The Soldier – Rupert Brooke

by Clara Ewald, oil on canvas, 1911
Rupert Brooke, by Clara Ewald, oil on canvas, 1911

The bitter ironies of war! In the spring of 1911, a young Rupert Brooke sat for the German artist, Clara Ewald, while on an extended visit to Munich. Brooke was accepted by the Ewalds as a family friend and was a frequent visitor to the artist’s home.

Brooke had been associated with the Bloomsbury group of writers, including Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, but he fell out with them and suffered a nervous collapse. His trips to Germany were in part to enable him to recover from his emotional problems.

In this beautiful, sensitive portrait – part of the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery – Ewald captured the handsome features of the young poet, who with his broad-brimmed hat and optimistic gaze, strongly resembled the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats.

Having enlisted in the Royal Naval Reserve at the outbreak of the First World War, Rupert Brooke saw action at Antwerp in 1914 which inspired the writing of five passionately patriotic sonnets, the last of them being “The Soldier”, reprinted below.

Brooke died in 1915 from the consequences of an infected mosquito bite while en route to the catastrophic Gallipoli landing in the Dardenelles.

He is buried in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros. 

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Rupert Brooke


Portrait of A S Byatt by Patrick Heron

A.S. Byatt (Portrait of A S Byatt : Red, Yellow, Green and Blue : 24 September 1997)

by Patrick Heron, oil on canvas, 1997

The 1997 portrait of A S Byatt, by Patrick Heron, in oils on canvas, captures all the exuberance of the novelist in primary colours. It is a triumph of art over photography, in the sense that the sketching of the writer’s figure tells us more about her than any photograph could ever hope to do. Her vibrant personality, her larger than life appearance, her vivaciousness are all there, beautifully expressed. Picture her there in a room, in person: one could not fail to notice her dominating presence. But it is a domination without threat, the domination of an enthusiast for her profession, for her own art. Portraits in the Victorian mould can so often be almost photographic, the painter striving for perfection, every hair in place, every tiny detail forensically included. Imagine the consternation of these artists were they to see Patrick Heron’s rendering of A S Byatt. How can so much be achieved by apparently so little? How can such bold strokes and seemingly haphazard splashes of paint create such a profound. living, breathing representation of the sitter’s persona? 

Portraits may be simple representations – or on occasions, deliberate misrepresentations: they can be masks or disguises or false projections, telling us nothing of the real person. Like the portrait of Dorian Grey, they may cover a multitude of sins. That is not the case with Patrick Heron’s masterpiece. It is full of narrative detail, in the dress, in the tilt of the head, in the loudness of the primary colours, a veritable short story in itself. And one would never tire of this painting as one might of a photograph of the novelist. Hung upon any wall, this rendition would dominate the room, just as the author does wherever she  goes.

Let us suppose for a moment that the gallery curator decided to hang this work in a completely different room, for example, among the somewhat stuffy (in comparison, and no offence) 19th century portraits: what an effect that would have as you walked in and were greeted by Patrick Heron’s astonishing burst of colour! Time to rock the conventions and shuffle things around? The day may come!

If you haven’t seen this painting for yourself, I would strongly recommend a quick visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Charing Cross Road to judge for yourself. I guarantee you will not be disappointed!