Art Note:
Sargent’s Genius
27 November 2018

When Percy Wyndham decided to commission John Singer Sargent to paint a picture of his three daughters, in 1899, it took some time for the sisters to juggle their calendars and settle on a date for getting together with the painter. Eventually, they all had dinner at Wyndham’s home in Belgrave Square. The women had given some thought as to how they should arrange themselves for the portrait, but in the course of that one evening, Sargent formulated the grouping that we see today in his masterpiece, The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs Adeane, and Mrs Tennant. Claudia Renton’s Those Wild Wyndhams: Three Sisters at the Heart of Power, newly published in the United States by Knopf, demonstrates that Sargent did a great deal more than paint pretty faces. The portrait’s subtitle, which simply lists the sisters in order of seniority, is not much help if you’re trying to figure out which is which, but in the unlikely event that you were to see the picture for the first time after reading Renton’s book, you would have no difficulty identifying each one. 

Unlike the handy little books that have been written about other Sargent paintings, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit and Mrs Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, Those Wild Wyndhams is about the sisters themselves, in which Sargent figures hardly at all. Renton’s subtitle attempts a justification for what is essentially a family biography: these women occupied significant positions in Edwardian London’s most glamorous social milieu. To be bluntly honest, only two of them did; the middle sister, Madeline Adeane, was a wife and mother who did not pursue what we would call a life of her own. That is why Sargent seats her apart, to the left of Lady Elcho and Mrs Tennant, and also why she seems to be looking inward even though her eyes are directed upward. Mary Elcho, sitting on the back of the sofa, is also looking offstage, as it were, but with the very different air of talking to someone whom we can’t see. Plumped in front of Mary, Pamela gazes at us, superbly pretty and imperturbably self-centered. Mary Wyndham had had reason to hope that Arthur Balfour would marry her, but when he didn’t marry her or anyone else, she settled into life-long companionship with him, meeting as often as possible, generally for two hours, one for spanking (she spanked him), and one for discussing political affairs. Pamela married the heir to a great chemical fortune and then, when he died, she married Lord Grey, formerly Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Minister whose 1914 remark about the lamps going out all over Europe has been famous ever since — so famous that I’ve seen it attributed to Churchill. 

Speaking of that terrible war, Percy Wyndham had five children: the three girls and, in between Mary and Madeline, two boys, George and Guy; between them, the siblings lost five sons. Actually, George Wyndham died before the war broke out, so in that sense he was spared the loss. Madeline was spared because the son for whom she prayed as she gave birth to daughter after daughter did not appear until 1907. 

But Those Wild Wyndhams is anything but dismal. The Wyndhams and the Tennants were core members of the social cluster known as “The Souls,” remarkable at the time for its patina of intellectualism but more interesting now because the men in the group genuinely liked women — even womanizers like Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Harry Cust (“bulging with sex” according to one lady friend, and the alleged progenitor not only of Lady Diana Cooper but of Margaret Lady Thatcher). Even without doing anything famous, these were very interesting people. Renton’s book functions something like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, explaining the mythological background (no matter how actually historical it was) behind a very great work of art.  

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