George Bernard Shaw with Kim in 1922 (© Estate of George Bernard Shaw/ London School of Economics)

Gwarlingo’s “Photo of the Week” (a regular feature on the sidebar of the Gwarlingo homepage) is a captivating image of a sailboat on the Thames taken in 1906 by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw.

Not many people realize that the Nobel laureate was a passionate amateur photographer, as well as a prolific playwright, essayist, and corespondent. Shaw’s first surviving negatives date from 1898. When Shaw died at the age of 94, he left behind over 10,000 photographic prints and over 10,000 negatives in his home in Ayot St Lawrence.

In a time when few people in the art establishment gave photography the respect it deserved, Shaw was an early advocate of photography as a serious art form. He wrote many reviews and articles on the subject and enjoyed discussing the topic with photographers like Alvin Langdon Coburn.

Shaw's photograph of Auguste Rodin working in his studio (© Estate of George Bernard Shaw/ London School of Economics)

“If Velasquez were born today, he would be a photographer and not a painter,” Shaw observed. When Shaw was asked about his fascination with photography, he said, “I always wanted to draw and paint. I aspired to be a Michael Angelo, not a Shakespear

[sic]. But I could not draw well enough to satisfy myself… So when dry plates and push buttons came into the market I bought a box camera and began pushing the button.”

Shaw’s photographs, particularly his self-portraits, reveal a more playful side than the stern-faced Shaw commonly seen in the official portraits used in newspapers and books. There are several nude self-portraits in Shaw’s collection, plus images of him at the beach, picnicking, and enjoying the company of friends. In one striking self-portrait, the playwright is lying naked on a sofa with a strategically placed book in his lap.

When a member of the press asked Shaw why he agreed to pose nude for “Le Penseur” (“The Thinker”) for Alvin Langdon Coburn, Shaw replied, “Though we have hundreds of photographs of [Charles] Dickens and [Richard] Wagner, we see nothing of them except the suits of clothes with their heads sticking out; and what is the use of that?”

 

Alvin Langdon Coburn's photograph of George Bernard Shaw posing as "The Thinker." When the photograph was exhibited in the London Salon in 1906, newspaper articles questioned: “The face, the beard, the neck, and the hands are undoubtedly the sole property of Mr. George Bernard Shaw, but we have no authentic knowledge of the rest of the Shavian frame, and the study of the anatomy shows more muscular development than some people would expect of a combination of high thinking and vegetarianism.” (Photo courtesy of The George Eastman House)