Search site

Iconic painting of Dylan Thomas arrives in Swansea for first time

A painting of Swansea poet Dylan Thomas from the National Portrait Gallery's Collection is on show in the city for the first time.


It was created by celebrated west Wales artist Augustus John more than 80 years ago when Dylan was in his early to mid-20s.

The work is now on display in the Swansea Council-run Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and will remain there until September 1.

It hangs alongside a portrait of Dylan's wife Caitlin, painted by John at the same time and part of the Glynn Vivian collection since 1981.

Robert Francis-Davies, the council's cabinet member for investment, regeneration and tourism, said: "As local residents celebrate the 50th anniversary of Swansea's city status it's wonderful that this beautiful portrait is here for all to enjoy.

"We're delighted that the National Portrait Gallery provided us with the work on loan for the summer. I urge local people to go and enjoy it at the Glynn Vivian, a lovely setting for such a treasure.

"It's exciting that this image of Dylan can now be seen by the public sitting alongside this image of his wife for the first time ever - a landmark 'first' for Swansea."

The Dylan portrait was unveiled at the Glynn Vivian on 4 May 2019. It is on loan as part of the National Portrait Gallery project COMING HOME, which sees  50 portraits of iconic individuals from the national Collection travelling to the towns and cities most closely associated with their subjects.

Dylan was born in Swansea in 1914 and died in 1953. In that time he became one of the most significant literary figures of his generation. Famous works include the poem, And Death shall have no Dominion and the radio play, Under Milk Wood.

It is thought that Pembrokeshire-born John, a friend of the poet, created it in the 1930s when Thomas sat for him during visits to Hampshire to stay with Caitlin's mother, who lived close to John's studio.

Of his sitter the artist wrote: "I got him to sit for me twice, the second portrait being the more successful: provided with a bottle of beer he sat very patiently."

The picture - in oil on canvas - was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, last August. It was purchased with support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Art Fund and The Thompson Family Charitable Trust.

It is described as a particularly striking portrayal of Thomas when he was at the height of his creativity. It had previously been on long-term loan to the Gallery, where it has been on permanent display for more than 20 years. 

It will be celebrated at a Glynn Vivian at Night event this Friday (note: May 24) that features poets, poetry workshops, music, food and pop-up bars. This is also a chance to view temporary exhibitions and our permanent collection.

The event will include poetry readings by young people and refugees, a poetry workshop in partnership with Dylan Thomas Centre and 10-minute talks by Swansea-based art historian Barry Plummer who will focus on Augustus John and the Dylan painting.

Dylan's Mobile Book Shop will be parked outside the gallery. Bar and street food treats will be on sale thanks to Swansea's Yakeyda Gin Bar and Hoogah. Exhibitions and all events are free! All are very welcome.

Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery, London said:  "We are delighted to lend Dylan Thomas to the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery as part of our exciting new COMING HOME initiative. We hope that sending portraits 'home' in this way will foster a sense of pride and create a personal connection for local communities to a bigger national history; thus helping us to fulfil our aim of being truly a national gallery for everyone, in our role as the nation's family album."

Cllr Francis-Davies said: "This remarkable early portrait of Dylan was painted when John first introduced Dylan to Caitlin Macnamara.

"Coming Home has a special resonance not only for the poet returning to his home town, Swansea, but he will also be joining the portrait of Caitlin who became his wife in 1937. 

"We're incredibly grateful to the National Portrait Gallery for bringing Dylan and Caitlin back together, captured at this special moment in time by Augustus John.

This is a major new project which sees the National Portrait Gallery lend 50 portraits of iconic individuals to places across the UK with which they are most closely associated.

Visit to find out more about Coming Home and to find out more about the Glynn Vivian.

Photo Visitors to Swansea's Glynn Vivian Art Gallery with the Augustus John portraits of Dylan and Caitlin Thomas, being shown together in public for the first time.


Augustus John

Augustus John (1878-1961) is widely regarded as one of the most important British artists of the early 20th century. He is celebrated for his keenly observed drawings and expressive portraits.

Born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, he was the brother of fellow artist Gwen John. He studied at the Slade School of Art, London (1894-98), where he was a brilliant student and quickly gained a reputation as an outstanding draughtsman.

A hugely charismatic figure, John cultivated a strong bohemian image and became a leading figure of the avant-garde in the Edwardian period.

In 1900 he began exhibiting at the New English Art Club, becoming a member in 1903. He also became involved in the Camden Town Group but remained largely independent from artistic trends and movements.

By the 1920s he was one of the leading portraitists of his day, excelling in penetrating paintings of distinguished contemporaries including Dylan Thomas, Jacob Epstein, George Bernard Shaw and T.E. Lawrence.

He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1928. Throughout his life John travelled widely in Europe and lived in Dorset, London and later in Hampshire where he died in 1961.

Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was one of the most significant literary figures of his generation.

By the time of his premature death aged 39, he had achieved both popular acclaim and critical recognition.

Reviewing the Collected Poems, which were published shortly after Thomas's 38th birthday, Philip Toynbee described him as "the greatest living poet in the English language."

Since then Thomas's reputation has grown, and his work - which is at once accessible and distinctive - continues to provoke debate, much of it centred on his position as one of the 20th century's leading poets.

Born in Swansea, Thomas left school at 16 and began writing as a journalist for local newspaper the the South Wales Daily Post before moving to London.

By the age of 19 he had written more than 200 poems. Half of the 90 poems that were published in his lifetime were written at this time. These include And Death shall have no Dominion and The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.

Thomas's first published collections, Eighteen Poems (1934) and Twenty-Five Poems (1936), established him in literary circles and are the foundation of his reputation.

He married Caitlin Macnamara in 1937 and their life together was stormy, poverty-stricken and fuelled by alcohol.

Further poems and short stories were published as The Map of Love (1939), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940) and Deaths and Entrances (1946), many of which evoke his early life in Wales.

During the Second World War Thomas wrote scripts for the BBC, and his subsequent work as a broadcaster brought him wider public popular attention. He toured America in 1950, 1952 and 1953, and his readings there cemented his fame.

His 1954 radio play Under Milk Wood was completed shortly before his death, his health undermined by alcoholism. The play was first broadcast by the BBC in January 1954.

Subsequently his work was dismissed by a later generation of poets, among them Philip Larkin, who found his style florid. Others, however, have continued to respond to its rhetoric and romanticism, and his poems are widely anthologized.

The Portrait

This is one of two portraits of Dylan Thomas painted by Augustus John and is the product of their close acquaintance.

Thomas gravitated to London in the early 1930s and became a distinctive figure in bohemian circles in Soho and Fitzrovia.

Here he met the painter and fellow Welshman Augustus John at the Fitzroy Tavern in London's Charlotte Street.

The two furthered their friendship during many evenings there and in the nearby Marquis of Granby on Rathbone Street.

In the spring of 1936 the painter introduced Thomas to his future wife, Caitlin Macnamara, whom he married the following year.

Thomas sat for John twice shortly after his marriage during visits to Hampshire to stay with Caitlin's mother, who lived close to John's studio. Both portraits were probably painted in late 1937 to early 1938.

Of his exuberant sitter the artist wrote "we frequently met ... I got him to sit for me twice, the second portrait being the more successful: provided with a bottle of beer he sat very patiently."

The other portrait (whether this is the first or second of the two is not known) is now in the collection of the National Museum Wales.

Powered by GOSS iCM