National Portrait Gallery puts young Roald Dahl RAF portrait on show for the first time

By Richard Moss | 06 August 2014

A newly displayed portrait of Roald Dahl at the NPG reveals a young RAF fighter ace - years before Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the BFG

a portrait of a young RAF airman seated in a red armchair
Roald Dahl by Sir Matthew Arnold Bracy Smith oil on canvas, circa 1944© Estate of Sir Matthew Bracy Smith
He may be seated in his familiar armchair, but the portrait revealed today by the National Portrait Gallery reveals a less familiar side of one of our best loved writers.

Matthew Smith captured the young Roald Dahl in 1944 when he was in his late 20s and a flight lieutenant (war-substantive) in the RAF.

At the time of the portrait, Dahl had experienced a short but lively time as a Hurricane pilot in the Mediterranean and North African theatres of war. His exploits had led to him being recognised as a fighter ace but he was invalided out of the RAF in late 1941 when the serious injuries he had sustained in an earlier crash landing in the Libyan desert caught up with him.

He eventually became an assistant air attaché in Washington DC, a posting that led to an encounter with the novelist CS Forester and the publication of Dahl's account of his experience of the plane crash in the Saturday Evening Post. Its success marks the accidental beginning of his career as a writer.

Now considered to be one of the most celebrated storytellers across the globe for his darkly humorous children’s stories such as The Witches, Matilda, The BFG and James and the Giant Peach, the portrait, which is part of the NPG’s new exhibition, Colour, Light, Texture: Portraits by Matthew Smith and Frank Dobson, captures the young Dahl in reflective mood.

It resulted from Dahl’s admiration for Smith, whose work he had seen in a London gallery. After tracking him to his home it is said the young Dahl made a powerful impression on the artist, who was grieving for his two sons who had both lost their lives in the RAF.

The pair became lasting friends and Smith had a great influence on Dahl’s future life and career.

The portrait joins joins key works by Matthew Smith including portraits of actress Jean Simmons, Angelica Garnett and a self-portrait. Portraits by Dobson include novelist and poet Sir Osbert Sitwell, stage actress Margaret Rawlings, and American-born designer Marion Dorn.

Colour, Light, Texture: Portraits by Matthew Smith and Frank Dobson can be seen in Room 33, until April 6 2015


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