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Marie Tempest

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- subject matching 'Jewellery - Earrings'

Marie Tempest, by William Nicholson, 1903 -NPG 5191 - © Desmond Banks

© Desmond Banks

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Marie Tempest

by William Nicholson
oil on canvas , 1903
43 1/2 in. x 41 3/8 in. (1105 mm x 1051 mm)
NPG 5191

Inscriptionback to top

Signed and dated lower left: ‘Nicholson 1903’.
On central stretcher ink or crayon inscr.: ‘CN 9’.
On upper stretcher stencilled fragment: ‘SK W’.
Labels on central stretcher: (a) fragment visible ‘[Pittsb]urgh, U.S.A / …Tempest / ….olson’. Remainder obscured by (b) ‘Maple’s Depository’; and (c) ‘Roland, Browse & Delbanco / Old and Modern Paintings / 19 Cork Street, Old Bond Street, London W1 / Title: Marie Tempest / Artist: WILLIAM NICHOLSON’.

This portraitback to top

Painted when the sitter was approaching forty, this portrait depicts her as a fashionably dressed woman in a low-cut evening gown and gloves, with a fur stole, facing her lapdog Koko, a Japanese chin, whose red ball she holds in her right hand, as if his game is in progress. The sitter’s chestnut hair is piled loosely on her head, as she gazes into the distance with a passive, abstracted expression, in contrast to the dog’s alert posture. Strong light reflects from the dog’s white fur, the pale satin fabric draping the seat and the sitter’s smooth skin, giving her face a mask-like theatrical quality.

Executed in the early months of 1903, the portrait coincided with the sitter’s success in a comedy entitled The Marriage of Kitty. Adapted from the original by Tempest’s husband, the production ran from autumn 1902 through to spring 1903, the 200th performance being marked by Tempest’s presentation of a signed photograph to each member of the audience. [1] Earlier, in 1896, during the run of an equally popular musical comedy titled The Geisha, she was photographed in costume holding a Japanese chin (see ‘All known portraits, In stage character, The Geisha, Photographs, 1896’), which could be the dog shown here.

The artist, William Nicholson, was a decade younger and at this moment known primarily for striking graphic works, produced with his brother-in-law James Ferrier Pryde and issued under the pseudonym J. & W. Beggarstaff. These typically used a print-style palette of contrasting dark and light areas, a mode seen also in Nicholson’s austere whole-length portrait of the aesthete Max Beerbohm (NPG 3850). By contrast, although deploying a restricted colour scheme, the portrait of Tempest presents a warm, sensuous image of flesh, furs, hair and fabrics, within an indeterminate yet seemingly intimate interior. It also boldly, even provocatively, juxtaposes the sitter’s projecting bosom and low décolletage with the animal’s feathery, pouting rib cage. Comparison with photographs of Tempest – for example NPG x96497 and NPG Ax160438 – reveals that a low neckline and prominent bust were true to her actual appearance, and that dogs (although not Koko, alas) were often included in her portraits, as for example NPG x127559.

According to the artist, the sitter ‘suggested the portrait herself, though she was not yet in a position to commission it’ and ‘did him a favour by sitting to him at this time, when her status as an artist was assured and his as a portraitist yet to be made’. [2]

The previous year, Nicholson had entered a contract with the Stafford Gallery, receiving a salary against a solo show scheduled for June 1903, and this work was among those exhibited. It was probably executed in the studio he was using in Victoria Street, in the context of Nicholson’s desire, at this point in his career, ‘to demonstrate that he could produce a glamorous Society portrait to rival Sargent’. [3] Having been known for his prints, he now sought higher-profile and higher-paying sales and commissions.

His biographer and companion recalled Nicholson’s account of the sittings:

Marie Tempest had misgivings about the dog.

‘I hope you aren’t like Sargent, Mr Nicholson; because they say whenever he paints a dog it dies.’

William did his best to reassure her, but when, after a few days’ sitting, she turned up without Koko, he inquired … for the missing sitter.

‘My dear, don’t speak of it. He’s dead.’

Possibly Nicholson’s studies of Koko were sufficient to complete his image, which clearly depicts the Japanese breed, although later in life he claimed to have ‘borrowed one of the Duchess of Marlborough’s Blenheim spaniels to finish the portrait of Koko’ [5] – which explains why the work was later entitled ‘Marie Tempest with a Blenheim Spaniel’, [6] even though Blenheim spaniels are typically red-brown and white, not black and white like chins.

Though it is not known when sitter and artist first met, they belonged to a cultural circle that brought figures from the arts together, and soon became good friends. In summer 1903, a few weeks after the portrait was exhibited in London, both the sitter and her husband, and the artist and his family were among the British holidaymakers in Dieppe. In this or a later year, he recalled being invited by Tempest to join lessons held in her beach-hut on how to play ‘this new game Bridge’. Neither showed any aptitude, so the project was soon abandoned. [7] The artist’s son Ben Nicholson later recalled ‘several summers at Dieppe, then completely French and unspoilt, with Max Beerbohm, Reggie Turner, Marie Tempest (a singularly beautiful person), Constance Collier, [Herbert Beerbohm] Tree, [Walter] Sickert and others. My recollection is that these were gay and happy days.’ [8]

Presumably during this same vacation in 1903, Tempest sat to the French painter Jacques-Emile Blanche, who socialized with the British in Dieppe and also in London; he was a good friend of and collaborated with Tempest’s husband, and his portrait of Marie shows her dressed in muslin gown and elegant summer hat (see ‘All known portraits, In private character, Paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, 1903’) – a presentation contrasting with Nicholson’s dark interior and fur wrap round the sitter’s shoulders.

The friendship between artist and sitter is attested in three other paintings which reference Tempest (see ‘All known portraits, In private character, Paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints’): in The Oak Tree (also known as ‘Afternoon Tea’, 1905) a woman sits beside a picnic table as two children play in a garden; [9] in The Costumiers (1907) a woman wearing a black skirt, white bodice and elaborate hat stands between a kneeling dressmaker and an unidentified seated man; while Souvenir de Marie (1912) features a tumble of female clothing, with a flower- and feather-trimmed hat and a pair of dainty heeled slippers labelled ‘Miss Marie Tempest 1901’, together with an oval mirror in which a tiny female figure is glimpsed reaching for a door-handle.

Together with the dog, Nicholson’s desire to emulate Sargent, alluded to above, suggests the artist’s motivation: he was eager to demonstrate his skill at a moment when British art was heavily invested in striking and fashionable portraiture. Sargent’s stylish depictions of men and women in high society, including his daring image of ‘Madame X’, prompted more commissions than he could easily fulfil, and Nicholson’s eye-catching image of Tempest and Koko seems designed to provoke comment. At the same time, it invited comparison with a portrait of Alexandra of Denmark, crowned queen consort in 1902, which showed her in formal mode, seated with her own Japanese chin, which was named Punch. Painted by established portraitist Luke Fildes and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1894 (see NPG 1889 for an autograph replica), this royal image was reproduced as a large engraving published by Thomas Agnew & Sons (NPG D33956). Its formality, showing sitter and animal looking to the spectator, underlines the playful irreverence of Tempest’s portrait, a contrast (presumably intentional) emphasized by the pictorial similarities: both sitters wear low-cut gowns, and both paintings employ a comparable palette of black, white, flesh tones and red-browns.

Exhibited at the Stafford Gallery in 1903 as Portrait of Mrs Cosmo Gordon-Lennox, Tempest’s married name, the present work attracted attention and is reputed to have prompted a commission from Thomas W. Bacon, who would become a significant patron to the artist. [10] It also foreshadowed Nicholson’s other glamorous female portraits, such as that of Mrs James Curle (Helen Davidson Bradley, 1905) which has been credited with first establishing Nicholson as a Society portraitist [11] (presumably on the grounds that Tempest did not properly belong to the leisured class, despite being married to a grandson of the Duke of Richmond). In another well-lit, half-length portrait against a dark background, Mrs Curle was similarly portrayed in gown, gloves, rings and upswept hair, set off by a comparable central red note.

The strategy succeeded. By 1909, Nicholson was able to write that he had ‘relays of sitters’ coming for sittings. [12] It is not clear when the present work sold, however; its exhibition in Paris in 1905 and at the Society of Portrait Painters in 1909 probably indicates that it remained with the artist until, at some unknown date, it was sold to businessman Claude Johnson and then to Tempest’s son by her first marriage, himself an actor and producer, who later settled in Canada. On Tempest’s death, her executor stated that it was her wish that the portrait be offered to the National Portrait Gallery; but although this was welcomed in principle, [13] perhaps owing to wartime no further action was taken until it was purchased at auction in 1978.

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) Sunday Times, 8 Feb. 1903, p.6.
2) Steen 1943, p.80.
3) Reed 2011, p.82.
4) Steen 1943, pp.79–80.
5) Steen 1943, p.80.
6) See e.g. Browse 1956, #30.
7) Steen 1943, p.90.
8) Ben Nicholson, writing in the London Magazine, 1967, quoted in Nicholson 1996, p.84. A photo taken in Dieppe in summer 1903 shows a group including Nicholson, Gordon-Lennox and Beerbohm (Nicholson 1996, p.84).
9) The garden has been identified as the one belonging to the Grange, Rottingdean, near Brighton, where the Nicholsons would move in 1909.
10) Reed 2011, p.82.
11) Reed 2011, p.95.
12) Letter from W. Nicholson to T.W. Bacon, 26 May 1909, Whitworth AG, Manchester.
13) According to an internal memo from CKA (C.K. Adams), 25 Nov. 1942, NPG Archive, Icon Notes

Physical descriptionback to top

Half-length, torso to left, head turned to viewer, black and white dog sitting to left

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1978; 2004

Provenanceback to top

W. Claude Johnson; Norman Loring (sitter’s son); Christie’s, 28 May 1955; Roland, Browse & Delbanco; H.M. Tennent Ltd; Sotheby’s, 3 March 1978 (33); purchased for £3,300.

Exhibitionsback to top

Works by William Nicholson, Stafford Gallery, London, 1903 (4, as ‘Portrait of Mrs Cosmo Gordon-Lennox’).

Paris, 1905 (1, as ‘Mademoiselle Marie Tempest’).

Society of Portrait Painters, 1909 (113, as ‘Miss Marie Tempest’).

Bradford, 1910 (25, as ‘The Hon. Mrs Cosmo Gordon-Lennox (Marie Tempest)’).

Contemporary Art Society, Manchester, 1911 (67, as ‘Miss Marie Tempest’).

Newcastle upon Tyne, 1912 (205, as ‘Miss Marie Tempest’).

Toronto, 1914 (68, as ‘A Lady with her Dog (Miss Marie Tempest)’).

Pittsburgh, 1923 (153, as ‘Portrait of Marie Tempest’).

William Nicholson, Nottingham, 1933 (64, as ‘Miss Marie Tempest’).

NPG New Acquisitions, Arts Council tour to Cambridge, Stoke-on-Trent, Bristol and Bradford, July 1980–January 1981 (5, as ‘Marie Tempest with a Blenheim Spaniel’).

Reproductionsback to top

Wedmore 1909.

[North] 1923, pl.10.

Browse 1956, #30, pp.17, 40.

View all known portraits for Dame Marie Tempest (Mary Susan Etherington)