During his later career, particularly in the 1880s when his reputation was at its height, Burne-Jones was often asked to paint portraits. It was not an art form he relished. He had the highest standards, claiming that portraiture should be 'the expression of character and moral quality, not of anything, temporary, fleeting, accidental'. There was also the problem of reconciling the demands of 'likeness' with his own very clearly perceived aesthetic ideal. 'I do not easily get portraiture', he wrote, 'and the perpetual hunt to find in a face what I like, and leave out what mislikes me, is a bad school for it'. Given these two imperatives, it is not surprising that he was often most successful when painting his own family and friends or those who conformed to his particular vision, namely children and young girls.
Gertie Lewis was the second child and elder daughter of George Lewis, the most famous solicitor of the day, and his wife, Elizabeth. Born in 1833, the same year as Burne-Jones, Lewis came from a Sephardic Jewish family that had probably emigrated to England from the Netherlands in the eighteenth century. Excluded from Oxford and Cambridge on account of his religion, he entered University College, London, as a schoolboy, in 1847, joining his father's firm of Lewis and Lewis three years later. He soon gained a reputation for exceptional shrewdness and ability, making his name by representing the relatives of the poisoned Charles Bravo in the so-called Balham Mystery of 1876; and from then on for some thirty years he was involved in nearly every cause célèbre that came to court in London. Though a genial, kindly man, he was prepared to fight ruthlessly for his clients, drawing on all the resources of his formidable intuition, an unrivalled knowledge of criminal records, and a network of underworld contacts at home and abroad which gave him something of the status of a private detective. His services were particularly sought in connection with society scandals. The strong-room at his offices in Ely Place, Holborn, was a legendary repository of secrets, and he refused to write his memoirs or even to keep a diary, boasting that 'when I die the confidences of London society die with me'. Inevitably he became associated with the Prince of Wales, extricating him from the embarrassing Tranby Croft baccarat affair (1890-91) and advising him in other cases where his mistresses, horse-racing and gambling were involved. Lewis's greatest public service was performed in connection with the Parnell Commission, when he exposed the forger Pigott, and for this Gladstone gave him a knighthood in 1893. In later years - by now a famous figure, whose side-whiskers, eyeglass and perennial fur coat were a gift to the caricaturists - he devoted much of his time to overdue reforms in criminal law, one of his major concerns being the injustices of divorce. At the Coronation of 1902 he was created a baronet by a King who had good reason to be grateful for his services.
Lewis married twice. His first wife died in 1865 and a year later he married Elizabeth Eberstadt, the third of five daughters of Ferdinand Eberstadt of Mannheim. Eleven years younger than her husband, she was blessed with good looks, great strength of character, boundless energy and a genius for friendship. Graham Robertson, who knew her well, described her as 'a strange woman... with a wonderful gift of sympathy and understanding. I would as soon take her opinion of a man as anyone's. (She doesn't know so much about women)'. Elizabeth came from a highly cultured background and was passionately devoted to the arts. As Max Beerbohm wrote when she died, 'good books, good plays, good pictures and, above all, good music were for her no mere topics of conversation, but vital needs of her nature'. George Lewis, whose work often brought him into contact with the stage, gave her every support, supplying the necessary financial resources and enjoying playing the genial host.
The Lewises were already entertaining artists during the early years of their marriage, but it was when they moved to 88 Portland Place in 1876 that Elizabeth's career as a hostess took wing, and she was able to launch a salon on the grand scale. A glance at the books in which she kept a record of her dinner guests reveals an astonishing galaxy of talent: Burne-Jones, Whistler, Du Maurier, Alma-Tadema, Sargent, Sullivan, Paderewski, Rubinstein, Sarasate, Joachim, George Henschel, Browning, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, J.M. Barrie, Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Lillie Langtry - these are only some of the more famous names. Nor were they by any means mere social trophies. Wilde's letters to Elizabeth during his tour of America in 1882 show with what affection and gratitude he regarded the Lewises, and Whistler, who was among the most prickly of men, remained a close friend for years, George representing him when he was declared bankrupt after his libel action against Ruskin in 1878. Famous musicians and actors gladly took part in the Lewises' entertainments, and Sargent executed portraits of both George and Elizabeth.
But by far the closest of these artistic friendships was with Burne-Jones, his wife and children (fig. 1). How and when the two families met is unclear, but they were on intimate terms by the late 1870s, and from then on the artist was a frequent visitor to Portland Place and Ashley Cottage, the Lewises' country retreat at Walton-on-Thames. He sought George's help over legal matters and wrote constantly to Elizabeth, relying on her for sympathy and practical advice. Perhaps he was a little in love with her, as he was with so many of his women friends. Certainly after his death she destroyed many of his letters, considering them too intimate to survive.
George Lewis's eldest child, Alice, was the daughter of his first wife. By Elizabeth he had three children: George, born in 1868, who was to take over the firm and inherit the baronetcy; Gertrude (or Gertie), born in 1871; and Katherine (Katie), born in 1878. These two girls were not only seven years apart in age but very different in character. As a child Gertie was gentle, pretty, intelligent and sympathetic. Katie, on the other hand, was alarmingly precocious, strong-willed and high-spirited. Oscar Wilde, writing to Elizabeth from Boston in June 1882, when Katie was still only four, called her 'that trenchant critic of life'. In another letter from Chicago he wrote that he had heard that she had 'ceased to be the modern Nero and is now angelic, and gives up to Gertie. If she does, I no longer adore her; her fascinating villainy touched my artist soul'. It is probably significant that Gertie had enjoyed a few years of quiet domestic life before her mother's career as a salonnière took off with the move to Portland Place in 1876, while Katie was born two years after the move and was thus pitched straight into a world bristling with intellectual stimulation.
Within that world the sisters played different roles. Gertie aroused protective feelings among her mother's many lions, notably Burne-Jones, George Meredith, Henry James, J.M. Barrie and Oscar Wilde; Katie diverted them with her sharp little sayings and gift for repartee. Both sisters were the recipients of letters from their circle of older admirers, and in Burne-Jones's case these were invariably illustrated with engagingly whimsical drawings (figs 2-3). Those he sent to Katie, a particularly remarkable series in which he often seems to be speaking both to the child and her parents at different levels of awareness, are now in the British Museum and have twice been published.
Burne-Jones painted several portraits of the sisters as young girls. He also drew their mother, although the painting of her projected in 1882 was never carried out. The best-known of these likenesses is the highly unconventional full-length of Katie, showing her lying on her tummy absorbed in a book, with a pekinese curled up at her feet. Dated 1886, the picture was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery the following year and sold in these Rooms on 14 July 2000.
The present painting, which remains slightly unfinished and was certainly never exhibited, was probably a gift from the artist to the Lewises, as indeed was the full-length of Katie. It would appear to date from about 1879-80, which probably makes it the earliest of all the Lewis portraits by Burne-Jones. This date is suggested partly by the apparent age of the sitter, who would have been eight or nine at the time, and partly by the style. There is a distinct relationship with the head studies in oil that (somewhat unusually) Burne-Jones made for the well-known Golden Stairs (Tate Gallery), exhibited at the Grosvenor in 1880.
Burne-Jones painted a second portrait of Gertie in 1883, when she was twelve. Showing her in profile to left and rather dark in tonality, it seems to show the influence of Leonardo and his Milanese followers. Certainly it is a much more formal perfomance than the present picture. It was included in the Arts Council's Burne-Jones Exhibition in 1975-6, no. 239.
In 1902, at the age of thirty, Gertie made a late marriage to Theodore Birnbaum (changed to Burney in 1914). Her engagement produced a stream of letters from family friends. Ellen Terry dashed off a couple of pages, quoting Shakespeare; Kate Perugini, Dickens's daughter, wrote with affection; and Henry James penned a characteristic missive to Elizabeth: 'I really feel, tell her - but no, I shall tell her this myself - like an uncle, a very aged cousin, or, better still, a miraculously preserved grandparent. But does Mr Birnbaum really know? -, I mean, our young friend's exquisite value. If he ... has even a moderate intelligence of what he has done for himself - a cool, calm, calculating, penetrating intelligence - he's a more remarkable young man than I myself today mostly find the species, and I'm tranquille for ever about him'.
Although the two sisters remained close to one another, they were to lead very different lives. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Katie never married. As a child she seems to have been more than a little spoilt, and in later life, rich, witty, and self-centred, she may well have deterred suitors. After her father's death in 1911 she continued to live in Portland Place with her mother, to whom she was devoted. Then when Elizabeth died in 1931 she moved to Evelyn Gardens, South Kensington, before settling in the Costwold village of Broadway during the Second World War. She never lost her vitality and personal magnetism, and continued to attract the talented and famous until the end of her life. Her great love was Bernard Berenson, with whom she conducted a lively and flirtatious correspondence from 1914 until his death in 1959. When she herself died two years later, she stipulated in her will that his letters to her should be burnt, although hers to him survive.
Gertie and her husband often came to Portland Place to enjoy Elizabeth's dinners and parties. Their first child, Susan, was born in 1904, followed by a second daughter, Rachel, two years later, and a son, Anthony, in 1911. Then, just after the First World War had ended, tragedy struck. Theo's firm, the Gramophone and Typewriter Company (later HMV) went bankrupt, and he committed suicide.
Gertie's life changed completely. Withdrawing from society, apart from her immediate family and closest friends, she devoted herself to her children. Unlike Katie, she was naturally austere. She never kept a good table, and her idea of a summer holiday was a few weeks on the rainy Belgian coast with nothing stronger to drink than mineral water. Nonetheless, she, like Katie, had inherited her mother's love of music and art. Her home was a treasure-house of beautiful paintings and furniture, and the novels of her old friend Henry James were a constant solace.
In her quiet way, too, Gertie was as strong a character as Katie. After she was widowed she took charge of her own financial affairs, although she tended to rely on Katie for advice on such major decisions as buying a house or choosing Anthony's career. Both sisters remained strict Victorian moralists, and both took the keenest interest in Lewis family affairs. Susan married Seymour Karminski, a young barrister who was to become a Lord Justice of Appeal. Anthony became a chartered accountant, and was knighted for his work on a number of Government Commissions. Rachel, though lively and charming, never married. She died of leukaemia in 1956, only a year after her mother and five years before Katie, whose death in 1961 bought the story of the Lewis sisters to an end.