Augustus John

Portrait of Baronne Baba d’Erlanger (1901-1945) and Miss Paula Gellibrand (1898-1964)

Oil on canvas: 30(h) x 25(w) in /

76.2(h) x 63.5(w) cm

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BK 144

 

AUGUSTUS EDWIN JOHN OM, RA

Tenby, Wales 1878 – 1961   Fordingbridge, Hampshire

 

Portrait of Baronne Baba d’Erlanger (1901-1945) and Miss Paula Gellibrand (1898-1986)

 

Oil on canvas: 30 x 25 in / 76.2 x 63.5 cm

Frame size: 37 ¾ x 32 ¾ in / 95.9 x 83.2 cm

 

Painted 1919-21

 

Provenance:

Commissioned in 1919 by Captain Frederick Guest, MP (1875-1937);

later sold by him to Baba d’Erlanger’s husband, Prince Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucinge;

by descent to their son

 

Exhibited:

London, Alpine Club Gallery, Paintings and Drawings by Augustus E John, ARA, March-May 1923, no.9

‘The John portrait of a recent bride and her bridesmaid’, The Sketch, 4th April 1923, illus. p.7

Ettore Cosamati, ‘Augustus John’, Dedalo, vol. IX, 1929, pp.677-706; illus. p.679, fig. 26

 

 

This dazzling double portrait of two society beauties has not been seen in public since it was shown at Augustus John’s Alpine Club exhibition in 1923. It was begun at Deauville in September 1919, the year that John painted participants at the Paris Peace Conference after the First World War, as well as two of his most famous sitters, the Marchesa Casati (Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto) and TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) (Tate Britain). The Peace Conference commissions propelled John from being a portrayer of arty Bohemians to the chosen portraitist of the international beau monde. He was staying in Deauville at Lloyd George’s Villa La Chaumière, trying to finish a portrait of the Prime Minister. John feigned boredom with Deauville but noted in his autobiography, Chiaroscuro: ‘The ‘Villa Black and White’, where the Baroness Catherine d’Erlanger dispensed hospitality, offered some relief. However, I did a few portraits here, including one of Miss Baba d’Erlanger with her friend, Miss Paula Gellibrand’[1].

 

Commissioned by Captain Frederick Guest, Lloyd George’s Chief Whip and Winston Churchill’s cousin, this double portrait depicts two friends who were so inseparable that they were known as ‘The Twins’[2], despite their contrasting styles of beauty – Baba dark and intense, Paula shimmering and golden, with ice blue eyes. John responds not only to their superb good looks but to the zeitgeist – their marcel-waved hair and simple dresses have a classical unfussiness that ushers in the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties. The brushwork has the witty fluidity of a foxtrot, while the composition is organized around bold blocks of colour: red, gold and deep sapphire. The red of Baba’s dress is picked up in the carmined lips of both young women and the blue of Paula’s eyes is echoed by her earring and a glimpse of blue sleeve. 

 

Baba seems to have been as recalcitrant about the finishing of her portrait as Lloyd George was about his. Freddie Guest wrote to her on 25th October 1921: ‘Dear Infant, Baba. Will you please show that you are quite grown up and keep your solemn promise to me to help to get John’s picture finished! He is perspiring with anxiety to reproduce your ‘mug’ true to type on canvas. Please do this for me if you want a birthday present. I have a very nice one waiting in my drawer’[3].

 

Shortly before the portrait was exhibited to great acclaim at the Alpine Club Gallery in March 1923, Baba had been the bridesmaid at Paula’s marriage to the Marques de Casa Maury. Born Mary Liliane Matilda, Baronne d’Erlanger, Baba was the daughter of the French banker Baron Emile d’Erlanger and his wife Marie-Rose Catherine de Rochegude, a flamboyant, flame-haired society hostess and patron of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes known for her spectacular parties – in Paris, in London, on the Grand Canal, and later in Hollywood. Her father looked after the family’s business interests in England and was head of various transport companies, including the Channel Tunnel Company. He became a naturalized British subject in 1891; Baba was educated in England. The d’Erlangers lived at 139 Piccadilly and Falconwood in Kent, but travelled constantly.

 

In London in November 1923 Baba married Prince Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucinge, a descendant of Louis IX of France. They too became famous for parties given in their home on the Avenue Charles-Floquet, which had themes such as ‘Souvenir de Proust’ (a friend of Baba’s mother) and ‘Le Bal 1900’. The Prince and Princesse were patrons of José Maria Sert, Dalí and Man Ray, and also spent time in Hollywood in the 1930s. Baba was a friend of Natalie Paley, cousin of the murdered Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and the wife of the couturier Lucien Lelong, whose clothes Baba frequently modelled. Cecil Beaton, photographing her at the beginning of his career in 1926, commented: ‘Baba d’Erlanger-Lucinge…was the first to bring into fashion the exotic, simian grace of the jungle and thereby created an astonishing effect of originality’[4].

 

Beaton was even more overwhelmed by Paula Gellibrand, whom he photographed many times in the 1920s, the ultimate ‘Flapper’ in glittering, fish-scale metallic dresses, her huge blue eyes full of smoky allure. He ranked her with Greta Garbo among ‘the most consistently lovely’ women he had photographed[5]. Born in 1898, Paula was the daughter of William Clarke Gellibrand and his second wife Isobel Marie Dever. In 1923, at St James’s Spanish Place in London, she married Don Pedro José Monés y Maury, Marques de Casa Maury (c.1895-1968) – ‘Bobby’ to his friends – a motor racing enthusiast who competed in his Bugatti in the French Grand Prix of 1922. The Press had a field day with Paula’s cutting-edge fashion sense, commenting on her ‘nun-like’ satin wedding gown and style of footwear not ‘yet adopted’ by Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (who was about to become the Duchess of York). Baba, Paula’s only bridesmaid, wore a silver tissue gown and turban.  

 

After his divorce from Paula, Casa Maury married the Prince of Wales’s former mistress, Freda Dudley Ward. He founded the Curzon Cinema in 1934 and in the Second World War held the rank of Wing Commander as a Senior Intelligence Officer in Combined Operations. From 1932 to 1939 Paula was married to William Allen, journalist, MP for Belfast (1929-31) and scholar of Caucasian history. She then married ‘Boy’ Long, a rancher at Elementaita in Kenya, where she spent the years of the Second World War. In her later years Paula lived at Nettlebed in Oxfordshire, keeping her fined-boned beauty almost to the end of a long, eventful life.

 

 

Cecil Beaton, Paula Gellibrand, 1928.

© Sotheby’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The impact of this portrait lies in the artist’s dramatic presentation of two great friends, prominent society figures in the 1920s, in which the focus lies in the faces, and the dress is little more than sketches of colour without any construction detail. Baba (on the left) wears a plain red dress with a scoop neck; Paula’s attire is even less defined, consisting mainly of a large gold tissue scarf over her shoulders, crossing at the front. Edwardian curves in body and fashion were no longer in fashion, giving way to slim, boyish figures in casual, simple dress; young women abandoned the boned corset and favoured the bust bodice/brassiere, first introduced in the years before the First World War.                                                

 

Cecil Beaton recalled the two women so often seen together in company: Baba looked ‘rather like an Arab urchin, her dark almond-shaped face betraying a light touch of melancholy’ and Paula, a famous beauty[6], had ‘an appearance of enormous sophistication….her perfect egg-shaped head [lending] her the look of a Modigliani….With her gold hair and white skin Paula Gellibrand was the perfect foil for Baba’s dark Orientalism.’ Makeup was bold, almost theatrical, with new attention given to the eyes; Baba put a line of black paint under her eyes, and Paula put Vaseline on her eyelids to emphasize her ‘enormous blue eyes’. [7] The invention of the permanent wave (1906) gave more body to bobbed hair, and encouraged the wearing of long pendant earrings, such as the one of lapis lazuli Paula wears. Paula’s hair is cut in a particularly elegant style, waving over the ears; it reminds one of Iris Storm (the heroine of Michael Arlen’s amazingly successful novel The Green Hat (1924), whose tawny hair ‘waved like music, and seemed to dance a very formal dance on her cheeks’.[8]

 

Aileen Ribeiro

AUGUSTUS EDWIN JOHN OM, RA

Tenby, Wales 1878 – 1961   Fordingbridge, Hampshire

 

August John was born in Tenby in Pembrokeshire, Wales in 1878. After a short period at the Tenby School of Art, he enrolled at the Slade in London where, with his sister Gwen, he studied with Henry Tonks and became the protegé of William Rothenstein. Considered to be the most talented artist of his generation, in 1898 John won the Slade Prize with Moses and the Brazen Serpent. In 1901 he married another Slade student, Ida Nettleship, and accepted a post teaching art at the University of Liverpool to support his family; Ida had five sons in rapid succession before dying after childbirth in 1907. John became fascinated by gypsies, painting them on his frequent travels around Britain with his family in a gypsy caravan. In 1902 he moved to Essex so he could teach, paint and exhibit in London, notably with the New English Art Club. John fell in love with his sister Gwen’s friend Dorothy McNeill, a beautiful woman whom he endowed with the gypsy name Dorelia. She became his muse, mother of four more of his children and his lifelong companion, who was responsible after the death of Ida for bringing up the whole John brood. The family moved to Alderney Manor, Dorset in 1911 and in 1927 to Fryern Court, Fordingbridge, on the edge of the New Forest, but John also maintained a studio in Chelsea.

By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, John was the best-known artist in Britain. His friendship with Lord Beaverbrook enabled him to obtain a commission in the Canadian Army and paint on the Western Front. In 1919 John attended the Versailles Peace Conference where he painted the portraits of several delegates, but the commissioned group portrait of the main figures at the conference was never finished. Although John was well known early in the century for his drawings and etchings, most of his later work consisted of portraits, some of the best of which were of his family. By the 1920s Augustus John had become Britain’s leading portrait painter, with his vivid manner and his ability to catch unerringly some striking and usually unfamiliar aspect of his subjects. He produced iconic images of Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, TE Lawrence, Sir William Nicholson, WB Yeats, the cellist Guilhermina Suggia, the Marchesa Casati and Elizabeth Bibesco. Perhaps his most famous portrait is of his fellow-countryman, Dylan Thomas. He was known for the psychological insight of his portraits, some of which were considered ‘cruel’ for the truth of the depiction. Lord Leverhulme was so upset with his portrait that he cut out the head, but when the remainder of the picture was returned by error to John there was an international outcry over the desecration.

In later life, John wrote two volumes of autobiography, Chiaroscuro (1952) and Finishing Touches (1964).   In old age he was still greatly revered, as was demonstrated by the huge show of his work mounted by the Royal Academy in 1954. He continued to work up until his death Fryern Court in 1961.

[1] Readers’ Union edition, London 1954, p.114.

[2] Press cuttings.

[3] Letter in a private collection.

[4] Self-portrait with Friends: The Selected Diaries of Cecil Beaton 1926-1974, ed. Richard Buckle, London 1979, p.151.

[5] Cecil Beaton, Photobiography, London 1951, p.178.

[6]  Frances Donaldson, who saw Paula at the Embassy Club in London, declared that ‘ many people thought 

   [her] the greatest beauty of them all’: Frances Donaldson, Child of the Twenties (London: 1959), p. 72

[7] Cecil Beaton, The Glass of Fashion (London: 1954), p. 142

[8] Iris Storm (based on Nancy Cunard) was one of the first to shingle her hair, i.e. cut it very short at the back,

  a style which became all the rage for the next few years.

Modern BritishAugustus John