Completed Dress and Textiles, Portraits: British 20th C 37 Is this a portrait of Daphne du Maurier? Can you find a link between du Maurier and Gabriel Atkin?

Topic: Subject or sitter

Is this a portrait of an actress in the role of "Trilby", or could it possibly be a portrait of Daphne du Maurier dressed in that role?
I have attached one image of Trilby from George du Maurier's novel; two images of actresses in the role of Trilby; an image of Daphne du Maurier with a "Trilby" haircut; and a later image of Daphne du Maurier wearing a military jacket.

The collection comments: ‘It certainly looks quite like Kate Cutler in that role.

I have altered the title to “Portrait of a woman, possibly showing the character ‘Trilby’”.

The picture description is as follows:

“Portrait of a woman by Gabriel Atkin, possibly showing the character 'Trilby'. 'Trilby' was the title role in the long-running play 'A Model Trilby', 1895, adapted from the novel by George du Maurier, 1894. 'Trilby' was played by Dorothea Baird (1875–1933) in the original production in 1895, and by Kate Cutler (1864–1955), also in 1895'”.

Both actresses wore a man's uniform jacket as part of their costume.’

Although the sitter's hairstyle is similar to Kate Cutler's, her facial features are not. The portrait must date from the 1920s, by which time Cutler was in her 60s. Daphne du Maurier, however, was in her 20s and sporting a similar haircut and a closer resemblance to the woman in the portrait (see image attached to my previous posting).

Someone might be able to find a link between Daphne du Maurier and the artist, Gabriel Atkin, who was known to have been moving in literary circles at the time that the portrait was painted.

Scott Thomas Buckle, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. There is no evidence that the sitter is Daphne du Maurier and no link could be established between her and Gabriel Atkin. The title remains 'Portrait of an Unknown Woman'.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


Osmund Bullock,

A woman wearing a man's uniform jacket seems a tenuous reason to think that she is anything to do with 'Trilby', even when her hairstyle is similar to one once worn by the grand-daughter of the man who originated the character. The hairstyle was also sported by several million other people - it was the fashion. Gabriel A(i)tken moved in very 'alternative' circles, not just literary ones, and I am sure such a get-up would not have been unusual there. See

Other than the hair shape there is no resemblance to Daphne du Maurier at all. DdM was in her teens for much of the 1920s (21 in 1928) - this is a far older woman, look at her neck; the hair colour is completely wrong; her prominent cheekbones (or sunken cheeks) & mouth size and shape are quite different to Daphne's; and DdM had no hint of the large chin cleft we see here. I suppose if Atkin was an even worse artist than I take him to be it might just be possible...but I'm not convinced enough to pursue the hypothesis further, sorry.

Tim Williams,

There was a loan exhibition of paintings by Atkin at the Laing in 1940 - presumably this is when the painting was acquired and I would think the title would be listed in the catalogue.

The Laing must have a copy of the catalogue in its archives?

Scott Thomas Buckle,

Thanks for the 1940 exhibition catalogue reference, Tim, that is most helpful.

Osmund commented that "a woman wearing a man's uniform jacket seems a tenuous reason to think that she is anything to do with 'Trilby'". I disagree. Combined with a 'Trilby' haircut, the signature military jacket is standard issue in depictions of the character, from George Du Maurier's original illustrations to the novel, right through to stage and screen adaptations of the role. I was unable to identify any actresses of the 1920s or 1930s who portrayed the character and shared the same facial features as the woman in Gabriel Atkin's portrait, but I did think that the sitter did bear some resemblance to Daphne Du Maurier, who incidentally did have a cleft/dimple chin (see attached photo). Du Maurier had a particular affection for her grandfather's work - in later life she published a collection of his letters, and it therefore seems no accident that she was to sport a 'Trilby' haircut and a military jacket at different stages of her life.

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The 'military jackets' in the various 'in-character' Trilby images are all theatrical flummery, while that worn in the painting looks more like the real thing - but what? Epaulettes with'two pips' are those of an army lieutenant (on khaki) or (on blue, with the letters RM below) a lieutenant in the Royal Marines. Two silver pips (and these looks more gold) are those of a police inspector: all these for the period are male. This also looks like an 'undress' working uniform of some sort wit its soft rather than board epaulettes.

Jon Kemp,

Aitken married Mary Butts and lived with her in Sennen, Cornwall from about 1932 - 1934. du Maurier lived further up near Fowey (most of the time from around 1926-32/33, then the next 10 years after marriage only during holidays).
If its her and painted then/there, she would have been 25-26.

Scott Thomas Buckle,

Thank you for the detailed information about the military jacket, Pieter. This would suggest that rather than an actress in character, it is a portrait of a woman inspired by the Trilby look.

And thanks for a possible Cornwall connection between Atkin and du Maurier, Jon. Looking at the NPG's portraits of Daphne du Maurier, she appears to have stopped sporting a Trilby-style haircut by 1930. The portrait could have been painted by Atkin in the 1920s or 1930s, but if the sitter is du Maurier, then it would probably have to date to before 1930. Even so, it is interesting to note that their paths may have crossed after this date.

Jacob Simon,

This discussion has attracted 6 comments over three days in 2017, 31 July to 2 August. It asks two questions:
Is this a portrait of Daphne du Maurier?
Can you find a link between du Maurier and Gabriel Atkin?

The discussion is about an unfinished painting in the Laing Art Gallery, possibly a left over from the loan exhibition of paintings by Atkin at the Laing in 1940 (post by Tim Williams). The discussion has attracted observations on the uniform jacket (post by Pieter van der Merwe).

As to the first question, there is no documentation. Opinion is divided as to whether this could be a portrait of Daphne du Maurier. As such the collections designation, “Portrait of an unknown woman”, should be maintained although it may be appropriate to mention the possible Du Maurier link in a text or catalogue entry relating to the portrait.

As to the second question both Du Maurier and the artist Atkin overlapped in Cornwall for a time, but were not neighbours (post by Jon Kemp). No link beyond this coincidence has been established.

A recommendation on closing this discussion needs to come from the Group leaders, Lou Taylor and Catherine Daunt.

Andrea Kollmann,

Coincidentally, I looked at this discussion yesterday. The sitter reminds me of Luisa (Marchesa) Casati ( ). Gabriel Atkin knew her and mentioned her in his unpublished memoir, which is in the collection of the Wichita State University ( ). I wrote them an email yesterday to ask if there is a chance to get a copy of parts of the memoir related to her. I will report back when and if I hear from them (or if this discussion is closed, send the info via email).

I had forgotten commenting on the uniform, the other (if remote) possibility I omitted being perhaps fire-service or something similarly civilian...

Laing Art Gallery,

The jacket has 2 epaulette studs that could be in the shape of stars, with, it seems, some colour on them. So, possibly a ceremonial uniform. Can't see a match to the fire service.

Louis Musgrove,

Gabriel's parents moved to Long Beach California- just after WW1.That must be why the Americans like him.
Gabriel's paternal granparents ,sea Captain William and Margaret (nee Gilbertson) Aitken- note spelling which is correct for them --came from Dunrossness in Shetland.

Jacob Simon,

My comments and summary two years ago encouraged a series of posts after a long period of silence. But I don't think they have moved the conversation forward much. There are two questions:

Is this a portrait of Daphne du Maurier?
Here, there is no documentation. Opinion is divided as to whether this could be a portrait of Du Maurier. As such the collections designation, “Portrait of an unknown woman”, should be maintained although it may be appropriate to mention the possible Du Maurier link in a text or catalogue entry relating to the portrait.

Can you find a link between Du Maurier and Gabriel Atkin?
Both Du Maurier and Atkin overlapped in Cornwall for a time, but were not neighbours (post by Jon Kemp). No link beyond this coincidence has been established.

Old discussions never die? This one is now five years old.

Scott Thomas Buckle,

Thanks Jacob. I'm happy for the discussion to be closed as it hasn't provided any answers.

Scott Thomas Buckle,

Maybe it's a portrait of Siegfried Sassoon dressed as Daphne Du Maurier, dressed as Trilby.

Kieran Owens,

The Newcastle Journal, of Friday 2nd February 1940, in its report on a number of gifts that were bequeathed or donated to the Laing, mentions the following:

"From the recently opened exhibition of works by Gabriel Atkin (sic) - a South Shields artist and an old Newcastle Royal Grammar School boy - a drawing entitled 'Land's End' has been given by Mr. Sam Smith".

Sennan Cove, near Land's End, is the place in Cornwall where Atkin and Mary Butts lived following her marriage, at age 40, to him in 1930, when he was 43.

Does the Laing have this drawing in its collection? If not, perhaps this is that "drawing", possibly described as such, despite being an oil on canvas, due to its uncompleted state.

A Newcastle Evening Chronicle article, from its Tuesday 16 January 1940 issue, mentions that Osbert Sitwell had written a "special foreword" to the exhibition's catalogue. The Laing did produce a catalogue for the 225 works that were exhibited. (See as a reference). Do they (or the National Art Library etc.) still have a copy of the it in their collection? It would seem to be the most obvious next step to explore. Perhaps the back of the work has a number that might correspond to an entry in that catalogue.

The exhibition ran at the Laing from the 17th January for "about a month".

The attached image is taken from the Newcastle Journal of Wednesday 17th January 1940.

Louis Musgrove,

To repeat in a VERY LOUD VOICE-- Gabriel Atkin was Sassoon's Gay lover. The sitter is wearing a WW1 Lieutenant's coat. If you ignore the wig,the facial features match Sassoon.
This image could be of extreme interest for historical and academic research!!!

Kieran Owens,

Louis, you can repeat your suggestion as loudly as you want, but your opinion is purely subjective. As has been the case so many times in the past with Art UK, facial comparisons without accompanying corroborating proof of identity are pretty well useless. The attached comparison of this portrait with those of Sassoon around the time that he first met Atkin are not convincing, certainly to my subjective eyes.

On the 22nd July 1916, 2nd Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon, of the 3rd Battalion Royal Welsh / Welch Fusiliers, was awarded the Military Cross. Our sitter is not wearing the uniform jacket of this regiment.

Sassoon first met with Atkin on the 20th November 1918, when the former was 32 and the latter was 21. No one is disputing that the pair were gay lovers. Do you have any proof, Louis, that Sassoon indulged in crossdressing (with wigs and lipstick) at this early or any stage in his life.

Once again, an examination of the Laing's exhibition catalogue from 1940 might be the best option if the details of this portrait are to be discovered.

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Louis Musgrove,

Kieran- thanks for considering my suggestion.Might I draw attention to our sitters big square cleft chin.Not a female attribute.
The other suggestions as to the sitters identity ,really did not look any thing like--,so I thought a bit sideways,as usual.

Louis Musgrove,

BTW. Looking at your triptych- I think you demonstrate my point delightfully well. :-)

Scott Thomas Buckle,

Yes, Siegfried Sassoon had a cleft chin, as did Daphne Du Maurier (as I pointed out in my post of 31/07/2017). After looking at the composite photos posted by Kieran, to my eyes, Sassoon's other features to do not resemble those of the sitter in the portrait. The 1940 Laing exhibition catalogue may provide the answer, although one would have thought that if the sitter was known back then, the collection would have retained that information.

Louis Musgrove,

Yes Scott-Good Point-- I read that post at the time.However ,I think Daphne's chin was much more pointed.--looking at some of her images.

Scott Thomas Buckle,

Kieran's point about subjectivity applies to both of our candidates. Sassoon certainly was in the right place at the right time, whilst Du Maurier's connection to Trilby supports the sitter's choice of dress. It may remain one of those unsolved mysteries - my initial post was because I hoped that someone might have the definitive answer.

Osmund Bullock,

Louis, like most things worth doing, art history follows the old '10% inspiration, 90% perspiration' adage. 'Thinking sideways' is the 10%: your ideas would be more welcome if you did some of the 90% sweat to research and develop them before sharing here.

To add another subjective view of the alleged likeness, I see substantial differences in the nose (Sassoon's was famously large, not the fairly pert little one seen here), the mouth (completely different size & shape, even allowing for lipstick), the eyes (proportionately far bigger in ours), the eyebrows (thicker and longer in ours) and the chin (though both are cleft, ours is much squarer). And you can't just say, "Oh, he wasn't a great portraitist, it's close enough": likeness is the *only* real strand to your argument, so the resemblance would have to be quite exceptional to impress (and even then probably not enough without further evidence). I don't believe this is Daphne du Maurier either...but it looks a lot more like her than Sassoon imagined in drag.

Kieran Owens,

It is such a shame that the Laing has not respond to Tim Williams' suggestion in 2017 that they check for a copy of the 1940 catalogue. If they are still interested in this Art Detective process, could they look for it, and post images of it here? Also, could they confirm if they have the "Land's End" drawing as donated by Sam Smith in 1940, and also inform those contributing here as to the status of the back of the canvas/frame for clues that might help in resolving this identification. Their one comment so far, in 2021, about the uniform's details, was of little help. Without the cooperation and feedback from any relevant collection, the impact on those interested in assisting in Art UK's Art Detective programme is rather frustrating.

Laing Art Gallery,

Pages from the 1940 Gabriel Atkin catalogue attached. There is no picture of 'Trilby' listed, unfortunately. There are a number of pictures just called 'Portrait'.
We have 'Land's End' by Atkin, given by Samuel Smith - TWCMS : 1998.668 - jpg attached. I'm afraid we do not have a higher-resolution image.

Kieran Owens,

If there are not too many pages in it, can Laing post the whole catalogue please?

Scott Thomas Buckle,

Thank you for the scan of the exhibition catalogue. It's a shame that it doesn't give dimensions. One of the three oil paintings named 'PORTRAIT', as you say, seem the most likely candidates for the picture that is presently under discussion.

Louis Musgrove,

Are we sure this is by Gabriel Atkin?? I have been comparing the signature,with the signatures on the other two paintings on Art UK. Those two match each other,but the signature on this painting is a bit different ?????? And the evident splatter has intrigued me.
Glyn Warren Philpott -who was a "Friend" of Atkin. did several oil sketches in this style. ??

As this discussion has been open since 2017 and has only attracted a small handful of comments in the last few months, I recommend that it be closed (as suggested by both Jacob and Marion previously), unless anyone would like to respond to Louis's comment from March about the attribution. Although there have been some very interesting suggestions about who the sitter in this portrait might be, and useful arguments on both sides about its connection to the play 'A Model Trilby' and to Daphne Du Maurier, I agree with Jacob that there is not enough evidence to recommend a change from 'Portrait of a woman' or 'Portrait of an unknown woman'.

Laing Art Gallery,

I agree with your suggestion to close the discussion and leave the title as is.