As promised, or threatened, here are a couple more rapid (ish) reviews. I’m nearly caught up — for now.
Sargent’s Women, Four Lives Behind the Canvas
By Donna M Lucey
Out now from WW Norton & Company, £24 hardcover
John Singer Sargent was a breathtakingly accomplished painter, and though he came to hate the work, it’s portraits for which he’s primarily remembered. Donna Lucey ushers four of his sitters off their canvases, recounting the lives of Elsie Palmer, Sally Fairchild, Elizabeth Chanler and Isabella Stewart Gardner. In truth, however, it’s not always the sitter but her family that holds the author’s interest, notably in the case of Sally Fairchild.
If you’ve ever looked at a painting and thought, “I wonder what they were like in real life?”, this is for you. The writing can be aggravatingly repetitive, but push past that, for the gossip’s good, the stories absorbing, and events often astonishing. All these women were enmeshed in high society at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, an era Mark Twain dubbed The Gilded Age. Nevertheless, says Lucey, those years were “floating on a financial boom, revelling in unprecedented excess, heading for panic.”
The book’s organised by age, from teenaged Elsie to middle aged Isabella. Elsie Palmer’s 6’ tall portrait (below), depicting a still and severe-looking teenager, was first displayed in 1891. It was painted in England, where she lived with her mother — known as Queen — and siblings. Queen had a severe heart condition, and doctors told her the air in Colorado, where husband General William Palmer, a railroad baron, had established a base, was too thin to sustain her health. Leaving him behind, she fled to England.
Queen ran her vast home on a lavish budget, keeping an open house for those affiliated with the arts. She was extremely close to her eldest, Elsie, often telling her “if anything happens, you’re in charge.” The relationship was clouded by doom.
Perhaps because of this closeness, and the sense that she was her mother’s keeper, Elsie spent most of her time with people much older than herself. She became friends with George Meredith, went to concerts with Sargent, and hung out with Ellen Terry.
By 1894 Elsie was embroiled in a “questionable” epistolary relationship with the husband of her mother’s best friend. Peter Harrison was an artist and considered a dilettante, and, writes Lucey, “primarily known today as the subject of a series of informal paintings by Sargent, some of them ‘hopelessly clever.’”
At the end of that year Queen died, and Elsie drew closer to Peter, though she returned with her father to Colorado to play hostess at his estate. They were visited by the eccentric mother and son pair Evelyn Tennant and Leo Myers. Leo, nine years younger than then-29-year-old Elsie, proposed, but she refused him.
By 1902 Peter and Elsie were reunited. They didn’t know that her younger sister, Marjory, instructed by another sister, known as Dos, was spying on them. Now things get complicated — suffice to say Peter was a nogoodnick. He took up with Dos, running both sisters on parallel tracks for a while. In the end, he plumped for Dos, leaving Elsie, now in her thirties high and dry.
She returned to Colorado. Her father was paralysed in a riding accident, and it seemed that once again Elsie’s life would be consumed by caring for an ailing parent. But she surprised everyone by running off with Leo. In January 1908 the couple wed — Elsie wearing “a long, brown wrap covered with huge metal buckles. Cords holding tiny bronze figures of animals of all kinds crisscrossed her outfit.” [Aside: I don’t know about you but this I want to see. Google’s not helpful. If anyone finds it, please tweet it to @randallwrites.]
The couple had children but the marriage was turbulent and they were often apart. Leo would write The Root and the Flower trilogy, and became a literary star. Sadly his mental health issues were pronounced, and in 1944 he ended his life. Elsie survived another ten years, dying in 1955, aged 82.
That’s an example of the kinds of stories you’ll find in Sargent’s Women. I urge you to seek it out. Of the four chapters, the one devoted to Sally Fairchild (portrait below — my least favourite of the images but one of JSS’s personal favourites) is mostly to be about her sister, Lucia, an art student who followed Sargent around, taking notes on all he said about art and painting techniques.
She achieved renown in the US, one of six female artists commissioned to paint murals for the Women’s building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She was 20. Another artist chosen was Mary Cassatt. Lucia changed tack, inspired by the need for income, as she had a waster husband and children to support, and became an expert miniaturist with a glittering client list.
Her story is shot through with sadness, from economic distress and a bad marriage, to multiple suicides (her brothers), family scandals, and debilitating bad health (what we now know was multiple sclerosis).
Elizabeth Chanler was 27 when Sargent painted her, and the portrait (below and used on the book jacket) was so cherished by sister Margaret that it became family ritual to move it twice yearly, in order that sister and portrait might always be together.
Elizabeth’s life was also dogged by ill health. She was part of the Astor family, but lost a baby sister, her great-grandfather and her mother one after another, and by nine years of age, was the eldest daughter of ten surviving children, and the de facto woman of the house. The brood was deposited at the family estate in New York, surrounded by servants but not their father, who remained in Manhattan. “Elizabeth, a mere child, provided the emotional ballast.”
At eleven — having been shipped off to a British boarding school on the Isle of Wight, run by author and educator Elizabeth Sewell — her father died suddenly. She wasn’t permitted to go home or see her siblings. The Sewells looked after her kindly, but theirs were strict, moralistic ways, and the school “ a bastion of Victorian rectitude.”
To “cure” the illness that made it difficult for her to walk, a fleet of doctors decided Elizabeth should be strapped to a board for two years, completely immobilised. She was 14, alone, lonely, and for a while, denied even the chance to write letters. In 1882 and 3 she lost two of her younger brothers. In 1887 she came of age and into considerable wealth. A cousin, Daisy Rutherford (who’d helped launch Sargent in London), took her in hand. Sargent painter her in 1893, when she was 27, unmarried, and “dangerously close to being considered over the hill.”
Elizabeth also fell in love with a married man — her best friend’s husband, John Jay “Jack” Chapman. Never less than dramatic, as a university student, on discovering that a man he’d assaulted thinking that he’d flirted with Minna, his financé, Chapman thrust his hand into a roaring fire. It had to be amputated.
The affair discovered, Elizabeth was shipped off for exotic climes by her sister, but while they were in Calcutta they received a telegram that Minna Chapman had died. Jack had to remain in mourning for two years, but the clandestine couple burned up the postal service with their passionate letters. Eventually they married in 1889. Weeks before she was to give birth to their first child Jack — considered one of America’s “great intellects, a prolific literary critic, and a political gadfly” — had a mental and physical collapse. It was years before he recovered, but Elizabeth, no stranger to illness, called on her deep reserves of patience and stuck by him. He recovered eventually, but from here on in, though they remained a devoted couple, their lives were dogged by tragedy.
The final portrait in the book belongs to Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose life, Lucey writes, “seems to have the neat structure of a three-act play.” Raised to be a demure society wife, Isabella married a wealthy man, then proceeded to run wild, often scandalising society, though nothing she did seems odd by today’s standards.
All must be forgiven, at any rate, for Gardner’s lasting legacy is one of the most marvellous museums. Three floors of art, “and the placement of every single piece is fixed forever. . . If the curators move a piece of furniture or a canvas even a foot from its preordained spot, the entire collection will be put up to auction in Paris with the proceeds going to Harvard.”
Married by twenty to John Lowell Gardner Jr — from one of Boston’s wealthiest, most prominent families — Isabella, with her New York manners, was not embraced by Boston society who considered her too flashy, a show off, and altogether rum.
Following the Civil War and the birth of a son, dogged by postnatal depression, Isabella packed her trunks and together with her quieter, duller husband, set off to see the world. They went everywhere, and “Bell sought out the most unusual experiences during their travels.” She watched sumo wrestling, ate boiled sea slugs in China, traversed the jungle (partly by elephant) to see Angkor Wat, and attended the installation of the nizam of Hyderabad. Along the way, especially in later years, she bought art.
Sargent’s 1888 portrait of Isabella was to prove as scandalous as its subject — from the pose to the arrangement of her jewels, and the depth (again, modest by today’s standards) of her décolletage. “Belle. . . wanted to expose herself and believed Sargent was the artist who could do it. She was married and she was not young, but the portrait celebrates her sexuality, her joy in her body. . . it was certainly a provocation.”
Her husband paid $3,000 for it, saying, “It looks like hell but it looks just like you.”
Isabella scooped up everything from paintings and antiquities to manuscripts, ceramics and glassware. She funded most of this with a massive $1.6 million inheritance from her father (in 1891 money!), which her husband agreed she could ring fence for this purpose. To further her ambitions she paired up with her old friend Bernard Berenson (misidentified as Bernhard in the book), whom she’d known since he was at university.
Jack Gardner’s death, in 1898, deposited another $2million into Isabella’s coffers, and she managed her fortune well, using it to build her museum and set it up precisely as she wished. In February of 1903 it opened to the general public to immediate, rapturous reviews.
Setting out to view four lives, Donna Lucey winds up illuminating countless more. The result is a lively work rich in fascinating anecdotes that will please fans of biographies and anyone interested in the lives of little-known women.
Ancestors in the Attic: My Great-Grandmother’s Book of Ferns / My Aunt’s Book of Silent Actors
By Michael Holroyd
Out now from Pimpernel Press Ltd. Two volumes, slipcased, £35 hardcover
Odd, haunting, and beautiful, this two volume set consists of memory books kept by Michael Holroyd’s great-grandmother and aunt, respectively. The former, living in north east India, collected ferns which she carefully sewed onto the pages, creating exquisite nature studies full of colour and texture. She had a genuine flair for composition. The latter is less artistic and compelling, consisting of black and white photographs of silent movie stars cut out of magazines. We learn that this photographic collection sits amid the bigger book of ferns, on pages left blank in the large volume because of his great-grandmother’s depression. The botanical plates have been annotated by Christopher Fraser-Jenkins, a world expert on Indian ferns.
The scrapbooks had been abandoned in the attic of the family home, and Holroyd didn’t see them until he was much older, despite living in the house throughout WWII. They were rescued by subsequent owners of the house, who presented them to him as a gift.
In separate (but overlapping) essays, Holroyd sketches portraits of his family. They’re poignant tales of isolation, undiagnosed postnatal depression, and suicide. This is a nice wee companion piece to Holroyd’s two longer memoirs, Basil Street Blues and Mosaic, and with Christmas coming, this handsome boxed set would make a terrific gift for Holroyd fans (that’s everyone, right?).
Women and Power, A Manifesto
By Mary Beard
Out now from Profile Books, £7.99 hardcover
Another great stocking stuffer comes from Britain’s favourite bluestocking, the renowned, redoubtable, remarkable Mary Beard. It’s a small book packed with big ideas, classical references, and photographs, addressing the gender agenda and putting it in historical context. Our basic template for “powerful” is male not female — but why should that be so and how did it happen?
The text is based on lectures Beard gave in 2014 and 2017, on the theme of “how deeply embedded in Western culture are the mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously, and that sever them. . . from the centres of power.” By going back to ancient times, Beard proves that “When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.”
Along the way Beard reminds us that “public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender.” She points out that Elizabeth I’s famous speech at Tilbury probably never happened — at least not in those words — and debunks Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech, with its Southern drawl cadences, pointing out that she came from the North and was brought up speaking Dutch. Further back in time, Amazon warriors were also a Greek male myth rather than a reality.
Beard explores the way women are silenced on social media, drawing on (but not dwelling there) her experiences with trolls. She notes that “unpopular, controversial or just plain different views, when voiced by a woman, are taken as indications of her stupidity. It’s not that you disagree, it’s that she is stupid.”
She admits that she hasn’t come up with a solution to these issues, but recommends that we go back to basics, revisiting our “rules” of rhetorical operations, to think about “the nature of spoken authority, about what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear authority where we do.” She adds, “If women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?”
A rousing wee book for these aggravating times. Recommended reading.