George Bernard Shaw photographs uncover the larky private man
Shaw's huge collection of photographs, many showing him in a new light, are to be made available online
George Bernard Shaw in bathing suit and hat in 1903. The photograph is among a collection being put online. Photograph: National Trust
The beard, whiskers and glare to camera from under bushy eyebrows are familiar. It's the stripy one-piece bathing costume that makes the image of George Bernard Shaw, playwright, critic, socialist and Nobel laureate, terrifyingly memorable.
The Dublin-born writer died aged 94 in 1950 when he fell out of an apple tree at his home in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire, having got fed up with waiting for the gardener to prune a rotten branch. He left the house, Shaw's Corner, and its contents to the National Trust complete with an enormous photographic collection of more than 20,000 prints, negatives and glass plates. These will become available for the first time to scholars and enthusiasts as the images are digitised and put online.
Shaw was an enthusiastic photographer, at least from 1898. The collection includes formal studio portraits and thousands of his own photographs, ranging from holiday snaps to records of the hordes of friends, admirers and visitors to the house.
Among the photographed celebrities are the beautiful actor Mrs Patrick Campbell, with whom Shaw conducted a passionate relationship almost entirely through letters – she worried that a child of theirs might inherit her brains and his looks – the composer Edward Elgar, whom he revered, the artists Augustus John and Dame Laura Knight, and the Antarctic explorers Captain Scott and his neighbour Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Much detective work remains to be done to identify all the subjects.
Many photographs were taken by TE Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, who regarded Shaw and his wife Charlotte as surrogate parents and brought the draft of Seven Pillars of Wisdom to them for advice. Images of fellow leftwing thinkers such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb are there and, more surprisingly, a photograph of Shaw chatting with the Prince of Wales and Mrs Simpson.
The collection was moved in 1979 on loan to the archives of the London School of Economics, which the Shaws and the Webbs were involved in founding. Digitising it is a joint National Trust and LSE project.
The National Trust curator Fiona Hall is already struck by the contrast between the grave public figure, carefully posed and immaculately dressed, and the larky private man.
"The shots of GBS the celebrity show him unsmiling, dressed smartly, and holding a prop such as a cane. More intimate shots show him relaxed, surfing, picnicking, and striking poses from famous sculptures including Rodin's Thinker."
Fans can look forward to further revelations about the great man: eventually the entire archive will be available, including photographs in which the stripy bathing costume has vanished and Shaw is naked on the beach.