A portrait of Noel Cowerd

A portrait of Noel Cowerd

A new portrait in watercolour to celebrate a British LGBT+ History Icon.  You can find out more about this remarkable person below.  I have created a watercolour to commemorate this wonderful entertainer who brought so much acceptance for LGBT+ people during his lifetime.  I have also produced a limited edition of 100 silk square prints, all made by hand, to fully celebrate this portrait as a contemporary art form.  These squares are a reference to the fabrics and flamboyance of the Noel, and a subtle contextual nod to the scarf codes used by gay men in the past to communicate and identify one another.

You view these here.

Born on the outskirts of London in 1899, Coward was the second son of Arthur, a piano salesman, and Violet, daughter of a naval captain. His older brother died the year before he was born. Despite the fact the family often struggled for money, Coward’s interest in performing was indulged from an early age—by seven he was regularly appearing in amateur productions, and attended the Chapel Royal Choir School, although otherwise his education was sparse and largely informal.

By 1929, Coward was one of the world’s most successful writers, with an annual income of around £50,000 (around £3million / $4.5mil in today’s money). Through the Great Depression, Coward’s success continued to rise. During the same period, Coward also brokered a deal with His Master’s Voice (HMV) to record the songs from his musical productions.

When war was declared against Germany in 1939, Coward volunteered for official war work. He was first stationed as head of the British propaganda office in Paris (he said of this, “if the policy of His Majesty’s Government is to bore the Germans to death I don’t think we have time”), and afterwards moved to Intelligence, where the Secret Service put his celebrity status to use by sending him to America in order to sway public opinion towards joining the war effort.

Coward was disheartened to see himself lambasted in the British press for holidaying abroad during a time of national crisis, when he was unable to set the record straight as to why he was there. Nonetheless, some noticed and appreciated his efforts. George VI wished to confer a knighthood upon him in 1942, but was dissuaded by Winston Churchill, who didn’t want to upset a public unhappy with Coward’s flamboyant image and lifestyle.

Churchill moved Coward out of Intelligence, telling him personally that he would be of more use entertaining the troops — “Go and sing to them when the guns are firing — that’s your job!” Coward followed his advice and toured extensively through Europe, Africa, Asia, and America, and wrote and recorded a number of patriotic songs which proved very popular. In 1941, Coward’s London house was damaged in the Blitz and he took up temporary residence at the Savoy. While there he entertained guests by putting on impromptu cabaret shows through the air raids.

Post-war, Coward continued to write, act in, and produce plays, but with never the same success as in the inter-war years. He left Britain for tax reasons in the middle of the decade, purchasing homes in Bermuda, Jamaica, and Switzerland, for which he was resoundingly criticised by the British press. In 1955, Coward moved a cabaret act in which he’d starred from London and Paris to Las Vegas, where it met with great success. The act was recorded live and released on record, and subsequently CBS commissioned him to write and direct a series of short television plays, although they achieved only middling viewing figures. Through the 1960s, Coward’s forte remained the theatre.

By the end of the decade, Coward’s health was failing and after he began to struggle with memory loss he gave up acting for good. He was finally knighted in 1969, elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and received a Tony Lifetime Achievement Award. Coward died at his home in Jamaica in 1973, and was buried on the island. The Poet Laureate John Betjeman wrote and delivered a poem in Coward’s honour at a memorial service in London, and in 1984 a commemorative stone was unveiled at Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, by the Queen Mother, who thanked Coward’s partner, Graham Payn, for attending, the Queen Mother replied, “I came because he was my friend.” Coward and Payn had been together since the mid-1940s.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.