Saturday, February 16, 2013

London was Home to Henry James and John Singer Sargent

by Mary F. Burns

I grew up in love with England. Even before the Beatles showed up on the scene, I’d been reading about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and I longed to visit Camelot and Stonehenge and the Tower of London. Mary Stewart’s deep and imaginative rendering of the Arthurian legend through the eyes of Merlin—from young boy to ancient spirit of the woods—was a constant inspiration and delight. In college, I read Jane Austen for the first time, and I also fell deeply in love with Henry James—probably the most prominent American to love England so much he ultimately became a citizen of that country on 26 July 1915, about six months before he died, as a declaration of loyalty to his adopted country and in protest against America's refusal to enter the war. James lived in London for many years, was a member of the Reform Club (which I visited in 1993—they were finally allowing ladies in for luncheon), and settled in Rye, at Lamb House, which is a National Trust property.

In 1999, I came across the paintings of John Singer Sargent at a huge exhibition in Washington, D.C. and found that he was another American who lived most of his life in Europe and especially in England, after 1884 until his death in 1925. I was overwhelmed by his stunning, enormous portraits, and vowed I would write a novel about him. While conducting research about Sargent, I discovered that he not only knew Henry James, but also that James was an active patron of the young painter, and was very influential in persuading him to leave Paris and come to live in London. I had no trouble imagining why these men preferred England (or Europe) to America. James’s novels are the quintessential exploration of the differences between the Old and the New Worlds, usually as seen through the eyes of a fresh, young, innocent American who comes upon the landscape of the tired, cynical and sinful Europeans who both misunderstand and underestimate the newcomer. But it’s clear that James nonetheless admires those very cynics, those inveterate, experienced sinners, and is convinced there is much to learn from them, and knowledge to be gained that one simply cannot get in the United States. (Just read The Ambassadors!) Sargent, on the other hand, was actually born in Florence, Italy—his parents were the ex-patriates, especially his mother, who vastly preferred Europe to American, and rarely went back home to Boston, despite her husband's longing to do so.

Sargent spoke five languages, was a talented musician and obviously a brilliant artist. He settled in Paris after his art training, when he was in his early twenties, and he intended to stay there—but scandalous circumstances in 1884 made it impossible for him to earn a living in Paris, so he fled to London and was assisted by Henry James and other friends in making himself known to potential clients. He eventually rented a studio on Tite Street in Chelsea, just north of the River Thames. In the late 19th century, Tite Street was a favored and fashionable location for people of an artistic and literary disposition. Sargent’s residence was at No. 31 and his studio at No. 33, formerly the studio of James McNeill Whistler. Other famous people who lived at Tite Street at the time were Oscar Wilde and Edwin Austin Abbey.

In a way similar to the experience of the Impressionists in Paris, whose paintings were rejected so thoroughly by the academic Salon held every year that they started their own gallery (helped by wealthy friends) to exhibit their “plein air” paintings, the upstart artists in London were enormously assisted by the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 by Sir Coutts Lindsay and his wife Blanche (née Rothschild). Initially, the Grosvenor was a showcase for the works of the Pre-Raphaelite painters—such as Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Walter Crane, whose paintings were not approved by the Royal Academy of Art for its annual exhibition. Unlike both the Royal Academy and especially the French Salon, the Grosvenor approached art exhibitions in a completely new way, placing several works by an artist in the same room, arranged with ample space and natural lighting to help the viewer appreciate the works as part of a whole style or way of painting.

In 1877, a famous incident occurred there when the art critic John Ruskin visited the gallery, where an exhibition of paintings by Whistler was on display. Ruskin's savage review of Whistler's work led to a long-drawn-out libel case between the two men. Sadly, although Whistler won the case, the judge awarded him a mere farthing in damages, leaving the American artist bankrupt and bitter. But the case made the gallery famous as the home of the Aesthetic movement, which was satirized in Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical Patience, a play about the folly of chasing fads, which includes the line, “A pallid and thin young man, A haggard and lank young man, A greenery-yallery, Grosvenor Gallery, Foot-in-the-grave young man!”

Henry James wrote essays on art criticism for both London and New York magazines, and frequently attended the Grosvenor Gallery, where in 1882, Sargent exhibited three Venetian studies, of which James spoke highly. A large and brilliant portrait by Sargent titled “Dr. Pozzi at Home” was exhibited the same year at the Royal Academy—James referred to it as “splendid” and, comparing it to two portraits of Cardinals (Manning by Watts, and Newman by Millais), wrote that “Sargent’s flamboyant physician out-Richelieus the English Cardinals, and is simply magnificent.” An English friend of Sargent’s, Violet Paget (whose pen name was Vernon Lee), wrote to a friend about this portrait: “I went to the Academy, poor stuff for the most part, but John’s red picture, tho’ less fine than his Paris portrait, magnificent, of an insolent kind of magnificence, more or less kicking other peoples pictures to bits.”

As in Paris, Sargent was able to straddle both the accepted and the new worlds of art in London, too. He became so in demand by the London aristocracy and wealthy merchant class that his popularity was depicted in a cartoon by the famous Max Beerbohm, showing wealthy female clients lined up at his door, and Sargent peering warily out the window at them. By the early 1900’s, Sargent was thoroughly tired of portraiture, and as he’d earned vast amounts of money in the previous decades, he spent more time painting landscapes, or more “impressionistic” figures in landscapes. A great way to take a look at hundreds of Sargent paintings is visit the online site .

John Singer Sargent died on April 14, 1925, and is buried in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey. Henry James died on February 28, 1916, and is buried in Cambridge Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A little about me:

Mary Burns lives in San Francisco with her husband Stu. She is a member of and reviewer for the Historical Novel Society, and she is on the planning board for the North American HNS Conference to be held in St. Petersburg, Florida in mid-June, 2013. Her novel Portraits of an Artist, about John Singer Sargent, is available online and in bookstores from Sand Hill Review Press (ISBN: 9781937818128). Please visit her blog at, on her Facebook Author Page, or at Goodreads.

N.B.—A Giveaway of a copy of Portraits of an Artist will be posted on this blog for the week of February 25th.


  1. Art and history go hand in hand like gloves. A work of art inspires, teaches and often lifts the spirits but contemporary art has always caused a stir, often to the detriment of the artist. The result of a negative critic is a sobering thought in books too! An interesting post

  2. What an excellent read! I love it when I go to bed knowing I learnt something new during the day, and thanks to you I most certainly did today. While not unfamilar with either James or Sargent,I had no idea they knew each other.

  3. I am now planning a trip to DC for John Singer Sargent! Thank you! This was great!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.