The Inglenooks of Power

Metropolitan Museum of Art
John Singer Sargent: The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant, 1899

In February 1899 John Singer Sargent was invited to the Belgravia home of the wealthy Wiltshire landowner Percy Wyndham to meet his three married daughters. Wyndham had commissioned a group portrait of the women as a way of marking a recent advance in the family’s fortunes. For while the sixty-four-year-old paterfamilias had lost his parliamentary seat some years earlier, his eldest son George was now gaining a reputation as a shrewd politician at Westminster, where he served as undersecretary at the War Office. Meanwhile George’s three sisters, Mary Elcho, Madeline Adeane, and Pamela Tennant, enjoyed a growing cachet as hostesses of discreet country house weekends at which statesmen of all stripes mingled far away from the jabber of party intrigue.

Awareness of the Wyndham women’s influence had previously been confined to the elite networks that radiated from the smarter parts of London to the mansions and manor houses of rural Britain. Now, though, it felt like the right moment for them to be formally introduced to a wider public, one that was increasingly greedy to know about the lives of rich, aristocratic women. No one did sumptuous portraits of society people shaded with psychological complexity better than Sargent. He would be paid £2,000, the equivalent of about £240,000 today, for The Wyndham Sisters, with the aim of finishing it in time for the next year’s Royal Academy summer show.

Almost immediately it became apparent that the deadline was in jeopardy. For one thing, the sisters were not sold on the idea of coordinating themselves into a froth of white, off-white, and cream. Pamela announced that she was intent on a blue dress, which meant that Mary, the eldest at thirty-seven, was left dropping desperate hints: “Blue can be so ugly don’t you think?” The middle sister, Madeline, or Mananai, was usually easier, but on this occasion was holding out for pink. Mary worried that the beautiful Wyndham sisters would make their public debut looking like a slab of Neapolitan ice cream.

Even once the foamy dress code was resolved there was still the problem of the pose. Mary was adamant that nothing should look contrived, yet proceeded to suggest that she and her sisters arrange themselves as “if the Evening Post had just come & one was reading a letter to the others,” which sounds stiff and stagy and terribly old-fashioned. In the end it was Sargent who came up with the arrangement in which, rather than leaning eagerly toward one another, the sisters pose languorously, each angled in a different direction, conspicuously failing to make eye contact. It was a brilliant proposal, both for the way it allowed each woman to inhabit her own psychological space, but also because it meant that Sargent could paint them separately, without trying…

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