Mrs Claude Beddington
John Singer Sargent -- American painter  
Assumed Private collection
Charcoal on paper
Jpg:  Friend of the JSS Gallery

From:  Matt Davies 
Matt D
Date: Mar 30, 2006 

From Mrs. Claude Beddington, All That I Have Met, Cassell & Co. Ltd., 1929, p. 151-7:

[Biographical Note
The author was born Frances Ethel, daughter of Francis Berry Homan-Mulock of Ballycumber House, County Offaly, Ireland. She married Col. Claude Beddington. She published her memoirs, All That I Have Met, in 1929 and died in 1963. The Beddingtons’ daughter, Sheila Claude Beddington, married Mervyn Patrick Wingfield, ninth Viscount Powerscourt, in 1932.]

(Mrs. Claude Beddington)
The first time I ever saw Sargent was in the [1900s] at a big dinner-party given at their Bryanston Square house by Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Wagg, a hospitable couple generally reputed to have one of the best chefs in London.

I confided in the gentleman who took me in to dinner. . .‘I’m all of a twitter to see the great Sargent, and I do hope we shall be up at his end of the table to hear him talk!’ ‘Watch him eat is what you’ll do this evening, more likely!’ said my partner, damping my youthful enthusiasm. ‘He can put away more food at a sitting than any man in London.’ And I must regretfully admit the correctness of this prophecy, for my idol ate during the best part of two hours (dinners were lengthy in those days) with a steadiness and a concentration such as I have never before or since saw equaled at a meal.

Later on in the evening I played the piano and he was most appreciative in his remarks. Music was a real passion with him, and it has been said that he himself was no mean performer on the piano.

Apparently, he had a gracious way with him of presenting, as a token of his gratitude, a portrait of the musician to one who had given him pleasure. I have seen wonderfully drawn charcoal heads by him of Gervase Elwes, that incomparable tenor-singer of Bach; of Percy Grainger, the Australian pianist with a head of hair like a yellow prize chrysanthemum; and of Mrs. George Batten, all of them artists he greatly admired.

In March, 1914, I arranged by letter and telephone that John Sargent should draw a charcoal head of me. I asked him whether he would like to come to see me at Seymour Street previous to the sitting, so that he should get to know my face beforehand; the answer (as they say in the House of Commons) was in the negative, and he explained how greatly he preferred not to  behold his subject until the sitting. . . “As you walk into my studio I make up my mind how I see you.”

Feeling very strongly as I do on the subject of ‘dated’ clothes in a portrait, I donned on this occasion a velvet classically draped evening dress (by Ospovat); Sargent looked at it, his head on one side, and said: ‘Very nice, but I think I’ll leave out the dress entirely and just put in your row of pearls. You see the mere fact of your wearing a necklace indicates a fully clothed condition.’

I condoled with him at the start that he should have to do a portrait of me in ‘black and white’—my coloring being my salient characteristic—and he said: ‘I am going to try my best to suggest your coloring in this portrait.’ Only recently I came upon two of my guests, who had just seen the Sargent head, arguing heatedly at the front door, the one declaring that it was a coloured portrait, and the other denying it. I only wish that Sargent were alive to-day to hear this compliment to his art.

For years before I met Sargent I had heard alarming legends of his forbidding and fierce manner with the ladies: they said he was a confirmed misogynist; that he was rude to his fair sitters; that at times he even. . . made them cry, and so forth. Now, little as I can fathom women, I make claim to understand men through and through, and Sargent’s psychology I diagnosed thus: he was a shy man (farouche is the subtle French word for what I mean), and dreaded a flirtatious female as a hydrophobic dog dreads water; thus, as I walked into the studio and shook hands, he realized in a flash (men have a sixth sense in this matter) that he need have no fear—flirtation being the fourth dimension to me—and from that moment all went well.

He was just like a schoolboy—keen, simple, vital, and modest as only great geniuses are. I was overwhelmed when he asked for my criticism of the portrait at intervals all through the sitting. He even said I must tell him whether he was to draw me with my mouth open or shut. I replied: ‘Shut, for the love of goodness, because my friends all declare I never stop talking!’

Discussing various racial types—Irish, Jewish, and so forth—he waxed lyrical on one of his favorite sitters, Lady Rocksavage (née [Sybil] Sassoon), now Marchioness of Cholmondeley. . . ‘Sybil,’ cried he, waving his right arm enthusiastically, ‘Sybil is lovely: some days she is positively green!’

Whenever he thought my muscles ached from sitting still, he exhorted me to move about the studio, while he turned on his latest Spanish gramophone records for my special delectation. I really believe he loved music as much as he did painting.

I timed him over this charcoal head, and it took he exactly two and three-quarter hours from start to finish. With the charcoal in his right and a long French roll (the sort they sell by the yard in France) in his left hand, he would dash on some lines with the charcoal, rub out with the French roll, occasionally retreat to the far end of the studio and then almost run at the portrait.

I asked him why he had absolutely given up all oil portraits, and he explained how sick and tired he became of painting people. ‘Portraits must be a perpetual compromise with one’s artistic conscience,’ said he. ‘The husband comes along and says: ‘But Mr. Sargent, my wife does not squint!’—or the fond mother implores: ‘Can’t you make my daughter’s nose just a leetle more Grecian?’ I simply couldn’t bear it any longer, so I made a vow to stick to landscapes: landscapes can’t argue with me! The only oil portraits I paint nowadays are wedding presents, so if you arrange to get married a second time, I’ll give you one!’

In spite of the hordes of admirers and would-be lionizers, Sargent remained to the last morose in company and awkward in a crowd; he was by nature an ‘unclubbable’ man. I always felt that he was only at his ease—and therefore at his best—when alone with you, or perhaps in a room with two or three people.

Sargent took infinite pains over a portrait, and sometimes had over thirty sittings before he was satisfied with the result. An illustration of the trouble he took over details is the fact that he once did fourteen finished studies of a single hand, so as to find what position would be the best for the portrait.

On visiting the enormous exhibition of Sargent’s works at Burlington House in 1926, I had two great surprises: (1) that he had covered so much canvas with paint; (2) that nearly all his portraits of women looked ridiculously démodé because of their ‘dated’ clothes.

Some people say that Sargent is only a fashionable craze, but as yet there seems to be no sign of any slump in the value of his work. At the most sensational sale at Christie’s on July 24th, 1925, 237 oil paintings and drawings by Sargent fetched the fantastic total of over £180,000. The psychology of a crowd is quite different from that of an individual, and people at this sale seemed to lose their heads, making the prices soar to unimagined realms.

Contemporary artists say that Sargent’s oil paintings have already considerably deteriorated, because some of the paint—the brown in particular—has perished. It seems that—unlike the painters of olden times, who were meticulously careful with their materials—Sargent bought tubes quite indiscriminately from itinerant vendors who hawked their wares round the Chelsea studios.

( . . .)
In March 1915, I began making arrangements to sit for my portrait to László. Unlike Sargent, he said that he would greatly like to come to see me before starting to paint me, so he spent an afternoon at Seymour Street listening to me playing the piano, absorbing the atmosphere of the cinque cento room, and discussing what clothes I should wear in the portrait.
In the end he decided on a picturesque cloak of old-gold velvet bordered with dark fur, dateless in style, like most of my garments.
Sitting to László is great fun; he has a tremendous sense of humour; knows countless German stories, which, told with his quaint Hungarian accent, sound, perhaps, even more amusing than they would otherwise do; and does imitations of well-known people which reduce me to a state of pulp.
One of his impersonations was that of a certain pre-war millionaire Society ‘climber’—one of the type that is the same height standing up as sitting down—arriving in her Covent Garden Opera box. She was painfully short-sighted and had to peer through a tortoise-shell lorgnette whenever she wanted to see beyond her nose. In László’s hand his paint-brush became a lorgnette and his palette turned into an opera programme. This lady was habitually wreathed in yards of pearls, and László used to stumble over imaginary ropes of pearls while stepping into the imaginary box.”


From: Natasha

I'm not sure it's necessary to make this observation but it seems to me, that for one whom is very uncomfortable conversing in large groups, that the actual act of eating might mitigate part of the obligation to carry on a conversation, and though, I don't think it's any secrete that Sargent loved food, somewhere early on he might have found this a crutch to hide behind during an evening engagement with groups whom he didn't feel completely at ease.

Special thanks to Matt Davies, of Kansas City, for being a contributing member and friend of the JSS Gallery.


Created 3/31/2006