The Story of A Bear

Once upon a time, Michael Bond was doing some last-minute shopping in Oxford Street when it started to snow. Seeking shelter, he found himself in the toy department of Selfridges. Sitting on a shelf was a very lonely, small bear. Michael thought to himself, “I can’t leave him there all over Christmas,” purchased the bear and took him home. Michael named the bear Paddington after the nearest railway station to his house.

A few weeks later, Michael sat at his typewriter, waiting for inspiration to strike, when he looked up to see the little bear sitting on the mantelpiece. Remembering the moment he found the bear, Michael wondered, “what would happen if a real bear landed up on Paddington station.” So, he began to write.

Until 31st October 2021, the British Library is hosting “a small but perfectly formed exhibition celebrating everyone’s favourite bear.” For more than 60 years, Paddington Bear has entertained children (and adults) all over the world. The exhibition provides fun activities for younger visitors, whilst older visitors take a trip down memory lane and rediscover the many faces of Paddington that they have come to know and love.

Michael Bond (1926-2017) started writing about Paddington Bear while working as a BBC television cameraman on the children’s television show Blue Peter. When not at work, Bond sat at his typewriter, writing about an anthropomorphised bear from “darkest Peru” with a fondness for marmalade sandwiches. Unsure whether anyone would publish his story, Bond entrusted his manuscript to his agent at the BBC, Harvey Unna (1911-2003). While at work a few days later, Bond received a phone call from Barbara Ker Wilson (1929-2020) at Collins publishing company. She told Bond she read the entire story in one sitting and enjoyed the simple style and “endearing central character”.

Barbara Ker Wilson suggested Peggy Fortnum (1919-2016) as the illustrator for Bond’s children’s book. Her pen-and-ink drawings captured Paddington’s charm and worked perfectly with the storyline. On 13th October 1958, A Bear Called Paddington went on sale. It proved extremely popular and sold out by Christmas.


Paddington Bear is a friendly, polite bear from Peru, where he lived with his Aunt Lucy. Before he travelled to England, Paddington’s name was Pastuso, the same name as his uncle. Sadly, his uncle passed away, and it was time for Aunt Lucy to move into the Home for Retired Bears in Lima. So, Paddington set off with his hat on his head, his suitcase in hand, and a label around his neck that said, “Please look after this bear. Thank you.”

Bond’s idea for Paddington’s travelling attire was inspired by his memories of the children evacuated during World War II. They all wore labels around their necks and carried their possessions in small suitcases.

After travelling as a stowaway on a lifeboat and eating copious amounts of marmalade, the little bear arrived at Paddington Station, where the first story begins. Paddington is found on the platform by the Brown family, who, after hearing his story, take him home to 32 Windsor Gardens near Notting Hill. The Brown’s find Pastuso difficult to pronounce, so name the bear Paddington, after the train station.

Peggy Fortnum’s illustrations for the Paddington books were black and white, although other artists added colour later. During the 1990s, R. W. Alley produced coloured drawings for new editions of the books. Alley’s style is similar to Fortnum’s, and he made sure Paddington was still recognisable in his blue duffle coat and hat.

Alley depicted Mr Henry Brown as a kind-looking ageing man with glasses and a moustache. According to the story, he is a hapless but well-meaning City of London Risk Analyst. He gladly welcomed the curious little bear into his home, as did his wife, Mary. Mrs Brown is more seriously-minded than her husband, but still just as friendly. Michael Bond based Mr and Mrs Brown on his parents. His father was an anxious man, whereas his mother was more impulsive.

The Brown children, Judy and Jonathan, were thrilled to welcome Paddington to the family. The Browns were meeting Judy off the train from boarding school at Paddington Station when they found the bear.

During the 1960s and 70s, children’s television shows, such as Jackanory, serialised readings of the stories. In 1976, the BBC asked Bond to write a television series about Paddington. Bond based the storylines on some of the comedic incidents from the books. The series was animated by Anglo-French stop-motion director Ivor Wood (1932-2004), who also worked on The Magic Roundabout, The Wombles and Postman Pat.

For the series, Wood suggested creating a puppet of Paddington, including his hat, duffle coat, label and suitcase. Stop-motion animation is created by taking a series of photographs showing the characters in slightly different positions. When the shots are shown rapidly, one after the other, the characters appear as though moving. Since stop-motion is a lengthy, time-consuming process, Wood proposed the rest of the characters and background scenery should be two-dimensional drawings. Only Paddington and the things he touches were three-dimensional, for instance, when Mr Brown handed Paddington a 2D jar of marmalade, it became 3D when Paddington touched it.

As well as the Brown family, there are many characters in the Paddington stories. Most people Paddington met were very welcoming, but others needed reminding to be kind with a hard stare. Paddington received a mixed reception from the Brown’s housekeeper, Mrs Bird. Whilst she was often strict and got annoyed with Paddington’s mishaps, she also gave him good advice and protected him from harm. Bond based Mrs Bird on Mrs Hudson from the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Paddington made many friends in the local community, particularly the market stallholders in Portobello Road. Mrs Bird often sent Paddington to buy fruit and vegetables from the traders. The road is also famous for its antique stalls and the location of the shop belonging to the fictional antique dealer, Mr Samuel Gruber.

Mr Gruber was a polite Hungarian immigrant who often called Paddington “Mr Brown”. He understood how Paddington felt about finding himself in a strange country and soon became Paddington’s best friend. Bond wanted Paddington to have a friend with whom he could relate and, despite the age difference, Mr Gruber fit the bill. Most mornings, Paddington visited Mr Gruber for “elevenses”, and they occasionally took trips around London and beyond to see the sights.

In some of the later stories, readers learn more about Paddington’s Aunt Lucy. She looked after him when his parents died in an earthquake, taught him English and told him all about England. In 1978, Gabrielle Designs, the company granted the first licence to manufacture a Paddington Bear soft toy, produced a toy version of Aunt Lucy. She has a similar hat to Paddington but wears clothing more suited to Peruvian culture.

Paddington told the Browns about Aunt Lucy in the very first story. When he arrived at 32 Windsor Gardens, he wrote to Lucy to tell her he had arrived safely in England. He also told her his new name, which Lucy said she liked in her response. Paddington and Lucy often kept each other informed through letters and postcards. These were published in the book Love from Paddington in 2014, containing illustrations by both Fortnum and Alley.

Paddington tried to be nice to everyone and never wished to upset anyone. Unfortunately, there is one character that always refused to be friendly. This was Mr Reginald Curry, the Brown’s bad-tempered neighbour. He is described as a nosy, arrogant, penny-pinching man who often ordered Paddington to run errands for him. Rather than call Paddington by name, Mr Curry rudely called him “Bear”. Mr Curry frequently received his comeuppance as the victim of Paddington’s misadventures.

The bear Michael Bond purchased in 1956 was remarkably small in comparison to be bear depicted in the Paddington Books. Even the version made by Gabrielle Designs is more than double the size of Bond’s bear. The toy wears bright red wellington boots, which have since become synonymous with Paddington. In the books, Paddington was usually barefoot, only wearing boots in the snow.

When the Browns first met Paddington, all he wore was a “funny kind of hat” and a label round his neck. Paddington told them the hat belonged to his uncle in Peru, who passed away before the story began. Paddington often kept an emergency marmalade sandwich under the hat.

It is difficult to imagine Paddington without his blue duffle coat, but he did not arrive in London wearing one. The next day, Mrs Brown took Paddington on a shopping expedition, where she bought him a blue duffle coat with a red lining. Bond based his description of the coat on one he used to wear.

As of 2021, over thirty official Paddington books have been released. Michael Bond finished the final book, Paddington at St. Paul’s, shortly before his death in 2017. It was officially released on 27th June 2018 to mark the anniversary of the day that Michael Bond died and the 60th anniversary of A Bear Called Paddington. Throughout these books, Paddington had many adventures and mishaps, learned new things, and, most importantly, had fun. Several artists have taken on the job of illustrating the books, but they all try to replicate Peggy Fortnum’s original Paddington.

David Mckee (b.1935), the author and illustrator of Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, produced illustrations for a few of the Paddington books, including the story Paddington’s Busy Day (1987). Whilst the illustration style is different to Fortnum’s drawings, Paddington is recognisable in his hat, duffle coat and wellington boots. One artwork on display at the British Library shows Paddington’s attempt at cleaning the loft. Things did not go to plan, and Paddington put his foot through a loose floorboard, losing all his marmalade sandwiches in the process.

In 1971, Kazimierz Piotrowski translated some of the Paddington books into Polish. Jan Marcin Szancer (1902-73), a well-known children’s illustrator in Poland, provided the illustrations for these versions. Paddington looks quite different without his blue coat, but he still wears a hat, albeit yellow. The drawing style is unlike the English pen and ink versions, yet the story remains the same. The illustration on the Polish version of the first Paddington book represents chapter five, Paddington and “The Old Master”. In this story, Paddington cleaned one of the Browns’ paintings to see if an older one was hiding beneath it. There was not, but by “cleaning” the canvas, Paddington created a new painting, which went on to win a competition.

During the 1970s, the versatile draughtsman Fred Banbery (1913-99) worked alongside Bond to produce picture book versions of the Paddington books for younger children. Whilst the original books contained illustrations, they did not class as picture books. Banbery’s artwork covered the entire page, leaving space for the simplified text written by Bond. These books became known collectively as the “Young Set”.

As part of the exhibition, screens played clips from a couple of films and television shows based on Paddington Bear. Following the success of the 1976 stop-motion series, Hanna-Barbera Productions produced an animated cartoon version, which first aired in 1989. The stories are based on the books but with the extra character David, Judy and Jonathan’s American cousin. In 1997, a Canadian company released an alternative cartoon series called The Adventures of Paddington Bear.

In 2019, StudioCanal and Heyday Films released a three-dimensional computer-generated cartoon of The Adventures of Paddington. So far, two series have aired on Nickelodeon, and a third is in development. The series brings Paddington into the 21st century with up-to-date technology. Older fans may dislike the contemporary twist, but it is successfully introducing the beloved bear to younger generations. This year, the series won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Pre-School Children’s Animated Series. Paddington Bear is voiced by Ben Whishaw (b.1980), and the theme music is written and performed by Gary Barlow (b.1971).

Ben Whishaw is also the voice of Paddington in the recent Warner Bros. film adaptations, Paddington (2014) and Paddington 2 (2017). Originally, Colin Firth (b.1960) was announced as the voice of Paddington, but the actor did not think his voice was right for the role. Many well-known actors starred in the films, including Julie Walters (Mrs Bird), Jim Broadbent (Mr Gruber) and Peter Capaldi (Mr Curry). Hugh Bonneville (b.1963) starred as Mr Brown, whose personality differed from the books. Instead of welcoming Paddington, Mr Brown initially refuses to let Paddington move in with his family. A third film is expected to release in 2023.

Paddington Bear has not lost his appeal since he first appeared sixty years ago. Michael Bond’s books are still read and sold across the world, and millions of people have watched the films and television shows. Paddington also crops up in other areas of popular culture, away from the pages and screens. In 2006, Royal Mail released Paddington Bear 1st class stamps as part of their Animal Tales series. Paddington has also appeared on the labels of Robertson’s Golden Shred marmalade. In 2017, to coincide with the release of Paddington 2, Marks & Spencer featured Paddington in their Christmas television advert, in which Paddington mistook a thief for Father Christmas.

Paddington’s most recent endeavour is partnering with UNICEF to help build a world where every child is happy, healthy and safe. For £8 a month, children in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand can receive regular postcards from Paddington telling them about his adventures in foreign countries and the children who live there. The money spent on subscriptions goes directly to UNICEF and the children they support.

When Michael Bond sat down at his typewriter and tapped out the first words of A Bear Called Paddington, he had no idea Paddington would become a worldwide sensation. In 1997, Bond was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and in 2015, Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to children’s literature. As well as Paddington, Bond wrote about the adventures of a guinea pig named Olga da Polga and created the children’s television series The Herbs (1968) and The Adventures of Parsley (1970).

Several items in the British Museum’s exhibition are on loan from Karen Jankel, Michael Bond’s daughter. Jankel helped Bond write the book Paddington Goes to Hospital (2000), aimed at reassuring children about overnight stays in hospitals. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Jankel spoke out saying, “We’re all going through the most terrible trauma at the moment and I think if everybody could be more like Paddington we will probably come through a bit more unscathed.” Those familiar with the Paddington stories will likewise agree.

The British Library wished to create a trip down memory lane whilst also appealing to the younger generation. They succeeded in both aims and proved that Paddington is one of the world’s most-loved fictional bears. The exhibition also introduced the author, who for many years has been little more than a name. It is often easy to forget that authors are “normal” people with lives of their own. Although Bond passed away a few years ago, Paddington will continue to delight young and old readers for many years to come.

Paddington: The Story of a Bear is open until Sunday 31st October 2021. Tickets cost £8 for adults and £3 for children age 12-17. Children aged 11 or younger may visit for free. The British Library recommends pre-booking tickets.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Gauguin Portraits

self-portrait_by_paul_gauguin2c_1885

Self Portrait, 1885

This winter (2019) in an exhibition sponsored by Credit Suisse, the National Gallery is providing visitors with the opportunity to view the portraits of Paul Gauguin. Never exhibited together before, the portraits illustrate the artist’s life from his early years in France to his last in French Polynesia. Fifty paintings have been sourced from collections all over the world that demonstrate Gauguin’s experimental use of colour and Synthetist style that, whilst unappreciated during his lifetime, have made him an important figure in art history.

The exhibition begins with a selection of Gauguin’s self-portraits. Described as self-obsessed, Gauguin painted himself many times throughout his career, believing that the world could only be understood from his point of view. He thought art could only exist in relation to memory, dreams, heritage and emotions, therefore, many of his paintings reflect the way he saw the world.

Often, Gauguin used himself as a model for paintings that were not necessarily intended to be self-portraits. By adopting other personas, Gauguin placed himself in histories and mythologies, showing the world how he interpreted the stories.

On more than one occasion, Gauguin painted himself as Christ. He is not the only artist to have done this; Dürer (1471-1528), for instance, had used himself as a model for Christ centuries before. Gauguin’s features are highly recognisable in his paintings of Christ and his facial expressions demonstrate Christ’s anguish and distress. He found a parallel between himself and Christ, feeling that he too was misunderstood.

In Christ in the Garden of Olives, the red-haired Gauguin depicts himself as Christ on the eve of his betrayal. When he painted this, Gauguin was struggling to sell his work and felt isolated and persecuted by the art world. By using himself as the model for this Biblical event, Gauguin communicated his own sense of suffering.

There is less emotion in Self Portrait (Near Golgotha), which was painted in front of Gauguin’s impression of the hill on which Christ was crucified. To the left of Christ – or Gauguin – is the head of a Polynesian idol. To understand this reference, the viewer needs to know a little about Gauguin’s life, particularly his later years.

paul_gauguin_1891

Paul Gauguin, 1981

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris on 7th June 1848 to Clovis Gauguin and Aline Chazal. Both parents were rather radical; his father was a journalist and his mother was the daughter of the political and feminist activist, Flora Tristan (1803-44).

Gauguin’s mother was of Spanish-Peruvian descent and the family decided to move to Peru in 1849 shortly after the Revolution in France. Clovis hoped the move would help his journalistic career, however, he died of a heart attack en route. Aline arrived in Peru a widow with 18-month-old Paul and his 212 year-old sister, Marie. They were welcomed by Aline’s great-uncle whose son-in-law was soon to become the president of Peru. Due to the prestige of his mother’s family, Gauguin grew up attended by nursemaids and servants.

Unfortunately, Gauguin’s family fell from political power during Peruvian civil conflicts in 1854 and returned to France. Gauguin and his sister were left in the care of his paternal grandfather in Orléans while his mother worked as a dressmaker in Paris. Despite this unconventional life, Gauguin received a prestigious Catholic education at Petit Séminaire de La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, a boarding school in the north of France. This was followed by a couple of years at the Loriol Institute, a naval school preparatory in Paris, and a final year at the Lycée Jeanne D’Arc in Orléans.

On finishing school, Gauguin enlisted as a pilot’s assistant in the merchant marine and later served in the French Navy for two years. Unbeknownst to him, his mother died on 7th July 1867 whilst he was at sea and he did not learn of the death until his sister found him in India. Although he had enjoyed sailing around the world, Gauguin returned to Paris where family friend Gustave Arosa acted as his legal guardian.

With Arosa’s help, Gauguin got a job as a stockbroker at the Paris Bourse when he was twenty-three years old. Over the next decade, Gauguin became a successful businessman earning 30,000 francs a year. During this time, he met a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad (1850–1920) who he married in 1873. Around the same time, he began painting in his free time and became friends with the French-Danish painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) who encouraged Gauguin’s love of art.

Pissarro introduced Gauguin to other artists, including Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922). He was encouraged to take part in three Impressionist exhibitions, however, the reviews he received were rather dismissive in comparison to the highly regarded opinions today.

Gauguin and Mette had five children: Émile (1874–1955); Aline (1877–97); Clovis (1879–1900); Jean René (1881–1961); and Paul Rollon (1883–1961), who were frequent subjects of Gauguin’s paintings. Initially, the Gauguin family were fairly well off, however, in 1882 the Paris stock market crashed causing Gauguin’s earnings to diminish almost entirely. As a result, he decided to become a full-time painter.

The family moved to Rouen on the River Seine where they could live more cheaply. Gauguin hoped he would be able to earn a living from his paintings, however, the venture proved unsuccessful. As he was unable to provide for them, Mette and the children moved to Copenhagen, presumably to stay with her family. Gauguin and his art collection joined them in 1884, however, the Danish city proved to be as equally difficult to establish himself as an artist. He was soon urged to return to Paris along with his six-year-old son Clovis.

837px-gauguin2c_paul_-_still_life_with_profile_of_laval_-_google_art_project

Still Life with Profile of Laval, 1886

Gauguin found it hard to get back into the Parisian art world and was virtually living in poverty. He took on menial jobs to earn a bit of money but it was not enough to live on and his son Clovis fell ill. This prompted Gauguin’s sister to pay for Clovis to attend boarding school.

Without Clovis to look after, Gauguin was able to focus on his art. Although he did not produce many paintings during this time, he tried to sell artworks he had produced in Rouen and Copenhagen. He exhibited in the final Impressionist exhibition in May 1886, which had a similar outcome to the previous three, however, he did sell one painting to the French painter Félix Bracquemond (1833-1914).

Attracted by the affordable living conditions, Gauguin spent the summer of 1886 in the artist’s colony of Pont-Aven in Brittany. Many art students visited the area, including Charles Laval (1861-94) who became an admirer and follower of Gauguin. In a still-life resembling the work of Cézanne, Gauguin included a side profile of Laval at the edge of the picture looking at the fruit displayed on the table.

The following year, Laval accompanied Gaugain to Panama and Martinique in the Caribbean. Despite suffering from dysentery and marsh fever, he produced a dozen paintings. On his return to France, these were displayed in a gallery where they were admired by Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and the art dealer Theo van Gogh (1857-91). Theo purchased three of Gauguin’s paintings for 900 francs and arranged for them to be hung in his art gallery.

Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh became close friends and in 1888 Gauguin was invited to spend nine weeks at his Yellow House in Arles. They spent the time painting together, often producing the same scenes. On more than one occasion, they set their easels up side by side to paint portraits, for example, Augustine Roulin (1851-1930), the postman’s wife. Whilst Van Gogh rapidly completely his painting with large brushstrokes, Gauguin took his time using washes of flat, bold colours that almost resemble Japanese woodblock prints. Another portrait they both produced was of Marie Ginous (1848-1911), the owner of the Café de la Gare near Van Gogh’s home. Once again, Van Gogh immediately attacked his canvas with paint, whereas, Gauguin spent at least an hour making a detailed charcoal sketch before moving on to paint.

Whilst in Arles, Gauguin experimented with Van Gogh’s technique of completing a painting in one sitting. This was very different from his usual approach, which involved working over many sessions, however, the result is a pleasing, more energetic, freer portrait. The rapid brushstrokes of Old Man with a Stick emphasise the roughened skin of the sitter, particularly his red-raw hands from years of manual work.

Unfortunately, Gauguin’s close relationship with Van Gogh was not to last. The Dutch painter’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating and Gauguin decided he ought to leave. Distraught, Van Gogh, who worship Gauguin, confronted him with a razor blade, however, Gauguin still left and never saw Van Gogh again. Reportedly, later that evening, Van Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to a woman in a brothel saying, “keep this object carefully, in remembrance of me.”

Through Van Gogh’s brother Theo, Gauguin met the Dutch artist Meijer de Haan (1852-95). Together, Gauguin and De Haan visited Brittany where Gauguin produced many portraits of the artist. The National Gallery displays a couple of drawings Gauguin produced, presumably studies for larger paintings, and a wooden carving.

As well as painting, Gauguin produced sculptures from a variety of materials. In this instance, Gauguin produced a wooden sculpture of De Haan in the style of the religious sculptures they saw in Brittany. Originally decorated with brightly painted ambiguous symbols, De Haan’s face rises out of a block of oak wood. On his head is a winged creature that some believe to be a rooster, which would be a play on the English translation of De Haan’s name.

In 1891, Gauguin saw his family for the last time in Copenhagen. Gauguin and Mette’s marriage had fallen apart when he chose painting over his family and the rift was irreparable. His wife asked him to leave and Gauguin decided to leave European civilisation altogether.

After a successful auction of his paintings, Gauguin used the money to pay for his voyage to the Pacific island of Tahiti where he hoped to find a culture unspoilt by the West. He was fed up with the “artificial and conventional” European culture, however, when he reached Tahiti he was dismayed to discover that the island had been taken over by missionaries and French colonialists. He settled in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, but was upset at the lack of the primitive idyll he had visualised.

Missionaries distrusted the traditional Tahitian way of life and forced the women to wear modest clothing based on the styles worn in Europe. Outraged by this, Gauguin soon moved to Papeari in the south of the Island where he hoped to discover a more authentic lifestyle. Examples of the clothing the Tahitian women were forced to wear can be seen in many of Gauguin’s paintings produced on the Island. In Melancholic, a young Tahitian woman wears a bright pink missionary dress, however, her melancholic demeanour implies she is less than happy about the gradual disappearance of her culture in the wake of colonial contact.

While in Papeari, Gauguin was involved in many sexual relations with young Tahitian girls. He supposedly married two of them, although the term “marry” is rather loose, after all, he still had a European wife. His first Tahitian “wife” Tehamana (1878-1918) was only 13 or 14 years old when they met and, although it was customary for women to marry young, Gauguin may have exploited his privilege as a Westerner to claim her.
Tehamana features in many of Gauguin’s portraits, for example, Woman with a Mango, which was later purchased by Edgar Degas (1834-1917) in 1895. In the majority of these paintings, Tehamana is an anonymous model, however, on one occasion, Gauguin names her in the title. The Ancestors of Tehamana shows Tehamana in a typical missionary dress, however, she is surrounded by spiritual references from her past, or at least Gauguin’s interpretation of traditional Tahitian beliefs. Symbols include glyphs similar to those found on ancient tablets, a female figure and spirits of the dead.

31027701

Arii matamoe (The Royal End), 1892

In an attempt to console himself from his disappointment at the lack of authentic culture, Gauguin often added fictional elements to his paintings. Gauguin wanted to paint local customs but found they were remarkably similar to those back home. After witnessing the funeral of Pōmare V (1839-91), a Tahitian king, Gauguin painted an imagined version of events, which included the disembodied head of the deceased being displayed and mourned over.

Gauguin sent many of his Tahitian paintings to France where his patron, George-Daniel de Monfreid (1856-1929) arranged for them to be displayed in a couple of exhibitions. Unfortunately, not many sold and Gauguin was getting dangerously low on funds. He was also suffering from a suspected heart problem, which in hindsight may have been early signs of cardiovascular syphilis, so Gauguin decided to return to France, leaving his “wife” and newborn child behind.

Gauguin arrived in Marseille on 30th August 1893. Although he was back in France, his work was still focused on Tahitian life. He began writing an account of his time on the island in a book called Noa Noa, however, critics claim it to be highly fictionalised and, on occasion, plagiarised.

Tahiti’s influence can be seen in Gauguin’s self-portrait from 1893. Although he wears typical Breton clothing, a sculpture of a Polynesian goddess can be seen in the background. Interestingly, Gauguin did not produce any pictures of himself while in Tahiti, yet immediately returned to the topic on his return to France.

After a moderately successful exhibition in November 1894, he moved to 6 rue Vercingétorix in the Montparnasse district of Paris where he hosted regular gatherings with artists, musicians and writers. He was known for his exotic dress sense which exuded the atmosphere of the South Seas. Unfortunately, sales of his paintings were either slow or non-existent, so he decided to try his luck in Brittany.

While in Brittany, Gauguin demonstrated the typical scenes he saw in colonised Tahiti. Armed with a bright yellow missionary dress he had brought with him, Gauguin commissioned a young Breton woman to pose as a model. Standing on the wayside praying, Gauguin’s representation of the woman combines traditional Breton lifestyle with missionary characteristics.

still-life-with-apples-a-pear-and-a-ceramic-portrait-jug-paul-gauguin

Still Life with Apples, a Pear, and a Ceramic Portrait Jug, 1889

In 1895, after raising a tiny amount of money, Gauguin returned to Tahiti. For a time, he achieved a steady stream of sales and lived a comfortable life with other artists near Papeete. He took on another “wife” called Pau’ura, however, their daughter passed away shortly after birth. By this time he was also suffering from ill health and spent a short time in hospital during the summer of 1896.

The following year, Gauguin was able to send some of his artwork to France where they were exhibited in Paris as well as Brussels in Belgium. During this time, his book Noa Noa was being published in instalments. Yet, this brief period of positivity was not to last. In April 1897, Gauguin received the terrible news that his daughter Aline had died from pneumonia at the age of nineteen. Devastated, the news led him to attempt suicide.

Once again suffering financially, Gauguin was compelled to take a desk job at the Office of Public Works in Papeete. Meanwhile, the art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1886-1939) attempted to sell Gauguin’s paintings in France.

Gauguin began to play a role in Tahitian politics and contributed to the colonial government journal Les Guêpes (The Wasps). This encouraged him to establish his own monthly satirical journal Le Sourire: Journal sérieux (The Smile: A Serious Newspaper), later retitled Journal méchant (A Wicked Newspaper). In 1900, he also became the editor of Les Guêpes from which he received a salary.

Life on Tahiti was becoming increasingly westernised and Gauguin was frequently in hospital. Regardless of his health, Gauguin was determined to find somewhere more “authentic” and in September 1901 moved to the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa in Polynesia. There was no doctor on the island and Gauguin had to rely on the Protestant pastor Paul Vernier, who had a little medical training.

Gauguin and Vernier became friends, however, many of the missionaries on the island were not impressed with his studio called the “House of Pleasure” in which he conducted relationships with local women as well as painting. Gauguin was particularly averse to the bishop Monseigneur Joseph Martin whose likeness he carved from miro wood. Titled Père Paillard (Father Lecher), Gauguin included devil horns to show how he really felt about the bishop.

When he was well enough, Gauguin painted portraits of the locals in their native costume or lack of, such as in Barbarian Tales. Another caricature of the bishop can be seen behind the two semi-naked ladies in the foreground.

paul_gauguin_-_self_portrait_1903_-_kunstmuseum_basel_1943

Self Portrait, 1903

By 1903, Gauguin’s health was rapidly deteriorating. He painted his final self-portrait, which was much simpler and less exotic than his usual style, and gave it as a gift to the Vietnamese exile Nguyen Van Cam (Ky Dong) who, along with Vernier, helped to look after him in his ill-health.

On 8th May 1903, Gauguin was weak and in great pain. He sent for Pastor Vernier, complaining that he kept experiencing fainting fits. Vernier ensured he was stable, however, later that day he was found dead by a neighbour. An empty bottle of laudanum on the bedside suggested he may have been the victim of an overdose, however, the general consensus is that he had suffered a heart attack.

Like his old friend Van Gogh, Gauguin did not receive any accolades until after his death. Today, people flock to exhibitions to see his work and his paintings belong to collections all over the world. Whilst the National Gallery’s exhibition only focuses on portraits, it manages to tell the story of Gauguin’s life from birth through to his final days. A 15-minute video provides specific details and an analysis of his work.

Paul Gauguin would be amazed to see the number of people purchasing tickets to see his work. He would never have thought that his work would sell for $210 million, as one piece did in 2014. He was also the inspiration for W. Somerset Maugham’s (1875-1965) novel The Moon and Sixpence.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition Gauguin Portraits can be seen at the National Gallery in London until 26th January 2020. Tickets are priced at £22-24, although various concessions apply.

My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!