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George Bernard Shaw

(Shaw, George Bernard.) Sternberger, Marcel. Portrait of George Bernard Shaw

London, 1938, printed 2017

Gelatin silver print (16 x 20 in.). Archivally framed. Estate Edition, a limited edition of 20 copies, embossed and numbered.

Shaw is pictured in three-quarter view with artful shadow play down the right side of his face. Sternberger was a ‘master of light and shadow’ according to contemporary museum directors. This was in large part due to the simplicity of his portrait technique. Sternberger drew a stark contrast to the darkness of Shaw’s right side with the luminescence of his beard and hair.

George Bernard Shaw was a legendary playwright, critic, photographer, and co-founder of the London School of Economics. He was also notoriously difficult. When Sternberger arrived at Shaw’s house for a session, Shaw refused to agree that he would even allow the sitting. He refused to view Sternberger’s portfolio and swore he would purchase no prints.

After a terse exchange, Sternberger rose to leave. Putting a hand on the photographer’s shoulder, Shaw relented saying, “All right, I am sorry. I will look at your portraits. But let me warn you, even if you should persuade me to sit for you – which is by no means certain – I will not buy a single picture.”

Shaw was true to his word and would ultimately buy no photographs. After a long battle he sat for Sternberger, but the portraitist’s work was not yet finished. When Sternberger sent him samples of the results, Shaw mysteriously replied that he wanted 50 copies of one print. Sternberger, hesitant to work to produce so many finished portraits without having received payment, telephoned Shaw and got no direct explanation.

After sending the prints, Sternberger received an envelope filled with small checks from Shaw. Shaw said, “[It’s] very simple: My autograph is worth more [than each check]; you can sell the checks to autograph collectors and get yourself some more money [than the portraits cost] which you deserve; they won’t cash the checks, so the whole transaction won’t cost me a penny.”

The photograph shows Shaw at his zenith, as an elderly man, but captures his youthful exuberance.

$900 unframed; framed: $1,300