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Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, by John Singer Sargent, 1900 -NPG L254 - On loan from a Private Collection

On loan from a Private Collection

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Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

by John Singer Sargent
Oil on canvas, 1900
33 in. x 26 in. (838 mm x 660 mm)
NPG L254

Inscriptionback to top

Signed, upper left: ‘John S. Sargent 1900’.

This portraitback to top

In 1900, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was aged 64, and on the verge of retirement as dean of the London School of Medicine for Women. The following year marked the thirtieth anniversary of both the decision to establish the New Hospital for Women [1] and her wedding to James Skelton Anderson.

The portrait was executed in the artist’s studio at 31 Tite Street, Chelsea, London. A glimpse of red plush in the lower right corner is similar to one that appears in a number of the artist’s portraits of the period. [2]

According to Anderson’s biographer,

artist and sitter in this instance were not created to understand one another. Elizabeth wished to be painted in her M.D. gown. Sargent begged for some jewellery, so she added a pearl necklace costing sixpence. She was annoyed to find Sargent had painted her with affected, tapering hands. ‘They are nothing like mine!’ She spread her scrubbed, capable, surgeon’s fingers. Sargent hid one hand under the black silk gown, which by common consent he painted superbly, but the remaining hand is still his and not hers. A friend who came to the studio pronounced the portrait charming. ‘Oh poor Mr Sargent,’ said Elizabeth with a certain malice, ‘you will have all the ugly old women in London asking you to paint them!’ [3]

John Singer Sargent was at this time at the height of his powers as a society portraitist. His status as the painter of an international elite rose throughout the 1890s and by the middle years of the decade he was in such demand that ‘he was constantly negotiating and juggling the pressures of a burgeoning portrait practice’ under pressure of commissions. [4] In 1900 his other sitters included the Earl of Dalhousie, Sir Charles Tennant, Mrs Charles Russell, the Sitwell family, Professor Ingram Bywater and Sir Charles Loch of the Charity Organisation Society. If the choice of artist was in some respects surprising, given his reputation for stylish ‘swagger’ portraits of typically rich and titled sitters, it followed commissions for comparable portraits of Loch [5] and Octavia Hill (NPG 1746), who shared with Anderson a distaste for personal celebrity and a refusal to be flattered. These commissions marked major contributions by the sitters to public welfare, and together with the present work acknowledged the celebrity of the ‘good’ rather than the ‘great’ or wealthy. Sargent had also recently painted another elderly woman, Jane Evans, housemistress at Eton College, giving her a shrewd yet sympathetic appearance. [6]

The success of Sargent’s portrait of Hill (in the commission of which Loch and his wife were active) may well have prompted the commission of the present work. From the absence of any apparent record of who paid, it is inferred that the commission came from Anderson’s family, wishing to see their own pioneer accorded the tribute of a likeness from the leading portraitist of the day.

Sargent appears to have evaded Anderson’s insistence on a plain academic gown by depicting it with flamboyant brushstrokes as a voluminous, flowing garment; his portrait also seems to have softened her normally severe coiffure (centre parting, neatly pinned braid or bun) by showing her with upswept waves of hair framing a high forehead. Late photographs by (Mary) Olive Edis (Mrs Galsworthy) (see ‘All known portraits, Photographs, 1909–10’) suggest that in old age Anderson allowed herself slightly looser hair, but not the bouffant style portrayed here.

The portrait was not among those chosen by the artist for exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1901, which included those of Loch, Tennant, Bywater and the Sitwells, but was instead sent to the ‘second rank’ New Gallery, where the Art Journal opined that it fell short of Sargent’s ‘highest achievements’:

Here every stroke of the brush is a challenge, the picture as a whole is a challenge; no work at the New is so stimulating. The face is at once a profound and a brilliant psychological study. With a swiftness and an ease almost intuitive, Mr Sargent reveals the personality of his sitter; but despite the audacious brushwork in the loose black robe, there is a certain clumsiness, uncouthness, which militates against the dignity of strength. [7]

Other critics found fault with the depiction of Anderson’s expression. The Magazine of Art objected that ‘the furioso method and temperament of the painter has shown the lady violently aggressive and totally unsympathetic, which we well know must belie the charm of the sitter’; [8] and The Times also condemned the depiction of Anderson, suggesting it be altered:

The movement of which Mrs Garrett Anderson was a pioneer has long passed out of the range of controversy; why, then, give so controversial a note – it is the mildest word we can use – to her expression? Yet there is so much that is fine in this portrait that a very little change in the upper lip and the brow might make a masterpiece of it; perhaps that little may yet be given. [9]

Sargent was renowned for blending penetrating visual insight with flattery, but here he elected not to soften Anderson’s slight frown nor to adjust the jutting lower jaw which is visible in photographs, no doubt judging that the obstinate aspect thereby imparted to the expression was also true to character. Anecdotes testify to Anderson’s stubborn nature and ‘fresh forcefulness of manner, sometimes amounting to impatience’. Although ‘popular as a doctor, she was not guilty of unnecessary tactfulness towards her patients’, berating vegetarians for their fussy diet and allegedly once tipping water from a vase down a hypochondriac’s neck. [10] To friends and family she was similarly outspoken and occasionally hurtful, [11] and she was equally impervious to rank, responding sharply to King Edward VII when he criticised the tricorne hat she had devised for her mayoral outfit. [12] Perhaps a similar acerbity characterised her exchanges with Sargent. Indeed, one sequel to the portrait sittings was her reading of Anatole France’s book Thaïs, which Sargent had warmly recommended. ‘After a few pages its fate was sealed. She tore it into fragments the size of a postage-stamp [and] scattered it over the … countryside.’ [13]

A few years later, Sir George Reid was commissioned to paint Anderson’s husband and both portraits were set into panelling in the family home. [14] While by this date Sargent had renounced commercial portraiture, one can speculate that the choice of Reid for this companion work was influenced by the Art Journal’s criticism of the ‘clumsiness’ of Sargent’s portrayal, coupled with its commendation of another portrait by Reid, also shown at the New Gallery, as ‘scrupulous’, ‘succinct’, ‘unostentatious’ and ‘a thoughtful, ably-knit piece of pictorial prose’, in contrast to the ‘flashes of inspiration’ for which Sargent was admired. [15]

As the present portrait remained with the sitter and her family until loaned to the National Portrait Gallery, it has not been as well known or discussed as many of Sargent’s works (it was not included, for example, in the checklist of pictures in oils in Charteris 1927). William Howe Downes described it as ‘a portrait which holds a high place for the almost startling vividness of the likeness. Full of character and spirited expression, the head is modelled with consummate skill; the bright eyes are noticeable; the hands finely characterised. The black silk gown is also a superbly painted bit.’ [16]

According to Ormond and Kilmurray,

Dr Anderson is shown in black academic gown; she wears a single-strand pearl necklace and on the third finger of her left hand, a ring inset with diamonds and a blue stone. She is seated in a chair or sofa with her left arm resting on a red cushion. Visible behind is a panel of greenish material with an ornate strip of moulding, possibly an eighteenth-century mirror or picture frame. This object, which has not been identified, can be seen more clearly in the background of the portrait of Sir Charles Tennant (no.406). [17]

Three replica copies were made, all apparently by the same artist and each for a medical institution with which Anderson had been connected:

(1) Oil on canvas, 870 x 680mm, by Reginald Grenville Eves, undated; Royal Free H., London, #B116; formerly with London School of Medicine for Women. Repr. Cole 1938, facing p.136, where described as ‘after the portrait by John Sargent’.

(2) Oil on canvas, 860 x 695mm, possibly by Reginald Grenville Eves, undated; University College London Hospitals, UCLHArts_UCH_084; formerly with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital (New Hospital for Women).
In 1916 Alan Garrett Anderson lent NPG L254 to the New Hospital for Women for an anniversary occasion, which may have prompted the commission of this copy. On 9 June 1936, the sitter’s son, grandson and grand-daughter were photographed in front of this work to mark the centenary of her birth; print LMA, H13/EGA/59/6.

(3) Oil on canvas, 870 x 700mm, by Reginald Grenville Eves, c.1932; British Medical Association, London.

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) Formally opened Feb. 1872.
2) Ormond & Kilmurray 2002, p.xxii, no.9.
3) Manton 1965, p.313, no sources given. Sargent probably worked mainly on the face while Anderson was in the studio, painting the hands and gown later.
4) Ormond & Kilmurray 2002, p.11.
5) Now with Family Welfare Association.
6) Ormond & Kilmurray 2002, no.365, now with Eton College.
7) AJ, ‘The New Gallery’, 1901, p.183.
8) MA, 1901, p.341.
9) The Times, 20 Apr. 1901, p.7.
10) Cole 1938, pp.157–8; but see Manton 1965, p.262, where the latter victim was said to be hysterical and the whole episode was described as possibly apocryphal.
11) Manton 1965, pp.178–84.
12) Manton 1965, p.337.
13) Anderson 1939, p.279.
14) Ormond & Kilmurray 2002, p.39.
15) AJ, 1901, pp.183–4; the other portrait was of the Earl of Stair. Reid and Skelton Anderson were also fellow-Aberdonians.
16) Downes 1926, p.194.
17) Ormond & Kilmurray 2003, p.39.

Physical descriptionback to top

Half-length, to front, wearing dark gown and single-strand pearl necklace.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 2013.

Provenanceback to top

Sitter; her son, his daughter, sitter’s great-granddaughter, by whom placed on long loan 2013.

Exhibitionsback to top

New Gallery, London, 1901 (229).

Works by the Late John S. Sargent, R.A., Royal Academy, London, 1926 (413).

Reproductionsback to top

Illustrated London News, 20 June 1908, p.904, as vignette in ‘The Woman Militant: Leaders of the Suffrage Procession’; photograph credit Olive Edis.

Royal Academy Illustrated, 1926, pl.18.

Charteris 1927, p.272 (misdated to 1905).

Manton 1965, pl.14, facing p.305, ‘painted by Sargent upon her retirement’.

Pipe 1999.

Ormond & Kilmurray 2003, no.384, p.38.

View all known portraits for Elizabeth Garrett Anderson


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