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Lewis Waller (William Waller Lewis)

2 of 27 portraits by Sir Gerald Kelly

Lewis Waller (William Waller Lewis), by Sir Gerald Kelly,  -NPG 5795 - © reserved; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

© reserved; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

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Lewis Waller (William Waller Lewis)

by Sir Gerald Kelly
Oil on canvas
29 5/8 in. x 25 3/8 in. (752 mm x 645 mm)
NPG 5795

Inscriptionback to top

Inscr. in black paint on canvas on three sides where folded over stretcher: ‘LEWIS WALLER 29½ x 25¼’.
On stretcher inscr. in black paint, top bar: ‘29½ x 25¼’;
inscr. in chalk, top bar: ‘Lot 297 (3)’;
inscr. in chalk, bottom bar: ‘EY 739’;
ink stencil on bottom bar: ‘EY 739’.

This portraitback to top

For a handsome actor with an ardent following, Lewis Waller was much photographed, but little painted; so this portrait by Gerald Kelly, even in its unfinished state, occupies a special place in his iconography.

It seems that the paths of the young Kelly, Paris-based between 1901 and 1908, and Waller the veteran actor, might never have crossed, still less resulted in a commission, without the help of a third party, in this case almost certainly the writer Somerset Maugham, a friend of Kelly’s in Paris.

Kelly first painted Maugham in 1907. [1] The following year was an annus mirabilis for the writer with, at one point, four plays showing simultaneously in London. One of these was The Explorer, a work he had long struggled to get performed. Eventually Waller, as manager of the Lyric Theatre, agreed to take it and play the lead role. [2] The play opened on 13 June 1908 but, panned by the critics, it closed after just forty-eight performances.

In spring 1908, on the rebound from a love affair, Kelly left Paris. ‘A friend – actually, Mr Somerset Maugham – advised me to take a nice long journey … I had seen some snapshots of Burmese dancers, and so, with the sublime spontaneous stupidity of youth, I just went off to Burma.’ [3] In fact Kelly undertook several portrait commissions in London before leaving for Burma. One of these was to paint Waller; a sitting took place in the artist’s Camberwell studio on 16 September. [4] The actor – at this point playing Henri de Lagardère in The Duke’s Motto – posed in informal private dress. The head is fairly worked up, the body just sketched in with the right hand unattempted or ‘sanded off’; [5] Kelly was known to have difficulties with hands in his early career. [6] It is unclear how many sittings took place; in any case, by late November the artist had arrived in Burma.

The canvas remained with other unclaimed studio effects until the Kelly studio sale at Christie’s in 1980. [7] When it was offered a second time, on 15 March 1985, lot 297, still unvarnished and grubby with the ‘dense surface dirt’ [8] of decades of storage, it was bid for and acquired by the National Portrait Gallery for £819, its value recognized as a rare portrait of Waller in private dress. [9]

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) ‘Kelly made two portraits of Maugham in 1907 (of which one was destroyed); they were the first of eighteen portraits he painted of him’ (Hudson 1975, p.31).
2) ‘Persuading Waller of The Explorer’s potential had not been easy, and the play had been submitted and substantially rewritten four times before it was eventually accepted’ (Hastings 2009, p.128).
3) Exh. cat. of Kelly’s Burmese paintings, 1962, no further details; cited Hudson 1975, p.31.
4) Kelly recorded: ‘Lewis Waller Sept. 16 1908 30 x 25’; file index of works, Kelly MS 184, NPG Archive.
5) Conservation report, 1985, NPG RP 5795.
6) ‘The fellow cannot draw a hand’ (quoted Hudson 1975, pp.21–2).
7) The Contents of the Studio of the Late Sir Gerald Kelly, Christie’s, 8 Feb. 1980 (168, one of four items). The Gallery purchased three portraits by Kelly at this sale.
8) Conservation report, 1985, NPG RP 5795.
9) Modern British and Irish Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, Christie’s, 15 Mar. 1985 (297, one of three items), bid for by Leggatt Brothers on behalf of the Gallery.

Physical descriptionback to top

Half-length, full-face, with large blue eyes, wearing a yellow waistcoat and dark jacket.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1985; 2006.

Provenanceback to top

Artist's studio; purchased Christie's, 15 March 1985.

View all known portraits for Lewis Waller (William Waller Lewis)