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 Duchess of Argyll was a discerning fine arts connoisseur and gifted artist herself. In a letter to de László dated 12 May 1923, she wrote of his portrait of Princess Louise of Battenberg: "I think the portrait and painting splendid, but I think the composition is not quite harmonious", but added, "all the pictures of yours I have had the pleasure of seeing lately, I think beautiful, and it has been a very great pleasure to see how vigorous and telling your work is. I remember what an unsatisfactory gown I had when you painted my portrait. Perhaps you might wish to improve on this".1 As she had just agreed to lend her portrait for a major exhibition of de László's works at the French Gallery, on Pall Mall, she probably thought that this could be an opportunity for an alteration.
As a rule, de László refused to make alterations to portraits he was satisfied with,2 but in this case, it seems he made an exception. He subtly altered the neckline of her dress to make it more flattering, and also touched up her veil and right shoulder.
The first time this portrait was exhibited at the Northern Counties War Exhibition held at Newcastle-upon-Tyne during the First World War, disaster almost struck. The exhibition organisers failed to pay the rent for the Great Assembly Rooms on time, so the portrait was seized by bailiffs, and subsequently offered at auction in Newcastle, by Anderson & Garland. A gentleman, Kenneth Glover, recognised that the work was by de László, and acquired it for a mere £17, knowing that its value was at least £1000. After a great number of legal letters were exchanged, he nevertheless returned the work to the Princess for the £17 he originally paid, as an act of good grace.3 Despite this adventure, the sitter lent her portrait again, in 1923, to the French Gallery, when it was judged by many reviewers as one of the painter's outstanding works.
Princess Louise Caroline Alberta was born at Buckingham Palace on 18 March 1848, the 6th child and fourth daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. In 1871 she married John Douglas Sutherland, Marquess of Lorne (1845-1914), who succeeded his father in 1900 as the 9th Duke of Argyll. They had no children. From 1878 to 1883 Lord Lorne was Governor-General of Canada, and in honour of Princess Louise's stay there, Lake Louise in the Rocky Mountains was named after her.
Princess Louise, who was renowned for her wit and beauty, led with her husband a quiet and retiring life. They both enjoyed the same literary and artistic tastes and regularly entertained sculptor and artist friends such as Sir J.E. Boehm, Sir Alfred Gilbert, J. Seymour Lucas and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema at their home in Kensington Palace. The Princess was herself a talented artist and sculptress: she notably exhibited at the Royal Academy and at the Grosvenor Gallery. One of her best-known works is the marble statue of Queen Victoria in Kensington Gardens, by the Palace overlooking the Round Pond. She also made the monument to Prince Henry of Battenberg for Whippingham church, near Cowes, Isle of Wight, and designed the memorial in St. Paul's Cathedral to the Canadian soldiers who fell in the South African War. Princess Louise also wrote for magazines under the nom de plume of 'Myra Fontenoy'.
She was a patron of the Ladies' Work Society, which enabled poor women to earn a living from needlework, and with her strong encouragement the National Union for the Higher Education of Women was founded in 1872. She was its first president and is remembered for her influential work in the advancement of secondary education for girls. After the Duke's death in 1914, the Duchess lived a still more secluded life between London and Roseneath House in Dumbartonshire. In 1919 she was given the Colonelcy-in-Chief of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The Duchess died on 3 December 1929, at Kensington Palace in her ninety-second year.
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 a team of editors 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 DLA106-0130, op. cit.
2 Although in a number of cases, he happily added decorations to official portraits he had painted years before.
3 DLA046-0002 folder, op. cit.