Intriguing portrait of Gustav Holst acquired by Holst Birthplace Museum

By Culture24 Staff | 17 February 2010
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a pencil portrait of a man in shirt and tie with an upside down portrait of woman in its left corner

Gustav Holst by William Rothenstein (1921). Courtesy Holst Birthplace Museum

The Holst Birthplace Museum in Cheltenham has acquired an intriguing drawing of the Cheltenham-born composer Gustav Holst by the artist Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945).

An unflattering likeness, the portrait shows the composer looking tired and puffy-faced, gazing into the distance wearily. At the time of its execution in 1921, Holst (1874 – 1934) was at the height of his fame, having already penned his opus, The Planets. But it was a level of acclaim he struggled to come to terms with.

His daughter Imogen wrote at the time: "Holst never managed to resign himself to the role of a popular composer. It was a role for which he was singularly ill-suited." In 1923 the composer suffered a breakdown.

As well as offering insights into the composer's fragile state of mind, the portrait contains a fascinating enigma in the shape of an upside down study of an unidentified female – a sketch only recently revealed when an old mount was removed.

It depicts a young woman with a full mouth, prominent eyelashes and hair loosely tied up. It is not thought to be Holst's wife or his daughter.

Laura Kinnear, Curator of the Holst Birthplace Museum, said: "This is a very important acquisition for the Museum and I look forward to doing more research into the history behind the portrait and perhaps unveiling the identity of the mystery woman."

The purchase was made with the assistance of the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, independent charity The Art Fund, The Trafford Memorial Fund and a private donation.

The portrait will be the focus of a talk at the Museum on February 25 at 7pm entitled A Portrait of Holst: the Work of Sir William Rothenstein in the Holst Birthplace Museum and Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum collections. Tickets are £7, Holst Members £5, Art Fund Members Free. Refreshments are included

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