Thursday, 2 June 2016

Valerie Susan, Lady Meux

Portrait of Lady Meux is a name given to several full-length portraits by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Valerie Susan Meux, née Langdon, (1847 – 1910) was a Victorian socialite and the wife of the London brewer, Sir Henry Meux (pronounced "Mews"). She claimed to have been an actress, but was apparently on the stage for only a single season. She is believed to have met Sir Henry at the Casino de Venise in Holburn, where she worked as a banjo-playing barmaid and prostitute under the name Val Reece.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an American expatriate and one of the most accomplished portraitists of his time. However, the artist had become bankrupt in 1879, following his lawsuit against the critic John Ruskin.

In 1881, Lady Meux offered Whistler his first significant commission after the bankruptcy. Her full-length portrait, known as Arrangement in Black, No. 5 (Portrait of Lady Meux) now hangs in the Honolulu Museum of Art. It shows her dressed in black with a long white fur coat, diamond tiara, diamond necklace, and diamond bracelet. Reportedly, the painting was commended by Edward VII of the United Kingdom (then Prince of Wales) and Princess Alexandra, when they saw it in the artist’s studio. The painting was also exhibited in the 1882 Paris Salon, where it was enthusiastically received.

Whistler painted a second portrait of Lady Meux in 1881 called Harmony in Pink and Grey (Portrait of Lady Meux) which belongs to the Frick Collection in New York City. This full-length portrait shows the subject on stage standing before a pinkish-grey curtain, in an obvious allusion to her alleged stage career. She wears a light grey dress trimmed in pink satin. The butterfly emblem that Whistler used as a signature is on the right side of the painting a little below the middle. Whistler assigned many of his paintings titles with terms like “arrangement” and “harmony”, which may be interpreted as either musical or abstract.

A third painting known as Portrait of Lady Meux in Furs was also commenced in 1881. This canvas was probably destroyed by the artist in a dispute with the sitter, however a photograph of it exists in the Whistler Archives, University of Glasgow, Scotland. Both the Honolulu painting and the destroyed painting belong to a series of “black portraits”, paintings Whistler executed at various stages of his career in a palette dominated by black.

Valerie Susan, Lady Meux, (1847 – 1910) was a Victorian socialite and the wife of Sir Henry Meux, 3rd Baronet (1856 - 1900), a London brewer.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler painted three portraits of Lady Meux in 1881. The portraits were the first full-scale commissions to be given to Whistler following the notorious Ruskin trial, which had left him financially bankrupt. Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux currently belongs to the Frick Collection in New York City, Arrangement in Black: Lady Meux belongs to the Honolulu Museum of Art while the third portrait, Portrait of Lady Meux in Furs, is believed to have been destroyed by Whistler after he became outraged over a comment made to him by Lady Meux during a sitting.

Never accepted by her husband's family or by polite society, she was a flamboyant and controversial figure, who was given to driving herself around London in a high phaeton, drawn by a pair of zebras. Their house at Theobalds in Hertfordshire was lavishly improved and enlarged; additions included a swimming pool and an indoor roller skating rink. In 1887, at Lady Meux's request, the dismantled Temple Bar was purchased from the City of London Corporation, transported to Hertfordshire and carefully rebuilt as a new gateway to the estate. She often entertained in the upper chamber of the gateway. Guests included the Prince of Wales and Winston Churchill. Sir Henry died in 1900, without issue, ten years before she would die.

Lady Meux also owned a string of race horses, racing them under the assumed name of Mr. Theobolds. As an owner she was not greatly successful, but she won the Sussex Stakes with Ardeshir in 1897. She was also a noted collector of ancient Egyptian artifacts; the legendary Egyptologist Wallis Budge, published a catalogue of more than 1,700 of her items including 800 scarabs and amulets. He dedicated his publication, The Book of Paradise, to her. She tried to leave the collection to the British Museum, but the trustees declined the bequest and it was sold. She also acquired five illustrated Ethiopic manuscripts, and Budge published a colored facsimile of them. On finding that they were revered by the Ethiopians, she left them in her will to Emperor Menelik. The courts set aside this provision, ostensibly, to keep them in Britain - and they were sold to William Randolph Hearst, of California.

During the Second Boer War, the early British reverses had made headline news and the defence of Ladysmith had made a particular impression on Lady Meux. On hearing of the landing of naval guns for the Battle of Ladysmith,[8] she had ordered, at her own expense, six naval 12-pounders on special field carriages made by Armstrong of Elswick. The guns were sent directly to Lord Roberts in South Africa, because they had been refused by the War Office. They were known as the "Elswick Battery", and were manned by the 101st (Northumbrian) Regiment Royal Artillery (Volunteers). The battery was in action several times, including the Second Battle of Silkaatsnek.

Sir Hedworth Lambton
A caricature of Captain Hedworth Lambton published in Vanity Fair, 1900.

When Sir Hedworth Lambton, the commander of the Naval Brigade at Ladysmith, returned to England, he called on Lady Meux at Theobalds to thank her for her gift and recount his adventures. She was so taken with him that she made him the chief beneficiary of her will, on condition that he change his surname to Meux (she was without direct heirs). When she died on 20 December 1910, he willingly changed his name by Royal Warrant, and inherited the Hertfordshire estate and a substantial interest in the Meux Brewery.

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