- DESERT ISLAND DISCS
- LADY ANTONIA FRASER'S LIFE LESS ORDINARY
- RESPONSE TO LETTER SENT TO THE BRITISH LIBRARY
- SPEECH GIVEN AT THE OPENING OF ‘ON THE NATURE OF WOMEN'
- LETTER SENT TO THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF THE BRITISH LIBRARY
- SPEECH GIVEN AT THE ‘CELEBRATION FOR DRAGON WOMEN’ LUNCH (2)
- SPEECH GIVEN AT ‘CELEBRATION FOR DRAGON WOMEN’ LUNCH (1)
- THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (Part 2)
- THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (Part 1)
- ANTONIA FRASER'S DIARY
- Truth and Reality in Operatic Librettos (part three)
- Truth and Reality in Operatic Librettos (part two)
- Truth and Reality in Operatic Librettos (part one)
- Society Portraits
- THE FRENCH CHILD
- CULTURAL LIFE
- QUEEN ELIZABETH: A PERSONAL VIEW
- ANTONIA FRASER’S DIARY
- IF I CAME BACK AS…
- SPECTATOR DIARY
- LOVE, LOUIS XIV AND ME Part 2
- LOVE, LOUIS XIV AND ME
- MY HERO
- BODIAM CASTLE
‘What grace! What dignity! What majesty!’ There I was, aged twenty three, in my wonderful white organza dress, strewn with pearls, with a pearly headdress à la Mary Queen of Scots, at the reception after my first wedding in 1956. I was the focus of all eyes. Or so I thought. It was the last word which gave me a clue that all was not quite what it seemed. Grace and dignity for sure, but majesty? At this point I realised I was being outshone at my own wedding by a portrait. We were in the Fishmongers Hall, and right behind me was Annigoni’s celebrated portrait of Queen Elizabeth II in the style of the Italian Renaissance, recently painted and still a startling novelty.
There could be no greater illustration, I reflected sadly, of the magic power of the portrait over the person. In fact Annigoni’s celebrated image not only stressed the new Queen’s dignity, but also gave her a kind of youthful glamour lacking from the staider, even dowdy representations which had accompanied the coronation a few years earlier. It showed not only our Sovereign but also – a new concept – our Sovereign as a Star.
Of course the manipulation of a royal image by means of portraiture is as old as government. One has only to think of Henry VIII and Holbein’s amazing depictions come to mind, the royal buffalo standing four square and confrontational. The message is clear enough: don’t mess with Big Henry Tudor. (we must remember that the Tudors were in fact a new, even dodgy dynasty, and the importance of a regal presentation correspondingly great.) The reign of his daughter, the first Elizabeth, saw a whole series of official diktats concerning her portraiture: five years after her accession, it was ordained that only officially approved (and presumably flattering!) images could be produced. Towards the end of her reign, when the Queen was old and heavily made up to hide her wrinkles, there was an even more significant law: the use of any image which showed the truth was forbidden.
Manipulation may be part of the art of royal portraiture, but royals are not the only ones playing the game. A sumptuous new study The Society Portrait by Gabriel Badea-Päun, concentrating mainly on the rich portraiture of the nineteenth century, provides plenty of evidence of it. It also demonstrates a basic difference between male and female representation which it is difficult to believe will ever be totally extinguished. In short, men want the artists to make them look powerful: here is William Bouguereau, founder of the Bon Marché department stores, who rose from humble beginnings and became a notable philanthropist, painted in 1875 by Aristide Boucicault, in all the power of his achievements. In James Tissot’s mesmerising The Circle of the Rue Royale, 1868 we get ‘a masterly image of society life in the Second Empire’: it is of course a masculine society, confident well-dressed fellows entirely at their ease (even the Dalmatian in the foreground looks confident and powerful).
But the women, actresses, poets, duchesses, countesses, society leaders of every sort, are made to look beautiful whatever the reality. What is more, this flattery was positively demanded of the painter. It is fascinating and rather depressing to discover that John Singer Sargent’s coolly elegant Madame X – she of the slim décolleté black gown, with sparkling spaghetti straps which could be worn at any party today – was actually a banker’s wife who rejected delivery of the picture because it had caused a scandal (it was eventually sold to the Metropolitan Museum, New York). The parents of Renoir’s ravishing little girls, Alice and Elizabeth Cahen d’Anvers, stuck the 1881 picture in an attic: it was only rescued by a more sophisticated descendant of the sitters, years later.
But perhaps we should not be too hard on these philistines (by our standards) remembering that Lady Churchill saw to it that the Graham Sutherland portrait of Winston Churchill never saw the light of day. The relationship of the painter’s portrait to the person’s perception is evidently a very tricky one. In the late fifties I was painted by the so-called ‘Kitchen Sink’ painter John Bratby, a man of great charm and manic energy whose thick sensuous paint-strokes zig-zagged across the canvas as if they were snakes. As he confessed to me, this was Bratby’s attempt at a Society Portrait. So he eschewed the Sink in favour of surrounding me with (empty) champagne bottles which I had to bring with me to Blackheath, clanking in the back of the car. Since Bratby refused to believe that I could not supply them from our own household (I couldn’t), I had to go and borrow them from the local wine store. And I felt about the result as Lady Churchill felt about Sutherland’s Winston; but one of my daughters hangs it, I note, in her drawing-room, with equanimity.
Naturally I have always preferred the pastel by the real Society Portrait painter Molly Bishop (in private life Lady George Scott) which nobody ever realises is actually of me. Thick, thick hair, big, big eyes, long, long eyelashes and looking sixteen when I was actually thirty six… this is the way to go. But then, seeing Badea-Päun’s gorgeous illustrations, I realise that the great Ingres also knew how to produce an apparently effortless image of smooth pulchritude and perfect modern macquillage. Carole Rivière and the Comtesse Haussonville, for example, have complexions which no Botox could achieve: utterly smooth, utterly alluring – and magic works of art as well.
In society portraits generally, flattery has to extend towards personal circumstances as well as appearances. Boldini’s Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough with her son Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill, tantalises us with her languishing regard: was any Duchess quite so beautiful? And of course quite so unhappy: the forced marriage of the great American heiress to the Duke of Marlborough ended in disaster and finally papal annullment in 1921, but you would never guess it from Sargent’s semi-regal family group of 1905, Duke, Duchess, two sons and two dogs.
Sargent’s portrait is painted against the ultra-splendid background of Blenheim Palace (I spy some French flags there, presumably captured from Louis XIV by the original soldier Duke). It reminds us that family, pride in family, is probably the strongest motive of all for commissioning this kind of portrait. The Chilean poet and journalist Alberto del Solar was painted by Antonia de La Gandara, a follower of Whistler, at roughly the same moment as Sargent was painting the Churchills. In term of art history, the picture demonstrates the enormous influence of Whistler; but no doubt the del Solar relations were far more interested in commenting on the amazing resemblance of the girls to their father, heavy-lidded eyes, fine aquiline noses, full mouths and all.
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