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What Lies Beneath: Portrait of TS Eliot by Sir Gerald Festus Kelly


Portrait of T.S. Eliot

Portrait of T.S. Eliot

Portrait of T.S. Eliot

Gerald Festus Kelly, a vicar's son, born in April 1879 in what TS Eliot calls "the cruellest month", went to Paris aged 22 to study painting. Years later, aged 77, Kelly said that "when I got to Paris, something went 'bang' inside me" and he began to paint "for as long as the light lasted".

Best known for his portraits, Kelly's sitters included Somerset Maugham, Vaughan Williams, Marie Stopes, the British royal family, and this portrait of Thomas Stearns Eliot, dated 1962. Kelly was then over 80. Sir Gerald Festus Kelly died aged 93.

Eliot's portrait was painted more than 60 times. This one, in the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, shows him sitting upright, grey-suited, buttoned up, before a baize-covered card table, the deck patiently spread before him. The face looks worn, lonely, serious, intelligent. Waistcoat, crisp shirt and tie, pocket handkerchief, wedding ring are elegant. Behind him on beautifully appointed shelves, his life's work and interests: his own poetry volumes, novels, books on art and artists.

Eliot himself was 77 in 1962; he died three years later and yet it was the happiest time of his life. In 1957 he had married his 30-year-old secretary Valerie Fletcher who, having heard a recording of Eliot's Journey of the Magi as a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Yorkshire, decided there and then that she would marry him. And she did. Strange things do happen.

During those eight happy years of marriage he wrote little and published no poetry. Fame had come early. Prufrock in 1911 and The Waste Land, Eliot's compressed epic, published in 1922, which according to James Joyce ended the idea of poetry for ladies, made him world-famous.

In 1947 he received the Order of Merit from King George VI, that same year he met Pope Pius XII who blessed him and gave him rosary beads, and in 1948 he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

In April 1956, 14,000 people, the biggest audience ever for a literary lecture, turned up in a baseball stadium in Minneapolis to hear him talk. April, that year, can't have been that cruel. But Eliot died before his Old Possums's Book of Practical Cats inspired Lloyd Webber's Cats and his words were everywhere.

"Let the memory live again."

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