Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1860 - 1937. Author

© Elizabeth Banks

Sir William Nicholson

Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1860 - 1937. Author


Helen Monaghan, Talks & Events Programmer This Portrait of the Month is selected by Helen Monaghan, Talks & Events Programmer

'Cabinet half length, standing in profile to left, wearing dark brown-grey suit, white wing collar and dark tie, hands in pockets, background light, on which the figure throws a shadow.'

I discovered this very fitting description whilst looking at the files held at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Typed in courier font on a sheet of thin paper, these few words seem to capture the entire mood of the portrait. This diminutive figure poses awkwardly, his hands in pockets. Perhaps his fists are clenched in childish defiance. He avoids our gaze. Alone in an empty space, save his own shadow.

This portrait of Kirriemuir-born J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, was painted in 1904 during rehearsals of the stage production. At the same time, the artist Sir William Nicholson was designing the stage sets for the play, when it was suggested that Barrie should have his portrait painted. Though Barrie reluctantly agreed, he later protested in a letter: 'I have long ceased to be on speaking terms with my face, so why have it painted?'

Painted in profile - usually reserved for heads of states or for physiognomical studies - Barrie is an unwilling sitter. He doesn't seem to want the attention, desperate to sneak back behind the shadows. Of all the portraits in our collection, I can imagine this was one of the most uncomfortable artist and sitter relationships. Did he ever look at the finished portrait?

Much has subsequently been written and debated on Barrie's personal life and his relationship with the Llewellyn Davies family - the inspiration for Peter Pan. As a portrait study though, it intrigues. There is such a sadness to the painting, a moment frozen in time. The responsibility that adulthood brings seems to bare heavy on his tiny frame.

This portrait will be hanging in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery Café when we reopen on 30 November.