Skip to main content

Lawrence Unveiled

ISSUE:  Autumn 1990
T. E. Lawrence: A Critical Study. By Robert Warde. Garland. $55.00.
“Not a Suitable Hobby for an Airman”T. E. Lawrence as Publisher. By V.M. Thompson. Orchard Books (Oxford). $12.00 paper.
An Iconography: The Portraits of T.E. Lawrence. By Charles Grosvenor. Otterden Press. $35.95.
T.E. Lawrence. By Jeremy Wilson. National Portrait Gallery Publications. £14.95 paper.

Nineteen eighty-eight was the centenary year of many important writers—T.E. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Catherine Mansfield, Siegfried Sassoon, Joyce Cary, Eugene O’Neill, and Raymond Chandler—who came to maturity just before the Great War and made a powerful contribution to modern literature. Lawrence had three extraordinary achievements. He transformed himself from an obscure archeologist with no military experience into a brilliant strategist and warrior who inspired the victory and independence of an alien race. At the postwar conferences in Paris and Cairo, through the force of his personality and the example of his integrity, Lawrence persuaded the political leaders to “settle” the Middle East in accordance with his ideas and to place the Hashemite emirs on the thrones of Transjordan and Iraq. After his war experience and during his years of diplomacy, Lawrence wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a spiritual autobiography and idealistic confession of self-betrayal, destruction, and renunciation that is one of the masterpieces of the modern age.

Warde’s book, published in the “Harvard Dissertations in American and English Literature” series, is a critical survey of Lawrence’s works from Crusader Castles, his Oxford honors thesis, to The Mint, his account of a ranker’s life in the RAF. The other three works focus more on the visual than the verbal aspects of Lawrence’s career. Half of Thompson’s book describes the artists and illustrations of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Grosvenor (whose work, like Thompson’s, is privately published), reproduces and describes all the portraits of Lawrence. And Wilson has done the handsome catalogue of the 360 Lawrence exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Robert Warde’s study—begun in 1968, completed in 1978 and photoprinted from a typescript—was then years out of date when it was published. An overdocumented dissertation, it has a brief bibliography, no index, and no clear thesis or argument. Though generally accurate, Warde spells France with a lower-case f (112), misspells Chatterley (96), and mistakenly refers to Christians as “the heathens” (7). Though the book makes no original contribution to the subject, it does provide a solid and sensible introduction. It offers a familiar summary of Lawrence’s life, surveys the biographies from Lowell Thomas (1924) to Knightley and Simpson (1970), and suggests that Lawrence has not been well-served by his life-writers. Thomas, who claims that Lawrence escaped from headhunters while on an expedition to Sumatra, is more fantastic than real. Robert Graves and B.H. Liddell Hart rely uncritically on information supplied by their subject. Suleiman Mousa consistently distorts the evidence to minimize Lawrence’s contribution to the Arab Revolt, which took two years and covered 800 miles. Desmond Stewart’s book is a collection of flimsy speculations.

Warde’s discussion of the early writings, including the Home Letters, is mostly descriptive, with little analysis or interpretation. And his too obvious conclusion could apply to almost any author: Lawrence’s early style “reveals an eye for detail, and a capacity to select the word or phrase most appropriate to his purpose. As a result, the impressions he conveys are unusually vivid and convincing.” The central chapters on Seven Pillars of Wisdom usefully quote passages from the much longer Oxford, 1922 edition that were omitted from the Subscribers’ edition of 1926, the basis of all later editions. Warde stresses the motif of the wave, states that the subtitle, “A Triumph,” was appropriate since the Revolt against the Turks achieved its military purpose and some temporary political success, and argues that the book reveals “the fragmented selves that together form a whole personality.” He discusses the nihilistic streak in The Mint and limply concludes that Lawrence’s writings “are human documents that communicate to us on many levels.”

V. M. Thompson, like Warde, has a clear style and provides a useful synthesis of familiar material, much of it derived from my book, The Wounded Spirit (1973). Her intention is “to recount the history of Seven Pillars of Wisdom and to examine, in considerable detail, the minutiae of the book’s more extraordinary visual aspects.” She skeptically evaluates Lawrence’s conflicting versions of the publication history and the loss of the manuscript in Reading station. But the book is marred by a number of typographical errors: Center (vii, ix), feet (xi), Bumpus (55), Cape (57), and O’Keeffe (171) as well as the first names of Eric Kennington and Vyvyan Richards, which are misspelled throughout. And she confuses “allegory” with “simile” on page 42.

Lawrence published the book privately because he felt he had been “somewhat outspoken” about himself. For several years he carefully supervised every stage of production: paper, typeface, decorations, width of margins, and number of lines per page. Though he rewrote many parts of the book, “forcing the words to fit a typographic straight-jacket,” meeting his stringent requirements for the appearance of a page and producing a contorted, mannered style, Thompson unconvincingly notes that “there is very little trace of this manipulation in the writing itself.” The book was printed by the American, Manning Pike, who had no formal training and had worked only in a small-town firm of commercial printers; and illustrated by 18 artists—including John Singer Sargent, Augustus John, Edward Wadsworth, Paul Nash, William Nicolson, and Henry Lamb—who produced 118 works and an alphabet of ornamental initial letters. Herbert Read, writing in The Bibliophiles’ Almanack in 1928, justly condemned the heavy, squat book as an “expensive parade of eccentricity and bad taste . . .a monstrous exhibition of all that a book should not be . . .an amateur’s nightmare.”

Though Lawrence claimed there was nothing “posh,” his bibliographical strategies and personal idiosyncrasies (no author’s name on the title page, illustrations without margins, and margin headings to highlight the subject of the page) aroused the collectors’ interest. Each of the 211 copies was slightly different, the cost of each volume was three times more than the price of £30 and the redaction, Revolt in the Desert (1927), was published to meet the overdraft of £7,300. The buyers’ investment paid off, for ads in The Times soon offered £20 to rent a copy and by the end of 1927 the book had been sold at auction for £570. The massive printing order for Cape’s first trade edition of 1935 (just after Lawrence’s death) required sixty tons of paper, which filled, ten railway trucks, and three miles of binding cloth.

Charles Grosvenor’s attractive edition of 1,000 copies— which contains good photographs of Lawrence, Augustus John and Eric Kennington and 65 plates (six of them in color)—is an expanded version of his earlier book, The Portraits of T.E. Lawrence (Otterden, 1975), with better binding, paper, and reproductions. He has consulted unpublished papers and corresponded with the families of the artists, and includes 12 paintings, 18 drawings, four statues, and ten posthumous works depicting Lawrence.

Unfortunately, there are many typographical and factual errors, awkward phrases, and contradictions. World’s (12) and of (35) are misspelled; Diary of T.E. Lawrence, MCMXI had no definite article and the date was printed in Roman numerals (86); John’s portrait in the Tate Gallery is mistakenly located in the Imperial War Museum (18); the proper titles are Duchess of Gramont (30) and Lady Astor (117); there is a Farnborough in Hampshire and Berkshire, but not in Kent (133); Wyndham Lewis painted in Adam and Eve Mews, which was the location—not the name—of his studio (130); the third book Lawrence carried through the Arabian campaign, according to his Letters, p. 512, was Aristophanes’ plays, not the Greek Anthology (80); and “sure of himself,” though quoted correctly from the Letters, p. 508, repeats a typo, makes no sense, and must be “unsure” (73). Grosvenor awkwardly writes “probably indicative of it having been mailed” (60) and redundantly says that Lawrence’s friends “were forced to re-locate, due to the Commander’s transfer” (57). He states that Lawrence gave Clare Sydney Smith a pastel called The Cheshire Cat and then quotes Mrs. Smith saying: “he would not let me have it” (57).

Lawrence was attracted to artists, “the one class of human beings I’d like to belong to,” and had a lifelong craving “for the power of self-expression in some imaginative form.” Most of the portraits of Lawrence were used in Seven Pillars of Wisdom or intended for The Mint. Enhanced by military uniform and Arab dress, he was always a saleable subject. He posed frequently to ensure his own immortality, looked quite different in the various portraits, and, confused about his own identity, sought to discover who he was by the effect he produced on the artists.

Grosvenor writes that Lawrence was painted by “the finest young artists in England.” But he also was portrayed by some second-rate hacks. Elsie March’s busts are hideous. The seated figure by Kathleen Scott (widow of the Antarctic explorer) looks more like Peter Pan than T. E. Lawrence, and Sidney Spedding’s head is clearly modeled on Peter O’Toole. It is a great pity that Lawrence was never painted by Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer, or Mark Gertler, or sculpted by Jacob Epstein, Jo Davidson, or Henry Moore.

Grosvenor provides factual information about each portrait’ but does not analyze or interpret the works. He might have noted that the anonymous drawing (129) copies the headdress, prose, features, and expression of James McBey’s portrait in the Imperial War Museum (52); and that the supposed drawing by Lewis (131), which vaguely resembles William Rothenstein’s style and William Orpen’s pose, is neither by Lewis nor of Lawrence. Lawrence’s head was added to an earlier painting of boys bathing by the pedophile, Henry Tuke. And the full-length work by Rothenstein—with sandals, Hejazi dagger, gold-braided robe, and agal—was sold by Lord Duveen to Prince Paul of Yugoslavia and is now in the National Museum of Belgrade (Grosvenor also calls it the National Gallery of Yugoslavia).

Lawrence undervalued Orpen as much as he overrated his temperamental opposite, Kennington, who was mesmerized by his subject and glorified him as “the perfect man, who could do no wrong.” Kennington used his gardener’s wife as the model for his recumbent stone effigy of Lawrence as medieval knight—clothed in Meccan garb, head resting on a camel saddle—in St. Martin’s Church in Wareham, Dorset. William Roberts’ portrait of the sullen, cross-armed, square-jawed, brick-red, proletarian Lawrence in an aircraftman’s uniform, which to Lawrence suggested “frailty in my appearance,” was more accurately described by Kennington as truculent, confused, and resentful. Lawrence perceived that the greatest portraits were the idealized, exotic, elongated works by Augustus John and remarked: “posterity will call me beautiful, on the strength of those two John pencil sketches so artfully published by me in my books.”

The National Portrait Gallery exhibition catalogue, based on exhaustive research, contains eight brief biographical introductions and illuminating notes (which sometimes repeat material) to the exhibits of paintings, drawings, and photographs of Lawrence and his friends as well as books, maps, documents, letters, artifacts, and clothing. But, once again, the text is disfigured by numerous errors. Theatre lacks a circumflex (158); Phillip is misspelled (241, 244); D.G. Hogarth’s birthdate is off by 20 years (31), and Emir Zeid’s dates should be 1898—1970; two captions do not match the photographs (88); “under fire,” mistakenly repeated, garbles a quotation (208); Robert graves did not live in Majorca during the Spanish Civil War and World War II (200); and Wyndham Lewis was persuaded to contribute illustrations to Seven Pillars of Wisdom. According to Blasting and Bombardiering, p. 247, Lewis “did a set of drawings for [Lawrence’s] book—not so quickly as I should, and all of a sudden I heard it had appeared to my great disappointment.”

The notes are informative about the unhappy first marriage, drinking habits, and income of Lawrence’ father, Sir Thomas Chapman. (The name “Lawrence” was taken from the natural father of T.E.’s mother, who like her son, was illegitimate.) Lawrence’s earliest writing was “Playground Cricket” in the Oxford High School Magazine of July 1904. He was horrified by the mummified bodies he dug up in Egypt; and was described by Sir Frederick Kenyon, director of the British Museum, while digging at Carchemish on the Euphrates, as good at “colloquial Arabic, and gets on very well with natives. He has, I think, more of the instincts of an explorer, but is very shy.”

At the end of the war the sick and exhausted Lawrence weighed only 84 pounds. The diplomatic battles and compositions of Seven Pillars of Wisdom drained his remaining health and energy, and in 1922 he enlisted in the ranks of the RAF to escape the strain and achieve “brain sleep.” He claimed to have found contentment but also exclaimed: “You have no idea how repulsive a barrack room is as a permanent home.” He became irritated by Homer’s characters while translating the Odyssey, remarking: “I can manage that if only I work at it desperately. . . . I am so tired of the smug Odysseus and his priggish son and sly wife. A horrible family.” The high-speed rescue boats he helped to develop in the early 1930’s saved 14,000 Allied lives during World War II.

Wilson accepts the self-serving story of Lawrence’s childhood friend, Janet Laurie, who claimed that she greeted his sudden proposal of marriage, when he was an Oxford undergraduate, with a burst of immoderate laughter and harsh rejection. But he does not notice that Janet’s features and hairstyle—parted in the middle and curled up at the side— resemble those of the much-admired Greco-Roman head of Hypnos, god of sleep, a replica of which he bought in Naples and placed in his study. A similar resemblance between Charlotte Shaw and his mother may explain his attraction to the older, married but still-virgin woman.

Lawrence’s dominant characteristic was a peculiar combination of affectation and honesty, exhibitionism and reserve, arrogance and humility, megalomania and self-abasement, which results—particularly in the revealing, despairing letters from the Tank Corps to Lionel Curtis and about his failures and renunciation to Charlotte Shaw—in some of the most self-lacerating prose of our time. Lawrence could confess, like Keats: “I hate the world: it batters too much on the wings of my self-will.”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading