Thursday, June 11, 2009

Favourite Things: Portrait of a Lady

It is winter here. Today, and for the next few days, I am in quarantine with flu from Mexico! How exotic, I have never had a house guest from Mexico before and now I am thinking about Frida Kahlo and her portraits. This is an entirely new experience for me. My neighbours have been kind enough to come to the window with a box of food to be left at the door before beating a hasty retreat.

With Frida on my mind, if I were to have my portrait taken now I would have to do my best and fashion myself in the mode of the 'Victorian decline,' a sort of The Fall of the House of Usher look (my mother does it so well and with so little prompting). However blogging and tamiflu seems to be a better, albeit unstylish, option.

There is little that lends a more evocative elegance to a room than a portrait, they offer a wonderful opportunity for juxtaposition. The portraits that I love are strongly neutral, they do not reveal too much of the painter's intent and allow the viewer to make their own mind up, this is particularly true of vintage portraits because the level of disassociation allows the viewer to make their own associations with the piece.

image via airspaces

In terms of modern portraits this evocative quality is rare but is certainly to found in the work of British born, Australian based artist David Bromley with whom I attended classes at Art School in what now seems a lifetime ago. I am a great admirer of his work, which deserves a whole separate post

David Bromley's portrait of Louise Olson (of Dinosaur Designs),
a 2008 entry for the Archibald Prize

To anyone who has reservations about hanging a portrait of an unknown sitter, I would say that it may be useful to consider that living with a portrait of someone you know all too well might be far more trying!

Recently I was admiring James Merrell's astoundingly beautiful portfolio when I came across these images which illustrate the point far more eloquently than my words:

James Merrell

James Merrell

On inspecting a blog called My Book Covers, a compilation of brilliant jacket designs by Random House designer Megan Wilson, I was thrilled to find an image from the painting of Sir Herbert James Gunn, the subject being his second wife. I have not actually seen the original but I know his other work well. I would love to know where the original hangs, if you know, please tell me! I have also posted images of his other portraits below

Sir Herbert James Gunn

My fascination with these mid century portraits is perhaps due to the fact that they seem to crystalise the end of an era , effectively the closing years of the British Empire. It is perhaps easier to regard them with the affection that comes with distance and loss.

Gunn's 1930 portrait "Pauline in the Yellow Dress" was originally controversial as it depicted his wife, an elegant, wealthy woman wearing make up and an elaborate dress in a period of austerity,'' when clothing was still rationed and women found it difficult to acquire cosmetics. When first exhibited in the Royal Academy some 14 years later it was described as "the Mona Lisa of 1944." I can still remember seeing the painting, as a child, in a museum at Preston, it puzzled me as I looked and looked and looked but I still couldn't work out what the lady was thinking!

'Portrait of Gwen' 1925 the artists first wife

EmpireLady, resident muse, is insistent on the posting of even more Gunn portraits, perhaps just one in particular .... the subject being a Lady who meets unreservedly with EmpireLady's approval, the Duchess of Argyll, the subject of the most infamous British legal case of the twentieth century, the Argyll v Argyll divorce case of 1963 better known as the ‘Headless Man’ case, where the central evidence was a photograph – taken possibly with the only Polaroid camera then in the country which belonged to the Ministry of Defence – taken of a naked man whose head was cut off the top of the frame and in which the naked Duchess, in her mirrored bathroom, was identifiable by her triple string of pearls. Throwing caution to the wind, EmpireLady is of the opinion that this is simply the most stylish way to wear pearls and is certain that Boris agrees.

The history of the proceedings are counter pointed by the statements of complacence and almost hypnotic self-regard that survive in sources such as the Duchess’s autobiography 'Forget Not' written in 1975. Resoundingly well-dressed and astonishingly coiffed (an auburn, baroque-swirl bouffant was her trademark), Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, to no one's surprise, was famously self-involved. Described in her own words, "I had wealth, I had good looks. As a young woman I had been constantly photographed, written about, flattered, admired, included in the Ten Best-Dressed Women in the World list and mentioned by Cole Porter in his hit song You’re the Top." Here she is:

She once told the New York Times, "I don't think anybody has real style or class any more. Everyone's gotten old and fat." More to the point, she described herself as "always vain." To the end of her life, her superficiality remained superbly intact, as evidenced by one characteristically vapid quote: "Always a poodle, only a poodle! That, and three strands of pearls!" she said. "Together they are absolutely the essential things in life."

The Duchess was duly divorced, and her life became a desperate scrabble to cling on to the high life from which indebtedness and notoriety remorselessly excluded her. Despite her cataclysmic fall from grace the Duchess made sure that her house at 48 Upper Grosvenor St was a linchpin of society in postwar London, with visitors such as Noel Coward, Cary Grant, Anthony Eden and John Paul Getty. A few years ago ago the house was sold. The agent’s brochure says rather coyly: “This great address is exemplified by her indomitable spirit.”

Her Biographer Michael Thornton wrote “After the case, people thought Margaret would go abroad or disappear from society, but she refused to do that. She never skulked or wore dark glasses, she just went out and about and carried on hosting parties. Some people stayed away, but not for long — in the end, they all came back. She was very courageous.”

When one considers what part the house played in the duchess’s downfall, it seems odd that she kept the bathroom exactly as it was. The house is listed and so is the bathroom, not because of what went on there but because it is so gloriously Art Deco, with mirrors on all four walls, on doors and handles, even on fake Greek columns. There’s also a bath big enough for two, naturally, and a pale-blue leather loo seat. At the top of the house is an ornate cupola, etched with flowers and in a good order. The main bedroom is large, with a faded bed canopy, his ’n’ hers wardrobes lined with pale blue silk, and, bizarrely, two doors into the passage.

Another lady entirely, but fascinating all the same, available at Mossgreen :

Lazzollo "the Socialite"


Ailsa said...

It is an interesting point that portraits can an do bring forward with them a direct link to a particular era, or the end of an era and evoke such emotions from those times, right into the present tense.

Loved your post

balsamfir said...

Interesting post, but I also just realized you said they're quarantining people for H1N1. Really? Here in the US, they just say take two aspirin and call us if it gets worse basically.

Hope its not too depressing.

little augury said...

EmpireLady, Since I am reading on 2 August-and see you have a up to date post-it seems the flu pasted over. I would hate to have lost you just as I've discovered you. Another wonderful post- I agree about portraits. The works you've shown are refreshing- the Gunn portrait of his wife especially- the dress, all of it really. Thank you for showing it. I did a post of Megan's book picks for the summer you might like.

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