by the photographer, Yousuf Karsh, 1991
Primary Collection
NPG P490(14)

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002), Photographer. Artist or producer associated with 159 portraits, Sitter in 2 portraits.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Gibson, Robin, The Face in the Corner: Animal Portraits from the Collections of the National Portrait Gallery, 1998, p. 86
  • Robin Gibson, Pets in Portraits, 2015, p. 122 Read entry

    The son of a Lowestoft dentist, Britten’s fame as a composer had rocketed to international levels after the success of his wartime opera Peter Grimes (1945) and its three successors, The Rape of Lucretia (1946), Albert Herring (1947) and the all-male Billy Budd (1951). Always drawn to the sea, he settled in 1947 in the Suffolk town of Aldeburgh, where the following year he founded with his lifelong companion, the tenor Peter Pears, the Aldeburgh Festival, which rapidly became a mecca for leading performing artists and audiences from around the world.

    Something of a celebrity himself, the Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh got lost on the way to Aldeburgh in 1954, and with Britten irritated at his late arrival and instating on playing tennis and going for a swim before he could be photographed, the session got off to a poor start. Then, wrote Karsh, ‘the dog demanded to become part of the picture. Britten swivelled on the piano seat to make room for his canine collaborator, who leaped into the safety of his arms, while yet casting a wary eye on me.’ Thereafter all must have been sweetness and light, for Karsh’s two published photographs of Britten are among the best portraits of the composer. The score on the music stand is of his opera Gloriana (1953), written for the Coronation of Elizabeth II, and his next, The Turn of the Screw (1954), must by then have been in rehearsal for its premiere in Venice that autumn. The little dachshund is almost certainly Clytie, presumably originally Peter Pears’s dog since she was named after his American signing teacher, Clytie Mundy, but she had clearly adopted the composer and appears in the portrait of him painted a few years later by their neighbour Mary Potter. By the time the Britten-Pears household moved in 1957 to The Red House, their final residence in Aldeburgh, there were two dachshunds, a situation that seems to have remained constant for the rest of Britten’s life.

Events of 1954back to top

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Roger Bannister runs the four-minute mile. Bannister was the first man to achieve the 'miracle mile', a feat that was thought by some to be impossible, beating his rival, the Australian John Landy, to the record. Bannister went on to a career as a distinguished neurologist.
Food rationing ends in Britain.

Art and science

J.R.R. Tolkien publishes the first two parts of the Lord of the Rings trilogy: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. Tolkien was an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon language and literature and drew on his scholarly interests in history, language and mythology to create the fictional land of Middle Earth where the books are set.
Williams Golding publishes, Lord of the Flies.


The South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) is established in Bangkok. This international defence organisation was established as part of the 'containment' policy of limiting the influence of communism. SEATO was, however, found to be ineffective as the member organisations failed to agree on combined action; it was disbanded in 1977.

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