Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Aldous Huxley and Lady Ottoline Morrell

September 6th, 2010 · No Comments

When I visited the National Portrait Gallery the other day, I was pretty bored by the Tudor and Stuart portraits. If only we had portraiture of the ‘true lives’ of those figures rather than just stuffy, formulaic paintings. However, I was much happier when I finally got to the meat of the museum and started to see some literary and philosophical heavy hitters pictured. When we went on our Bloomsbury walk, I enjoyed hearing about the lives of the many interesting people who’ve lived here. It was neat to go one layer deeper at the Portrait gallery and see some portrayals of the society we’d heard about. In particular, I found a painting by Augustus John of Lady Ottoline Morrell. (Exhibit A):

Lady Ottoline Morrell, by Augustus Edwin John, 1919 - NPG 6095 - © estate of Augustus John / Bridgeman Art Library www.bridgeman.co.uk


The caption informed me that Lady Morrell was a socialite who entertained the likes of Aldous Huxley at her home in Bloomsbury. I was initially attracted to the photograph for its unattractiveness. Ms. Morrell seems to have some serious defect of the mouth in this portrait. A search of the NPG’s collections reveals two facts about Ms. Morrell’s likeness. First, the portrait I saw hanging in the gallery was accepted in lieu of taxes by Her Majesty’s government in 1990 and subsequently given to the gallery. Second, the Augustus John portrait is one of  several hundred portraits of Lady Morrell which the museum holds (I got to page 6 of 60 of portraits before I stopped looking). None of the other portraits seemed to show the same deformed mouth as this one. And this, the one portrait with the markedly unattractive feature was the painting chosen for inclusion in the gallery. Curious.

I next came to a portrait of Aldous Huxley which showed him as a young man. Beneath the painting was a caption which informed me that Huxley had written the collection of essays, The Doors of Perception, while on mescaline. Fun fact there. Here’s the portrait of Huxley…. (Exhibit B):

Aldous Huxley, by Vanessa Bell (née Stephen), circa 1931 - NPG  - © estate of Vanessa Bell courtesy of Henrietta Garnett


All of this made me wish I could have been hanging around Bloomsbury during the days of Woolf, Huxley, and Morrell. Of course, they probably wouldn’t have let me in….

Tags: 2010 Daniel · Museums