Following on from yesterday's post which featured the photography of Howard Coster, as held by the National Portrait Gallery, I was delighted to find these portraits of the writers and friends, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender: all three known for a while as writers of 'The Thirties'. In Lions and Shadows, Isherwood describes Spender's alias character, Stephen Savage, as "an immensely tall, shambling boy of nineteen, with a great scarlet poppy-face, wild frizzy hair, and eyes the violent colour of bluebells." Spender, recalling Auden at Oxford described him with "almost albino hair and weakly pigmented eyes set close together". Auden called Isherwood, "that severe Christopher." It was Auden who first convinced Isherwood to go to Berlin in the roaring thirties when "Berlin meant boys."
I have been reading a number of Isherwood novels over the last few months and a couple of biographical works, and one or two of Coster's photographs appear dotted throughout those books but these are ones I hadn't seen before. These photos seem more than a little stilted, one wonders if they were some of the presumably many shots a photographer would take in a session that ought to have been edited out but somehow have remained in his archive. The strange not-quite-three-ways-gazing between them, not knowing where or how to look at each other is awkward and difficult to look at as a portrait. Even the photograph of Isherwood and Auden alone is disturbing in the way that Isherwood looks directly at us, whilst Auden gazes off somewhere out of frame.