Howard Coster’s portrait photograph of Eric Gill and Eric Gill’s pencil sketch of Howard Coster
About Howard Coster (1885-1959) I am unable to reveal much, other than a cursory look on the world’s favourite search engine reveals little, save that he was prominent in the 1920s and 1930s and London’s National Portrait Gallery had a retrospective of his work in the 1980s. Perhaps someone has a catalogue from that show and can help flesh out this man’s life?
What of his picture of Gill, which I found by chance in volume 39 of Penrose (1937), a volume I have used as the basis for a number of previous blogs. The picture was taken in 1927, and is a bromide print, hence the sepia tone. Gill is in characteristic pose, puffing on one of the fags that would kill him at the early age of 58. (I am 55 so mindful of mortality, though I no longer smoke.) In 1927 Gill was living all over the place, chiefly Salies-de-Bearn in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Paris and Chelsea, where perhaps this photo was taken, while his family stayed at Capel-y-ffin, that remote village in Wales that proved not such a good idea. Anyhow, Gill’s travels gave him plenty opportunity to chase the flesh.
I don’t think it’s a great photo, for Gill is so much the poseur that we do not get (as we do from a truly great photo) an idea of the person behind the mask. How much more fun if Gill had posed for Coster naked – a bit of a Stanley Spencer or a Lucian Freud. We can’t see his eyes either but we can tell that he is right handed.
I am grateful to the National Portrait Gallery for permission to use the Gill drawing, downloaded for free from their website.