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Portrait of Sibyl, Lady Eden (1867-1945), née Grey, bust-length

Portrait of Sibyl, Lady Eden (1867-1945), née Grey, bust-length
oil on canvas
20 1/8 x 17 7/8 in. (51.2 x 45.5 cm.)
with Philip Wilson Steer at his death.
Acquired privately from the Steer Executors by the sitter’s son, R. Anthony Eden, Lord Avon.
D. Sutton, 'A Statesman's Collection', Apollo, no. 88, June 1969, p. 461, illustrated p. 460.
D.S. MacColl, Life, Work and Setting of Philip Wilson Steer, London, 1945, p. 197.
B. Laughton, Phillip Wilson Steer 1860-1942, Oxford, 1971, p. 137, no. 182.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Paintings and Drawings from the Collection of Lord Avon, 11 January–20 March 1966, no. 20.

Brought to you by

Benedict Winter
Benedict Winter Associate Director, Specialist

Lot Essay

It is possible that when he had begun the present head study of Lady Eden in 1896, Philip Wilson Steer realised that he risked being drawn into the dispute that was brewing between the sitter’s husband, Sir William Eden, and the notoriously prickly James McNeill Whistler.

Four years earlier, Steer’s friend, the writer, George Moore, had brought Eden and Whistler together for a commission that had gone spectacularly wrong. After months of negotiation, 150 guineas had been agreed for a watercolour portrait (Sutton, op. cit., p. 461). When the American artist actually produced a small oil painting, Eden took it upon himself to present him with a cheque for 100 guineas on 14 February 1894, referring to it as his ‘valentine’. Whistler took offence at this presumption, refused to release the painting and a lawsuit ensued. It resulted in the pugnacious painter retaining the picture, returning the payment, and publishing his account of the proceedings as Eden versus Whistler: The Baronet and the Butterfly in 1899. When the case was settled, he then proceeded to rework the little painting using a different sitter, whose face was eventually erased, leaving it in its present state (James McNeill Whistler, Brown and Gold, Portrait of Lady Eden, 1894-5, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, Birnie Philip Gift). No matter how much money changed hands, commissioned works were ‘kindly lent’ to their owners, according to Whistler. Sir William, in the meantime, produced his own version of the Whistlerian ‘arrangement’, as his personal tribute to his wife’s beauty (Sir William Eden, Study in Brown and Gold, c. 1895, Private Collection).

The ripple effects of this unsavoury debacle in which the American asserted the primacy of an artist’s right to his work, divided the art world and Steer, while he admired the painter in Whistler was wary of the person (MacColl, op. cit., pp. 36-7).

The original, innocent subject of this stand-off was Sybil Frances Grey (1867-1945), daughter of Sir William Grey, governor of Jamaica, who married William Eden, seventh Baronet of Windlestone Hall, West Auckland, County Durham in 1886. Eden was a gifted watercolourist who had taken instruction from Hubert von Herkomer and, following the success of the latter’s Miss Katherine Grant (The Lady in White), (sold Christie’s, London, 16 December 2021, lot 35), he obtained his wife’s portrait from his former teacher in 1888. By the time of his new Whistler commission, stipulated as a ‘sketch’, social occasions at the hall were providing the ideal opportunity for artists and aristocrats to mingle. The Edens’ Visitors’ Book, according to Max Beerbohm, was ‘a Debrett in MS’ (David Cecil, Max, A Biography, 1964, Constable, 1983 ed., p. 158). Moore, and his artist friends, led by Steer and Walter Sickert, in the New English Art Club circle, were occasional guests, and it was at the club that Eden began to exhibit his watercolours in the winter of 1896. It was clear to Whistler whose side they were on when Sickert performed (badly!) in amateur theatricals with Sybil and remarked that her husband was more than a mere amateur, but one who ‘can pass the jury of the New English …’ (Anna Gruetzner Robins ed., Walter Sickert, The Complete Writings on Art, Oxford, 2000, p. 159). Though he refused to read George Moore’s novels, Eden took his advice on matters of art and on one memorable occasion the writer counselled him to cancel his first refusal on works by Cezanne, with the words, ‘If you want to buy a picture, buy another Degas’. This was undoubtedly a reference to Blanchisseuses portant du linge, c.1878 (Private Collection), ‘my own immaculate Degas’, which hung above his desk at Windlestone (see Timothy Eden, The Tribulations of a Baronet, London, 1931, p. 152).

For Moore at this point, Steer, rather than Sickert, was the leading New English Impressionist. It is entirely possible, given their close friendship, that, as with Whistler, Moore might also have proposed the present portrait as he must have known that Eden already owned Steer’s important painting of Rose Pettigrew, Girl reclining on a Sofa, c.1889-1892 (Private Collection; B. Laughton, Philip Wilson Steer, London, 1971, p. 43). Nevertheless, the Whistler/Eden battle lines were drawn, and this may explain why the present sketch of Sybil Eden was unconfirmed in a more formal commission. Had the portrait developed into an exhibition piece we would, no doubt, have seen a fashionable dress, some expensive jewellery and a more elaborate setting – such as would be represented in John Singer Sargent’s Lady Eden, 1906 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, WP Wilstach Collection). As it is, there is the merest suggestion of a high Elizabethan-style collar framing the face, fur-trimmed at the neck, in Steer’s study - but this reading could well be debated.
Aesthetic probity in the portrait is assured by its low tones and swift, incisive handling. Unlike her adoring but combative husband, Sybil was friendly and informal, and while the trappings of status are presently omitted, true nobility is not. Lady Eden’s simple, attractive dignity is what Steer takes away from the encounter.

We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.

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