Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Carry on Sargent

"Lady Archibald Langman" by John Singer Sargent (1905)
Recent research by Andrew has turned up a portrait of Lady Langman (née Eleanor Katherine Lyell) who was a one-time resident of Balintore Castle. My understanding is that she spent the summer at Balintore, but resided in South Africa. One day when Lady Langman was not in residence, the house-keeper detected a distinct whiff of her perfume. Sometime later, it was discovered that Land Langman had died abroad on that very same day. This is one of the many Balintore ghost stories!

The portrait of Mrs. Archibald Langman (1878-1963) is dated 1906 and is by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) no less. It is currently held by the Smithsonian Institute. By a very strange coincidence Sargent has recently become one of my favourite painters. I did not like him as a child, but had an epiphany at the National Portrait Gallery in London one evening recently, where an art historian gave us a tour of his favourite works, including a work of Sargent's entitled General Officers of World War I, (1920-22).

"General Officers of World War I" by John Singer Sargent (1920-22)

I then had a delightful surprise during a visit to the Imperial War Museum in London. On the top floor there is a small gallery of the most outstanding war paintings I have ever seen. The most eminent of these. was Sargent’s “Gassed" (1919), which refers back to a Bruegel of 1569. The impact of this picture in the flesh cannot be over-estimated, The figures are almost life-sized, and the atmosphere in front of the painting is amazing - there is no better depiction of the futility of war.

"Gassed" by John Singer Sargent (1919)

The “Generals” and “Gassed” are both khaki-clad depictions of WWI, but they are different in intent. The “Generals" is an exercise in collective portraiture. It succeeds because each individual portrait succeeds: each one is a good depiction of an individual. It succeeds also because it is an important historical document. It fails in the overall composition, as some of the heads look like they have been photo-shopped-in afterwards: perhaps inevitable as all the generals were not all present at the same sitting. In contrast, “Gassed” is not portraiture but figurative, the soldiers do not have names, and the composition is stark and beautiful. It is truly a masterpiece.

The portrait of Lady Langman is not a masterpiece. Sargent made his money by painting society ladies in a way that was miraculously both art and flattering, but here the face is not well executed and there is no engagement with the viewer: Sargent was merely going through the motions. The treatment of the lace and the West Highland Terrier is, however, characteristically masterful. The presumed attachment of Lady Langman’s right hand to her right arm, strains the rules of geometry. :-)

I understand the first indication of dry-rot in Balintore was during Lady Langman's residency in 1957, when a wardrobe fell through the floor. We believe we have found the most likely section of floor, as there is some rare evidence of repair.


  1. Odd that you should mention the scent episode. Despite being quite a sceptic, exactly the same thing happened to me in 1998 when I was back in the UK waiting for my Mother to die. I awoke at 3 am to a very strong aroma of my Mother's favourite scent which she hadn't worn for some years. Shortly afterwards the phone rang and it was the hospital to tell me she was gone. She'd never set foot in the room I was sleeping in at a friend's house either. I'm no longer such a sceptic, maybe only 70% :)

    1. That's a remarkable story! Thanks for this. Although I am a skeptic myself, I know from personal experience that very powerful things go on when someone is dying

  2. david what a wonderful story and what a beautiful woman! I wondered if that was her when we were in the ball room and our cameras were drained that day ...oh and that swirl in your trousers!! :) hugs Catherine

    1. Thanks Catherine. I'm sure Lady Langman would drain anyone's batteries!

  3. I love how the more restoration progresses more stories and history are discovered!