The Laib Collection Archive

Volunteer voices: 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

Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib

 

The Tate Archive holds some of the only remaining correspondence between photographer Paul Laib (1869-1958) and the artists who hired him: a misaddressed cream card dated July 1935 listing his telephone number, address in London’s South Kensington borough, and services offered. All in vibrant red ink: “Carbon Platinotype, ENLARGEMENTS, &c … Pictures carefully Photographed by Panchromatic Process. PHOTOGRAVURE.” (TGA 977/1/1/222)

E.Q. Nicholson, the eventual recipient of the note, was one of many clients Laib worked with over his five-decade career as a Fine Art Photographer in London. The title listed on Paul Laib’s stationery implied a role somewhat different than the common understanding of the term today. Whereas the contemporary use most often refers to an artist whose chosen medium is photography, fine art and people who made it comprise the subject matter of nearly all 22,000 images in the De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld.

3 Thistle Grove in 2017

I remember the initial thrill of coming across Laib’s photographs of studios, particularly Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson’s at No. 7 The Mall in Hampstead. There is something tantalisingly subversive about seeing well-known and well-loved works of art loved and known somewhere other than a gallery, somewhere where the rules of engagement with art might be relaxed. Hepworth and Nicholson hired Laib at various points in the 1930s to photograph their work. These weren’t snapshots, though – the depiction of possibility in these photographs, of the possibility of different kinds of interactions with art, was intended. Lee Beard, Sophie Bowness, and Chris Stephens all note in the exhibition catalogue for 2015’s Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World that photographs like this were a concerted effort to convey a more holistic aesthetic view – if anything, one that the artists had more control over than in a gallery. Textiles, sculptures, and paintings live alongside a spiky selection of cacti, works in progress, tools, and the ephemera of a filled, well-considered space.

With some more reading, trips to archives at Tate and the National Art Library, and discussion with colleagues here, I decided to expand on the idea that placing artworks in different contexts change how we feel about perceive them. Showing how Laib’s photographs depict a range of art-in-context, and how his unique occupation brought together photography, art, and the archival in an unexpected way – became the theme of the show, now up in the Book Library Foyer until September 27.

I had never previously considered the legions of photographers capturing the artwork we see in books, exhibition catalogues, lecture halls, and postcards. This is more than a little ironic considering that I and sixty other volunteers are taking on a similar role in our time at The Courtauld.

Artists in their studios: Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib.

The title of the exhibition – Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib – is a reference to the different relationships at play between artworks and photography in his archive. As I write in the introductory text for the piece, sometimes an image itself reminds us that we’re looking at a staged photograph, something that took scheduling, supply sourcing, and time to plan. Paintings were secured on easels and sculptures on pedestals to ready them for a photo. Further reminders of the presence of the photographer include graphic white strokes across many of the images – Laib placed tape directly on the negatives to mark where the images would be cropped.

In other photographs from the archive, the physical presence of the camera is less obvious. This is particularly the case for photographic reproductions intended for publication – a copy of Art Now: An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture (1933), generously lent by the Courtauld Institute’s Book Library, is open to a photograph of Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture “Reclining Figure” – while staged in a very thought-out way, the presence of a photographer is less obvious, thus “Camera, Obscured”.

To give visitors even more of a sense of how these photographs live as physical objects before being digitised in our studio in the Witt Library and printed, some of the glass plate negatives and the boxes they have been stored in since the 1970s are included in the exhibition.

A view of the exhibition.

Many thanks to everyone who has helped source negatives in the archives, point me towards references, set up the show, and supported in ways large and small – hopefully this will be the first of many exhibitions to come out of the rich photo archives we are digitising.

— Mary Caple

Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib is on show until 27 September in the Book Library Foyer at The Courtauld Institute of Art.