Maugham the Art Collector

The Artist and the Theatre. Maugham's theatrical painting collection

Mander, Raymond, and Joe Mitchenson. The Artist and the Theatre. The Story of the Paintings Collected and Presented to the National Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham. London: Heinemann, 1955.

Maugham and his collection

This post is about a catalogue of one of Maugham's art collections: the theatrical pictures that he donated to the National Theatre. This impressive art collection seemed to have finally found their home, though unfortunately, not as Maugham would have wished, the collection was dispersed, albeit all in Bath, in Holbourne Museum and the Theatre Royal, after their temporary sojourn in the old Theatre Museum in Convent Garden and having four stolen and one never recovered.

The Artist and the Theatre

As we know, Maugham himself was a collector of artworks. Interestingly, he decided to part with his theatrical pictures and his collection of impressionist and modern paintings during his life time, an action which, I bet, not many people would have the heart to do so if circumstances allow.

Maugham tells us in this book that his decision to donate the theatrical paintings is due to the fact that he wishes to preserve the whole collection instead of seeing them littered all over the world; as for his impressionists and moderns, he writes that the hassles of preventing them from being stolen are not worth keeping them with him [1]. (As hindsight, he really did shift the responsibility to others.) Nevertheless, one wonders if there is something of what Maugham has concluded from scrutinizing Miss Ley in The Merry-Go-Round (1904):
She had taken care never in the course of her life to cumber herself with chattels, and once, with a courage in which there was surely something heroic, feeling that she became too much attached to her belongings—cabinets and exquisite fans brought from Spain, Florentine frames of gilded wood and English mezzotints, Neapolitan bronzes, tables and settees discovered in out-of-the-way parts of France—she had sold everything. She would not risk to grow so fond of her home that it was a pain to leave it; she preferred to remain a wayfarer, sauntering through life with a heart keen to detect beauty, and a mind, open and unbiassed, ready to laugh at the absurd. (11-2)
This book, The Artist and the Theatre, is more than a catalogue of Maugham's collection of theatrical paintings. Mander and Mitchenson, themselves actors and collectors, have devoted much time and efforts in finding out about each of the paintings presented. There is detailed information about the play, the original playbills, the actors, the moment captured in the paintings, the painter, and comparison of the copy in Maugham's collection and the ones in other collections.

David Garrick (1717-1779) as Lord Chalkstone
Comparison of Garrick as Lord Chalkstone
There is a preface by the authors recounting the beginning of the idea of writing this book, followed by an introduction by Maugham, who talks about how he began collecting these paintings. It is a pity that the reproductions are not in colour, but I guess the price would have raised tremendously if they were to be so.

This is a fascinating book and would be interesting for theatre lovers too. My copy comes with the dust jacket and well preserved. One can get a copy with very reasonable price.

An interesting turn of the events can be found here, about where Maugham's art collection, whose values, of course, have risen more than significantly, finally landed: Holburne Museum and Theatre Royal in Bath.

[1] Maugham, W. Somerset. "On Selling My Collection of Impressionist and Modern Pictures." A Traveller in Romance. Uncollected Writings 1901-1964. Ed. John Whitehead. London: Anthony Blond, 1984. 67-8.