The Holst Birthplace Museum in Cheltenham has acquired a unique and intriguing drawing of the Cheltenham-born composer Gustav Holst by the artist Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945), with help from the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, independent charity The Art Fund
, The Trafford Memorial Fund and a private donation.
The pencil drawing, which is signed and dated W.R. 1921, is at first glance quite an unflattering portrait of the composer. It shows him somewhat baggy-eyed and saggy-chinned; he appears to be balding and gazes out into the distance, wearily. He looks less the distinguished composer of one of the most popular and critically-commended pieces of his generation, and more the scruffy, scrabbling artist, seeking success. However when it is considered that in 1921 Holst was at the very height of his fame because of The Planets, and moreover disliking all the stress that celebrity brought him, the portrait takes on a greater significance; it is a portrait of a man under pressure, a snap shot of a man both excited and exhausted by his new-found acclaim.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the drawing is an upside down study of an unidentified woman, just below the drawing of Holst. This sketch was only very recently revealed when an old mount was removed. Who is the woman? Is it his wife Isobel? It seems unlikely, as by the early 1920s she had a more mature appearance the sketch is of a much younger woman. It is also doubtful that it is Imogen Holst, the composers daughter, as the womans profile is quite different to Imogens. Indeed the sketch is rather sensual a full mouth, prominent eye lashes, and hair loosely tied up. It is a fascinating enigma.
The portrait has been hung in the Museum and will be the focus of a talk: A Portrait of Holst: the Work of Sir William Rothenstein in the Holst Birthplace Museum and Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum collections.