Passing through Edinburgh recently, I took the opportunity to catch up with some High Culture, and came upon a painting that I find curiously moving. At the Scottish National Portrait gallery, among a multitude of images from the Great War, there hangs a portrait of the writer J.M. Barrie, painted by Sir William Nicholson in 1904. Compared with the stuffed uniforms and clipped moustaches of General This and the Earl of That, it would be easy to overlook Barrie. His three-quarter profile occupies only a minority of the picture, most of which is a plain, dull olive background with just a hint of his shadow. Against it, his dark brown suit and neat pallid features barely stand out.
But stop and look at him. Barrie is properly dressed, his tie fastened, but hands shoved in pockets push his jacket out of shape. He is aware of the need for appropriate dress, but disinterested in it. His expression is as neutral as the painting’s background. Barrie faces to our left, turned just a little as if seeing something to the left and slightly behind us. Many of the other portraits in the exhibition, of suffragettes, soldiers, writers and politicians, look straight at us, making firm eye contact to engage the viewer’s attention. Not Barrie: he looks off to one side, and Nicholson has brilliantly caught the 1000-yard stare of a man who is looking at nothing, only avoiding all personal contact while he broods internally. It is a superb portrait of a man at the height of his fame and success, painted as Peter Pan was making its triumphant appearance on stage, yet wanting nothing to do with fame and fortune. The contrast with a nearby portrait of Earl Haig, complacently proud in his General’s finery, could hardly be greater.
Photographs have largely replaced portrait painting and can be quite stunning at their best, such as Jane Brown’s famous 1967 photo of playwright Samuel Beckett. However, I doubt that a photograph could have caught the ambiguity of Barrie with quite the precision achieved by Nicholson’s painting.