'An entertaining and witty companion, who possessed a great power of enjoying life and making other people enjoy it with him'. Thus was John Frederic Symons Jeune (1849-1925) described in The Times in the month following his death (see Col. C.H. Headlam, M.P. 'J.F. Symons Jeune, An Appreciation', The Times, 19 February 1925, p. 14).
His career had been spent as an Officer in the Houses of Parliament and at the time this portrait was painted, in the latter half of 1915, Symons Jeune was Examiner of Standing Order for the Houses of Lords and Commons, and Chief Committee Clerk for the House of Lords. 'Few men can ever have had a wider experience or more intimate knowledge of the practice and procedures of parliament', declared Col. Headlam, M.P. in The Times, (op. cit). Symons Jeune is wearing Civil Uniform in accordance with his office, and has chosen to be depicted in Levee Dress rather than Full Dress uniform. One hand rests on a red chair, indicating his connection with the House of Lords. The circumstances of the commission are unknown but it was probably intended as a retirement portrait. Nicholson had just returned from India where he had been painting the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, and was also working on a portrait of Lord Peel, Chairman of the LCC (Guildhall Art Gallery).
John Frederic Jeune was born in 1849 into a family long established in Jersey. At the time of his birth his father Francis Jeune (1806-1868) was Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, and later Bishop of Peterborough. Both his father and elder brother Francis Henry Jeune (1843-1868), later Baron St Helier, were noted for their energy and organisational powers. As the result of a bequest from a maternal great uncle in 1878, John Frederic Jeune assumed the additional name of Symons. Aside from his parliamentary duties Symons Jeune was closely involved throughout his life with the Order of St John of Jerusalem in their humanitarian work. As a young man, soon after leaving school, he had gone to France as a volunteer with the British National Aid Society to help the sick and wounded in the Franco-Prussian War. In February 1916 he was made a Knight of the Order of St John, but since he is not shown wearing the decoration the portrait must have already been finished by this date. Garden design was another of his interests, an enthusiasm shared by his children. His son Capt. Bertram Hanmer Symons Jeune became an authority on rock gardens, while his daughter 'Dodo', Mrs Cecil Hanbury, created a notable garden at Kingston Maurward, Dorset (now Kingston Maurward College) where her father is known to have contributed. Through her husband's family she became involved in the Mediterranean gardens at La Mortola on the Italian Riviera. It was here in 1925 that Symons Jeune died after a short illness and was buried nearby. (La Mortola was subsequently given to the Italian Government).
Nicholson obviously found Symons Jeune a congenial sitter. There is a confidence in the handling and composition that must be linked to Nicholson's satisfaction at his return to England after his difficult stay at the Viceroy's court. The use of empty space is a striking feature recalling the earlier portrait of 'Sibbie' Hart-Davis, 1913 (private collection). The treatment of the gold braid on Symons Jeune's uniform is masterly, as one would expect, although it begs the question as to why he painted it so rarely. The area of the sword hilt and oak leaves on the pocket flap with the braided trouser strip is particularly successful. However, it is curious that he has deprived Symons Jeune of one of his buttons: levee uniform having a stipulated nine buttons whereas here there are only eight. More understandable is the omission of the gold insignia on the House of Lords chair (and the correct number of studs) for it needs only the colour of the chair for the viewer to make the connection with the Upper House. Yet amidst the urbane assurance of the sitter and these features of hierarchy and stability there is a strange note of tension in the thin gold chain of Symons Jeune's eyeglass. It is pulled taut - what if it should snap? The figure is already leaning forward into the empty space. As the War dragged on into its second year, Nicholson, who in India had seen at first hand the difficulties of government, may have thought to bring these tensions into his portrait of a humane and civilised man who had spent his life in the service of parliament.