INSIGHTS: The Artist behind the iconic image of Hercule Poirot.
In the early 1920s, Sketch magazine asked Agatha Christie to contribute a short story for publication. While Christie’s first story published by the Sketch was The Affair at the Victory Ball (7 March 1923), it is arguably The Adventure of the King of Clubs, published two weeks later in issue #1573 (21 March 1923), that is more noteworthy. This story was accompanied by a portrait of Hercule Poirot by W. Smithson Broadhead. This image of Poirot was reused on the 1924 Bodley Head printing of Poirot Investigates, and its later editions. It is considered by many fans of Christie’s works to be the best representation of Poirot. Karl Pike states in his introduction to The Big Four (Detective Story Club edition, 2017) “Many knowledgeable Christie fans consider this superb, full-length portrait, conceived and executed a mere three years into his literary career, as the best ever, unaffected as many subsequent incarnations inevitably were by stale custom, eccentric designs and oddball interpretations on stage and screen.”
Artists who created dust jackets for Christie books are often forgotten, but they are a crucial part of the Christie experience. In addition to creating the iconic image of Poirot, many fans of all things Christie may be surprised to know that the same artist also created a railway poster promoting visitors to go to Torquay – the home of Christie.
William Smithson Broadhead (1888-1960) was born in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, England, in 1888. As a young boy, he moved to Fir Vale, in the suburbs of Sheffield where he first attended the Central School and later the Sheffield School of Art. As a child he also learned to ride which start his life-long love of horses.
In January 1910 he sailed to Canada where he had secured work as an illustrator. In 1912, he moved to New York where he had secured a position as an artist for Judge magazine. On the outbreak of the First World War, W. Smithson Broadhead moved back to Britain to support the war effort. With his horse-riding skills, he joined up with the 1st King Edward's Horse regiment. He spent three years fighting in France before being invalided home and resigned the regiment in 1920. During his service overseas he sent home many sketches and letters to his family, which have since been exhibited and are part of the archives of the city of Sheffield.
For the next fourteen years Smithson Broadhead worked in London, and his love of horses and connections in the horse world led to commissions to paint many portraits, mostly of jockeys and their horses. He was awarded grants to study at the Royal College of Art in London and during this time he regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy. It was during these early years when working in London that he received the commission from Sketch, Ltd. to create a portrait of Hercule Poirot. Since the Sketch’s weekly target audience was London’s high society and upper classes, and given that he was regularly exhibiting at the Royal Academy, it is easy to see the appeal of having this artist as part of their publication. It is unclear if Bruce Ingram, who was Chairman of Sketch Ltd., the Illustrated London News, and the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Ltd. knew W. Smithson Broadhead. However, given they both served in Yeomanry regiments and both lived and worked in London’s artistic and literary world, it is a fair assumption that they did.
During these years in London, Smithson Broadhead was also commissioned by various railways to create posters to encourage travel to some of their destinations. Of note for Christie fans, Broadhead was the artist who painted one of the Torquay posters for Great Western Railways (circa 1934, issued 1935). It is likely one of the last pieces of work he did in England before moving to America and it is a wonderful connection few Christie collectors have likely made.
In 1928, Smithson Broadhead had married the American–born Edith Northrup (1899 - 1993) and in 1934 they decided to leave England and move to the States. There, he worked regularly for Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolian Magazine and Good Housekeeping. Further research still needs to be done to see if he illustrated any of Christie’s works published in the Cosmopolitan magazine.
During his life, he became one of the most celebrated equestrian portrait painters and in 1951 he produced a pictorial history of the horse in the USA titled Hoof Prints over America. Six of his paintings are in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, in Saratoga Springs, New York, USA, including portraits of Hall of Fame horses Battleship, Nashua and Hill Prince.
As recently as 2018, the NMR hosted a special exhibition of his work. W. Smithson Broadhead died in Virginia on 17 June 1960.
The original Sketch magazine from 1923 containing the image of Poirot is very collectible and hard to find. When a magazine does surface for sale expect to pay £100 or more for a very good copy.
The first printing of Poirot Investigates by the Bodley Head is of legendary scarcity in jacket, with only a few known examples. The last copy that sold at auction was in 2012 for £40,640. It was later marketed for sale for £100,000 though the final price realized is unknown. A second printing of Poirot Investigates sold at Heritage Auctions in 2019 for $6,250.
Smithson Broadhead’s original railway posters often sell for £1,000 - £2,500. Currently there is an original Torquay poster for sale online with an asking price of £2,200. Modern reprints can easily be found for under £10.
His original oil paintings are very collectible and can sell in excess of £10,000, depending on the subject and condition. It is unknown if the original painting of Poirot survives and if it does, who owns it. Any readers with additional insights are encouraged to let us know!