Sitting for Sargent: Lady de Grey and the Belle Epoque

Sitting for Sargent: Lady de Grey and the Belle Epoque

As an arresting portrait by John Singer Sargent is offered in the Old Master & 19th Century Paintings Evening Auction, we explore the life and times of his spirited subject, Constance Gladys, Countess de Grey and Marchioness of Ripon.
As an arresting portrait by John Singer Sargent is offered in the Old Master & 19th Century Paintings Evening Auction, we explore the life and times of his spirited subject, Constance Gladys, Countess de Grey and Marchioness of Ripon.

T he ineffable Lady de Grey – socialite, patron of the arts, and well-practiced lover – made an indelible impression on those she met in the salons of Victorian London. Six-foot tall and a great beauty, she had what EF Benson, author of the Mapp & Lucia comic novels, described as a “quality that can only be described as dazzling; when she was there the rest appeared a shade shabby. They wanted a touch of the sponge or duster.”

Oscar Wilde dedicated the printed edition of his play A Woman of No Importance to her and Lady de Grey’s presence in the public dining rooms at The Savoy, at the invitation of César Ritz, helped to establish the fashion for aristocratic women dining out in public. It’s perhaps no surprise then John Singer Sargent, the most successful portrait painter of his generation, captured her on canvas. That exquisitely graceful portrait now appears at auction, for the first time, at Sotheby’s London this December.

Born Constance Gwladys Herbert, the youngest of seven children of Sidney Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Lea, and his wife Mary Elizabeth Ashe à Court-Repington. In 1878 Constance married St George Lowther, 4th Earl of Lonsdale, but following his early death in 1882, she married secondly Frederick Oliver Robinson, 4th Earl de Grey in 1885, becoming known as the famous Lady de Grey, until her husband succeeded his father as 2nd Marquess of Ripon in 1909, at which point she became the Marchioness of Ripon.

Napoleon Sarony, Portrait of Oscar Wilde, 1882. Photograph. © Wikimedia.

She was a leading cultural figure in Belle Epoque London. A prominent member of the Marlborough House set, the risqué social circle surrounding the Prince of Wales, whose love affairs became legendary, Lady de Grey was also possessed of a strong intellect and entrepreneurial drive. Disliking the conventional roles available to women of her background, ‘at heart she was Bohemian’ with an indefatigable entrepreneurial spirit, attributed that she channelled into rejuvenating the opera scene in London through the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, of which she was patron from the 1880s until the First World War. She enjoyed friendships with the soprano Nellie Melba and the dancer Nijinsky, and arranged the first performance of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in London, which not only properly established ballet as an art form in Britain for the first time, but had a dramatic effect on fashion and interior design. She was also an enthusiastic collector of Fabergé, instrumental in the famous jeweller opening their first shop in London in 1903 (as was acknowledged by this painting’s inclusion in the recent Fabergé exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London).

Noted for her various romantic intrigues, Lady de Grey epitomised the dual role of respectable Edwardian aristocrat and private enchantress that was a hallmark of Edwardian high society. She was famed for her house parties, to which she invited beautiful ladies whose husbands were engaged elsewhere, and vice-versa. So bold was she in her love affairs that in her heyday she placed photographs of her lovers on the mantelpiece and she was one of the first grand ladies to have a telephone installed in her London residence when she realised that its use removed the risk of discovery inherent in love notes.

W. & D. Downey, photogravure by Walker & Boutall, Gwladys Robinson, Marchioness of Ripon when Countess de Grey as Cleopatra, 1897, published 1899. Photograph, 17.1 x 13.8 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London. © National Portrait Gallery.

Sargent and Lady de Grey shared many overlapping interests and acquaintances. The artist was also passionate about music, in which he had progressive tastes and was himself a talented pianist. Believe to have been executed circa 1904, his portrait of his friend was painted at a time when Sargent was at the height of both his powers and his fame (and clearly working on some of his most celebrated paintings, including the seminal group portrait of the Duke of Marlborough and his wife, the great American socialite Consuelo Vanderbilt, with their two sons).

Having descended directly in the collection of Lady de Grey's family, this exceptional and important painting has never been on the market before and survives in untouched, pristine condition. For all Lady de Grey’s high social position and grand public persona, this is a beautifully restrained image. She is wearing a simple pearl choker and pearl earrings, delineated with the most sophisticatedly minimalist brushwork, with nothing to distract from her refined, intelligent face. Her black evening dress, with its low cut, plunging décolletage, recalls the sensual elegance of Madame X and demonstrates Sargent's keen eye for fashion – as is currently being revealed in the exhibition Fashioned by Sargent at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (running until 15 January 2024) and will be further showcased in the related Sargent and Fashion exhibition at Tate Britain in London next year.

John Singer Sargent, Madame X. Tate Collection.

“Through the dynamics of dress, we can see that Sargent did not pander to his wealthy clients – he was in charge, and art making always came first,” notes Erica E. Hirshler, Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings and the exhibition organizer at MFA. “He clearly took the lead in creating his portraits, sometimes entirely ignoring his patron’s preferences to fulfil his own creative vision. Sargent controlled the sitter’s image.” The idea of anyone controlling Lady de Grey, however, does sound rather improbable.

Old Master Paintings

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