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By Culturekiosque Staff

LONDON, 25 NOVEMBER 2013 — This year marks the centenary of the birth of British composer Benjamin Britten, born suitably enough on 22 November, the feast day of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music. In addition to numerous performances of his oeuvre in Britain and abroad, rare photographs of Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) including family and personal snapshots from his boyhood and professional life, are on view in a new display at the National Portrait Gallery.

Spanning all sixty-three years of his life, it starts with a rarely-seen photograph of the composer at one year old and ends with the Gallery’s newly-acquired 1984 portrait of his partner Sir Peter Pears, pictured in the Drawing Room of the Red House, Aldeburgh, Suffolk. The singer is shown next to the portrait of Britten painted by Henry Lamb in 1943 and which Pears purchased shortly after the composer’s death.

The earliest portrait in the display shows Britten with his nanny Annie Walker, taken for a family Christmas card. At three months old Britten developed pneumonia and was not expected to live, but by the time the photo was taken in 1914 and around his first birthday, he’d made a full recovery and received no further treatment from his family.

Showcasing the breadth of his extraordinary achievement right up to his death on 4 December 1976 Benjamin Britten: A Life in Pictures (until 30 June 2014) includes many given by the Britten Estate in 1981 that have not been previously shown at the Gallery, and unseen portrait studies of his closest friends and musical collaborators selected from the Gallery’s reference collection of photographs.

More than forty photographs chart the life of Britten in pictures and present him among many of the composers, musicians, singers, librettists, stage directors and producers with whom he worked and who, for a time, became part of his circle. At the centre of this group was his partner of almost forty years, the celebrated tenor Peter Pears. The couple’s careers were inextricably bound together: most of the leading characters in Britten’s operas were written for Pears, they co-founded the Aldeburgh Festival of Music, and, until ill-health forced him to retire from performing in public, Britten was virtually the only pianist to accompany Pears in recital.

Sir Peter Pears by Malcolm Crowthers, 1984
© Malcolm Crowthers/National Portrait Gallery, London

Benjamin Britten: A Life in Pictures shows the extensive range of Britten’s musical output and how it brought him into contact with luminaries in many creative fields. Among their number are artist and designer John Piper and his wife, the librettist Myfanwy Piper; poet W.H. Auden; novelist E.M. Forster; composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Francis Poulenc; choreographers John Cranko and Sir Frederick Ashton (a rare portrait of Ashton and Britten working together on his opera Albert Herring); and talented young musicians such as horn player Dennis Brain, who died tragically young.

Born in Lowestoft on 22 November 1913 and, drawn to the piano from infancy, Benjamin Britten began to compose his own music from the age of five or six. His precocious talent matured into one of the most distinctive voices of twentieth century British music and found expression in a wide range of musical forms. Over the course of a prolific career he collaborated with many notable musicians and singers and was inspired to create work specifically for those he most admired.

Robin Francis, Curator of Benjamin Britten: A Life in Pictures and the Gallery’s Head of Archive and Library, says: ‘Benjamin Britten has to be one of the great names of twentieth-century music and therefore it seemed important that we should participate in the international celebrations of his centenary with a display at the National Portrait Gallery. We are fortunate in that in 1981 we received a collection of personal photographs from the Britten Estate and I am thrilled that we have now been able to show a selection of these alongside more formal studies of some of the major figures who featured in this extraordinary career.’

Headline image
Benjamin Britten, by Cecil Beaton, 1942
Bromide print, 1942
9 1/2 in x 6 7/8 in. (240 mm x 176 mm)
Accepted in lieu nof tax H.M. Government and allocated to the National Portrait Gallery, 1991

Benjamin Britten: A Life in Pictures
Through 30 June 2014

Nationa Portrait Gallery
St Martin’s Place
London WC2H 0HE
(44) 020 7306 0055

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Exhibition review: Cecil Beaton: The Artful Dodger Takes Manhattan


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