Monday, December 26, 2011
Edward Burne-Jones - Katie Lewis
inscribed 'EBJ to GBL' (lower left) and dated '1886' (on the pages of the book)
oil on canvas
24 x 50 in. (61 x 127 cm.)
Given by the artist to the sitter's father, Sir George Lewis, in 1897.
by descent to Lady Lewis, his widow.
by descent to Katherine Lewis, the sitter. by descent to her niece, Elizabeth Wansborough; her posthumous sale, Sotheby's, London, 7 June 1995, lot 149
Portraiture did not come naturally to Burne-Jones; he found it difficult to reconcile the demands of verisimilitude with those of his own very strong sense of beauty. Nonetheless, his fame in the 1880s led to a number of portrait commissions. This informal amd slightly eccentric likeness of Katie Lewis, a picture, perhaps that only an artist who was not a professional portraitist could have painted, was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1887. With it appeared a more conventional portrait of his daughter, Margaret (private collection), The Garden of Pan (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), The Baleful Head (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart), the first of the paintings to be completed from the series illustrating the story of Perseus that Arthur Balfour had commissioned in 1875, and a gesso monument to Laura Lyttleton, a brilliant and much-loved 'Soul' who had died in childbirth the previous year. Just as the convex mirror behind the sitter's head in the portait of Margaret Burne-Jones seems to be a distant echo of this motif in Van Eyck's Arnolfini marriage portrait in the National Gallery, London, so the long-haired dog and the orange in the portrait of Katie Lewis appear to be inspired by the presence of these details in that celebrated painting. Purchased in 1842, the picture had fascinated the Pre-Raphaelites ever since, in the earliest days of the movement, Holman Hunt had found sanction for his artistic principles in 'the newly-acquired Van Eyck'. Burne-Jones went back to it time and again. 'As a young man', he told his assistant T. M. Rooke in 1897, 'I've stood before that picture of the man and his wife, and made up my mind to try and do something as deep and rich in colour and as beautifully finished in painting, and I've gone away and never done it, and now the time's gone by'.
For all this, it is not entirely clear why Burne-Jones chose to refer to the picture in his portrait of Katie Lewis. Possibly the mirror in the portrait of Margaret had turned his thoughts in this direction, or perhaps Katie's dog (for it is presumably one she owned and not some figment of the artist's imagination) reminded him of the picture, and he went on to add the orange as the focal point of the rich coral and gold background which sets off the dark tones of Katie's hair and dress. Certainly tone was the value which he particularly associated with the Van Eyck. 'The tone of it is simply marvellous', he said on another occasion to Rooke, 'and the beautiful colour each little object has...He permits himself extreme darkness...It's all very well to say it's a purple dress - very dark brown is more the colour of it. And the black, no words can describe [its] blackness'. Perhaps the real debt to Van Eyck in Katie Lewis lies not in two specific details but in the general tone and the mysterious colour of the girl's costume, which hovers between dark green and black just as that of Giovanni Arnolfini hovers between 'very dark brown' and 'purple'.
Katie Lewis was the youngest child of George Lewis, the most famous solicitor of the day, and his wife, Elizabeth. Born in 1833, the same year as Burne-Jones, Lewis came from a Sephardic Jewish family that had probably emigrated to England from the Netherlands in the eighteenth century. Excluded from Oxford and Cambridge on account of his religion, he entered University College, London, in 1847, joining his father's firm of Lewis and Lewis three years later. He soon gained a reputation for exceptional shrewdness and ability, making his name by representing the relatives of the poisoned Charles Bravo in the so-called Balham Mystery of 1876; and from then on for some thirty years he was involved in nearly every cause célèbre that came to court in London. Though a genial, kindly man, he was prepared to fight ruthlessly for his clients, drawing on all the resources of his formidable intuition, an unrivalled knowledge of criminal records, and a network of underworld contacts at home and abroad which gave him something of the status of a private detective. His services were particularly sought in connection with society scandals. The strong-room at his offices in Ely Place, Holborn, was a legendary repository of secrets, and he refused to write his memoirs or even to keep a diary, boasting that 'when I die the confidences of London society die with me'. Inevitably he became associated with the Prince of Wales, extricating him from the embarrassing Tranby Croft baccarat affair (1890-91) and advising him in other cases where his mistresses, horse-racing and gambling were involved. Lewis's greatest public service was performed in connection with the Parnell Commission, when he exposed the forger Pigott, and for this Gladstone gave him a knighthood in 1893. In later years - by now a famous figure, whose side-whiskers, eyeglass and perennial fur coat were a gift to the caricaturists - he devoted much of his time to overdue reforms in criminal law, one of his major concerns being the injustices of divorce. At the Coronation of 1902 he was created a baronet by a King who had good reason to be grateful for his services.
Lewis married twice. His first wife died in 1865 and two years later he married Elizabeth Eberstadt, the third of five daughters of Ferdinand Eberstadt of Mannheim. Eleven years younger than her husband, she was blessed with good looks, great strength of character, boundless energy and a genius for friendship. Graham Robertson, who knew her well, desribed her as 'a strange woman...with a wonderful gift of sympathy and understanding. I would as soon take her opinion of a man as anyone's. (She doesn't know so much about women)'. Elizabeth came from a highly cultured background and was passionately devoted to the arts. As Max Beerbohm wrote when she died, 'good looks, good plays, good pictures and, above above all, good music were for her no mere topics of conversation, but vital needs of her nature'. George, whose work often brought him into contact with the stage, shared her aesthetic interests, while his growing success and rapidly expanding income gave her the scope to indulge them.
The Lewises were already entertaining artists during the early years of their marriage, but it was when they moved to 88 Portland Place in 1876 that Elizabeth's career as a hostess took wing, and she was able to launch a salon on the grand scale. A glance at the books in which she kept a record of her dinner guests reveals an astonishing galaxy of talent: Burne-Jones, Whistler, Du Maurier, Alma-Tadema, Sargent, Sullivan, Paderewski, Rubinstein, Sarasate, Joachim, Goerge Henschel, Browning, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, J.M. Barrie, Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Lillie Langtry - these are only some of the more famous names. Nor were they by any means mere social trophies. Wilde's letters to Elizabeth during his tour of America in 1882 show with what affection and gratitude he regarded the Lewises, and Whistler, who was among the most prickly of men, remained a close friend for many years, George representing him when he was declared bankcrupt after his libel action against Ruskin in 1878. Famous musicians and actors gladly took part in the Lewis's entertainments, and Sargent executed portraits of George and Elizabeth.
But by far the closest of these artistic friendships was with Burne-Jones, his wife and children. How and when the two families met is unclear, but they were on intimate terms by the late 1870s. and from then on the artist was a frequent visitor to Portland Place and Ashley Cottage, the Lewis's country retreat at Walton-on-Thames. He sought George's help over legal matters and wrote constantly to Elizabeth, relying on her for sympathy and practical advice. Perhaps he was a little in love with her, as he was with so many of his women friends. Certainly after his death she destroyed many of his letters, considering them too intimate to survive.
George Lewis's eldest child, Alice, was the daughter of his first wife. By Elizabeth he had three children: George, born in 1868, who was to take over the firm and inherit the baronetcy; Gertrude (or Gertie), born in 1871, and Katherine (Katie), born in 1878. These two girls made a striking contrast. Gertie was quiet, gentle and sympathetic, while Katie was alarmingly strong-willed and high-spirited. Oscar Wilde, writing to Elizabeth from Boston in June 1882, called her 'that trenchant critic of life'. In another letter from Chicago he wrote that he had heard 'that she has ceased to be the modern Nero and is now angelic, and gives up to Gertie. If she does I no longer adore her: her fascinating villainy touched my artistic soul'.
Burne-Jones would have agreed with these sentiments. He had recently started sending Katie a series of illustrated letters (British Museum) which are among the most charming and characteristic of their kind and have twice been published under the title Letters to Katie. She had entered his life at an opportune moment, filling what Graham Robertson, in his introduction to the first edition of the letters, called the 'babyless void' between the infancy of his own children and the arrival of his grandchildren, Angela and Denis Mackail, in the 1890s. He was a man who responded to precocious little girls (Angela Mackail would be another), and Katie for her part no doubt played up to him, being quite shrewd enough to appreciate what it meant to have someone so famous for an admirer. Among the letters is a revealing note that he wrote to his son Philip when he was staying at Ashley Cottage in May 1882. 'Katie has turned wonderfully affectionate to me and embarrasses me with gifts, and this morning appeared before I got up in my bedroom and insisted with screams on stopping while I got into my tub - and I never had such trouble to get free in all my life...She says tomorrow she will see me in my tub, which fills me with terror'. It was Katie who coined the name 'Mr Beak' with which he signs all his letters to her, sometimes in pictorial form.
Burne-Jones made a pencil drawing of Elizabeth Lewis and painted both Katie and Gertie, but (letters apart) the portrait of Katie was the chief monument to the friendship. At the Grosvenor it attracted little attention, perhaps because it was not hung, like the artist's other paintings, in the prestigious West Gallery. Nor, surprisingly, did Burne-Jones give it to the Lewises for another decade, as we know from Rooke's record of studio conversation in November 1897. Sir George, Burne-Jones told him, 'was very pleased with his daughter's portrait that I sent him the other day. Vowed it was exactly like her now, though it isn't. For she is a young lady of twenty-two [in fact, nineteen], and when it was done she was only a child of eight. He didn't know what to do to thank me. His wife did it quite successfully, but he couldn't. All he could do was to make me take away as many boxes of cigars as he could lay hands on. He fidgeted about the room to try and find something to give me that I would like, and couldn't satisfy himself at all. Rather pathetic, wasn't it, to see a man in that state who is the terror of the aristocracy of England and knows enough to hang half the Dukes and Duchesses in the kingdom'. Presumably the painting had already been dated on the pages of the book that Katie is so intently reading, open at an illustration of St George and the dragon, while the inscription recording the gift in the lower left corner was added at this time.
It is perhaps not surprising that Katie never married. As a child, the baby of her family with men like Burne-Jones and Wilde eager to pay her court, she seems to have been more than a little spoilt, and in later life, rich, witty and self-centred, she could well have deterred suitors. After her father's death in 1911 she continued to live in Portland Place with her mother, to whom she was devoted. Then when Elizabeth died in 1931 she moved to Evelyn Gardens, South Kensington, before settling in the Cotswold village of Broadway during the Second World War. She never lost her vitality and personal magnetism, and continued to attract the talented and famous until the end of her life. Max Beerbohm, Osbert Sitwell, Margot Asquith, Sybil Colefax (who decorated her flat in Evelyn Gardens), Rex Whistler, Desmond MacCarthy and Rupert Hart-Davis were amoing her devoted friends, and she appears in many memoirs of the time. Her greatest love, however, was Bernard Berenson, with whom she conducted a lively and flirtatious correspondence from 1914 until his death in 1959. She herself died in 1961, leaving her treasured Burne-Jones letters to the British Museum.
(Copyright "Edward Burne-Jones, Victorian Artist-Dreamer", The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1998.)