The Scottish Visitors: Lady Agnew of Lochnaw

John Singer Sargent 1856–1925, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1865–1932), 1892. Oil on canvas, 125.7 x 100.3 cm (49½ x 39½ in). Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Purchased with the aid of the Cowan Smith Bequest Fund, 1925 (NG1656).

The next in our weekly series of Scottish visitors is Lady Agnew, who sat for John Singer Sargent at the age of 27. Her pose is "notably langorous," possibly because she was recovering from a period of nervous exhaustion at the time. The except below is from the  exhibition catalog for Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland, available for purchase in the Museum Store.

John Singer Sargent 1856–1925, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1865–1932), 1892

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence to American parents and became the most fashionable and assured portraitist working on both sides of the Atlantic in the later nineteenth century. Sargent trained in Paris with Émile Carolus-Duran. He portrayed a number of French and American sitters in Paris, most famously Madame Pierre Gautreau (Madame X) whose portrait of 1884 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) was denounced for its immodesty. Two years later he settled in London. In the 1890s he made a definitive move towards becoming a society portraitist, a development which was helped to a considerable degree by the success of this depiction of Lady Agnew.

The sheer glamour of this portrait, achieved through lush, fluid brushwork, delicate colour harmonies, and an overwhelming sense of opulence, has meant it has transcended its role as a depiction of an individual and almost become an icon for an era, embodying the grace and decadence associated with fin-de-siècle British high society. The sitter is Gertrude Vernon: her parents were the Hon. Gowran Charles Vernon and Caroline Fazakerly. In 1889, Gertrude married Sir Andrew Noel Agnew, 9th Baron of Lochnaw – a lawyer with political ambitions who came from an old Scottish family.

The connection with Sargent was probably forged through Gertrude’s friends, the Dunhams, a New York family based in London; James and Harriet Dunham had six daughters, two of whom were painted by Sargent in the early 1890s. Gertrude and Noel dined with the Dunhams and Sargent on 11 July 1891. She sat to the artist in the following year, at the age of twenty-seven, during a period of nervous exhaustion (neurasthenia) and convalescence. Her pose is notably langorous, as she stares slightly upwards and very intently at the artist while he painted her. The precise cost of the commission is not recorded, however Sargent charged about £500 for a three-quarter-length portrait at the time.

The appeal and power of Sargent’s work are largely reliant on the subtle and rich clothing and setting selected for his sitter. She wears a pearl-white satin and chiffon dress, called a tea gown. A bold mauve sash complements the trimmings on the sleeves. The pendant around her neck, which may have a large gem in the centre, appears to be surrounded by turquoises and seed pearls. Lady Agnew is seated on a Louis XVIbergère chair, which was a prop from Sargent’s studio that he had brought from Paris to London in 1886. The Chinese turquoise and gold silk hanging which provides the backdrop for the portrait also formed part of the artist’s collection of items he used to create luxurious settings for his subjects.

The picture – ostensibly so spontaneous, but actually so carefully judged – was to prove pivotal in the careers of the artist and sitter. It confirmed his reputation for elegant, slick portraiture and established her status as a beauty and hostess. The painting’s appearance at the 1893 annual Royal Academy exhibition brought it to the attention of a wide public and prompted wildly enthusiastic critical notices.

Sir Noel and Lady Agnew’s London life in the period leading up to the First World War was defined by parties, dinners, receptions and private views. The cost of being a society hostess was met by the sale of Lochnaw land and of Sargent’s portrait. Intriguingly the picture was offered in 1922 to Helen Clay Frick, who was a passionate collector and distinguished philanthropist and the daughter of Henry Clay Frick, the founder of The Frick Collection. This offer was not taken up. Lady Agnew then approached the Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland in 1924. They refused at the time to buy works by living artists. However, in the following year Sargent died and so this impediment fell away. -Christopher Baker

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