Fair Women, by William Sharp Part 1
Doubtless many people visited the Grafton Gallery this summer in the hope of finding their ideal. Their immediate emotion must have been one of cruel disappointment. In the first room there were many pictured women who had much to recommend them, but few who could boast of unusual good looks. To the fairest one might say, with the poet of "The Moonstar":
Pure enthusiasts, chivalrous visionaries, like Mr. Prangé and his co-directors, and perhaps a few artists interested in technique rather than in the abstract question of beauty in the portraits, could always turn to page 1 of the catalogue, and read over and over that Machiavellian statement with its delightful "possibly more celebrated for, etc."; but the ordinary visitor could only at first wander disillusioned from canvas to canvas, and from room to room, uncertain whether to find a damaged ideal in the robust but selfconscious Flora of Palma Vecchio, or in the artificial and self-conscious court ladies of Lely, or in the lovely and self-conscious beauties" of Hoppner and Romney; in the imposing but tempersome Corinna of Sir Frederick Leighton, or the green lady of Rossetti, or the blue Bianca of Mr. Watts, or the Ellen Terry of Mr. Sargent, or the winsome but ultra-modern Lady Colin Campbell of Boldini. These be shrines--many, and to spare.
Painters and the public have, at the Grafton, for once found themselves in agreement. The majority is united in the conviction that the finest types of beauty are painted by our English masters--Gainsborough, Reynolds, Lawrence, Hoppner, and Romney--in particular at the Grafton show by the two last named.
Yet, if this be admitted, one is apt speedily to call to remembrance Titian's neighbouring Catarina Cornaro, Lorenzo Lotto's Lucretia, or, it may be, among the moderns, Mr. Shannon's Iris, or Boldini's serpentine beauty, or Mr. Watts's flower-sweet and flower-delicate early portrait of Mrs. Langtry.
Readers may be interested in the results of one method of test. I enlisted a wellknown amateur, a lady who is herself an acknowledged Fair Woman, and an eminent portrait-painter, and asked each to specify the three best portraits, everything considered--the type, the technique, all in all. My friend the connoisseur hesitated, asked some questions, hesitated again, again qualified with several "ifs" and "considerings" and "in its own ways," but finally declared for (a) Romney's Countess of Mansfeld; (b) Hoppner's Mrs. Michael Angelo Taylor as Miranda; (c) Lely's Countess of Grammont.
The Fair Woman's choice was, of course, doubly interesting. I hoped it might include one portrait of a living woman at least, and was even mean enough to try to bias her. To be sure, I thought she bore a resemblance to one of the portraits in the Centre Room, but may have been mistaken. She was long in deliberating, and begged that each of the three might be named with a fellow of equal, or nearly equal, charm; but this was an evasion of the difficult quandary towards which she had been inveigled, and could not be permitted. Her final personal choice was for (a) Zurbaran's Spanish Lady; (b) Titian's Catarina Cornaro; (c) Lely's Countess of Grammont.
Now came the turn of the portrait-painter, and here, surely, the best testimony lay. But he began with Franz Hals'Maria Voogt Claasdr and Holbein's Margaret Tudor and Jan Vermeer's delightful Girl Playing the Guitar, and before he got further I interrupted him, with the reminder that what was wanted was the pictorial type which most appealed to him as a man rather than as a craftsman, though artistic beauty and worth were to be potent factors in his judgment. After a long argument about the authenticity of each of these fine paintings, we agreed to believe in the genuineness of the Holbein, though not in the sitter's being that sister of Henry VIII. who, as spouse of James IV. of Scotland--who lost wife, kingdom, and life at Flodden eleven years after his marriage--was grandmother of Mary Queen of Scots, and to attribute the Franz Hals and the Jan Vermeer to--well, I won't say whom! At this juncture an eminent critic positively assured us that the Holbein was by one of the several brilliant French painters who worked in the manner of the great German master, that the Hals was really by Jan Anthonisz van Ravensteyn, and that not Jan Vermeer of Delft, but a somebody else of another place (both names, alas! unknown to us) painted the charming guitar-player. We stood, trying to recover from our bewilderment, when we were joined for a moment by another equally eminent critic, who came up with a blithe air and conjectured we were admiring that fine early Rembrandt which the catalogue gave as a Franz Hals. The next moment he had descried a fellow-enthusiast in the exciting game of haphazard attributions, and we overheard him explaining how unmistakably the handiwork of Gerard Terburg was seen in the guitar-player which Mr. Bischoffsheim seemed to believe was by that Delft man, Vermeer.
After this we argued no more. My companion was morosely silent for a time; then suddenly he began to speak about the lovely collection of miniatures and drawings, and, among these, of the Marchioness of Granby's Lady Westmoreland and other delightful studies. But he was held to his promise, and so at last, smiling again, he made up his mind, and gave me, as we parted, his three selections: (a) Lely's Countess of Grammont; (b) Luini's Portrait of a Lady; (c) Mr. Watts's Mrs. Langtry.
I was musing on these several sets of preferences, not, of course, without having noted that each of the three puzzled with reluctant judges had selected the famous La Belle Hamilton of Lely, when a wild and unbalanced idea flashed into my mind.
This was to drive into the same corner every art critic who was unfortunate enough to be present. The next moment I had realized my folly. No critic, taken seriously, would commit himself. Other art critics might read the report. Then there would be gibes and unhallowed remarks. However, as there would be little likelihood of any two specialists agreeing, this collapse of my momentary project did not distress me. A diversion occurred, moreover. I saw, pursued, and waylaid a well-known literary man. I would call him a man of letters, but that phrase is one of his pet aversions, as "a literary man" is one of mine. But a courtesy is due to him for what follows, hence my complaisance!
In reply to my question he said that, frankly, he had never cared much for Fair Women in paint, and now cared less than ever; that he knew next to nothing of preVictorian art or artists; and then, in the same breath, he was good enough to specify what are indubitably the three best things at the Grafton." They are (a) Van Somer's Countess of Derby; (b) Mary Queen of Scots (unknown painter); (c) Lawrence's Lady Ellenborough.
"There must be some deep reason for this," I said, when I had recovered from my surprise. "Why do you choose the comely enough but not noticeably good-looking Countess of Derby, or that quite certainly wrongly labelled Queen Mary, or Sir Thomas Lawrence's vigorously painted but not very winsome Lady Ellenborough?"
"Because the Countess was a brick--Scott should have written a romance about her; because I've always understood Mary was the most beautiful woman of her time, and I'm not going back upon that now, seeing that my faith survived the Mary Exhibition ordeal. Thirdly, because Lady Ellenborough was a "caution," and cautions o' that ilk have had an irresistible fascination for me ever since the governess whom I adored in my early boyhood ran off to sea disguised as an apprentice, married a Unitarian parson in the States, and died, very much a caution, after an adventurous and kaleidoscopic career, the owner of the chief gambling saloon in San Francisco."
This was interesting, but it was not art criticism. I turned despondently away, humming to myself the quatrain from the old North-Country nursery-ballad of "Rashin Coatie"
Alas! there were so many queens of beauty on the walls, and yet my heart was not lost to one of them! Then I remembered a favourite couplet, by Campion--
and, having thought of and quoted that sweet singer, found I had to go right through three stanzas of his, memorable even in the ever-new wealth of Elizabethan love-songs.
There! all that is to be said about Fair Women, or the Beauty of Woman, is compressed into six short lines. This intangible beauty is a citizen of the world, and has her home in Cathay as well as Europe; no one age claims her; and Helen of Troy takes hands with Aspasia, and they smile across the years to Luerezia Borgia and Diane de Poitiers, who, looking forward, see the lovely light reflected in "la belle Hamilton," and so down to our own day. And then, once more, Eve individualized for ever and ever; a challenge to all the world to bring forward one sweeter and fairer than "my Sovereign."
Probably, I thought, since judges so representative as the amateur, the Fair Woman, and the portrait-painter agree in the selection of the Countess of Grammont, there will be discernible in Lely's finest picture a fundamental charm that will appeal to everyone. That charm, no doubt, will be distinction. With the egoist, "my thoughts come to this conclusion: that, especially in women, distinction is the thing to be aimed at."
The familiar canvas was in delightful company. Her sisters-in-Lely were there; the Princess Mary, afterwards Queen Mary II., as Diana; the winsome Diana Kirke, the second wife of Aubrey de Vere, twentieth and last Earl of Oxford, a Fair Woman whom personally I much preferred to her famous rival; Nell Gwynne, the bonnie freelance; the charming but not rigorously virtuous Mrs Jane Middleton, whose relative, John Evelyn, has chronicled her "famous, and, indeed, incomparable beauty," and some of whose doings are set forth in Anthony Hamilton's celebrated Grammont Memoirs; and the Lady Barbara Grandison, who married the Earl of Castlemaine, found favour in the eyes of Charles II. (who created her Duchess of Cleveland), and was daring enough to wed once more a commoner, though, to be sure, he was the fashionable Adonis of his day, "Beau" Fielding. Besides, there were Hogarth's portrait of the Marchioness of Granby, with which it would have been interesting to compare Mr. Shannon's of the Fair Woman who at present bears that title--his best portrait, many of his admirers think, and certainly one that would have better suited the Grafton Gallery than his Iris, charming portrait-picture though that be--the Duchesse de Croy of Van Dyck, and the noble Anne of Austria, by Rubens.
Everyone knows La Belle Hamilton, the finest of the Hampton Court beauties. In common with Nell Gwynne and the Duchess of Cleveland, this masterpiece of Lely's belongs to the Queen. I wonder how the gossipy Anthony Hamilton would have moralized if he had been able to foresee this whim of Destiny. The three ladies themselves might have been more surprised still if their thoughts could cross the gulf that separates the Stuart Court from the Victorian. Some readers will recall the saying, "The Count de Grammont's short memory!" When that courtier left England he was followed and confronted by the brothers of "la belle Hamilton," who, with drawn swords, asked him if he had not forgotten something.
"True, true," replied the Count, who forthwith retraced his steps and, as a chronicler has it, "repaired the lapse by making the young lady Countess of Grammont." As a painting, this superb work is not only the highest achievement of Lely, but touches the high-water level of Lely's prototype, Van Dyck. Even the finest of the adjacent canvases of the great Sir Anthony, the Duchess de Croy, and in particular Dorothy Sidney, do not surpass this beautiful picture.
But while it is easy to understand how Elizabeth Hamilton became "la belle Hamilton" at the Court of Charles II., and had more offers of marriage than the number of years she had lived, till, in the third year of the Restoration, she gave her hand to the celebrated wit and courtier, the Comte Philiberte de Grammont, most of us doubtless would find it difficult to discover that "fundamental charm" we hoped to find. I could believe all that her brother Anthony could tell of her beauty and winsomeness, and have no doubt that Count Philibert was a very lucky man; but, for myself, I realized that even had I been a member of that wicked, laughing, delightful, reprehensible Carolan Court, and a favourite of fortune in the matter of advantages, I doubt if I would have been one of the five-and-twenty suitors of "la belle Hamilton"; certainly, as things are, one might be Japhet in search of a wife and still not be allured, even in random fancy, by this particular Fair Woman.¹ Alas! there is yet another charm which allures men when Beauty is only an impossible star; in the words of the anonymous poet of "Tibbie Fowler o' the Glen:"
It was not the fair Elizabeth's "pennysiller," however, that was the attraction, though she did have what the Scots slyly call "advantages."
Nevertheless, it is clear she must have in her beauty something that appeals to many minds and in different epochs. The fastidious nobles and wits of the Restoration admired her; Sir Peter Lely expended his highest powers in painting her; his portrait of her has long been the gem of the famous series known as the "Windsor Beauties," and at Hampton Court she is ever one of the most popular of the ladies of the Stuart régime.
Probably the Countess of Sunderland--of whom Van Dyck, it is thought, so much enjoyed the painting--must have been more winsome in looks, as she was certainly superior in graces of mind and spirit. This is the famous Lady Dorothy Sidney, daughter of the second Earl of Leicester and wife of that Lord Sunderland, the first of his title, who fell fighting under the Royalist flag at the Battle of Newbury, not to be remembered for this now, however, but as the "Sacharissa" of Edmund Waller's love-poems. True, Waller, who was for generations one of the most popular, and for a few decades the most popular of all English poets, is now almost as little read as the least notable of his contemporaries. He aspired to be England's Petrarch, and, like Lovelace, with one flawless lyric, or like Blanco White, or the French poet, Félix Arvers, with a single sonnet, is now among the immortals by virtue only of one little song. Possibly Laura had as good reason for discounting the passion of her Petrarco as Dorothy Sidney had for qualification of the prolonged homage of Waller. Both "my deathless Laura" and "my divine Sacharissa" married another person than the lover who gave imimmortality in verse -- married, and had children, and occasionally, perhaps, glanced at the sonnets to Laura, or the poems addressed to Sacharissa. Not only, indeed, did Lady Dorothy choose Lord Sunderland in preference to Waller, but as a widow she even preferred the practical poetry of a Mr. Robert Smythe's wooing to that which in her youth she had had so much experience of in verse. Fair and comely she seems in Van Dyck's portrait of her, though not the Sacharissa of whom one had dreamed. Was it this attractive English lady who was the inspirer of "Go, lovely Rose"? The thought suggests what a strange revelation it would be if we were to be entertained with a series of authentic likenesses of all the beautiful women we have loved or dreamed of across the ages. "A dream of Fair Women"--what would Helen say to it, or Cleopatra, or Guenevere, or, for that matter, Eve herself? What a desert of disillusion would exist between the catalogue entry, "Helen, daughter of Leda, Queen to King Tyndarus, who became the wife of Menelaus, and subsequently went abroad with Paris; commonly known as Helen of Troy," and the quoted motto-lines from Marlowe:
Again, fancy the astonishment and chagrin of Mr. Swinburne, if he passed one by one the actual counterparts of the ladies of the "Masque of Queen Bersabe," from Herodias to that Alaciel whose eyes "were as a graygreen sea," and found that he could not recognise one of those vignettes in red or white flame which he wrought so wondrously in the days of his youth! Semiramis, in truth, may have been but a handsome woman with a temper, the Queen of Sheba nothing more than distinctly pretty, and Sappho passionate but plain.
But there is a difference between the praisers of royal beauty and those who hymn ladies whom they can also approach when the lyre is laid aside. We believe in Laura and Sacharissa and Castara, and many other fair dames beloved of the sons of Apollo. If for nothing else than because she inspired the loveliest of all Waller's songs, we would look with homage at this Fair Woman whom the genius of Van Dyck has given us a glimpse of: