Dress and Textiles, London: Artists and Subjects, Portraits: British 20th C 25 Can more be found on the 'Lady in Black', who modelled for Philip Wilson Steer?

A Lady in Black
Topic: Subject or sitter

Can more be found on the identity of the sitter in Steer's 'A Lady in Black'? She also appears in another of Steer's paintings at the Manchester Art Gallery: http://bit.ly/2lH96ki

The collection note: 'We have found two items of interest relating to this question. The first is a letter from the artist to one of the curators answering the question 'who is the model in the painting 'Summer''. The artist informs us that she was just that, a model of no particular importance. If she is the same model as 'A Lady in Black' then again she is just a model.

We have little information about 'A Lady in Black' itself. The second item of interest is an article from the Apollo Magazine in 1966 which talks about women in Philip Steer's work. I attach both of these items for reference.

Edward Stone, Entry reviewed by Art UK

25 comments

Deborah Conway-Read,

"She was just that, a model of no particular importance." What a shocking remark. Models are human beings, and a very basic human right is the right to a name. I am glad you are trying to find her identity, even if she was not an 'important' person.

Anthony Lester,

This has to be the painting exhibited by Steer at the New English Art Club Winter Exhibition 1904, number 57. The details of the picture given in 'The Western Daily Press, Bristol' of 15 November 1904 and 'The Daily News' of 18 November 1904 match the painting - the gold chair, the blue curtain, the open book, etc are all mentioned in great detail.
Sorry I do not know who the sitter might be.
Anthony J Lester, FRSA

Martin Hopkinson,

You may well be correct, Andrea. The comparison with the Tate picture is pretty compelling.

Andrea Kollmann,

There is another painting, possibly the same model on artnet; its called "Portrait of Theodora Bennett in a blue dress"; I can't find any other information about it (I don't have an artnet subscription): http://artnt.cm/2laTysO

Osmund Bullock,

Those look pretty convincing to me, Andrea, and the full name in the last is enormously helpful. More shortly.

'Miss Bennett' is also named as the sitter in this 1904 Steer work http://artnt.cm/2lpCY8h , and there are several others viewable online where she seems likely to be the model, for example A Turn of the Cards (1903) http://artnt.cm/2kLGTYV and http://artnt.cm/2liXJ35 (choose your preferred colour), The Black Domino (1904) http://artnt.cm/2mbdAA5 , The Domino (ca1904) http://artnt.cm/2lWUUYV , The Posy (1904) http://bit.ly/2l87fYy , The Black Bow (1904) http://bit.ly/2liTWml and perhaps also the rather earlier Hydrangeas (1901) http://bit.ly/2lvnQ9i . She seems to have been the favourite model for a good few years up to 1906, when that position clearly passes to Lilian Montgomery. As I will relate in another post, there may have been a good reason (other than Steer’s changing tastes) for her to have...well, dropped out of the picture.

[Incidentally, once I’d managed to rotate the 1966 Apollo article and make it readable, it proved to be of no help, I’m afraid. It deals solely with small panel works of 1884-94 (at least ten years too early for us) and mentions only one possible model, a local fisherman’s daughter in Suffolk.]

Osmund Bullock,

Though there are a few other Bennetts of the right generation with the first (or middle) name Theodora, none fits the bill remotely as well as Theodora Marguerite Anne Flewitt Bennett, who was born at South Kensington on 9th August 1879. Her father John Bennett was a civil engineer, originally from Shropshire and the son of a music teacher and former organist. She had an elder sister Helen, born in May 1877, and for the next 30 years the family lived at a house in Drayton Gardens, South Kensington – just 10 or 15 minutes’ walk from Steer’s home and studio in Cheyne Walk. The address (they owned the house) was in those days solid professional middle-class, neither rich nor poor, though unusually the family had no resident servants even when the girls were very small (1881). Neither girl appears to have been christened, and neither has an occupation given in the 1901 Census (when they were 21 & 23).

In November 1906 Theodora’s mother Helen died, and the following October T. was married (she gives no profession in the register) at the local church St Mary the Boltons (where I was christened!) to Percy Goymer Blundell, son of a West London wine merchant and in the business himself. In early 1908 her father John moved from Drayton Gdns, and by 1911, aged 75, was living as a lodger in a small house near South Ken station – he died eight years later in a charitable institution at Hammersmith. Theodora and Percy had two children, Eric Goymer (b.1908) and Queenie Helen (b.1911), and the family lived in the comfortable new middle-class N. London suburb of Winchmore Hill, later moving to Cricklewood and then to Hampstead. Percy died in 1948, his widow Theodora in 1970 at Notting Hill. Queenie seems not to have married, but there are too many possibles to know if Eric did or not – if so it was not as a young man. Between the late 30s & early 50s he ran a bookshop in Bloomsbury, later moving to Lewes in Sussex where he died in 1994. Queenie died at Brighton two years later.

So this all looks rather good. Theodora was 24 or 25 in 1904, her sister two years older; the family was apparently not religious; a professional musician and a bookseller suggest a family interest in the arts; and the location is perfect. And of course the death of her mother and/or subsequent marriage would quite explain her ceasing to model for Steer after 1906.

But there is a final supporting detail: Theodora’s sister Helen apparently gave her profession as ‘Actress’ when she married in 1914. I cannot find mention of this anywhere else (at least not under her real name), she is not to be found in the 1911 Census, and as I have not seen the marriage certificate I cannot confirm it – the reference is on a genealogist’s index card from Ancestry, albeit an authentic-looking one (attached). If correct it again suggests a degree of ‘artiness’ in the family.

2 attachments
Osmund Bullock,

A problem occurs to me. Though that single portrait found by Andrea is identified (reliably, I hope) as Theodora, what if the two sisters looked much alike? As anyone who’s read ‘Pride & Prejudice’ knows, in former times ‘Miss Bennett’ was the correct way to describe an eldest or only daughter – any younger sisters she had would be known as ‘Miss [Christian name] Bennett’. So in this case Helen would be ‘Miss Bennett’, and her sister would be ‘Miss Theodora Bennett’. I don’t know when this correct form disappeared, or if Steer would have cared much even if it hadn’t. We don’t even know if the titles are his anyway – and a later cataloguer might well be unaware of the etiquette. But the possibility is raised that if the two sisters *did* look very similar, some or all of these pictures (bar the fully-named one) may show Helen. And while we’re at it, could the Tate’s 'The Music Room' ( http://bit.ly/2kE8xa4 ) in fact show both sisters together, rather than the same model in two different poses, as stated by them? Their dresses and hairstyles are significantly different, as are some details in the instruments they hold.

Circumstantially Helen might make sense as the primary model – it was she who described herself in 1914 as an actress (which then as now often goes with ‘model’), and who was independent-minded enough to move to far-off Stoke Newington and to marry in Hackney Registry Office (rather than church like her sister). This could, of course, just have been the result of disruptions and financial necessity after her mother’s death in 1907, her father’s retirement at about the same time, and his move from their house the following year. Whichever sister it is, the pose and clothing in the 1905 'Lady in a Chemise' is pretty daring for a young lady still living with her middle-class professional parents less than a mile away.

I wonder if MacColl or any other Steer biographers have anything to say of ‘Miss Bennett’? And does anyone have an Artnet subscription so we can try and discover more about the Theodora Bennett portrait?

Osmund Bullock,

[Sorry for these very wordy posts, and my dominance of the thread – simple questions sometimes need long and complicated answers. If ArtUK would prefer them posted as PDFs instead of clogging up the forum with verbiage, please let me know – it may not be the last.]

Manchester Art Gallery,

Osmund, as the collection we prefer the verbiage rather than a PDF. And please don't worry about dominance, all contributions are valuable to the discussion even if you have more to say than others, what's more your comments can elicit answers from others etc. Please keep it up.

Edward Stone,

I echo Manchester Art Gallery – please do comment as usual, Osmund. We look forward to hearing more.

For everyone's general reference, here is Art UK's code of conduct for participating in public discussions: http://bit.ly/2lDG0DV

Just to add that while 'Miss Bennett' (Helen) as style for an eldest daughter and 'Miss Theodora Bennett' for a the younger sister is quite right, my observation at least in cases I have come across is that when the eldest married the one immediately below, while single, became 'Miss Benett' so date as well as state can affect things...

Osmund Bullock,

Absolutely correct, Pieter; but in this case the younger, Theodora, married several years *before* the elder, Helen - 1907 vs 1914!

I've now found out a fair bit more on Helen and her later life, including the name she went by, which was Cara. I'll collate and write it up over the weekend. However, despite a probable photograph of her from 1909, I'm not sure it gets us much closer to a definitive answer.

Unless anyone owns any, I shall try and get to the NAL this week to have a skim through the Steer biogs. I was sorry to see that the author of a much-admired one from 1971, Bruce Laughton, died just last month.

I hesitate to enter the lists on this since it has been conducted so far in an exemplary fashion – other than to say a big thank you to Anthony for identifying the Manchester picture as NEACw no. 57, to Andrea for making the connection between The Music Room and Miss Bennett and to Osmund’s valiant efforts in pinning Theodora and her sister, Helen, down. This has been a most useful enterprise – shedding some light on an area of Steer’s work that has long remained obscure. His summer landscape forays, while not always penetrable, are on the whole easier during these years.
For some reason it has not appeared in my email. However, to save Osmund time in the NAL, these seem to me to be the relevant numbers to look for in the Laughton catalogue.
L315 A Turn of the Cards (on Art Net)
L330 The Black Domino (now with Messum’s)
L331 Lady in Black (the Manchester picture)
L333 The Black Bow (Laughton plate 137; MacColl plate 40a)
L357 Lady in a Chemise (CHL170614)
L363 The Music Room (Tate)
L364 Study for The Music Room (CHL120687 to Pyms Gallery; Priv Coll)
L371 Miss Bennett (on Art Net)
L372 Miss Bennett (without hat; illus b/w in Laughton plate 141)
L374 The Domino (on Art Net)

Helpfully Laughton gives pre-1971 provenance for these, updating in most cases, the MacColl list. They are dated consecutively from L315 shown at the NEAC in the winter 1903 show, up to 1906 when Lilian Montgomery first appears.

There are other possible ‘Bennetts’ that could be added to the list, and yet others such as L355 (also in Manchester AG) that might used for comparative purposes.

In updating MacColl, Laughton moves pictures around in date order, and since neither list is fully illustrated it is difficult, even with recourse to periodical runs and a set of Barbizon House Records, to pin down other possible ‘Bennetts’. I am intrigued for instance by Miss Bennett in yellow dress with large blue and white hat (MacColl p. 205, listed under 1903, 19 ¼ x 19 ½ ins) – but this is all bye-the-bye.

The Manchester picture seems the most formal and ‘finished’ painting in the ‘Bennett’ corpus. It is interesting that in the letter he refers to the ‘sunlit room’ and that he entertained the possibility of painting out-of-doors. Steer tended during these years not to use his studio in Cheyne Walk but preferred to paint in his drawing room, surrounded by Edwardian Hepplewhite, chintz, French colour prints, and Chinese bronzes – all things, according to Kenneth Clark ‘which were not allowed in Bloomsbury’. This practice continued into the twenties when John Rothenstein went to see him (A Pot of Paint, 1929, p. 140). In this ambiance he cast The Lady in Black.

None of this adds significantly to what has been done, but maybe it will speed those processes that move at a leisurely pace in the NAL.

After a year of no more comments, how do the contributors now feel about the Bennett sister's possibly being the sitter?

Kieran Owens,

Could Manchester Art Gallery please provide an image of the back of this painting?

Kieran Owens,

By way of a confirmation of Anthony Lester's identification (above, one year ago) as this being the painting exhibited by Philip Wilson Steer at the New English Art Club Winter Exhibition 1904 (number 57), I attached a number of additional reviews, which might be helpful. They are to be found in:

• Building News and Engineering Journal, 18th November 1904 (page 710)

• Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, 19th November 1904 (page 640)

• The Athenaeum, 19th November 1904 (page 700)

The review by the Building News and Engineering Journal most specifically describes the painting.

The attached composite is offered to illustrate that Steer most likely produced several paintings at this time (1903/1904) from one or more sittings by this model. The 'Black Domino' and 'The Domino' paintings, as linked to by Osmund above, refer, in case it is not widely know, to the cape or cloak that the model is wearing.

By way of a query, are there any "fan language" experts out there who might know of the significance (if any) of the closed fan lying on the sitter's lap in 'The Black Domino' on the right hand side of the composite?

For the purposes of Manchester Art Gallery's record accuracy, I suggest that the painting by dated 1904, that it be given its original title, 'Portrait in Black', and that it is acknowledged by them and the ArtUK description, that it was exhibited, as catalogue number 57, at the New English Art Club's Autumn/Winter Exhibition at the Egyptian Hall (or Egyptian Galleries, if preferred) in Piccadilly in November 1904.

Manchester Art Gallery,

The collection are unable to view the back of this painting at present as it is on long term loan and as a result will likely have a modern backboard in place.

Manchester Art Gallery,

Even though we can't see the backboard at the moment, I do notice that on our database records an inscription: 'written in ink : stretcher : title, artist, date : Portrait in Black by P.W.Steer painted in 1904'. So I wish I knew why it is entered in our accession register as 'Portrait of a Lady in black'. Perhaps that is the title by which Charles Lambert Rutherston referred to it. Either way, I can amend our records to show the title as the original 'Portrait in Black', if that's the right thing to do. What worries me is that it has been called 'Lady in Black' (Laughton) or 'A Lady in Black' (Manchester's records) for so long. I don't want to erase Rutherston's part in the painting's title at a single swipe. Is there an ethical steer (geddit) on this? Please advise.

I am deeply appreciative of Osmund's research, and every other contributor's comments. I want to add 'possibly of one of the Miss Bennetts, of South Kensington' onto the description of the work, and leave all the wealth of detail as additional information available on our database. Would that satisfy?

Hannah Williamson
Curator, Fine Art, Manchester Art Gallery

There are strong arguments for using 'Portrait in Black' as the prime title. This is how the picture was titled when first exhibited -- at the NEAC in winter 1904 -- presumably on the artist's instruction. It is also the title given in the listing of Steer's works (compiled by Alfred Yockney) in MacColl's book published in 1945, soon after the artist's death in 1942.

Reference to the other titles and to the Misses Bennett as possible sitters could be made under 'More Information'.

Kieran Owens,

While by no means the definitive guide to the ethical issues surrounding the renaming of artworks, this Guardian article from February of this year does address the problem, albeit on a rather grander scale:

https://bit.ly/2LA1zBc

This additional link might also help focus the mind on what has become an acute ethical dilemma:

https://cnn.it/2L8QJ9n

Titles of works of art would indeed be a fascinating subject for an Art UK 'Story'. Equally, this painting raised the issue of 'what is a portrait?'. I have always tried to distinguish a portrait from other figure paintings, life studies, 'tronies', etc., as being the conscious attempt by the artist to record the appearance of a particular individual, as opposed to depicting an example of a 'type'. Here Steer may have used a model (almost by definition an anonymous figure), yet termed it a 'Portrait in Black', implying an intended portrayal of an individual and thus creating an interesting conflict.

Manchester Art Gallery,

Manchester Art Gallery has made the decision to return this work to its originally intended title of "Portrait in Black" and keep the title of "A Lady in Black" in other information. Please could the Art UK records be updated accordingly.

We now seek to clarify if there are any opinions on the question of the Misses Bennett that was raised earlier.

Please support your comments with evidence or arguments.

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