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James Augustine Aloysius Joyce: A Lost Portrait (Perhaps)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 4, Summer 2011
pp. 750-755 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0097

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In the early 1980s, while living in West London, I became interested in collecting paintings of poets because I too am a poet. My late friend, Laurie Hoffman, who was Director of Editions Alecto, introduced me to an art-dealer friend of his, John Barkes. One evening in John’s rooms, I saw an oil painting that seemed to me to be an image of James Joyce, and so I bought it and hung it in my home in Fulham. It is oil on canvas, 21.75 × 25.25 inches (see Figure 1).

I moved from Fulham in 1987 to West Berkshire, but on the weekend of that August move, it rained heavily, and some of my records were destroyed, including those relating to the painting. I am grateful that the painting survived intact, and it has hung in the office of my law practice since then.

Alas, John cannot now recollect when he acquired this painting but suggests that it may have originated in Zurich since it appears to reflect work of that period—very possibly the winter of 1940. Joyce arrived there from Paris on 17 December 1940 and died on 13 January 1941. John told me that he had the painting in his possession for a number of years. The marking on the back of the frame indicates it was framed in Zurich (see Figures 2 and 3).

I have been unable either to decipher or to identify the signature (see Figure 4). It has been suggested to me that this may be one of Augustus John’s works, such as his Portrait of the Poet, but I have yet to be convinced. I have thought that, if this is indeed a portrait of Joyce, it does not matter whom the artist may have been. As is well known, there are not too many paintings of Joyce.

In Richard Ellmann’s revised biography, an illustration on sheet XXXVI shows Joyce in a lounge suit and tie in Ezra Pound’s rooms in Paris in 1923. Although his head is turned half-left, evidently to look at the rest of the group including John Quinn and Ford Madox Ford, this image bears a striking resemblance to my painting.

In the Encyclopedia Britannica, there is a black-and-white photograph of Joyce by Gisele Freund taken in 1929, and this, although again half-faced, has a studiousness reflected also in my painting.1 The photo may have been taken around the time of the publication of Finnegans Wake, which occurred on 4 May 1939, having been delayed from Joyce’s fifty-seventh birthday on 2 February 1939.

Ellmann records several instances of Joyce sitting for a portrait, including ones by John (JJII 627), Tullio Silvestri probably in 1920 (JJII 472), Patrick Tuohy in January 1927 (JJII 565), and César Abin around Joyce’s fiftieth birthday (“the classical figure of the artist in a dressing-gown,” which dissatisfied Joyce—JJII 645). Thus, there is sufficient scope for another artist to have been at work even though Joyce appears to have been a somewhat unwilling sitter who was bored by the whole process of posing.

My painting could have been framed sometime at the end of World War II. Perhaps it was one of the items that Sylvia Beach, assisted by Adrienne Monnier, moved in December 1941 from Shakespeare and Company at 12 rue de L’Odeon (opposite Monnier’s own bookshop) into an unoccupied flat on the fourth floor (where they stored 5,000 books plus “magazines, photographs and furniture” until the end of the war2). Beach and Monnier did this in haste to avoid the contents of the shop being confiscated by the occupying German army. This material was saved, but Shakespeare and Company was not.

It means a great deal to me that I have the painting, and this is as much as I know about its copyright and provenance. I hope by including it in these pages to share it with experts on Joyce and perhaps invite further research into its origins.

Snowdon Barnett  

Snowdon Barnett has published ten volumes of poetry, the last two of which were Nocturne and Feasts of Devotion. His work...

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