It's a quiet Sunday here and I've just been reading about the NPG's purchase of this brilliant portrait of Dylan Thomas by Augustus John (c1937/8). The eyes, nose, hair, lips are all fantastic, but it's the jumper, painted in a slapdash fashion, which really makes it special for me. I recognise this sort of hand-knitted wool sweater so well; it's what walkers and hikers and hearty mountain-climbers wear, it's the knitwear of choice for people who do more on Sundays than read the paper, finish a Margery Allingham Campion mystery set in Cambridge, drink tea, think about making scones, and look at paintings with hand-knitted garments in them. But it's definitely not what I would choose to wear when on a bender in Bohemian Soho, and it's not what I would have pictured Thomas wearing.
This was painted when Thomas was young, in his early twenties, and the choice of garment is interesting. The black dots look like leopard's spots and the neckline resembles a choirboy's ruff or Puritan collar. It could have been knitted in Welsh wool by his mother or by Caitlin who made him a sweater in 1937 which made him look like a 'London shepherd in 1890'. It's a sober, homely, hand-made sweater which doesn't quite fit with the legendary drinking. Maybe the choice of clothing was ironic or perhaps it was just very cold and it only turned out to be meaningful or misleading later.
However, there's no doubt that Thomas was very aware of knitting and knitted things as he mentions them in his letters and in Under Milk Wood. (The declaration of love by Mr Edwards, the draper, is wonderful: 'Throw away your little bedsocks and your Welsh wool knitted jacket, I will warm the sheets like an electric toaster, I will lie by your side like the Sunday roast'.) But also as a poet, he was a knitter of words as he says in the early 'Love's First Fever' ('To shade and knit anew the patch of words/ Left by the dead'), putting words, like stitches, into patterns and orders and groups to create a beautiful, cohesive whole. Which makes me think that Thomas never changed his spots on the inside.