In 1898, at the time of his engagement
Chesterton's Legendary Girth and Eccentric Public Image
"I need not say I do not mind being called fat; for deprived of that jest, I should be almost a serious writer. I do not even mind being supposed to mind being called fat. But being supposed to be contented, and contented with the present institutions of modern society, is a mortal slander I will not take from any man."
(G.K. Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity, London: Library Press, 1920, 160)
"Chesterton was adroit in creating his particular image - the 'great fat man who appears on platforms and in caricatures' . . . But the Chesterton image was not merely visual. He created with considerable subtlety an image of mental eccentricities and endearing habits which was as firmly attached to the public idea of him as were the sword-stick, the cloak and the hat . . . The image was of a man with a brilliant brain but clumsy body, a man who could cleave his way incisively to the centre of a debate or argument . . . but was too helpless to fasten his own necktie, and too absent-minded to remember where he was supposed to be at any time. The exaggeration must have been deliberate . . . No man with as sharp a mind as Chesterton's could continually have behaved like that unless he were adopting a deliberate pose."
(G.K. Chesterton: A Biography, Dudley Barker, New York: Stein and Day, 1973, 132-133)
As a young man, c. 1905 (?)
As Dr. Johnson (courtesy of Aidan Mackey)
In 1921 (courtesy of Joan Newcomb)
". . . his voluminous figure, quite imposing when he stands up, though not so abundantly Johnsonian as his pictures lead one to expect. He has cascades of grey hair above a pinkly beaming face, a rather straggly blond mustache, and eyes that seem frequently to be taking up infinity in a serious way. His falsetto laugh, prominent teeth and general aspect are rather Rooseveltian."
"He really doesn't look anything like as fat as his caricatures make him, however, and he has a head big enough to go with his massive tallness. His eyes are brilliant English blue behind the big rimmed eyeglasses: his wavy hair, steel grey; his heavy mustache, bright yellow."
"Mr. Chesterton speaks clearly, in a rather high-pitched voice [Chesterton spoke of it as 'the mouse that came forth from the mountain']. He accompanies his remarks with many nervous little gestures. His hands, at times, stray into his pockets. He leans over the reading desk as if he would like to get down into the audience and make it a sort of heart-to-heart talk."
"Seeing and hearing a man like Gilbert Keith Chesterton makes a meal for the imagination that no reading of books by him or about him can accomplish."
(From Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Maisie Ward, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1943, 563-566)
"As a child, a writer was in my eyes a kind of god; any writer, no matter how obscure, or even bogus, he might be . . . . When I was still a schoolboy my father took me to a dinner . . . at which G.K. Chesterton was being entertained . . . As far as I was concerned, it was an occasion of inconceivable glory. I observed with fascination the enormous bulk of the guest of honour, his great stomach and plump hands; how his pince-nez on a black ribbon were almost lost in the vast expanse of his face, and how when he delivered himself of what he considered to be a good remark he had a way of blowing into his mustache with a sound like an expiring balloon . . . I persuaded my father to wait outside the restaurant while we watched the great man make his way down the street in a billowing black cloak and old-style bohemian hat with a large brim."
(Chronicles of Wasted Time, one-volume edition, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1973, 12-13)
In 1925, the year of his masterpiece The Everlasting Man (courtesy of Aidan Mackey)
"To hear Chesterton's howl of joy, . . . to see him double himself up in an agony of laughter at my personal insults, to watch the effect of his sportsmanship on a shocked audience who were won to mirth by his intense and pea-hen-like quarks of joy was a sight and a sound for the gods . . . and I carried away from that room a respect and admiration for this tomboy among dictionaries, this philosophical Peter Pan, this humorous Dr. Johnson, this kindly and gallant cherub, this profound student and wise master which has grown steadily ever since . . . It was monstrous, gigantic, amazing, deadly, delicious. Nothing like it has ever been done before or will ever be seen, heard and felt like it again."
(Cosmo Hamilton, in Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Maisie Ward, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1943, 567)
Sketch by James Gunn, 1932
Courtesy of The Photo Source
"His unique, his capital, genius for illustration by parallel, by example, is his peculiar mark . . . No one whatsoever that I can recall in the whole course of English letters had his amazingf - I ewould say almost superhuman - capacity for parallelism . . . Parallelism consists in the illustration of some unperceived truth by its exact consonance with the reflection of a truth already known or perceived . . . Whenever Chesterton begins a sentence with 'It is as though,' (in exploding a false bit of reasoning,) you may expect a stroke of parallelism as vivid as a lighning flash . . . I was always astonished at an ability in illustration which I not only have never seen equalled, but cannot remember to have seen attempted. He never sought such things; they poured out from him as easily as though they were not the hard forged products of intense vision, but spontaneous remarks."
(On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1940, 36-37, 41)
Photograph by Howard Coster, 1935
On the radio, in 1935
"Pride, he once defined as 'the falsification of fact by the introduction of self.' To learn, a man must 'subtract himself from the study of any solid and objective thing.' This humility he had in a high degree and also that rarer humility which saw his friends and his opponents alike as his intellectual equals. 'Almost anybody,' Monsignor Knox once said, 'was an ordinary person compared with him.' But this was an idea that certainly never occurred to him."
"Chesterton . . . excelled in the soft answer - not that answer which seeming soft subtly provokes to wrath, but the genuine article . . . In the heat of argument he retained a fairness of mind that saw his opponent's case and would never turn an argument into a quarrel. And most people both liked him and felt that he liked them. While he was having his great controversy with Blatchford back in 1906, it is clear from letters between them that the two men remained on the friendliest terms."
(Gilbert Keith Chesterton, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1943, 203, 595-596)
Unknown year (probably early 1930s)
"All men one may say, or very nearly all men, have one leading moral defect. Few have one leading Christian virtue. That of Gilbert Chesterton was unmistakably the virtue of Christian charity: a virtue especially rare in writing men, and rarest of all in such of them as have a pursuing appetite for controversy - that is, for bolting out the truth. He loved his fellow-men. Through this affection, which was all embracing he understood the common man . . . It gave him access to every mind; men will always listen to a friend; and so much was he a friend of all those for whom he wrote that all were prepared to listen, however much they were puzzled. I shall always remember how once in America a man said to me, a man who I believe had never seen Chesterton in the flesh: 'When I read of his death I felt the shock one feels upon the loss of a daily and beloved acquaintance.' "
(On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1940, 79-80)
Photograph courtesy of Marion E. Wade Collection, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.
So far as a man may be proud of a religion rooted in humility, I am very proud of my religion; I am especially proud of those parts of it that are most commonly called superstition. I am proud of being fettered by antiquated dogmas and enslaved by dead creeds (as my journalistic friends repeat with so much pertinacity), for I know very well that it is the heretical creeds that are dead, and that it is only the reasonable dogma that lives long enough to be called antiquated.
-- From Autobiography (1936) --
Visiting America in 1921 (courtesy of Dorothy Collins)
Frontispiece for Autobiography of 1936
"The Great Debate": Chesterton with George Bernard Shaw and Hilaire Belloc, 1927. Belloc was the sardonic but gentlemanly moderator for the amiable sparring partners (courtesy of UPI).
For three more photographs and audio clips of GKC, see my paper:
Hear the Voice of the Great G.K. Chesterton
Compiled and scanned by Dave Armstrong: 11 December 1999. Three photos added: 1 January 2006. Added to blog on 20 November 2006, with 11 new photographs.