Rare photographs of Benjamin Britten including family and personal snapshots from his boyhood and professional life are on display at at the National Portrait Gallery, ahead of his centenary this weekend.
Spanning all sixty-three years of his life, it starts with a rarely-seen photograph of the composer at one-year-old and ends with the gallery’s newly-acquired 1984 portrait of his partner Sir Peter Pears, pictured in the drawing room of the Red House in Aldeburgh. Pears is shown next to the portrait of Britten painted by Henry Lamb in 1943 and which Pears purchased shortly after the composer’s death.
The earliest portrait in the display shows Britten with his nanny Annie Walker, taken for a family Christmas card. At three months old Britten developed pneumonia and was not expected to live, but by the time the photo was taken in 1914 and around his first birthday, he’d made a full recovery and received no further treatment from his family.
The exhibition, which runs until 30 June 2014, includes many photos given by the Britten Estate in 1981 that have not been previously shown at the NPG, and unseen portrait studies of his closest friends and musical collaborators selected from the Gallery’s reference collection of photographs.
Benjamin Britten: A Life in Pictures shows the extensive range of Britten’s musical output and how it brought him into contact with luminaries in many creative fields. Among them are artist and designer John Piper and his wife, the librettist Myfanwy Piper; poet W.H. Auden; novelist E.M. Forster; composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Francis Poulenc; choreographers John Cranko and Sir Frederick Ashton (a rare portrait of Ashton and Britten working together on the opera Albert Herring); and talented young musicians such as horn player Dennis Brain, who died tragically young.
The curator Robin Francis, says,
Benjamin Britten has to be one of the great names of twentieth-century music and therefore it seemed important that we should participate in the international celebrations of his centenary with a display at the National Portrait Gallery. We are fortunate in that in 1981 we received a collection of personal photographs from the Britten Estate and I am thrilled that we have now been able to show a selection of these alongside more formal studies of some of the major figures who featured in this extraordinary career.
BENJAMIN BRITTEN: A LIFE IN PICTURES until 30 June 2014, Room 31, National Portrait Gallery, London. Admission free
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.