A Coloured Canvas, Lives, loves and losses in the artistic heart of Regency England
This is a novel about Sir Thomas Lawrence but, as the sub-title suggests, it is much more than a biography of the 18th/ 19th century portrait painter who was only six when he started impressing patrons at his father’s Black Bear Inn by sketching their pictures. The story is full of engaging characters and is told with humour and insight into the world of Regency Bath and London in the years from the American and French Revolutions, through the Napoleonic Wars and the accession of George IV to the coming of the railway, but it touches also on some of the political events and personalities of the era.
All sorts of people stopped at the Black Bear on their way from London to Bath, among them actors including David Garrick and, perhaps, the young Sarah Siddons, as yet unknown but on her way to becoming the leading tragedienne of the period. Did he draw her likeness then? Did she recognise in the boy and herself potentials for greatness? Was that the beginning of the long and tempestuous relationship between the renowned artist and the Siddons family?
Using extensive research into letters, newspapers and comment of the time, I explored the influence his father and many close friends exerted on Lawrence’s career as it developed from West country sketcher to portraitist of Kings and Queens, Popes and Emperors, Prime Ministers, distinguished ladies, diplomats and sportsmen. I singled out some of his subjects for their particularly intriguing stories. Among those are the beautiful but confused Mr Bell, the unprepossessing but clever Irish politician, Mr Curran, the irascible artist, Henry Fuseli, neither rival nor admirer. Children and their pets were particular favourites as of course were members of the Siddons/ Kemble family.
Every year from 1789 when he was twenty, his work was to be seen at the Royal Academy Exhibition. His best known studies though not always his best liked were ‘Pinky’, a wintry portrait of Miss Elizabeth Farren and the gigantic ‘Satan’ in which he blended the most imposing features of two friends: the handsome head of actor John Philip Kemble and the powerful body of champion boxer ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson.
The distinguished career was not without its problems. Despite his huge output and ever-increasing income, he was never out of debt and yet he was known to be far from profligate in his personal life. His family, which he supported, not unwillingly, for most of his life, was a financial burden; he spent, often unwisely, on works of art and the latest domestic innovations like a plumbed (but cold water) bath. His friends and advisers, Joseph Farington and John Julius Angerstein helped him organize his budget and kept him out of the bankruptcy court.
And throughout his life at all its stages, Sarah Siddons, her actor brothers Kemble, her husband-manager William who disliked and disapproved of Thomas, and above all her two daughters, sweet Sally and selfish Maria, contenders for his love in their different ways. An intense, difficult triangle that drove him to the brink of madness—or was it a quadrangle? Lawrence was to live out his life as a bachelor, his name, probably but not certainly, platonically linked with several women. His friendship with Sarah Siddons diminished but endured till his death at the age of 60 in 1830.
Note: A Coloured Canvas is available on both Google Books and Amazon. Corille was born in Scotland, lives in Australia and has a background in theatre and radio. You can visit her website here.
Selected and edited by Adam Sisman, a New York Review Book, 2016 (available through Amazon)
I have so much to thank James Lees Milne for, really. It was through reading his diaries and letters that I have found so many flamboyant, larger-than-life, madcap and interesting people. He introduced me to a circle of his friends and acquaintances and a time period that has become one of my favourite: England between and just after the War(s). One of the people Mr. Lees-Milne introduced me to is Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose author bio on Amazon reads thus:
“In December 1933, at the age of eighteen, Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) walked across Europe, reaching Constantinople in early 1935. He travelled on into Greece, where in Athens he met Balasha Cantacuzene, with whom he lived – mostly in Rumania – until the outbreak of war. Serving in occupied Crete, he led a successful operation to kidnap a German general, for which he won the DSO and was once described by the BBC as ‘a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene’. After the war he began writing, and travelled extensively round Greece with Joan Eyres Monsell whom he later married. Towards the end of his life he wrote the first two books about his early trans-European odyssey, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. He planned a third, unfinished at the time of his death in 2011, which has since been edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper and published as The Broken Road.”
A potted history, to be sure, and a fuller bio can be found on Wikipedia. A respected British author and travel writer, PLF also felt a pull to Greece, where he travelled extensively and eventually built a house along with his wife, Joan.
But it’s PLF’s circle of friends, also his correspondents, that make this book so interesting. Here again we meet Duff and Diana Cooper, the Devonshires, Andrew and Debo, Evelyn Waugh, Ann Fleming, Cyril Connolly, Lawrence Durrell and a host of others who seemingly all lived out sized lives and who are all people with whom one would have loved to share the odd shaker of martinis. The one slight quibble I had with this book is that it only contains PLF’s letters to people, and none from them, but this can hardly be seen as a flaw when the writing is this good.
While in an army hospital in Surrey recovering from pneumonia in February, 1940, PLF wrote the following to Adrian Pryce-Jones:
“Last night something marvellous happened. I am just being tucked up for the night, when I hear strange foreign noises outside the door, which opens, and in bursts Anne-Marie Callimachi (1) followed by Costa (2). She was dressed in black satin and dripping with mink, with pearls and diamonds crusted at every possible point, topped by the maddest Schiaparelli hat I’ve ever seen. Then Costa, who is very dark, with a huge grin, and quite white hair at the age of thirty. He was dressed in a bright green polo jersey over which he wore a very long black new coat with an immense astrakhan collar: both laden with huge presents. The nurses were struck dumb. Shrill squeals burst from us all, and then we were gabbling the parleyvoo like apes. The nurses fled in disorder. Then, of course, they couldn’t get a taxi as Anne-Marie had left the Rolls Royces etc. in London; but they had their luggage, and stopped the night at the hospital! We all pretended they were married, so the Sister, with girlish squeaks, got their room ready, with screens coyly arranged between the beds. By this time Costa was telephoning to the Ritz to say Her Highness wouldn’t be back that night, his voice echoing down the passages. The sensation in the hospital was absolutely phenomenal. Huge princely coronets on the luggage – such nighties! Slippers! Oh!! The hospital hasn’t recovered yet, and my glamour value among the nurses is at fever pitch. . . . They left this morning, Anne-Marie leaving a munificent cheque for the Hospital Fund, which I tendered with a languid gesture to the head doctor. Their passage will not be forgotten for ages!”
Fourteen years later, in September 1954, such hobnobbing with the cream of society was still in full flow. PLF writing to Ann Fleming from Hydra:
“Diana’s (Lady Cooper) presence proved a magnet for other yachts, first of all Arturo Lopez (3) in a vast sodomitical-looking craft, done up inside like the Brighton Pavilion, a mandarin’s opium den and the alcove of Madame de Pompadour. . . but this is nothing compared to five days ago, when a giant steam yacht (with a aeroplane poised for flight on the stern) belonging to Onassis came throbbing alongside. . . . On board were Lilia Ralli, several blondes, a few of the zombie-men that always surround the immensely rich, Pam Churchill & Winston Jr.”
We can forgive PLF his forays into the world of the rich and famous, not only because they’re so amusing, but as these brief interludes are tempered with quiet, bucolic and often mundane passages. To Jessica Mitford, PLF wrote in 1983, “Went to a marvelous sheep sale yester’een with Debo (her sister, Deborah, nee Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire), it was wonderful, faces like the whole of Gilray and Rowlandson, and an auctioneer haranguing, in what sounded like Finnish but was just rustic north country. This is the sort of whirl I like to live in.”
PLF’s friends were generous as well as amusing, several of them allowing he and Joan to use their homes whenever they chose, as was the case with Gadencourt, a manor house in Normandy owned by Sir Walter and Lady Smart – to Patrick Kinross, February 1952 – “They frightfully kindly let me live here for the whole winter. Why don’t you come and move in on your way home?” He also often stayed at a mansion owned by artist Niko Ghika on Hydra. PLF wrote, “He was seldom there, and, with boundless generosity, he lent it to Joan and me for two years.” Additionally, PLF was a regular house guest of such friends as Lady Diana Cooper, staying at her house in Chantilly and the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, spending many Christmas’s with them at Chatsworth House. In February 1960 PLF wrote to Ann Fleming, “Christmas was glorious and went on for ages, consisting of Andrew, Debo and children, Andrew’s mother, Nancy (Mitford) and Mrs. Hammersley, for whom I developed a reciprocated passion. She strikes a wonderful note of bilious gloom about anything.”
Joan and Patrick would eventually build a house in Greece and spent many of their happiest years there, coming back to England regularly and staying at Joan’s family home in Devon. Occasionally, PLF stayed at the Easton Court Hotel in Devon, especially when he was seeking solitude in which to write. In a letter to Lady Diana Cooper, September 1956 –
” . . . . My muse and I are cloistered here, a gale howls down the chimney, cats and dogs come down on the sodden fields outside in an almost unbroken stream and a wind blows that would unhorn cows. I don’t think you’ve ever been here, but it’s a great retiring place for literary purposes, for E. Waugh, & Patrick Kinross and others – I first came here seven years ago with Patrick . . . and have been back several times in extremis . . . It is owned & run by an odd couple, Mrs. Carolyn Postlethwaite Cobb, an elderly American of very improbable shape, now largely bedridden, and her middle-aged ex-lover Norman Webb, a Devonshire chap she met a number of decades ago running a team of donkeys in Biskra or Fez. . . . ”
I found that PLF and I had a lot in common in the end, very odd considering that I’m neither a man, British nor a lover of all things Greek and that I come from a different generation. In a letter to his publisher, Jock Murray in July of 1953, PLF writes that he’d travelled through Greece, finally arriving in Missolonghi by sea:
“Here the great search for Byron’s shoes began. I hadn’t got Lady Wentworth’s (4) letter with me, containing the address . . . I asked all over the town – mayors, local bigwigs, etc. – for a old man who had a pair of Byron’s shoes. . . I tracked him down in the end, a very decent, wall-eyed old man called Charalambi Baigeorgas or Kotsakaris . . . along with a lot of scimitars, yataghans, pistols, powder horns, etc., he produced a parcel, already addressed, on the strength of my letters last year, to Baroness Wentworth. . . . Since then, though, he seems to have fallen in love with them, and (rather understandably) wants to leave them to his children. . . He undid the parcel, and produced a pair of slippers that looked more Turkish, or Moroccan or Algerian (or Burlington Arcade oriental) than Greek . . . . I enclose a sketch and a description of the colours . . . the age looks just about right. I made a tracing of both of them, also of the parts of the soles where the criss-cross tooling is worn smooth, in case it should corroborate, or conflict with, known facts about Byron’s malformation.”
Do admit, these are the sort of lengths I might conceivably go to if the artifact involved Wellington. There’s no information in the book regarding the outcome or provability of the shoe’s being Lord Byron’s but there is PLF’s description of Lady Wentworth herself, and it’ s a pip –
To Lady Diana Cooper, March 1954: “. . . The house (Crabbet Park, Sussex) is untidy as a barn – trunks trussed, and excitingly labelled `LD BYRON’S papers – LDY BYRON’S papers’ in chalk, pictures stacked, furniture piled, wallpaper, curtains etc. exactly the colour and shape of coloured Phiz or Leech . . . . gilt, faded plum and canary, v. grand and dusty. We had rather a mouldy luncheon, ending up with spotted-dog, in a room as full of papers, pictures, horsey accoutrements and favours as a jackdaw’s nest. Lady Wentworth was wearing, as usual, gym-shoes from playing squash, a Badminton skirt to the ground, a woollen shawl, a gigantic and very dishevelled auburn wig that looked as though made of strands from her stallions’ tails gathered off brambles, and on top of this a mushroom-like, real Sairey-Gamp mob-cap, but made of lace and caught in with a Nile-green satin ribbon. Rather a fine, hawky Byronic face under all this, but scarlet patches on the cheeks as from a child’s paint-box; I think she’s eighty-two or three – and a very thin, aristocratic, bleak voice – `have some more spotted-dog?’ sounding like a knell.”
PLF was a writer with projects constantly on the go, but he was easily distracted by passing fancies, often missing deadlines and being forced to write the dreaded mia culpa letter to editors or friends to which he’d promised pieces. In a letter to Lady Diana Cooper in November of 1975, PLF confesses: “Michael Stewart has sent us the Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names, which I’ve been deeply immersed in for the last two days: all their derivations, etc.” And to her son, John Julius Norwich, PLF writes: “Last year Jock Murray suddenly told me that about two hundred pounds had mounted up (in royalties) so I blew the lot on the DNB (Dictionary of National Biography) . . . so give me a few minutes notice and I can be pretty knowing about almost anyone in England – before 1900 – up to William Tytler (1711-1792) . . . it would be hard to find a more fascinating and time-wasting acquisition.” Both examples could be me to a T.
A Life In Letters is a delight, some parts reading like a travel book, other parts a glimpse into a vanished lifestyle, all of which is bound up with great friendships, anecdotal offerings and humour.
So, what will I read next? In Tearing Haste, edited by Charlotte Mosley, was one of PLF’s last projects and is a compilation of the letters exchanged between himself and Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, over the course of a friendship that spanned more than forty years. However, having already read this when it was first published, I’m thankful that Patrick Leigh Fermor has led me to another possibility, as so often happens with the best books –
From a letter to Lawrence Durrell, November 1954 –
“. . . I’ve just got . . . Daphne’s (5) autobiography Mercury Presides . . . . which is rattling, splended stuff, not a bit the niminy-piminy society memoir you would think, but hell for leather, a mixture of lyrical charm and touchingness with a clumsy, rustic tough edge to it which is most engaging and terribly funny. Rather like the letters of Lady Bessborough or Caroline Lamb, half-sylph, half-stablehand.”
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Rumanian Princess Anne-Marie Callimachi.
Greek photographer Costa Achillopoulos.
Arturo Lopez-Willshaw, Chilean millionaire.
Judith Anne Dorothea Blunt-Lytton, whose mother had been Byron’s granddaughter.
In my continuing quest to broaden my knowledge of those people who lived during Britain’s between wars years, I recently read Self Portrait With Friends: The Selected Diaries of Cecil Beaton 1922 – 1974, edited by Richard Buckle. Beaton was one of the constants in many of the other period diaries and letters I had read, and no wonder. He had a ringside seat to much that happened in Britain from the 1920s right through to his death in 1980. Beaton was the photographer of the day, any day, working with both Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines for decades, as well as for the Ministry of War during WWII. In addition, he was the official Royal photographer for decades, which of course likewise made him the photographer of choice for socialites, actors and aristocrats, many of whom became Beaton’s friends. Last year, I was fortunate enough to see the retrospective exhibition, Never A Bore: Deborah Devonshire and Her Set by Cecil Beaton at Chatsworth House.
Before long, Beaton’s drawing talents and his innate sense of style and taste brought him work as both a set and costume designer for ballet productions, stage plays and films, earning him Tony Awards and Academy Awards for Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction for both GiGi and My Fair Lady.
Beaton’s diaries were published in several volumes during his lifetime, and Self Portrait With Friends: The Selected Diaries of Cecil Beaton 1922 – 1974 is a selection of entries from all volumes, a taster of the Beaton diaries, if you will, some examples of which you’ll find below. It was a satisfying introduction to the diaries, which I plan to go on to read.
“Though nothing about Mrs. Simpson appears in the English papers, her name seems never to be off people’s lips. For those who enjoy gossip she is a particular treat. The sound of her name implies secrecy, royalty, and being in the know. As a topic she has become a mania, so much so that her name is banned in many houses to allow breathing space for other topics. . . five years ago I met Mrs. Simpson in a box with some Americans at The Three Arts Club Ball . . . Mrs. Simpson seemed somewhat brawny and raw-boned in her sapphire-blue velvet. Her voice had a high nasal twang. . . About a year ago, I had an opportunity to renew acquaintance with Mrs. Simpson. I liked her immensely. I found her bright and witty, improved in looks and chic.
“Today she is sought after as the probable wife of the King. Even the old Edwardians receive her, if she happens to be free to accept their invitations. American newspapers have already announced the engagement, and in the highest court circles there is great consternation. It is said that Queen Mary weeps continuously.”
“James (Pope-Hennessy) is writing a book called History Under Fire for which I am doing the photographs. Besides the vandalistic damage, we must show the tenacity and courage of the people, and we do not have to look far. . . Londoners have had one month of this so far, and they must look forward to a whole winter of it . . . By degrees many people have grown accustomed to being frightened. For myself, most evenings I have beetled off to the Dorchester. There the noise outside is drowned with wine, music and company – and what a mixed brew we are!”
“The city was still in flames after last night’s raid when eight Wren churches and the Guildhall were destroyed . . . In the biting cold with icy winds beating around the corners, James P.H. and I ran about the glowing smouldering mounds of rubble where once were the printers’ shops and chop houses of Paternoster Row . . . We went to St. Paul’s to offer our prayers for its miraculous preservation. Near the cathedral is a shop that has been burned unrecognizably; in fact, all that remains is a arch that looks like a vista in the ruins of Rome.
“Through the arch could be seen, rising mysteriously from the splintered masonry and smoke, the twin towers of the cathedral. It was necessary to squat to get the archway framing the picture. I squatted. A press photographer watched me and, when I gave him a surly look, slunk away. When I returned from photographing another church, he was back squatting and clicking in the same spot I had been. Returning from lunch with my publisher, my morning’s pictures still undeveloped in my overcoat pocket, I found the press photographer’s picture was already on the front page of the Evening News.”
“Diana has bought a cow called Princess – a female equivalent of Ferdinand, for there never was so clinging and affectionate an animal as Princess. Twice a day Diana milks her, at 7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Princess delivers enough milk to keep the household and to make one large cheese every other day. The goat, less docile, produces milk that makes equally good cheese. Diana’s hens produce ten eggs a day . . . . The latter part of the morning is spent in the dairy with large bowls of blue and white china, butter muslin nets and spotless efficiency. Here she sets about the technical jobs of cutting whey, taking temperatures and heating to certain degrees large bathtubs of milk, which with the addition of rennet drops from a calf’s innards will eventually be turned into the required number of cheeses and arranged in rows on the storeroom shelf.”
8 Pelham Place, London: September 1944
“The flying bombs and those beastly V2s, exploding from out of nowhere, have created new havoc in London since I left for the Far East nearly a year ago. . . War in England is more total than ever, hardships always increasing. People look terribly tired and tend to be touchy and quarrelsome about small things.
“Yet, in spite of all the horror and squalor, London has added beauty. In its unaccustomed isolation above the wastes of rubble, St. Paul’s is seen standing to supreme advantage, particularly splendid at full moon. The moon in the blackout, with no other light but the stars to vie with, makes an eighteenth-century engraving of our streets. St. James’s Park, without its Victorian iron railings, has become positively sylvan.
“Even in the centre of the town there are aspects of rural life. While the buses roar along Oxford Street the gentler sounds of hens and ducks can be heard among the ruins of nearby Berners Street. There are pigs sleeping peacefully in improvised styes in the craters where seeds that have been buried for three hundred years have propagated themselves and make a display of purple milk-wort and willow-herb. The vicar of St. James’s, Piccadilly, counted twenty-three different varieties of wild plant behind his bombed altar.”
3 July, 1963
“Geoff Allan, a burly somewhat top-heavy-looking youth from the outskirts of London, has become an expert at ‘ageing’ clothes. Today he was breaking down Eliza’s little jacket in which she first visits Higgins’ house. Everyone who had seen the coat in a test agreed that the black velveteen appeared too elegant and rich-looking. In an effort to save the garment, Geoff decided to take drastic measures. He asked me, ‘Suppose it doesn’t survive?’ ‘Go ahead. At worst, we’ll have to get a new one.’ Geoff put the coat in a boiling vat. After a few hours the black velvet had become a cream colour. Geoff now started to make the coat darker. Putting a spoon in dye, he smeared its surface, leaving light patches where the sun might have faded the collars and shoulders. He purposely left paler the material at the edges and in the creases. The coat was then dried out in a furnace. To me, it now looked like something found in an ancient Egyptian tomb: it was hard and brittle and brown as poppadom. With blazing eyes, Geoff then brought out a wire brush and gave the garment a few deft strokes, saying, ‘This bit of pile will soon disappear.’ It did. Later Geoff said, with avid enthusiasm,, ‘I’ll take the thing home tonight and sew frogs on it again – coarsely, with black thread, and I’ll sew them with my left hand. Then, with my right hand, I’ll rip then off. Then I’ll knife the seams open here as if it’s split. Afterwards, with coarse thread, I’ll patch it. Of course, the collar will have to be stained a bit as if Eliza had spilled coffee on it (no, she would drink tea . . . it will have to be tea stains), and there must be greasy marks on the haunches where she wipes her dirty hands. Naturally the skirt will have to be made muddy around the hem, because, you see, she sits when she sells her violets, and the skirt, and petticoats also, would seep up the wet.”’
11 April 1966
“So Evelyn Waugh is in his coffin. Died of snobbery. Did not wish to be considered a man of letters, it did not satisfy him to be thought a master of English prose. He wanted to be a duke, and that he could never be; hence a life of disappointment and sham. For he would never give up. He would drink brandy and port and keep a full cellar. He was not a gourmet, like Cyril Connolly, but insisted on good living and cigars as being typical of the aristocratic way of life. He became pompous at twenty and developed his pomposity to the point of having a huge stomach and an ear trumpet at forty-five.
“Now that he is dead, I cannot hate him; cannot really feel he was wicked, in spite of his cruelty, his bullying, his caddishness. From time to time, having appeared rather chummy and appreciative and even funny (though my hackles rose in his presence), he would suddenly seem to be possessed by a devil and do thoroughly fiendish things. His arrogance was at its worst at White’s. Here he impersonated an aristocrat, intimidated newcomers and non-members, and was altogether intolerable. But a few loyal friends saw through the pretence and were fond of him.”
“On arrival in Hollywood at the huge 1920s cement apartment block which Mae West owns, I was surprised to find how small her personal quarters are. To begin with I was fascinated; white carpets, pale yellow walls, white pseudo-French furniture with gold paint, a bower of white flowers, huge ‘set’ pieces of dogwood, begonias, roses and stocks – all false.
“The piano was painted white with eighteenth-century scenes adorning the sides, a naked lady being admired by a monkey as she lay back on draperies and cushions. . . Dust covering everything . . . She seems quite contented, or so it appeared from my short glimpse of her during the afternoon photographic session. Miss West’s entourage consisted of about eight people from the studio, her own Chinese servant, and her bodyguard, Novak, an ex-muscleman. . . She had put on weight over the holidays and her dresses would not fit. She was rigged up in the highest possible fantasy of taste. The costume of black and white fur was designed to camouflage every silhouette except the armour that constricted her waist and contained her bust.”
“Went to the house in the beautiful Bois de Boulogne to have tea with the Duchess of Windsor. On arrival in this rather sprawling, pretentious house full of good and bad, the Duchess appeared at the end of a garden vista, in a crowd of yapping pug dogs. She sees to have suddenly aged, to have become a little old woman. Her figure and legs are as trim as ever, and she is as energetic as she always was, putting servants and things to rights. But Wallis had the sad, haunted eyes of the ill. In hospital they had found she had something wrong with her liver and that condition made her very depressed. When she got up to fetch something, she said, ‘Don’t look at me. I haven’t even had the coiffeur come out to do my hair,’ and her hair did appear somewhat straggly. This again gave her a rather pathetic look . . . . .
“We talked easily as only old friends do. Nothing much except health, mutual friends and the young generation was discussed. Then an even greater shock; amid the barking of the pugs, the Duke of Windsor, in a cedar-rose-coloured velvet golf suit, appeared. His walk with a stick makes him into a old man. He sat, legs spread, and talked and laughed with greater ease than I have ever known. At last, after all these years, he called me by my Christian name and treated me as one of his old ‘cronies.’ He has less and less of these, in fact it is difficult for him to find someone to play golf with. There were moments when the Prince of Wales’s charm came back, and what a charm it was! I noticed a sort of stutter, a hissing of the speech when he hesitated in mid-sentence. Wallis did not seem unduly worried about this and said, ‘Well, you see, we’re old! It’s awful how many years have gone by and one doesn’t have them back!'”
Chanel is dead. One can no longer take for granted the feeling that she and her talent are always with us. She was unlike anything seen before. She was no beauty, but her appearance in the twenties and thirties was unimaginably attractive. She put all other women in the shade. Even in old age, ravaged and creased as she was, she still kept her line, and was able to put on the allure.
“She used to spend most of the time complaining in her rasping, dry voice. Everyone except her was at fault. But you were doing her a service by remaining in her presence, for even her most loyal friends had been forced to leave her. You tried to leave, too, for your next appointment, but she had perfected the technique of delaying you. Her flow of talk could not be interrupted. You rose from your seat and made backwards for the door. She followed. Her face ever closer to yours. Then you were out on the landing and down a few stairs. The rough voice still went on. Then you blew a kiss. She knew now that loneliness again faced her. She smiled goodbye. The mouth stretched in a grimace, but from a distance it worked the old magic.”
This sumptuous accompaniment – replete with gorgeous full-color and some black and white images — to the exhibition currently showing at The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (until April 17th) comprises essays by Quintin Colville; Vic Gatrell; Christine Riding; Jason M. Kelly; Gillian Russell; Margarette Lincoln; Hannah Greig; and Kate Williams on different aspects of the controversial Emma Hamilton’s life, legend, and times.
I’ve been to two previous art shows that featured Emma Hamilton and other Georgian celebrities: Joshua Reynolds And The Creation of Celebrity (at the Tate Britain in 2005), and the George Romney exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in 2002. Both were exemplary, dedicated to these superb portraitists and their famous subjects. These sitters became instant celebrities owing to the prints of the portraits becoming widely disseminated. (These prints generated a bit of nice income for the painters, as well.) The caricaturist Gillray illustrated the popularity of these prints in his well-known “Very Slippy Weather,”showing Londoners entranced by the latest prints for sale at stationers’ shops.
Emma Hamilton (born 1765-died 1815) was also variously known as Amy/Amey/Emy/Emily Lyon and Emma Hart until she married Sir William Hamilton, British envoy (ambassador) to the Court of Naples, thus becoming Lady Hamilton. She was one of the most controversial – and, yes, notorious — women of her time. Much has been written about her but there remains a good deal of speculation, as well. (Among the best-written biographies and novels of her, in my opinion, are these: Williams, Kate,England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton, 2006; Fraser, Flora, Beloved Emma: The Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton, 2004; and Susan Sontag,The Volcano Lover: A Romance, 1992.)
For starters, she was an unqualified beauty: a perfect oval of a face; thick, wavy, cascading auburn tresses; big-eyed; a rosebud mouth; and a complexion described by one besotted writer as a “velvet skin of lilies and roses”. Surprisingly tall, with good, square shoulders and a substantial bosom, she defied the “pocket Venus” model prized by prevailing18th century aesthetic standards. A killer combination, this, that pouting baby face and a curvy, womanly figure. Who would not want to paint her? More to the point, who would not want to be her lover?
Emma Hart as a Bacchante, circa 1785
Biographies and other writings on Emma find more ample material in the second and last third of her life than in the first. Yes, she grew up poor; yes, she worked in menial positions as a young teen; yes, she moved to London at one point; yes, men began to notice her. What is uncertain is when and how she became a sex worker. Did her mother actually pimp her out at the age of fourteen? Did she work the streets or was she in a brothel? At any rate, we are on more solid ground when she is taken up by Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh (this name is pronounced “Fanshawe”), a wealthy, dissolute rake who nonetheless has her take up the ladylike sport of horse-riding (“To hounds!”) and teaches her more genteel manners. (She was said to have a vulgar speaking voice and bad diction; her spelling, from letters that remain, show her bad spelling, but many people then were bad spellers.)
He dumps her, however, when she becomes pregnant. She is about sixteen when she is sent away – and the record is not clear whether or not this child was Fetherstonhaugh’s or Greville’s or another man in their set, Jack Payne — and gives birth to a girl, said to be named Emma Carew. (She was also known as Emma Hartley; after years as a teacher/governess she died alone in Florence and is buried in the English Cemetery. It appears she’d had a sad life.)
After giving birth, she left the child to be raised by a relative in the country and took up with this man in Fetherstonhaugh’s set, Charles Greville, who refused to have another to do with the baby and further set about further “improving” Emma in manners, diction, et cetera. Greville,
who was the nephew of the very wealthy Lord Hamilton, but not well-off himself, was a bit of a control freak, from all I have read about him and which these essays confirm. It was Greville who introduced her to the portrait painter George Romney….and thereby hangs quite a tale. And here is Romney looking his moodiest, in an unfinished self-portrait (circa 1781/2):
I myself have researched and written about Romney’s obsession with Emma, whom he painted at least sixty times and sketched many more times. At his death, notebooks were found filled with drawings – many unfinished — of his muse Emma Hart – as she was then known. Romney was a strange old cuss. Extremely talented – he became one of the most renowned portraitists in England – but he was prone to serious bouts of depression (it apparently ran in his family). He was a very moody man. Emma Hart enriched his life, and when she was gone from it, he went even more downhill mentally.
Emma Hart In A Straw Hat
The only quibble I have with the uniformly excellent essays making up this book is in the Christine Riding piece. Emma Hart sat for George Romney some nine years. Nowhere in all the background reading and research I did for my guest blog for Number One London did I find any evidence that there was anyone else in that studio save Romney and Emma. I never saw mention of a “chaperone” nor of any friends/acquaintances of Greville or Emma dropping in. And this is telling, because sittings for artists were social occasions; observers sat and gossiped and were served tea, etc. This was the norm. One sitting could take up to an hour; these sittings were longer. Again, never, ever, did I find any of this normal way of conducting sittings followed by Romney with Emma. Greville, to my knowledge, simply would not allow this.
Emma Hart as Circe, painted by George Romney c1782… Exquisite!
Charles Greville was an extremely jealous and controlling man, possessive to a rather sickening degree, in my opinion. Emma Hart was his possession; he did not want to share her with anyone, even in the benign setting of sitting for a portrait. All I read led me to believe that those two, artist and subject, were alone…together. For NINE years! And I wondered, did they become lovers? It’s tantalizing to imagine this, but there is no solid proof. What seems to be evident, however, is that Emma opened up to Romney as she was posing and entertained him by singing and dancing and having fun. (I reckon she did not have much fun in her relationship with Greville, given his rigid personality.)
And, although over the years people have made fun of Emma and her “Attitudes” – i.e., the dramatic poses she struck to entertain guests – there needs to be, I think, an objective re-examination of her talents, both with these poses and with her singing. (She did hang out with theatre people when she was younger and may even have appeared onstage.) Apparently she wasn’t as untalented as so many reported over the years. I found that re-appraisal fascinating…and it confirmed to me that so much of what was written at the time and subsequently thereafter – much of it simply repeating the same anecdotes — was not to be trusted. (I found this to be true when I was writing the biography of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, My Lady Scandalous. There is a lot of misinformation/misinterpretation out there and one has to be cautious.)
Perhaps my favorite portrait of Emma Hart by George Romney
When Emma Hart was given to Lord Hamilton by his nephew (yes, she was a gift, as she was, after all, his possession), she was eagerly received. Greville was reportedly tired of her and, assiduously searching for a wealthy woman to marry, Emma was in his way. By sending her to Naples on a ruse (oh, yeah, go on ahead, I’ll be joining you directly!), he accomplished his purpose. The much older, lonely man, besotted by her beauty, took her in and eventually proposed marriage to her. (She was 21 when Greville rid himself of her; Hamilton was about 56. They married when Hamilton was 61 years old; his first wife, an heiress, had died before Emma appeared on the scene and he’d been alone for some years.)
Gillray caricature making fun of Lord Hamilton’s interest in Classical antiquities and volcanoes (he was a renowned amateur volcanologist), with images of Emma and Lord Nelson in the upper left corner, indicating he’d been made a cuckold
Most of you may know the rest of this celebrated story. Emma – now Lady Hamilton and ensconced in luxury far beyond her imagination whe
n she was walking the London streets and/or working in a brothel – met Lord Nelson, the famed British admiral and hero of Trafalgar, and Lord Hamilton – bless his heart – was toast.
The details can be found in the essays, but a last word about Emma’s child(ren) with Nelson is perhaps appropriate here. She had Horatia, who lived to a ripe old age, the wife of a minister and the mother of a slew of children, whose maternity Emma never acknowledged publicly, and possibly one or two other children, one of whom was said to have died very young or at birth. One or two sources I read in my research implied that there were twin girls, one of whom was sent to an orphanage, the other having died or disappeared. Sadly, it did not appear that Emma was much of a mother (though some sources said she was close to Emma Carew, her first daughter), but there is not much to go on to substantiate what happened to these later, mysterious twins…if they indeed ever existed at all, poor lost babes.
Lord Nelson, Hero of the Battle of the Nile and of Trafalgar
This is quite a wonderful compilation with superb illustrations, fast reading, and an excellent introduction to the life and loves of a singular woman. Enjoy the reading and perhaps shed a tear or two for Emma Hamilton’s last tawdry years. So many women like her wound up in France, dying there, forgotten. (My biography subject died there, as did the actress mistress of King William IV, Dorothy Jordan, along with other discarded women.) Nelson wanted Emma taken care of by the country he’d served so well; well, she wasn’t.
And, if you can, visit the exhibit at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London before it closes. As you can tell from the few sample images here, it is a feast for the eyes.
Quinton Colville’s introductory essay, “Re-imagining Emma Hamilton,” gives an excellent overview of the mythology and reality surrounding this woman; he is the Curator of Naval History at the National Maritime Museum in London. There are six full and informative articles in this companion to the exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, starting with historian Vic Gattrell, who teaches at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge; his essay is “Sexual Exploitation And The Lure Of London,” a subject on which he has written extensively. Christine Riding holds the position of Head of Arts and Curator of the Queen’s House at the National Maritime Museum; she was previously at the Tate Britain, where she curated 18th and 19thcentury British art; her essay is “Romney’s Muse: A Creative Partnership In Portraiture”.
Jason M. Kelly takes us to the middle part of Emma Hamilton’s career, to Naples, where, as the wife of the British ambassador, she moves in very different circles and we take a look at “A Classical Education: Naples And The Heart of European Culture.” Kelly is an associate professor at Indiana University-Purdue and directs the Arts and Humanities Institute there. Gillian Russell penned “International Celebrity: An Artist On Her Own Terms”; Russell writes on fashionable women and on theatre in Georgian London.
Rounding out these essays are Margarette Lincoln (“Emma And Nelson: Icon And Mistress Of The Nation’s Hero” and Hannah Grieg on Emma’s last sad years with “Decline And Fall: Social Insecurity And Financial Ruin.” ) Lincoln is a specialist in English naval history and served as Deputy Director of the National Maritime Museum for several years; she is now a visiting professor at the University of London. Grieg is an academic who is now at the University of York, lecturing on 18thcentury British social, cultural, and political history; much of her research centers on the lives of the elite class in that society.
A special treat at the end of this fascinating book is biographer Kate Williams’ take on “Emma Hamilton In Fiction And Film.” Williams is a professor of history at the University of Reading and author of England’s Mistress.
Poster for Vivien Leigh/Laurence Oliver biopic That Hamilton Woman!
EMMA HAMILTON: SEDUCTION & CELEBRITY, edited by Quintin Colville with Kate Williams, Thames & Hudson/Royal Museums Greenwich, 2016, 280 pages
You would think that after having read the massive The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters I’d have gotten my fill of all things Mitford, but not so. In fact, the book only fueled my passion for the Sisters, so I went directly afterwards to reading In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor. Here’s a brief synopsis:
From Amazon Books: In the spring of 1956, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, youngest of the six legendary Mitford sisters, invited the writer and war hero Patrick Leigh Fermor to visit Lismore Castle, the Devonshires’ house in Ireland. The halcyon visit sparked a deep friendship and a lifelong exchange of highly entertaining correspondence. When something caught their interest and they knew the other would be amused, they sent off a letter—there are glimpses of President Kennedy’s inauguration, weekends at Sandringham, filming with Errol Flynn, the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, and, above all, life at Chatsworth, the great house that Debo spent much of her life restoring, and of Paddy in the house that he and his wife designed and built on the southernmost peninsula of Greece.
Deborah (Mitford), Duchess of Devonshire
Of course, this description does nothing to impart the flavour of the letters themselves, or their authors. Here are a few extracts:
Deborah to Paddy – 14 July 1975
“Darling (Paddy) Whack, No news, except bumpkin stuff. The Council of the Royal Smithfield Club – top farmers and butchers from all over the British Isles, every accent from Devon to Aberdeen via Wales & Norfolk – met here on Thurs. Fifty of them. So the only room I could think of was the nursery, and there they sat good as gold on hard chairs. I offered the rocking horse, but they eschewed it, ditto high chairs and Snakes and Ladders. I really love those men, and it’s my last year as president. I shall miss it and them. Then they had lunch, then the wives were let in (so typical of England that they had to hang about till lunch was over) and of course they wanted to see the house. I said ‘I’ll meet you at the end of the tour.’ The first butcher was out in six minutes. I reminded him of Art Buchwald’s lovely article on How to do the Louvre in Six Minutes – but he’d never heard of Art Buchwald or the Louvre so I chucked it and took him to see some cattle, which he had heard of. A really good fellow.”
Patrick Leigh Fermor
While Deborah’s heart was always in her home and with her country pursuits, she often had to leave Chastsworth in order to attend to her duties as the Duchess of Devonshire, many of which brought her into contact with Royals and other members of the nobility:
Deborah to Paddy – 18 January 1980
“Darling Paddy – . . . . . . Last night I went to AN OPERA. The second in my life. It was a plan of Andrew’s (Duke of Devonshire) in aid of the Putney Hosp for Incurables and good Cake (the Queen Mother) came and turned it into a gala. One forgets between seeing her what a star she is and what incredible and wicked charm she has got. The Swiss conductor panicked and struck up `God Save The Queen’ when she was still walking round the back to get to her box and I heard her say Oh God and she flew the last few steps dropping her old white fox cape and didn’t turn round to see what would happen to it. She does a wonderful sort of super shooting-lunch dinner, brought from Clarence House and handed round by her beautiful footmen in royal kit, between the acts, the cheeriest thing. We were a bit stumped though because when she’d gone home we had to go to the Savoy and have a second grand dinner with the organisers. It was a bit of a test forcing down sole after Cake’s richest choc mousse. It’s tough at the top, I can tell you . . . .”
Paddy to Deborah – 23 October 1995
“Darling Debo – . . . . . Ages ago, I went to a party given by Brig. West. Everyone was tightish. Daph(ne Fielding), still Bath, was curled up in a ball next to a chair where Duff C(ooper) was sitting, covered in medals and decorations. Daph was wearing a tiara, as they’d all been to a Court ball. Daph was so rapt in talk and laughter that she didn’t even notice or pause when Henry (Bath), on the point of buzzing off with Virginia, said, `I think I’d better take that,’ neatly uncoiled the bauble from Daph’s hair, and slipped it into the pocket in the tail of his tail coat, and walked away. Daph was amazed a bit later by its absence, until we reassured her. I thought for a moment that it might have been later on the same night when I came and collected you from a ball at the Savoy and took you on to another in Chelsea – whose? – a lovely evening. No more for the moment. Lots of love – Paddy Was the ball at the Savoy given by someone called Christie-Miller? A yearly event? One year, they say, David Cecil was hastening to it along the Strand, when a tart stopped him and said, `Woud you like to come home with me, dear?’ and he answered, ‘I can’t possibly. I’m going to the Christie-Millers.'”
Deborah and Patrick
Who knew that the tails of tail coats had pockets? More importantly, these breezy, entertaining and endearing letters serve to lend an insight
into the lives and hearts of their authors. Whether it’s Deborah’s slightly wicked sense of humour or Paddy’s love of and descriptions of travel, there is something for everyone here. A must read for fans of all things Mitford.