Eileen Agar

Head of Dylan Thomas

1960

Artist
Eileen Agar 1899–1991
Medium
Oil paint and acrylic paint on board
Dimensions
Support: 600 x 435 mm
frame: 875 x 628 x 29 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1962
Reference
T00492

On loan to: Jerwood Gallery (Hastings, UK)

Exhibition: In Focus: Eileen Agar

Summary

Eileen Agar painted this small portrait of the poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) seven years after his death from a sketch she had made more than twenty years earlier. In March 1962 Agar wrote about the first time she met him (Chamot, Farr and Butlin, p.6). It had been in either 1938 or 1939, when he had arrived with the writer and poet David Gascoyne (b.1916), halfway through a dinner party Agar was hosting.

Dylan (then about 25 I believe) sat on the floor and began reciting very lively limericks. Suddenly all the lights went out - a fuse - and when they had come on again the whole mood of our rather dull party had changed. It had come alive with the advent of the two poets. This is when I made a sketch of Dylan, from which, after much meditation and many years had passed, I painted (very quickly) the head now in the Brook Street Gallery (Agar quoted in Chamot, Farr and Butlin, pp.6-7).

Agar developed this style of painting from her experiments with automatism, the technique of painting spontaneously in an attempt to tap into the unconscious. Ultimately, she found 'the process of automatic artistic creation' rather unsatisfactory. She explained, 'I am suspicious about the whole idea of working from dreams. I find that daytime dreams can be inspiring, but not night-time ones - they are too confusing. My own method is to put myself in a state of receptivity during the day' (Agar quoted in Simpson, Gascoyne and Lambirth, p.26). She also found the technique associated with automatism, which involved dribbling oil paint and lacquer onto the canvas from a height, left too much to chance effects. She preferred to guide the paint and achieve a calligraphic style.

Further reading:
Eileen Agar in collaboration with Andrew Lambirth, A Look at My Life, London 1988, pp.197-8, reproduced in colour plate 1a.
Ann Simpson, with David Gascoyne and Andrew Lambirth, Eileen Agar 1899-1991, exhibition catalogue, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh 1999, no.95, reproduced plate 23, in colour.
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, vol. 1, Tate Gallery 1964, pp.6-7.

Chloe Johnson
November 2001

Catalogue entry

T00492 HEAD OF DYLAN THOMAS 1960
 
Inscr. ‘Agar’ b.r. and ‘Eileen Agar The young Dylan Thomas’ on the back.
Oil and Valspar lacquer on Whatman board, irregular, 23 6/8×17 1/8 (60×45·5); marked in ink for framing, 21 3/8×14 3/8 (54·5×36·5).
Purchased from the Brook Street Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1962.
Exh: Brook Street Gallery, March–April 1962 (22).

The artist wrote (23 March 1962) that she first met Dylan Thomas, the poet, before the war. In 1938 or 1939 he and David Gascoyne arrived in the middle of a party she was giving. ‘Dylan (then about 25 I believe) sat on the floor and began reciting very lively limericks. Suddenly all the lights went out - a fuse - and when they had come on again the whole mood of our rather dull party had changed. It had come alive with the advent of the two poets. This is when I made a sketch of Dylan, from which, after much meditation and many years had passed, I painted (very quickly) the head now in the Brook St. Gallery.’

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, I

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