Thursday, November 23, 2006

Augustus John's Portrait of Tallulah Bankhead

What a meeting it must have been when Augustus John painted Tallulah Bankhead in 1929. The Welsh artist, famous for his scandalous behaviour and voracious sexual appetite, in the same room as Bankhead the American actress, famous for her scandalous behaviour and voracious sexual appetite.

Unfortunately there is little documentary evidence to tell us what actually happened at the sittings other than Bankhead apparently turned cartwheels in the hall of his house.

And what of the artistic result of this union? "My most valuable possession is my Augustus John portrait," Bankhead wrote in Tallulah, My Autobiography (1954). In fact she liked it so much she insisted on paying £1,000 for it.

Despite Bankhead's admiration for the painting it received mixed reviews when first shown publicly at the Royal Academy's summer show in 1930. Some of her friends felt it didn't quite capture her ravishing beauty. Curiously, as she got older, Bankhead actually grew to look more and more like the portrait.

In 1931 she took it back across the Atlantic with her and hung it in the boudoir of her lavish Manhattan apartment. If all the legends are to be believed it must have stood witness to numerous sexual conquests (mostly lesbian), habitual cocaine-snorting sessions, and drinking on a grand scale. Let's hope so anyway.

The painting now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London.