Powell Position


William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, just out in paper (Vintage), has a striking new cover painting of a natty young chap standing in the middle of a lawn, left leg crossed at shin over right, intent on a newspaper. The pose is casual, faintly odd—and to these eyes, hauntingly familiar. Fade the summery palette to black-and-white, and one may recognize the original: a 1927 photo of the late, great novelist Anthony Powell (1905-2000), a near-contemporary and acquaintance of Boyd’s fictional narrator, Logan Mountstuart (1906-91). (Here’s to a mini-AP revival: Green Integer has reissued Powell’s still-fresh early comic novel Venusberg [1932], and June sees the U.K. publication of a new Powell bio.)

“I thought Boyd might object because usually you don’t put a face to a fictional character on the jacket—it [can be seen as] too defining,” says the New York-based painter Duncan Hannah, who corroborates that the Powell pic was his source. “But I don’t think he recognized him.” Hannah, 51, a self-confessed Anglophile and “a bit of a time traveler,” is an enthusiast of the literary and artistic circles of England between the wars. The figures of that time “become like my other group of friends—they all appear in each other’s memoirs” and provide deep background to his work, as in his rendition of a pair of the notorious Cambridge art historian-spy Anthony Blunt’s shoes. “I sort of mine that period knowing full well that nobody will know what I’m painting about.”