Portraits: British 20th C, South West England: Artists and Subjects 42 What more could we establish in relation to this portrait, possibly of a ballerina?

DOR_BRC_BORGM_01685
Topic: Artist

Who might be the sitter? I am a distant relative of the artist. I have recently acquired a print of another of her paintings ‘Portrait of Carmen’ which I feel sure is the same sitter. [Group leader: Sheena Stoddard]

Rosalind White, Entry reviewed by Art UK

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42 comments

The Collection have commented: 'We are afraid we have nothing on file about the sitter other than that the artist’s niece came into the museum and saw the painting on show in 2017’s ‘Refracted: Collection Highlights’ exhibition. Unfortunately, it was at a weekend and so I did not get to meet her. However, she did tell our front desk that the sitter was a ‘local ballerina’ who had good poise. Sadly we don’t have the name of the niece or the sitter. If you can get more information we would be much obliged.’ [From the acquisition note, ‘gift from Charles S. Higgins, 1961’ - Charles Higgins, civil engineer, painter and writer was the artist’s husband]

William Milburn,

Could this be the Charles Higgins

Charles Higgins (1893–1980) was an author who wrote under the name Iain Dall and also an artist who signed himself 'Pic' by which name he is commonly known.

He was the son of an engineer, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1893. He spent a carefree, idyllic childhood there under the supervision of his gaelic speaking nanny called ‘Ah-Ah’. But his private world of play and imagination was brought to an abrupt and painful end when, aged seven, he was sent to a boarding school. On returning to the UK the family settled in Wimbledon from where he went to Malvern public school.

He later trained as an engineer and worked periodically in South America. He joined Kitchener’s Army seeing service during the Dardanelles Campaign where he was wounded. He later wrote a very moving account of his ordeal and rescue in the trenches called ‘Suvla Moon’. This is included below.

To Read More click this link
https://www.gallipoli-association.org/campaign/suvla-moon-charles-higgins/

William Milburn,

Mention is made of Kate Elizabeth Olver, Portrait Painter and wife of Charles Higgins.

Rosalind White,

It certainly was the same Charles Higgins. He was known by his family as Hunca Munca! I don't know why. His style of painting was quite different to Kate Olvers. They had a studio in St. John's Wood Londpn.

In addition to the London address Charles Higgins and his wife Kate Olver built a house on the island of Barra, and from memory that was in the late 1920s. Kate Olver was a highly accomplished painter of portraits and figure subjects, and of some landscapes too. The paintings I have seen by her were signed in upper case, as is the work under discussion. As a ballerina is mentioned in the header to this discussion, in 1915 Kate Olver exhibited at the Royal Academy a work titled 'Mary Prince in Tchaikowsky's Casse Noisette Suite (The Nutcracker Suite) ..the mystic measure of music, and dance, and shapes of light' (exhibit number 359). I can't immediately find any known images of Mary Prince for comparison but the name may be worth following up.

Bill Ellson,

The attached painting, which has been posted on Ancestry described as 'Kate Olver Girl with flowers' could well be the same sitter, but a bit younger.
I cannot find any Carmen Olver, or Carmen Higgins, but possibly a pet name for a family member.

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Bill, your attachment certainly appears to be a good match with the sitter in 'Casque d'or'.

Charles Higgins and Kate Olver married in 1927 and had no children. She had been born in Denmark Hill in south London in 1881 and I believe she had three brothers and no sisters. From what I know about her work her sitters tended to be clients and/or their offspring and also some professional models. In 1937 she exhibited a red chalk drawing titled 'Carmen' (exhibit 544) at the Society of Women Artists. I imagine 'Carmen', if that was her actual name (which I doubt), was paid a few shillings to sit for her.

Marcie Doran,

When I searched online for “Kate Elizabeth Olver” a pencil drawing appeared in the images that looks like this sitter. Although the image has "invaluable.com" below it, I have been unable to find the drawing on the Invaluable website. I have attached a composite.

Kieran Owens,

Sorry Marcie, the Art UK site was down for a while when I sent this and appears to have uploaded now.

Marcie Doran,

Thanks, Kieran.

Is the date on 'Kate Olver Girl with flowers’ 1930?

Perhaps she was born in about 1914?

Marcie Doran,

I have applied for her probate record since the gift was likely made after probate (June 30, 1961). This painting might have been a treasured possession that was mentioned in her will.

Marcie Doran,

Thanks for confirming that date, Kieran.

I searched the 1939 England and Wales Register on Ancestry for people with:
- first name "Carmen"
- born in 1912, plus or minus 5 years
- lived in "London, London, England, United Kingdom", "exact to county"
- gender "female"

There were 16 results (attached). A “professional dancer” named Carmen Skilly is a possibility. She also had several other surnames on the record (attached).

Marcie Doran,

Mary Carmen Madeline Skelly (not Skilly) married Edward F.C. Adnum in Q1 1941 and passed away in London on May 28, 1983, leaving a large estate (see attached). I have ordered her probate record - hopefully it will mention next of kin who can be contacted.

Osmund Bullock,

I thought you'd get to her before I had a chance to finish my research of last night properly, Marcie, and write it up - do you never stop working?! I have a certain amount more - on the geographical connection side which I was still working on, and also her second marriage; but I'm sure you'll dig it out anyway. Well done.

Bill Ellson,

Mary Carmen etc's death was registered as STEELE, MARY CARMEN M; with a date of birth of 7 November 1913 in the London Borough of BROMLEY vol:11 page:1010

I had read the 1941 marriage on the 1939 register as 28/4/1949, which unsurprisingly I could not find. No sign of a birth registration in England and Wales.

Marcie Doran,

I must admit that when I finally decided to narrow down the search based on Carmen’s likely date of birth I wondered if you were doing the same thing, Osmund. I’m actually taking a break right now and won’t be doing more research on her until I obtain the two wills. Sometimes I’ll be driving or watching tv and will think of something that might move one of the discussions forward. Honestly, you’re better at most of the research than I am.

Thanks for the information, Bill. I had not found that record.

Osmund Bullock,

Well, you're very kind, but I have to say you're coming up extremely fast on the inside!

She and Edward F(rederick) C(ecil) Adnum had a daughter, Lesley (b. 1941 Q4), though I can find no further trace of her - perhaps she (Lesley) changed her surname to her mother's when her father Edward returned to his native Montreal. I suspect he was in England with Canadian Forces, who had arrived here in some numbers early in the War, and by 1941 were based in Surrey, where that year he and Carmen married and Lesley was born - https://bit.ly/3nOi020. Edward already had two, possibly three children in Canada, though his wife had died in 1935 (according to an Ancestry tree). He must have remarried once more after his return, as his 1963 death notice mentions four offspring and an apparently living wife. See attached.

With a bit of luck Carmen's Will & Probate record may tell us more about what happened to the daughter Lesley.

Of course all this is a fairly long shot - as Grant cautioned yesterday, 'Carmen' may not have been the sitter's real name at all...

According to old notes I made about Charles 'Pic' Higgins and his wife Kate Olver, they both journeyed by ship to Tangier in Morocco embarking on 18th April 1930. In those days the ships often stopped off at ports en route and although I don't know this, it is possible they stopped off in Gibraltar or one of the Spanish harbours. Morocco was of particular interest to Charles Higgins as he later embarked on a series of paintings of North African subjects, which had a style very much of their own. Spain may have been more to his wife's liking as the subject matter there was a good fit with her work. It may be stretching the point unreasonably but is that where the 'Carmen' subject matter originated?

Kieran Owens,

Does the title of this work, as "Casque d'or", appear on the back of the canvas or frame? If not, from where did the name come?

Jacinto Regalado,

Grant, the sitter's colouring is not at all that of the operatic Carmen or the are associated with her in southern Spain.

Jacinto Regalado,

She looks possibly Slavic to me, but certainly not Southern European.

I'll come back to the issue of Kate Olver's paintings of Spanish subjects another time (soon).

I have been wondering about why Casque d'or was gifted by Kate Olver's widower to the Russell-Cotes. As far as I can tell, KEO had no particular connection to Bournemouth. It looks to me, based on earlier signatures I have seen of hers, that the signature on this painting post dates the painting by a decade or two.

The suggestion that the subject is a painting of 'a local ballerina' appears to come solely from the comments made at a visit in 2017 by a 'niece' of the artist (probably a great niece as that would fit better given the passing of the years). Unless that person comes forward subsequently to explain we may not get any further on that. However, I am wondering what is meant by the word 'local' in the context of that conversation. Local to the artist's home or local to Bournemouth? I interpret it as local to Bournemouth, otherwise why say 'local'? If that is the case it would explain why the painting is now in the Russell-Cotes. Could the collection comment on this please? Also is the painting labelled by the artist with the title or if not how did the collection come by the title Casque d'or? Is there any date on it? Thanks.



Mark Wilson,

The title just means "Golden Helmet" of course and presumably refers to the sitter's striking golden hair. But it could possibly be influenced by the French film Casque d'Or (https://bit.ly/3fW7wt7) which was released in 1952. Although the hairstyle has little in common with the elaborate one worn by Simone Signoret in the film (or indeed by the historical character she was playing https://bit.ly/3IzaRuv), the phrase may have been 'in the air' and so thought suitable for this. This could date the picture to the early 50's, though of course it could just be the date of the title applied to an earlier painting.

Rosalind White,

Further information-
"Casque D'Or : a souvenir" was exhibited at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1953 ( North Gallery) Along with a portrait of Mrs Mervyn Jones.
She frequently exhibited at their exhibitions from 1936 - 1959
I have a list of exhibits.
Her niece ( not great niece ) remembers her visit to the Russell -Cotes gallery and I will ask her if she recalls where the idea of a ballerina came from.

Good afternoon Rosalind White. Thank you so much for your contribution which helps enormously with the provenance of the painting 'Casque D'Or'. The collection will be most grateful and they will appreciate Mark Wilson's comments too. When you raised the discussion you mentioned the Kate Olver work you have of Carmen. Is there an indication of the date of that piece please? It would also help if you could set out the date of exhibition at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters of any other works including Carmen in the title. Finally, it would be marvellous if we could gain an insight into the possible circumstances surrounding the gift of 'Casque D'Or' to the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum and the thoughts of the artist's niece in regard to the 'local ballerina'. Thank you.

To answer the question posted about the term 'local' - I am afraid I can't answer that as I wasn't there when the lady concerned came into the museum. However, I would err on the side of caution and consider both possibilities until further evidence comes to light regarding when and where the artist lived during her lifetime. The correspondence in our files indicates Hall Road, London NW8 but that might be just at the end of her life.

To answer the question of how the RCAGM came by the painting - it was donated by Charles Higgins at the suggestion of Kerrison Preston. He was a solicitor who was also an art collector/critic who had been connected to Sir Merton and Lady Russell-Cotes and helped them in the establishment of the Deed of Gift setting up the museum. Kerrison Preston crops up quite a lot in our files and archives.

In his first letter to the RCAGM Mr Higgins states that he was seeking to place some of his late wife's work with us as she had exhibited with us in the past and that it was part of an intention to place her work in regional museums for posterity. The RCAGM had worked intensively with many artists, usually as part of national societies or groups, throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s - so I can well believe it.

The painting is currently on show but I am not currently able to access it. As soon as I can I will report back regarding signatures and labels.

I managed to get some time before a meeting to examine the painting.

Although the painting is signed there is no production date or further labeling by the artist on the reverse. There is a standard RCAGM collection label on the reverse which gives the title and donor details as well as the accession number assigned to the work. However, it appears my predecessors decided to stick that directly on top of some other label but it is impossible to see what it might be.

There is a rather fun framer's shop label on the back (see attached) which fits with London residency of the donor. When framing was done for the RCAGM at this time a firm in Boscombe was used.

This still does not put us closer to identifying the sitter but I would suggest a London based person rather than a Bournemouth one.

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Thank you very much to RCAGM for the two extremely helpful posts. In regard to the label Charles H West of London NW3 were very well established framers during that period and they were local to Charles Higgins and his wife. They undertook work for many established artists.

A number of key points have now been established during this discussion. Hopefully the artist's niece will be able to guide us further in relation to the background to the 'local ballerina' comment.

Jacinto Regalado,

Louis, the hair colour is totally different, and the face is fuller and softer than our sitter's.

Rosalind White,

Hello everyone,
I have spoken to Kate Olver's niece who does not recall why she mentioned a ballerina when she saw the painting ( at the Russell-Coats museum). She thinks it was just an observation that the girl looks like a dancer/ballerina. So not much more help I'm afraid.

Marcie Doran,

The wills site sent me links to the two wills that I had ordered (Mary Carmen Madeline Adnum and Kate Elizabeth Olver) at the end of January but when I attempted to access them, the site was down for maintenance. Now that the new site has launched, it does not recognize my username. If someone else is able to order the Mary Carmen Madeline Adnum will, it would be much appreciated.

Surname: ADNUM
First Name: MARY CARMEN MADELINE
Date of Death: 28/05/1983
Date of probate: 07/10/1983

Osmund Bullock,

Marcie, there's now an update message on there saying they are "currently working on the Sign In service". They say you "should contact the Help desk if login fails".The email address for queries and feedback appears to be hmctswills@ironmountain.co.uk.

You will be unsurprised to learn that the chaos has been caused by HM Courts outsourcing the whole Will searching/ordering process to a private company, with the usual result that it's now completely unfit for purpose. Doubtless the price will soon rise substantially in order to cover the company's costs in getting the "service" up to a standard only slightly worse than was before.

Marcie Doran,

Thanks, Osmund. I sent a message to that email yesterday and one to contactprobate@justice.gov.uk two weeks ago. I’m hoping that I don’t get one of those emails that states that my wills are about to expire.

Marcie Doran,

The 1912 edition of ‘The Era Almanack’ includes “Miss Marjorie Skelly” in the production of ‘The Dance Dream’ in May 1911. https://tinyurl.com/bdsrrw48

According to the 1913 edition of ‘The Era Almanack’, a “Miss Skelly” danced in the ballet ‘Carmen’ in January 1912. Was she Carmen’s mother? https://tinyurl.com/2x86v4c5

Both productions were discussed in the JSTOR article “Archives of the Dance (24): The Alhambra Moul Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum” by Jane Pritchard. The article includes two photos from the production of 'Carmen' and a reference to Marjorie Skelly in footnote 15. https://tinyurl.com/2p98ucs3

There seems to be no doubt that the artist painted and drew portraits of a young woman known as 'Carmen'. Carmen certainly appears to be the sitter in the Russell-Cotes AG painting 'Casque d'or'. The painting is on a board supplied by Chas H West of 117 Finchley Road, London NW3. They operated from that address from 1902 until 1960. Their labels changed in 1948 when they became a limited company. This label predates that event and I think it will be circa 1930 or quite possibly a little earlier.

After Kate Olver married Charles 'Pic' Higgins in 1927 both she and her husband formed a good friendship with Robert Sielle, a highly regarded contemporary picture frame maker based at 18 Belsize Park, London NW3 1931-1934, then at 14 Buckingham St, Fitzroy Square, W1 1935-1937, and later at other London addresses. Sielle was also an exhibition agent. During the 1930s and 1940s Kate Olver had frames made by Robert Sielle. I have bought paintings by her in those frames. Kate Olver's reliance on Chas H West as a supplier reduced but I don't know to what extent.

One thing which is clear from the research I have done into this artist's work is that she often delayed sending her paintings to exhibitions. Examples are the paintings of Barra from the late 1920s or early 1930s which often didn't get shown until a decade or more later. She also signed quite a few of these works prior to those exhibitions rather than when they were painted. In regard to Casque d'or I think the signature is a lot later than the date of the painting.

On 21st January 2022 Bill Ellson posted an image of a Kate Olver painting 'Girl with Flowers' which is signed and dated 1930. The sitter is remarkably similar to the model 'Carmen' depicted in other paintings and drawings. For this and other stylistic reasons I think the present painting 'Casque d'or' will also date to 1930 or thereabouts.

Possibly as a result of her and her husband's visit to Morocco (and I think Spain too) in 1930 Kate Olver began to use more 'exotic' titles for her paintings of women and girls. Carmen was a favourite of course but there is also 'Perina' and 'Delia' (which originally came from the Greek). These names are quite different from the more traditional names in her commissioned portraits. The 1930s were very hard for artists financially and in my view I think these names were attached to the artworks in order to assist in their commercial appeal. However, I would be delighted if 'Carmen' turned out to be a real person of that name!

As this is a lengthy post I'll summarise. In my opinion the key points are as follows:

1. 'Casque d'or' depicts a young woman known in other works by Kate Olver as 'Carmen'
2. The painting is likely to date to circa 1930.
3. The signature is a later addition by the artist.
4. The sitter may be a ballerina but is more likely to be a paid artist's model.



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