An American archive has launched a remarkable online collection of drawings and doodles by Wales’ most famous poet to mark International Dylan Thomas Day. 

Through a collaboration with Swansea University and the Dylan Thomas Trust, the Harry Ransom Center's collection of over 6,000 items is being unveiled on the anniversary of the date when Under Milk Wood was first read on stage at 92Y The Poetry Center, New York in 1953. 

This extensive archive will allow a global audience of readers, scholars and those interested in the author’s life to gain greater understanding of his work, and includes original manuscripts of world-famous works like the poem ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ and extensive notes and drafts of the writer’s ‘play for voices’, Under Milk Wood. 

The National Wales: Postcard from Elba, Italy. Harry Ransom Center collection. © The Dylan Thomas TrustPostcard from Elba, Italy. Harry Ransom Center collection. © The Dylan Thomas Trust

Known for its unique collections that provide insight into the creative process of some of the world’s finest writers and artists, The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin collection holds nearly a million books, more than 42 million manuscripts, five million photographs, and 100,000 works of art – and includes the personal possessions of many notable figures from the worlds of science, art and literature, stage and screen.

Albert Einstein's unpublished notes and calculations for his work on general relativity sit alongside an archive of Robert de Niro’s scripts, costumes, and props and original works by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, including her iconic self-portrait with thorn necklace and hummingbird. The Ransom Center archive also includes the notebook of Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac, describing how he wrote On the Road, and one of only 20 complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible still in existence.

Now the ‘drawings and doodles’ of Swansea’s most famous son will be joining that illustrious company.  According to Ransom Center Associate Director for the Library, Jim Kuhn:

"It took about nine months to complete the digitisation project. The structure and organisation of the digital portal reflects an archival collection that grew organically with acquisitions occurring over the course of many years.

"Rather than imposing a new organisation for its digital presentation, we instead have presented it more or less in the manner it would be encountered in the archival reading room setting, as a researcher opens archival boxes and discovers folders within."

Some of the drawings feature on signed books presented to fans and friends, whilst – perhaps inevitably, given the infamy of Thomas’ battles with alcoholism – many were hastily scribbled while the poet frequented pubs and bars in both Britain and America. 

But for those with an interest in the writer’s work, the collection goes far beyond tittle-tattle or novelty value.

"This initiative promises to deepen our understanding of Dylan Thomas’ creative process and lead to new insights into his poetry and other writings," said Stephen Enniss, Betty Brumbalow Director of the Harry Ransom Center.

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Some seemingly hurried sketches cast new light on the poet’s relationship with the surrealist movement. During his short life – the poet died aged 39 – Dylan Thomas always played down the influence of the avant-garde movement in art and literature which sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind.

The National Wales: Detail of surrealist ink drawing by Dylan Thomas inscribed: “Bob and DT.”] Deaths and Entrances: Poems (London: Dent, 1946), PR 6039 H52 D4 copy 9. Harry Ransom Center. © The Dylan Thomas TrustDetail of surrealist ink drawing by Dylan Thomas inscribed: “Bob and DT.”] Deaths and Entrances: Poems (London: Dent, 1946), PR 6039 H52 D4 copy 9. Harry Ransom Center. © The Dylan Thomas Trust

But critics have since remarked on the apparently irrational juxtaposition of images in Thomas’ poetry that betray a similar sensibility to visual artists of the time. 

Now the wide availability of these doodles will support theories that Thomas was indeed very engaged with the movement, and the hosting of the collection in Texas underlines another link between the writer, surrealism and the south-western United States. 

In 1952, Thomas and his wife Caitlin Macnamara paid a visit to the painters Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning at their home in Arizona, a biographical fact that underscores the importance of a much earlier engagement with surrealism.

In his early twenties Thomas participated in the first large international surrealist exhibition at New Burlington Galleries in London, performing in a "spectacle" in which he offered boiled string to guests in tea cups while continually asking the question: ‘weak or strong?’

Other quirks in the sketches offer insight into aspects of Thomas’ life such as his constant money troubles.

A joyous depiction of bookseller Bertram Rota handing out money gives insight into a celebratory moment, and also gives a clue as to the provenance of the Harry Ransom Center’s collection – many of the archive’s acquisitions were made through Rota’s catalogues.

The National Wales: Drawing by Dylan Thomas. Ivan Moffat and Thomas drinking at the Gargoyle Club in Soho, London, ca. 1942, Dylan Thomas Art Collection, Series 1, 68.6.1-26, Harry Ransom Center collection. © The Dylan Thomas TrustDrawing by Dylan Thomas. Ivan Moffat and Thomas drinking at the Gargoyle Club in Soho, London, ca. 1942, Dylan Thomas Art Collection, Series 1, 68.6.1-26, Harry Ransom Center collection. © The Dylan Thomas Trust

During the second world war, Dylan Thomas lived in London, keeping himself afloat financially by writing documentary screenplays and sometimes working nights on ‘fire watch’ from the roof of the Strand Films offices in Soho.

Some of the more humorous sketches in the collection themselves form a documentary of this time, showing Thomas with Ivan Moffat – son of the actress Iris Tree and the American painter Chris Moffat – propping up the bar at the nearby Gargoyle Club.

Captions scrawled by the poet lampoon his friend for various states of inattention to fire duty, depicting Ivan running out of work arms aloft toward the pub at 6pm, at the bar ‘gargoiled’ in front of a row of empty glasses with Dylan at midnight, and finally being carried out of the club on a stretcher at 3am while their workplace burns.

The National Wales: Crayon and ink drawing. Deaths and Entrances: Poems (London: Dent, 1946), PR 6039 H52 D4 copy 6, Harry Ransom Center collection. © The Dylan Thomas TrustCrayon and ink drawing. Deaths and Entrances: Poems (London: Dent, 1946), PR 6039 H52 D4 copy 6, Harry Ransom Center collection. © The Dylan Thomas Trust

Although such sketches give greater appreciation of Thomas’ renowned irreverence, they also form a counterweight to the tragedies he wrote about in his poems of the Blitz, most famously ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, By Fire, of a Child in London’. 

A glimpse, then, of the jumbled palette of light and shade that is the essence of the poet’s genius, and a timely reminder for this year’s International Dylan Thomas Day of just what a shining, maddening, raging, gentle talent this most celebrated of all Welsh writers really was. 

The Ransom Center’s Dylan Thomas collection is now available worldwide through its digital collections portal. For information on the programme of events, activities and competitions to mark International Dylan Thomas Day, visit discoverdylanthomas.com