Douard and Marie-Louise Pailleron, John Singer Sargent, 1881

As it is with the world of fashion, the popularity of certain styles of art will art wax and wane along with the times. Sometimes, appreciation comes only after the artist's death, as in the case of Vincent Van Gogh.

By comparison, John Singer Sargent’s art was wildly popular while he lived. The son of American parents who travelled all over in Europe and never went home again, Sargent first trained as an artist in France where he painted the scandalous Madame X – after which he left Paris to settle in London, gaining admiration, wealth and success for his elegant society portraits. 

But after his death in 1925 the value of his work plummeted, being viewed as old fashioned and frivolous,  very much of a certain age and time. The influential critic, Roger Fry, even went so far as to say that Sargent's work was completely irrelevant to 20th century Modernism.

Perhaps he was thinking of the style of work shown in The Fountain below, which is somewhat indicative of the privileged nature of the rich in the so-called Edwardian summer, which was all too soon to merge into the horrific realities of war.

The Fountain, John Singer Sargent, 1907

So, by the 1960’s when Richard Ormond (Sargent’s sister’s grandson) began to collate and exhibit some of Sargent's artworks, his friends assumed that he was mad - until now when the National Portrait Gallery are hosting a major exhibition – after which the collection will move on to the Metropolitan in New York.

Portrait of R L Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, with the writer's wife sitting on the sofa to the right of the frame

Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery says that: “Extraordinary and rare loans are coming together for the first time to demonstrate Sargent’s talent in a new way.” In essence, this  exhibition will expose the looser intimacy to be found in the work concentrating on Sargent's family and friends, as well as fellow Americans abroad. There will be fascinating personal depictions of fellow artists, actors and writers – though R L Stevenson was said to have called one of his portraits ‘damn queer’, and the VV has no idea at all of what Ellen Terry might have made of the portrait in which she posed as if still playing the part of Lady Macbeth, when she wore her magnificent beetle gown.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, by John Singer Sargent

The VV adores them both - such striking, powerful images. She was mesmerised by this exhibition which opened at The National Portrait Gallery on February 12, and which ends on 25 May 2015.

Hurry, hurry, hurry... and you'll be able to see such gorgeous vivid pictures as this, with faces that - at any moment - might turn to look you in the eye, or speak to you, or even sing. The portraits really are 'alive'.

Lily, Lily, Rose ~ 1885-6

Le Verre de Porto (A Dinner Table at Night) 1884

Carolus Duran ~ Sargent's tutor in Paris

Dr Prozzi - A Parisian and doctor and seducer of women
A somewhat satanic image!

Mrs George Batten Singing 1895

Golden Girl  ~ The Spanish dancer La Carmencita. 1890

You might also like to see the NPG's Timeline of Sargent's life.

And there is also this 'Connections Map' to show the circles of friends and artists with whom Sargent was well acquainted.



Ellen Terry.
Februrary 27 1847 ~ July 21 1928

Ellen Terry (Alice Ellen Terry) was a famous Victorian actress. Born into a theatrical family, she first appeared upon the stage when she was only eight years old.

Renowned for her voice and striking looks, and blessed with her stunning red hair, Ellen went on to become Henry Irvin’s leading lady, being greatly admired for her sensitive portrayals of Shakespearian heroines.

Today we would call her a ‘star’ ~ and she caused a sensation in 1888 when she played the part of Lady Macbeth at the London Lyceum Theatre, for which she wore a spectacular costume constructed from more more than a thousand emerald green Jewel beetle wings.

The gown was later immortalised the portrait seen above, by the artist John Singer Sargent. 

Having witnessed Ellen wearing it when alighting one day from a cab one day, Oscar Wilde went on to write ~ 

'The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets. It must always be full of wonderful possibilities.’

Choosing by G F Watts

Ellen had quite an effect on men, whatever their sexual persuasion and she clearly enjoyed their company. Her first wedding to the artist G F Watts took place when she was just sixteen, when he was over twice her age. The marriage was sadly not to last, being over in around a year, but during that time Watts painted some beautiful portraits of his wife.  

She had an affair with the architect and designer Edward Godwin, with whom she had two children,. She then married the actor and journalist, Charles Kelly. She also conducted an infamous affair of letters with the writer George Bernard Shaw ~ and then married again at sixty, this time to man who was half her age.

Today, the shimmering glory of the Lady Macbeth dress has been restored for public view. Funded by the National Trust, Zenzie Tinker of Brighton strengthened the original fabric’s structure, with many of its beetle wings being carefully reattached. Those that had broken were repaired using Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. The remainder were donated by a generous antiques dealer.

The conserved garment is now on display at Smallhythe Place in Kent, the home in which Ellen Terry died in 1928.

Sadness - Ellen Terry aged 16, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron

For other VV posts related to Ellen Terry ....



Victoria Woodhull 1838-1927

The VV has been musing on the life of Victoria Woodhull – who was (although few have heard of her now) the very first woman who made a bid to stand for the American presidency, as far back as 1872. 

Not that her attempt met with success. At that time women had no legal vote and, on the day of Grant’s re-election his female rival was safely imprisoned on charges of libel and pornography. But, what had preceded such ignominy?
Victoria's was a sensational life.  She was born in Ohio in 1838 and during her early years was part of the family's travelling medicine show. Always having a talent to draw a crowd, the little girl would preach and tell fortunes, even claiming the power to cure all ills while her father – the one-eyed Reuben ‘Buck’ Claflin – stood at the back of his wagon and sold bottles of his opium-based Life Elixir.

Buck Claflin in old age

At the age of fourteen Victoria fell ill, driven to the point of exhaustion after being deliberately starved by Buck as a means of enhancing  her spiritual ‘visions’. She later claimed that her father had sexually abused her when he was drunk, even trying to sell her as a whore. But then, during her convalescence, she was wooed by another shameless fraud: the apparently well-to-do doctor who was known as Canning Woodhull.
Canning, who was then twenty-eight, asked for Victoria’s hand in marriage, which offered the girl a means of escape from her father’s tyrannical grasping ways. But, once again she was misused. Her ‘Doc’ was no more than a worthless quack, an opium addict and womaniser. Unable to support his child bride, he was so drunk at the birth of their son that Victoria very nearly died, and blamed her husband evermore for the boy’s severe mental impairments.
When contemplating returning to Buck, Victoria came to realise that her place in the family ‘enterprise’ had been usurped by her sister, Tennessee. So, with husband and idiot son in tow she made her way to San Francisco ... where she hoped to realise a dream. 

As a small child, Victoria claimed to have had a vision in which the spirit of the Greek orator, Demosthenes, foretold of a glorious destiny in which she would grow up to lead the American people – a position that she was destined to hold in a city of water, and ships, and gold. 

San Francisco seemed to fit the bill, being the scene of the gold rush and also a sea port town. But dreams of success were soon to be crushed. While Canning spent every cent he owned in opium dens and on prostitutes Victoria was left with little choice but to support her family, working as a cigar girl in a bar, as an actress, and probably a whore.
Returning at last to Ohio, rather than joining Buck’s latest venture (running a dubious hospital from which he advertised himself as ‘America’s King of Cancers), along with her sister Tennessee, Victoria worked as a spiritual healer – though many have since come to suspect that the sisters also provided a somewhat more physical sustenance. 

Colonel James Harvey Blood 

While in such trade Victoria met a certain Colonel James Harvey Blood; a glamorous civil war hero who shared her belief in ‘other realms’ and who also supported her ‘destiny’ as a future ruler of America.  Leaving his respectable life behind, as well as his wife and daughters, he joined Victoria and Tennessee when they set out to make their mark in New York – another city of gold and ships.

At first, times were very hard and the sisters' spiritualist business was bolstered by the selling of contraceptive devices to the prostitutes. Meanwhile, Blood was often absent, spending time with his brother’s newspaper business and learning the tricks of that trade – with the publishing of pamphlets and magazines deemed to be a vital means of spreading the word of Victoria’s aims when she set her cap at the presidency.

Cornelius Vandervilt

Before that, the bad penny Buck Claflin turned up. Having heard that the widowed Cornelius Vanderbilt – then the richest man in America – was seeking the services of mediums, he contrived a means of introducing his daughters to the gentleman. Matters rapidly progressed. Victoria became Vanderbilt’s personal  medium with ’the ‘spirits’ offering financial tips which, in reality, were gleaned from gossiping bankers in brothels. Tennessee became Vanderbilt’s mistress – a natural progression of events after performing her ‘magnetic healing’ and curing the 'old goat's' niggling complaints.

A contemporary newspaper cartoon of Victoria and Tennie as Wall Street traders

Generously rewarded, the sisters caused a public sensation by going on to set themselves up as Wall Street’s very first female brokers - an enterprise that brought further wealth. 

With the aid of Colonel Blood, they then founded a spiritualist newspaper. Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly became their political voice – a voice that reached a great many ears, for the religion of Spiritualism was at that time one with a massive following, and it also offered a platform from which women could express their views. 

Victoria Woodhull addressing the House Judiciary Committee

Holding spectacular salons, Victoria was soon courted by the Women’s Movement who supported her bid for the presidency. She lectured to enormous crowds, usually under the popular banner of universal suffrage and equal rights. She even travelled to Washington where she was to petition the House at a Judiciary Committee in 1871.

It was all going rather well until the plans started to fall apart. With Buck’s criminal antics raked up by the press along with tales of her dubious past, ‘The Woodhull’ was soon being demonised as no less than ‘Mrs Satan’. A crippling series of court cases followed which led to her being sued and imprisoned time and time again. And her outspoken thoughts regarding 'free love' went on to cause yet more offence when it was revealed that she'd had an affair with the press man, Theodore Tilton.

Theodore Tilton

It was a complicated liaison. Tilton's wife had been sexually involved with a popular married clergyman whose name was Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher in turn had sworn to support Victoria's political campaign, but when the man had second thoughts Victoria then sought revenge by exposing his adultery, only to find herself immersed in the ‘Trial of the Century’.  

Beecher was to emerge unscathed, but the Tiltons were socially disgraced, and Victoria had been portrayed as a promiscuous pornographer. Her life and ambitions were ruined – politically, personally, and financially.

It was Vanderbilt who brought some salvation. When the old man died his heirs were keen to hush up the millionaire's immoral past. Victoria and Tennessee were given a generous settlement and with this they travelled to England, settling in London - another city of gold and ships in which they then reinvented themselves. Leaving their lovers and scandals behind, along with all dreams of the presidency, they still attained some degree of success. 

Victoria and John Biddulph Martin - happy and 'respectable' at last

Tenessee married a viscount and was afterwards known as Lady Cook. Victoria married John Biddulph Martin, a bachelor merchant banker and a man of considerable personal wealth. When widowed she was heartbroken, withdrawing to the Martin's country estate. But she  didn't  exactly give up on life! She became a passionate motorist, and founded an agricultural college dedicated to training women. She also funded a village school, and a famous country club – at which even Edward, the Prince of Wales, was said to be a visitor.

The VV wonders how Victoria felt when, at the age of eighty, universal suffrage was finally won – when the 'modern' world had all but forgotten the woman who'd caused a national sensation, after which she was known as the wife of the devil, and all but in exile when she died. 

For herself, she left these poignant words: ‘You cannot understand a man’s work by what he has accomplished, but by what he has overcome in accomplishing it.’

In her own way, and by her own means, Victoria Woodhull achieved a great deal. She was one of those brave Victorians who lived in a time when a woman was seen as no more than a man's possession. She paved the way for equality – though who knows if her ultimate hope will come true, when a woman will stand in the White House as the President of America.

For a related post: THE TRIAL OF THE CENTURY

The VV has hardly scratched the surface of Victoria Woodhull's amazing life. Should any readers wish to investigate further there is a wealth of information on the web. As far as books are concerned, Other Powers by Barabara Goldsmith is an excellent resource which gives a full and well-researched view of  relevant historical events at the time. Mary Gabriel's Notorious Victoria is another fine investigation. And, for younger historians, Kathleen Krull's A Woman for President is a good starting point which has the added bonus of being brought to vibrant life by Jane Dyer's watercolour illustrations. 



Salt prints are the earliest photographs that still exist today, having first been presented in Britain in 1839. The technology very soon moved on, but where the salt prints are concerned the photographs are ‘captured’ via paper coated in silver salts which is then made sensitive to light.

Study of China, 1844. By Henry Fox Talbot

Henry Fox Talbot first had the idea of ‘drawing’ a picture in such a way while sketching on his honeymoon. On returning home to Lacock Abbey, he soon set about experimenting and the negative images he made were then exposed onto other sheets, using direct sunlight to create a positive image. 

Abbey Ruins by John Wheeley Gough Gutch, circa 1858

The results were almost like paintings with a soft interplay between light and shade creating such stunning photographs that then inspired many more to make light pictures of their  own. And, when seen in reality, rather than here on the blog, the pictures are incredibly fine in detail, tone and contrast.

Jean-Baptiste Frenet. Horse and Groom. 1855

Variations on such a portable method of recording people, buildings, and art, soon spread through Europe and beyond. This was also the age of steam, with ships and trains enabling explorers and artists to move around more easily than they could before.

La Porte Rouge, Notre Dame by Louis Desire Blanquart-Evrard. 1851

Eventually the process was modified and developed by the Frenchman, Louis-Desire Blanquart-Evrard, who first found a way producing prints in mass quantities for a public trade. And then, a few years later, he went on to invent an entirely new process; with the albumen method of making prints soon replacing the salt and silver one. 

So, only for a short span of time was the salt print method popular. And from now, until this coming June, you can view some of the finest examples which are currently being exhibited in the galleries of Tate Britain.

For related posts on photography, please see —