Book Review: The Writer’s Brush

The Writer’s Brush: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers by Donald Friedman. Reviewed by Kris Harding.

Does it seem fair that some people get not one, but two or more talents? Or is it simply that creativity can require more than one outlet? In this book chronicling authors who also pursue the visual arts, many of them seem equally talented in both mediums. Some started out as artists and came later to words while others illustrated their works or added painting to their repertoire as a form of relaxation from the stress of producing words. Allowing two pages per person, the book includes brief biographical material along with reproductions of artworks, many of which are from private collections and have never before been published. In this international sampling of great writers which includes thirteen Nobel laureates, the artistic styles shown are as diverse as the writing of these talented individuals.

In earlier centuries, one could not be considered an educated person without training in the arts, so it’s not surprising to find that writers from these time periods produced artworks. What is surprising is how wonderfully done some of them are. Nineteenth century ladies like the Bronte sisters were encouraged to master water color painting, but dictates of society said they should only copy existing works. Needless to say, women who would publish novels (out of necessity under male pseudonyms) would not adhere to such strictures; Emily Bronte said that in copying, they would “lose all originality of thought and expression.”

Children’s writers often illustrate their books—Beatrix Potter with her detailed drawing of animals dressed as humans; Edward Lear with his whimsical sketches; Kate Greenaway’s pastel children, Charles Kingsley with his “water babies”; and Antoine de Saint-Exupery, his “little prince”; Hugh Lofting, his Dr. Doolittle series.

This book also includes a few writers of graphic books, among them Daniel Clowes, Will Eisner, and Art Spiegelman. Their chosen medium is a blend of visual art and written work, so it is not surprising they can draw. I was surprised how many writers thought first to become artists and who actually studied art in college and beyond. John Updike had a childhood passion for cartooning, which he satisfied when he worked on the Harvard Lampoon. One of his cartoons is included in this volume along with a portrait of his grandfather. Dorothy Dunnett, who trained as an opera singer, as well as attending the Edinburgh College of Art and the Glasgow School of Art, was an established portrait painter and sculptor before she took up writing historical novels. The marvelous portrait of her father-in-law shows she was quite good at art and I’ve read her meticulously researched Niccolo series and know she’s an excellent writer. Though I haven’t heard her sing, I’m thoroughly jealous that she should have been allotted talent in three of the arts.

The book includes many self portraits by authors including Baudelaire; Max Beerbohm (an accomplished caricaturist); Lawrence Durrell (who started painting with Henry Miller), Leonard Michaels; Sylvia Plath; poets James Whitcomb Riley, Isaac Rosenberg, and Anne Sexton (who painted her face out of her self-portrait); George Bernard Shaw (a caricatures of himself as Don Quixote); poet and rock star Patti Smith; Booth Tarkington; Dylan Thomas; James Thurber; Mark Twain. W. S. Gilbert, who with Sullivan wrote many operettas, did humorous drawings including a self–caricature.

The artworks are compelling and very diverse, from Guy Davenport’s excellent water color portrait of Ezra Pound to Tom Wolfe and his scathingly amusing caricature of Ted Kennedy. But there are also fascinating tidbits in the mini bios. I could continue on about this book because it is filled with such gems, but you get the picture (pun intended.) Check it out yourself.

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