Maximilian Herbert goes looking for a slashed Sargent

A portrait of Her Grace, Winifred Ana Cavendish-Bentinck, DBE JP Duchess of Portland (née Dallas-Yorke) by John Singer Sargent hangs at the end of a long hallway at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire.

Winifred, Duchess of Portland – John Singer Sargent

As a small child, I visited the abbey and was enchanted by the painting. In my GCSE year at school, I attempted to copy it into a new composition, producing a preliminary painted sketch for a less successful finished painting.

Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland – Maximilian Herbert

My love of the original painting by Sargent was such that it inspired me to move to Florence in 2011 to undergo classical training in naturalistic portraiture at The Charles H. Cecil Studios on Borgo San Frediano, just south of the River Arno in a building owned by the renowned Romanelli sculpture family. The Cecil studios claim a lineage that connects directly to J. S. Sargent through R. H. Ives Gammel of Boston, who was Charles Cecil’s teacher and ostensibly knew Sargent through American social connections. Sargent is often hailed as the last great society portrait painter, having been born as an American in Florence before studying under Carlos Duran with extensive training at both the Florentine and Parisian Academies in the late 19th Century. During his illustrious career he was sought after by the great and the good of England and the United States, producing alla prima paintings with a method still emulated by many aspiring artists today; painting directly onto the canvas without making an underlying drawing, making observations from life and attempting to achieve a likeness in the first pass.

Having embarked on a voluntary digitisation project at The Courtauld, when I heard that there were glass plate negatives of Sargent’s work in The de Laszlo section of the archives I had a recollection of a tale that had been passed down to me via word of mouth from the current residents of Welbeck Abbey who include my Godfather. The story goes that in 1902 Sargent painted Winifred in the Abbey for a week with Her Grace returning each day to stand as his portrait model. He was famed for his vigorous approach to painting, with broad brushstrokes executed with swordsman-like virtuosity. Puffing away at a cigar he would briskly approach the canvas before making broad and energetic strokes with his long brushes before standing back to view the painted image at a distance. As a result, the paint would appear abstract up close, but when viewed from afar the visual focus would create the illusion of depth and space, generating a convincingly corporeal appearance of life to the painting. Apparently frustrated with the outcome of his week’s work, Sargent purportedly slashed the canvas diagonally, so that the Duchess, upon returning for her next session, was met to her shock, distress and dismay, with her likeness in a slashed and crumpled heap on the floor. After some reassurance Sargent then dashed off the subsequent portrait in a matter of a few days, producing what is still held to be a very successful representation, with a dazzling bravura illusion of light on the silken sheen of Her Grace’s wonderfully extravagant dress. Philip Alexius de László himself also painted Winifred twice in 1912. She was by all accounts a highly paintable woman and a great beauty.

Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland – Philip Alexius de László

Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland – Philip Alexius de László

The painting of the Duchess has a partner piece depicting the Duke of Portland with his dogs, painted in 1901.

Duke of Portland – John Singer Sargent

Contemporary friends and fellow painters Tom Richards and Isabella Watling, whom I met in Florence while studying the sight-size technique, used this portrait of the Duke as inspiration for their own paintings of Italian model Cristiano and his dog Gina.

Gina and Cristiano – Isabella Watling

Bella’s painting featured in the BP Portrait Award at the National Gallery in 2016.

Tom Richards in his studio

I wondered if I might find an image of the original, slashed Sargent painting in the De Laszlo archive. Although the archival process for the collection was much further from being completed than the Conway or Witt libraries, when I set out to look for the Sargent, hand written notes in a ledger took only minutes to decipher. Although some numbered images were missing, all those concerned with the Duchess of Portland had been re-attributed the same number. The boxes of negatives were also numbered so I selected the one that corresponded to entries for The Duchess in the ledger and within a wax-paper sleeve there were a number of glass plate negatives. After holding a particular negative up against a lightbox, it was clear that it was the familiar face of Winifred. And here she is:

Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland – John Singer Sargent (LAI_BU0001-0-0006-168)

Sadly, it is not an image of the original, slashed portrait which has most likely been destroyed, but it is the preliminary charcoal sketch drawn by Sargent which I have since learnt remains in private ownership by the present day occupants of the abbey, who have recently opened a second public gallery on the Welbeck Estate. The Harley Galleries exhibit The Portland Collection – Paintings and artworks amassed by the various Dukes of Portland over the centuries, including a Michelangelo sanguine sketch, paintings by Stubbs and a wealth of other superb paintings and artifacts. I strongly encourage a visit. While we may never know what Sargent’s first attempt looked like, it has been enriching to become further immersed in the story of the painting’s production and I am very pleased to have found another link in the chain that connects me to the portrait that made me want to become a painter.

Maximilian Herbert

Prints and Paper: Evie Mc on visiting the Courtauld Prints Room and Conservation Studio

Digitising the Conway photographs has been really interesting and enjoyable, but lately, we volunteers have been let loose (figuratively, not at all literally) on the Courtauld Gallery’s collection of prints, which has opened up a whole new and exciting side of things. Viewing and handling these object is fascinating, especially as they vary so much in terms of dates, artists, styles and subject matters. Working on these prints while on the digitising software is proving to be a wonderful way to engage with and explore them- it allows one to, in the interest of checking the focus of course, zoom right in to otherwise easily overlooked details, and even to the individually incised lines of an engraving!

In order to help the volunteers understand more about the objects we are now dealing with, the gallery team is kindly hosting events to introduce us to the collection and explain some of the issues we might encounter; I attended one of these days and I have to say it was all incredibly interesting and informative.

After meeting up in the staff room and acquainting ourselves with each other and with the biscuit tin, we head up many flights of the gorgeous salmon-coloured stairwell to the Courtauld’s Prints and Drawings Study Room.

Here a wonderful selection of works had been laid out awaiting us, and we were free to have a thorough browse.

Using the displayed works as examples, Dr. Rachel Sloan (Assistant Curator of Works on Paper) explained some of the different techniques used in printmaking and showed us some of the tools and printing plates used. First, we saw an engraving where fine straight lines are cut by hand into a metal plate using a tool called a burin, in what sounds like a slow, labour-intensive, quite precise and controlled technique. Apparently, in order to get a curved line, the plate, not the burin, is turned. Then there was an etching — where the metal plate is coated with a wax ground first and it is this that is drawn upon. Then acid, rather than brute force is used to bite into the metal to form the lines that hold the ink. This enables the artist/craftsman to exercise more freedom in drawing and mark-making. Next up was an aquatint — which is somewhat similar to etching in that acid is used, but the use of a powdered ground allows for the creation of areas of tones, rather than lines. This means that effects similar to those of a watercolour painting can be achieved. These differences were beautifully demonstrated and evidenced by the prints on show, but are proving very difficult to explain!

Bust of Mademoiselle Marcelle Lender, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The last print technique explained to us was the lithograph, and the print used to demonstrate this was Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1895 print ‘Bust of Mademoiselle Marcelle Lender’. A lithograph is produced differently than the other images, in that the image is not cut in to a printing surface, but is instead drawn on to it. The method is based on the principle that that oil and water repulse each other. The artist, in this case Toulouse-Lautrec himself, draws directly onto a stone using a greasy ink or crayon. This allows for a much looser expressive printmaking technique and this is brilliantly obvious in this print: you can see the different marks made – some light and scratchy, some bolder and more substantial, all full of energy and dynamism; it looks as though the performer was caught on stage, perhaps even mid-song, clothes rustling and swirling as she leans forward, giving it her all.

After the prints, Ketty Gottardo (Martin Halusa Curator of Drawings), talked us through three other works, the first of which was an actual Leonardo da Vinci drawing! It was hard not to momentarily consider employing a ‘look, there’s a kestrel’ distraction technique and scurry off with this wonderful little drawing, which is a pen and ink sketch study of Mary Magdalene, thought to be late 15th C or early 16th C.

Studies for Saint Mary Magdalene, Leonardo Da Vinci

It was fabulous that instead of being asked to keep our distance or being eyed suspiciously (possibly warranted, see above), we were allowed, even encouraged, to get up close and really examine these works. There were even magnifying glasses supplied for this purpose. I loved the way that it was obvious in this very free and rapid little drawing that Leonardo was exploring different poses and head positions, presumably for a larger work; much though one might try to not get caught up in the whole cult of the artist notion, it did seem quite amazing to almost see Leonardo da Vinci’s thought process in action.

The next drawing we were shown was a 1717 sketch, I think in chalk, by Jean-Antoine Watteau: Satyr Pouring Wine. Again this would have been a preparatory sketch for a larger work, one no longer extant. The different colours and rapid sketchy lines are used beautifully to give some life and depth into the body; I love the darkly delineated slanted eyebrows and cheekbones that mark him out as a fawn and the heavily shaded muscular pouring arm and clenched fist that are done with the fantastic confidence of a prolific sketcher.

Satyr pouring wine, Jean-Antoine Watteau

The last work we were shown was On Lake Lucerne, looking towards Fluelen (1841), one of many watercolour studies done of the Swiss Lake by J.M.W. Turner. Up close, it was possible to see a variety of highly diluted subtle blue, grey, green and russet coloured washes that Turner so cleverly used to produce this eerily atmospheric scene, where, lit by a full moon struggling to break through, a looming cliff makes a ghostly appearance from the depth of the mists.  Astonishing is about all I can say!

On Lake Lucerne looking towards Fluelen, J.M.W. Turner

I feel we were incredibly privileged to see and spend time with these works, especially as by their very nature, many of them are too unstable or delicate to be on general display.

And as if that wasn’t enough, we were then taken up even higher through the building, through a warren of narrow corridors where I seriously wondered if I should be leaving a breadcrumb trail, and on up to the attic rooms of the Paper Conservation Studio.

 Here, Kate Edmondson (Conservator of Works on Paper) gave us a very comprehensive talk about the types of damage we might encounter, about handling the prints, and about how works on paper are cleaned and conserved. This was all tremendously interesting.  I never knew, for example, that foxing, the little reddish-brown age dots on old paper can sometimes be caused by metal impurities present in the paper oxidising — Kate thought we might be able to zoom in and identify these metallic flecks while we were digitising! Also curious was the fact that many of the difficulties encountered by conservationists were not necessarily due to the prints themselves but to later additions and interference, such as owner’s stamps and identification numbers etc. These have to be checked for and dealt with before a print can be washed, as some inks in them can flood out and rather scarily seep into the print.  We handled furry samples of something called Japanese paper, a fibrous looking tissue used for delicate repairs and were shown a water bath, in which Gore-Tex is used as part of a process of dampening the prints in order to soften them. We were also shown a lovely old leather-bound George Romney sketchbook (late 18th C portrait painter) so we could see the tiny careful repairs the conservation people had been working on – and it was explained how all repairs have to be reversible and removable.

The level of knowledge needed, as well as patience and care, was impressive; conservation doesn’t look like a job for the impatient among us.

Impossible though it may be to believe, I could easily ramble on more; we saw and learnt so much. I will finish up by saying how nicely we were treated; people were so helpful and so generous with their time and knowledge. I for one came away far more interested in and curious about prints and paper than I would have imagined was possible. Actually, it has just occurred to me — printmaking must have greatly enabled the wider distribution and dissemination of images, but now old prints cannot always be accessible. It is therefore rather pleasing that we have somehow come full circle, and our digitisation work will send them off out into the world again to be shared, seen, enjoyed and studied by many again.

By Evie Mc.