Saturday, 16 February 2013

A portrait of Ian Fleming

The 'Literary Career' page of the website of Ian Fleming Publications shows a photograph of Ian Fleming sitting at his desk in London. The photograph is perhaps less familiar to us than, say, the portraits of Fleming by Horst Tappe, but to me it is considerably more meaningful. I had the chance to examine the image closely when I was given permission to reproduce it for my article on Fleming's brush with archaeology (published in British Archaeology magazine). What I found especially fascinating wasn't so much the image of Fleming himself, but what was shown in the background. In the manner of a Tudor portrait, Fleming surrounded himself with the symbols of his past that go some way to explaining his world view.

Three objects are of particular interest. The first, a portrait of Horatio Nelson, hangs on the wall to the left of Fleming. Nelson was one of Fleming's heroes, and indeed he may have played a small role in Fleming's decision to live in Jamaica. Fleming had much encouragement from Ivar Bryce, a friend Fleming had known since his Eton days, to establish a house in Jamaica. Bryce lived there himself after the Second World War. His house, Bellevue, was a mid-18th century residence built for the admirals of Jamaica. The house and grounds were by all accounts stunning, and this may have been enough to tempt Fleming. But Fleming was also attracted by the romance of the country's past, and was fascinated by the fact that Nelson had convalesced at Bellevue during a bout of illness.

Fleming revealed another Nelson connection in his Sunday Times' article about his treasure hunt at Creake Abbey in Norfolk in 1953. Nelson's birthplace of Burnham Thorpe is only a mile north of the abbey, and this was a deciding factor in choosing Creake, rather one of the many other sites suggested by Sunday Times' readers.

Hanging above the Nelson portrait is a painting of Fleming's father, Valentine. If Nelson was Fleming's hero, Valentine was his idol. Admired by fellow army officers and politicians, including Winston Churchill, Val inevitably became a role model for the young Ian. This was a role that Ian's mother, Eve, encouraged, especially after Valentine's death in the First World War. During his nightly childhood prayers, Ian would intone, “...and please, dear God, help me to grow up to be more like Mokie [Val]”.

The desire to emulate and live up to his father stayed with Ian for the rest of his life. In all his houses, Fleming hung framed copies of an appreciation of his father written, and signed, by Winston Churchill and published in the Times. In the photograph, the framed appreciation hangs on the wall behind Fleming.

Ian Fleming was a hero-worshipper. In later life, Fleming's heroes came from the world of journalism and literature, and included newspaper owner Lord Beaverbrook and authors Somerset Maugham and Raymond Chandler. In his father and Nelson, as much part of our photograph as Fleming himself, Fleming saw qualities that he wished to emulate or believed he lacked. It is perhaps not too big a stretch to claim that through James Bond, Fleming felt that he had the opportunity to stand as tall as those he worshipped.

Bryce, I, 1984 You Only Live Once: Memories of Ian Fleming, Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Lycett, A, 1995 Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond, Turner
Pearson, J, 1966 The Life of Ian Fleming, Cape


  1. I am not sure if the modern generation has hero's like earlier generations did. As for me I have a sketch of a stick figure with a halo in my home office that was given to my aunt from a contemporary of Fleming a Mr. Charteris.

    1. I guess sports and films stars have replaced soldiers and adventurers of the past as heroes, but if they still help to inspire people, then that's no bad thing. A picture of the Saint by Leslie Charteris himself - I'm impressed! You may enjoy my post on the Saint I wrote a few months ago:


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