William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), a playwright and novelist, began collecting paintings of actors in the 1910s. He built a sizeable and important collection of theatrical portraits, which he displayed in his villa in the south of France. The collection remained together throughout the Second World War, despite Maugham himself having to leave France and his villa being taken over by the occupying forces. He gifted his collection to the National Theatre in 1951, from which the paintings were transferred to Bath in 2010.
The collection contains key works by Zoffany, including portraits of David Garrick in some of his most celebrated tragic and comic roles, and the 18th century small scale portraitist Samuel de Wilde. The theatrical portraits immortalise stars of the 18th and 19th stage in character and often in moments of high drama. The collection forms an important historical record as well as being the unique creation of one man’s personal taste.
This temporary display will provide a rare view of some of the less frequently seen portraits in the Maugham collection. These include sitters whose names may be less familiar to audiences today but who were nevertheless considered among the great actors of their day. They include the comic actor Richard Wilson (1744-96); and John Palmer (1745-98), who regularly performed at Drury Lane and who Sheridan nicknamed ‘plausible Jack’.