BISHOP, ELIZABETH (1911-1979, American poet)
PORTRAIT BY J.L. CASTEL, vintage photograph, silver print, half length, profile facing right against a background of a stone wall, SIGNED AND INSCRIBED ON THE RECTO BY ELIZABETH BISHOP ('For Polly with love from Elizabeth') and (in effect) WITH AN AUTOGRAPH LETTER SIGNED ON THE VERSO ('Elizabeth'), to Polly, commenting on the photograph, the photographer and some poems by the recipient ('Dear Polly. This is the poor version - I can't get you the better one because the photographer (a Corsican) skipped the country, after stealing his cameras (loaned to him) taking all negatives, etc. - So forgive this - I cut it down to send - I got your letter - very pleased - pleased about poems in "B O", too, I hope for your sake they're the right version - With much love, Elizabeth'), framed and glazed, with the letter viewable at the back and repeated in photocopy and mounted below the image, old small one-inch tear up from the lower edge, double-mount, size of image 7 x 9 inches inches (18 x 24 cm), size of photocopied letter showing on the front below the photograph 4 x 9 inches (9 x 22 cm), size of panel on the back showing the original letter 7 x 9 inches (18 x 24 cm), glazed on front and back, overall size, 16 x 14 inches (46 x 37 cm) [Samambaia, Brazil, 1954]
ELIZABETH BISHOP DESCRIBED THIS RARE PHOTOGRAPH AS ONE OF 'THE BEST I'VE HAD SINCE THE AGE OF NINE MONTHS.' Professor Thomas Travisano of Hartwick College, editor of her letters to Robert Lowell, who found this statement in one of Bishop's unpublished letters at Vassar to Polly (copies included in the lot), and who has been most helpful in researching this photograph, says that Bishop 'almost always hated the photographs taken of her, and many were in fact unflattering, in part because she often looked pudgy due to the cortisone she took for asthma. This profile must have been taken in a non-asthmatic period.' [Incidentally, the photograph of her at nine months to which Bishop refers is presumably that taken in 1911 and illustrated in Remembering Elisabeth Bishop.]
Polly is the name that Bishop habitually used for Pauline Hanson (d. 2008) who worked as resident secretary at Yaddo for twenty-five years, starting on 1 January 1950, and was the assistant of the executive directors there, Elizabeth Ames and Curtis Harnach. They met when Bishop stayed there in 1950 and was particularly kind to Hanson; they became friends and Bishop referred to her in letters to others as Polly and addressed her in same way in their own correspondence. Hanson had published a volume of poems, The Forever Young, in 1948, and one poem in Poetry, and Bishop praised her work, writing to Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, Louise Bogan and Loren Maclver, at least; to Moore she said: 'it's the first book of poetry I've read in ages that I really and truly admire. There are some things in it beautiful enough to break your heart...She is excessively modest...I wish I could write reviews - maybe I will...' 'B.O' is the literary journal Botteghe Oscure, where some of Hanson's poems were published in 1955, presumably (given a comment in one of the letters about versions) with Bishop's help. Pauline Hanson's recollections of Bishop were printed in Remembering Elizabeth Bishop. Hanson published Across Countries of Anywhere in 1971.
While the present image has been reproduced at least three times from the copy at Vassar (for instance in Brett, Complete Poems (dust-jacket) and Words in Air), a version cut down more substantially than the present one has been used. Until the information on the present photograph became known and Professor Travisano kindly looked at the Bishop / Hanson letters at Vassar, the fact that the photographer was a Corsican was not known. The first letter at Vassar that refers to the photograph is dated 8 April 1954 and the second, presumably the one with which Bishop sent the photograph, is dated 23 April 1955. According to the first letter an 'Institute' that had awarded Bishop a $1,000 grant had asked for a photograph of her. Her comment to Polly read: 'I -- or Lota -- had somebody -- a Corsican -- come up and take some and they are really the best I've had since the age of nine months, so I shall send you one. The only thing -- he is terribly slow and forgetful -- I haven't even got the last batch yet -- so I didn't have them to send to the I[nstitute] -- & he hasn't begun on the copies yet, of course.' Bishop also explained why the copy of the photograph at Vassar is cut down: '...mine should be cut -- the rocks are in the brick patio beside the dining room...' Fortunately the present version was not reduced by Hanson.
The photograph is credited to J.L. Castel when reproduced on the dust-jacket of Complete Poems. Another of his photographs, taken at Samambaia in 1954, is illustrated by Brett.
No manuscripts by Elizabeth Bishop have appeared at auction; the letter on the verso of this fine photograph is the first known to have come on the market.
REFERENCES: Words in the Air: The Complete Correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton, 2008; Elizabeth Bishop: One Art, The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux, 1994; Brett Millier, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It, 1993; Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, 1994; Carmen Oliveira, Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares, 2003; Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, 1983.