By using this site you accept the
terms of our Cookie Policy

You are in: Online Resources > Online Exhibitions > A Source of Inspiration > Contributors > ...

Augustus John, portrait of Sir William Nicholson

Augustus John
portrait of Sir William Nicholson
Britain, 1909
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. no. 1641
The Bridgeman Art Library

... as seen by Alan Bennett

I perhaps don’t qualify for this symposium as I was not properly at Cambridge but just did part of my National Service there at the Joint Services School for Linguists in 1953. In those days the Fitzwilliam Museum was almost deserted on Saturday afternoons and in that hot summer I loved its cool aqueous light. I wish I could say I was taken by the Titians or some quattrocento masterpiece but of all the treasures in the Museum the painting I used to look at every time was Augustus John’s portrait of Sir William Nicholson. I don’t think I even knew then that Nicholson was himself a painter, just being struck by his long black overcoat and stick and the self-assurance that went with them. Later I bought a second-hand black overcoat in the hope that it might do the same for me. - It never did but I’ve gone on liking his pictures, one of my favourites is Judd’s Farm (1912), though alas it’s not in the Fitzwilliam but the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne.

© Alan Bennett, 2007


Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett in rehearsal for The History Boys

Photograph by Ivan Kyncl

Untold Stories book cover

courtesy Faber & Faber

Photograph by Alex Bailey

Alan Bennett (b. 1934)

Born in 1934, Alan Bennett grew up in Leeds and then did his National Service in Cambridge, where he attended the Joint Services School for Linguists. Awarded a scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford, he read Modern History and then researched and taught in Medieval History. While at Oxford, Bennett performed with the Oxford Revue and in 1960 co-wrote and starred in the satirical review Beyond the Fringe. A major success at the Edinburgh Festival in 1960, the show travelled to London in 1961 (Winner of Evening Standard Award for Best Play of the Year, 1961) and to New York in 1962 (Winner of Tony Award, 1963). It was as a result of this triumph that Bennett left academia and started to write for the stage as well as for radio and television.

A prolific author, Bennett’s work has won many prizes. His latest play, The History Boys, set in a school among sixth-formers studying English and History, has won the Evening Standard Award for Best Play of the Year, 2004, the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Play, 2005, and the Tony Award for Best Play, 2006. Bennett himself, however, has declined all awards, a CBE in 1988 and a knighthood in 1996. He also rejected, in 1998, an honorary Litt.D. from the University of Oxford, as he refused to accept the establishment of the Rupert Murdoch Chair in Language and Communication.

An intensely private person, Bennett offered a small glimpse behind the mask in Writing Home in 1994 and then took off the mask in Untold Stories in 2005. Diagnosed with cancer in 1997 and told that he had a fifty / fifty chance of recovery, he began to write what he thought would be a posthumous publication. Fortunately, the cancer went into a remission and what we were offered was a series of autobiographical sketches, as witty and wry as profound and beautiful. It was in Untold Stories that Bennett first wrote about his partner Rupert Thomas, revealed his talent as a painter and shared his views about pictures and galleries:

By train to Cambridge on a day of blinding sunshine and bitter cold. We [Alan Bennett and Rupert Thomas] eat our sandwiches on the train, a busy, bucketing electric job that scampers through Shepreth and Foxton and very different from the plodding little steam train I used to take into Cambridge when I was doing National Service. These days, the populousness of the place apart, the big difference is not being able to wander at will, ‘The college is closed to visitors’ always on the gate. By luck we manage to get into Trinity and Trinity Great Court, which R. had never seen and which still seems to me one of the sights of Europe. The chapel is notable chiefly for Roubiliac’s statue of Newton ‘voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone’; Newton a young man and unwigged so that his head seems quite small and (appropriately) apple-like.

We buy a luminous blue and white Victorian tile at Gabor Cossa which one of the partners thinks is William de Morgan but isn’t and then cross the road to the Fitzwilliam. I take in a chance selection of pictures, dictated by which happen to be in range of available banquettes, and in particular the Van Dyck portrait of Archbishop Laud. It’s hung beside one of his voluptuous court ladies, compared to which it’s almost a sketch with Laud looking tetchy and impatient, as if resentful of having to spend time on such fripperies. He looks entirely humourless and more administrator than cleric with no hint of the beauty of holiness. But scrappy and almost unfinished, it’s a superb character study; why it wasn’t in the recent RA exhibition is hard to understand.

A. Bennett
Untold Stories
Faber & Faber, 2005
Diary entry for 8 January 2000

An ex-trustee of the National Gallery, Alan Bennett and Rupert Thomas live in London.

Follow this link to read more about the Fitzwilliam Museum in Untold Stories

UCP 2008

Related Links

Selected Bibliography

A. Bennett (with P. Cook, J. Miller and D. Moore), Beyond the Fringe, Souvenir Press, 1963 - Winner of Evening Standard Award for Best Play of the Year, 1961 and Winner of Tony Award for Best Play (US), 1963

A. Bennett, Forty Years On, Faber & Faber, 1969 - Winner of Evening Standard Award for Best Play of the Year, 1968

A. Bennett, Getting On, Faber & Faber, 1972 - Winner of Evening Standard Award for Best Play of the Year, 1971

A. Bennett, Kafka’s Dick, Faber & Faber, 1987

A. Bennett, Single Spies (An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution), Faber & Faber, 1989 - Winner of Laurence Oliver Award for Best Comedy, 1990

A. Bennett, The Madness of George III, Faber & Faber, 1992

A. Bennett, Writing Home, 1994 - Winner of the 1995 British Book of the Year award

A. Bennett, Telling Tales, Faber & Faber, 2000

A. Bennett, The History Boys, Faber & Faber, 2004 - Winner of Evening Standard Award for Best Play of the Year, 2004, winner of Laurence Olivier Award for Best Play, 2005 and winner of Tony Award for Best Play (US), 2006

A. Bennett, Untold Stories, Faber & Faber, 2005 - Winner of the 2006 British Book of the Year award, winner of the PEN / Ackerley Prize for Autobiography, 2006

A. Bennett, The Uncommon Reader, Profile, 2007

J. O’Mealy, Alan Bennett: A Critical Introduction, Routledge, 2007

P. Wolfe, Understanding Alan Bennett, University of South Carolina Press, 1999

Back To Top