Philip de László was one of the most famous and cosmopolitan portrait painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and perhaps the last heir of the grand manner, as recently seen at the Van Dyck in Britain exhibition at Tate Britain, where de László's portrait of Mrs Sandys hung between Lord Dalhousie and Almina Wertheimer by Sargent.
The present portrait was commissioned by the sitter's husband, Francis Gull, in the spring of 1916, but it was not until the following year that de László completed this painting. The delay was probably due to her husband's being wounded in France in the summer of 1916.
A letter from Francis Gull dated 7 May 1917 reveals that he took up a £95 war loan to pay part of de László's honorarium,1 but judging by his wife's satisfaction with her portrait, it seems this sacrifice was justified. She thus wrote to de László to thank him: "I wish I could express to you what I think about the portrait but you must admit that the English language is capable only of limited expression & I mean more than can be said when I look at it. I do not somehow think of it as being me at all but just as a wonderful painting & a picture I love to look at. [...] If I did think of it as being myself I believe I might possibly become almost vain in time & forget my awful chin etc.! [...] I will have my husband to try and tell you himself what he feels about the picture. Being English though he will not succeed I feel sure! His delight could not be greater. I have to thank you for giving him such a great pleasure. It made him feel nearly well again to see it [...]."2
The pose and dress of the sitter here are strongly reminiscent of the portrait of Lady Redesdale, painted a year earlier by de László .
Elizabeth Renshaw was born on 29 January 1892, the youngest of the five children of Sir Charles Bine Renshaw, 1st Bt., of Sussex, and his wife Mary Home Stoddard, from Massachusetts, U.S.A. She was educated by governesses at home, becoming fluent in French and German and proficient in a wide range of subjects, including botany and astronomy. Elizabeth inherited from her artistic mother a talent for playing the piano, writing poetry, and painting. She also played the violin to a high standard, and had a passion for sports, notably riding and running.
In the summer of 1913, aged twenty-one, she fell in love with Francis William Lindley Gull (1889-1918), the son of Sir William Cameron Gull, who in October that year had to leave England to serve with the Rifle Brigade at Fort William in Calcutta. The following summer, Francis returned from India and on 4 September 1914 they were married. He was killed in action at Favreuil, Pas-de-Calais, on 26 August 1918. In the spring of 1919, his widow made two pilgrimages in very difficult conditions to visit the battlefields where he had fought. Although devastated by his death, her life gradually found a new pattern. She found a support in the Hon. Robert William Grenville (1892-1987), who had fought in Francis Gull's regiment, and who had also lost his spouse.
Their friendship grew stronger, and they eventually married on 16 December 1922 at the British Embassy in Rome, where Betty was then studying music and singing. They settled in Hammerwood, near Midhurst in Sussex, and had two sons, John Richard Bine (born 1927), and Gerard Wyndham (born 1931). When the Second World War broke out, William Morgan-Grenville worked as an executive in the war industry with Gloster Aircraft at the Hucclecote works, in Gloucestershire, where his family moved. For her part, Betty cultivated a waste area of land for food supplies, and worked in both the Citizen's Advice Bureau and a canteen. Whe the war was over, they returned to Hammerwood, which had been shut up in 1940. Elizabeth Morgan-Grenville never liked leaving her home, which was integral to her life, and where she entertained in great style. However, in 1959, she and her husband sold Hammerwood, which had become too large to run, to move over the Surrey border to Godalming. Elizabeth Morgan-Grenville died there ten years later, on 19 February, 1969.
Source: Morgan-Grenville, John, Bright Sunshine, Dark Shadows, privately printed, 1992.
We are grateful to Dr Caroline Corbeau for writing this catalogue entry, which is included in the Philip de László catalogue raisonné online (www.delaszlocatalogueraisonne.com).
The Hon. Mrs de Laszlo and Christopher Wentworth-Stanley are compiling the catalogue raisonné of the artist's work. Dr Caroline Corbeau is the British and French editor. Please see www.delaszloarchivetrust.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
1 DLA045-0037, op. cit.
2 DLA045-0039, op. cit.