Unlike the other ‘grands écrivains’ in Lavery’s sequence of canvases, Mary Borden (1886-1968), was American. A bright young woman from a wealthy Chicago family, she was a Vassar girl, and her three daughters, Joyce, Comfort and Mary, came from her first marriage to George Douglas Turner, a Scottish missionary. In 1913 she moved to London and took up the cause of women’s suffrage. However, travelling in Europe at the outbreak of the Great War she resolved to establish a field hospital under the auspices of the French Army, in which she nursed the wounded from Ypres and the Somme.
In this she was aided by Edward Louis Spears, (1886-1974) a general staff officer attached to the French Ministry of War whom she met in October 1916. Spears had grown up in France, but began his Army career with the Kildare militia – the 3rd Dublin Fusiliers. After a brief affair Borden divorced Turner and married Spears in January 1918 at the British Consulate in Paris. Nevertheless, for her tireless work with the wounded and for fundraising in the United States, to support her humanitarian efforts, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
After the birth of their only son, Michael, in 1921, while Spears sat as Member of Parliament, Borden developed her career as a novelist – publishing three books before Lavery’s visit to Bisham Abbey in 1925. It was nevertheless, her recollections of the zone interdite, or ‘No Man’s Land’ that shocked reviewers and brought her to national attention, coming just as the war accounts of Ernest Hemingway, Robert Graves and Richard Aldington were appearing. Sadly, while they are remembered, her vivid incantatory prose is unjustly neglected today.
The house on the Thames at Marlow, where Lavery found her, was constructed around 1260 for the Knights Templar. Consecrated as a priory by 1st Earl of Salisbury in 1337 it was appropriated by the crown during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII ceding it to Anne of Cleves as part of his divorce settlement. It then passed to the Hoby family, in whose hands it remained until the eighteenth century, by which time it was thought to be haunted.
There is no sense of this in the light-filled drawing room in which Borden sits. She faces a large window, seen in reflection in the floor-length mirror on the far wall. This reveals the painter and his easel and gives us a back view of the sitter, a stratagem that Lavery deploys in A Salon, Lady Cunard and George Moore (Fig. 1).
Mary Borden and her Family at Bisham Abbey with the other grand écrivain canvases formed part of Lavery’s highly successful ‘portrait interiors’ exhibition at Leicester Galleries in 1925. These paintings were, according to Desmond MacCarthy, ‘records of our times and significant commentaries upon that reckless changing thing called “good taste”’ (‘Sir John Lavery’s Portrait Interiors’, Apollo, Vol 2, 1925, p. 267). For The Observer, (4 October 1925, p. 8) the artist ‘triumphs’ in the ‘shafts of light streaming through tall windows, gilding an object here, intensifying its local colour there …’ However, in a show that ‘glistens with social distinction’ it was the present work that marked the high point for one reviewer. This writer in The Yorkshire Post caught the mood of languor in the writer’s pose. Thus,
… in a spacious room at Bisham Abbey Mary Borden (Mrs Spears) looks tired, but in an infallibly gracious way. This with its brilliant impressionist colouring is perhaps the most successful painting in the exhibition.
So significant was the show that Joseph Duveen imported it in its entirety for a North American tour starting at the end of November 1925 in his galleries on Fifth Avenue, New York, and continuing throughout most of the following year (see McConkey 2010, pp. 169-174). As a result, a new chapter in the artist’s career opened. Borden’s reputation in the United States and the prominence given to this canvas, undoubtedly contributed to the show’s success. For her however, the literary acclaim that came with The Forbidden Zone in 1929, was matched with the loss of much of her family fortune in the Wall Street Crash. Nevertheless her success meant that with the outbreak of the Second World War, she would return to France to establish a field-hospital – albeit short-lived. She and her husband then saw service in the Middle East, before Spears joined de Gaulle’s staff in London. After the war she resumed her writing career, publishing several novels in the 1950s. Thirty years earlier, Lavery caught her en famille - and as his eye strayed over the magnificent room, she remained oblivious, lost in reverie.
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