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George Bernard Shaw

© estate of Augustus John / Bridgeman Art Library

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George Bernard Shaw

by Augustus John
pencil, circa 1915
10 in. x 8 1/4 in. (254 mm x 210 mm) sight
Given by Michael Kahan, 2013
Primary Collection
NPG 6972

Sitterback to top

  • George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Playwright. Sitter in 148 portraits, Artist associated with 8 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Augustus Edwin John (1878-1961), Painter. Artist associated with 33 portraits, Sitter in 106 portraits.

This portraitback to top

This drawing of the renowned poet, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) by the equally well-known portrait artist, Augustus Edwin John (1878-1961), was made in 1915 during a short stay at Lady Gregory’s estate at Coole Park in Galway. The drawing is one of several studies completed for three finished portraits that are now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the Royal Collection and the collection of the National Trust.
In John’s memoirs, written over thirty years later, he describes the encounter in remarkable detail. He recalls arriving at Coole Park in ‘poor shape’ and with a cough that seemed to him ‘both organic and incurable’. Shaw’s chauffeur drove John to a chemist in a nearby town and ordered up a concoction of ingredients that swiftly brought John back to full health, ready to face the ‘task with confidence’.
The time away in Ireland allowed John and Shaw to become well acquainted. Their relationship was peppered with both admiration and irritation for one another. In a letter to his model and second partner, Dorelia McNeill, John refers to Shaw as a ‘ridiculous vain object in knickerbockers’. By contrast, in his autobiography he recalled that ‘What I have sketched here was more than an ordinary episode: it was a great occasion, for I had come to know in intimacy a true Prince of the Spirit, a fearless enemy of cant and humbug, and in his queer way, a highly respectable though strictly uncanonical saint.’ Similarly, despite being dismayed at ‘being immortalised as an elderly caricature’ and frustrated at John’s method of painting over or washing out canvases, Shaw would hold on to one of the portraits from this sitting for the rest of his life.

When this drawing was first brought to the attention of the National Portrait Gallery in 2011 curators were divided as to whether it was a necessary addition to the collection due to the Gallery’s already vast holdings of portraits of Shaw (over 400 portraits at the time). This view was reconsidered in 2013 due to the chronological importance of the piece as an early depiction of Shaw, and it was accepted at the July 2013 Trustees meeting.

Subject/Themeback to top

Events of 1915back to top

Current affairs

The Times Newspaper reports that Britain's Army is suffering from a lack of Ammunition Shells, pointing the finger of blame at the Liberal government. The Shell Scandal forced Asquith to form a new coalition government, bringing Conservatives into the cabinet and demonstrating the need to gear the whole country's economy towards the war effort.

Art and science

As the threat from aerial attack increased, the decision was made to protect the national art collections by storing them in basements or in locations outside London. On 15th October the National Portrait Gallery under the directorship of Sir Charles John Holmes closed its doors to the public and removed paintings from the walls.


Stalemate ensues on the Western Front and trench warfare begins as both sides take up defensive positions. While offensive strategies become futile, serious loss of life occurs with the first deployment of tanks and the use of poison gas.
Albert Einstein publishes his General Theory of Relativity, a model of gravitation and cosmology.

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