Agatha Christie: unfinished portrait

This exhibition of rarely seen photographs has been on display at the Bankside Museum in London and will move to Torre Abbey during the Torquay Festival starting next week to commemorate the 125th Anniversary of her birth. 

The photographs span her entire life from childhood to shortly before her death and are displayed in chronological order. The timeline is marked on the wall below esch photograph and very helpfully for the fans of her books, indicates which novels coincide with the photographs. 

Also included, in its correct place in the sequence, is the 1969 portrait of Agatha by painter Oscar Kokoshka. This, in contrast to the muted tones of the photographs, is full of vivid reds and yellows. It gives the impression of a woman very much alive and bursting with ideas even at 80. 

There are many quotations, taken largely from Agatha’s posthumously published autobiography, interspersed between the photographs which often shed more light on the woman pictured than the captions which are purely factual records of the where, when, who variety. The excerpts from her letters to second husband Max are full of joy and almost surprise at having had this second chance at love. 

The photos are black and white though there is a charming short silent film – about 2 minutes long – which is drawn from home movies of the author with husband Max Mallowan, her daughter Rosalind and grandson Matthew   These include some later colour footage. The sequences include typical family messing about in the garden material revealing a fun-loving and warm home-life completely at odds with the subject matter of her novels. There are also clips of Agatha swimming on holiday and with Max on archaeological digs in the middle east, which provided her with material for several novels. 

Easy to overlook amongst the visual display were a couple of headphones through which you could listen to Agatha talking about the experience of writer’s block. Her voice is characteristically upper middle class of the period – received pronunciation so to speak. She clearly does not take herself or her work seriously and speaks deprecatingly of the agonies she goes through before each novel and the displacement activities she tries every time before the germ of the idea comes, after which all is plain sailing. She tells how husband Max never takes seriously her moans that she fears she this time the block will be permanent and she will never write another book. “You’ve said that for 80 books and I’ve no doubt you’ll say it again next year for the 81st” 

For me the home movies and the short audio clips brought Agatha to life in a way that still photographs rarely can. However there is much to be revealed of the private Agatha from these candid snaps by friends and family. 

Overall the exhibition leaves you with the impression of a fun-loving woman who enjoyed life and her family – in spite of personal tragedies along the way (the suffering of her mother before her death, her divorce from Archie Christie, and the loss of her daughter’s husband in the second world war only shortly after they were married) – far-removed from the rather severe looking elderly author so often featured in photos of her. 



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