This charming portrait is a major rediscovery. Although exhibited at the Royal Academy on its completion, reproduced in Ernest Rhys's early monograph, and listed in Leonée and Richard Ormonds more recent study, it has totally escaped modern critical attention, having remained in the sitter's family and apparently not been re-exhibited since 1885. In pristine condition, it represents Leighton at the height of his career as an artist and about midway in his uniquely powerful presidency of the Royal Academy. It also affords a fascinating glimpse of patronage in the upper echelons of late Victorian society.
Lady Sybil Myra Caroline Primrose was the eldest child of Archibald Philip, 5th Earl of Rosebery, and his wife Hannah, only daughter and heiress of Baron Meyer Amschel de Rothschild. The Roseberys had married in 1878, Hannah bringing her already rich husband a fortune of some #2 million, including Mentmore and its treasures; and Sybil was born in September the following year. Her father was currently involved in his dramatic campaign to get Gladstone elected for Midlothian, an episode which established him as leader of the Liberals in Scotland. Sybil's portrait was probably painted in the winter of 1884-5, when she was five, its completion perhaps coinciding with another important event in her father's career, the fall of Khartoum in February, which bought him into the cabinet in Gladstone's second ministry. Hannah Rosebery died in 1890, and in March 1894 her husband succeeded Gladstone as Prime Minister. The portrait has a label on the back showing that it hung in the drawing room at 10 Downing Street during his fifteen-month premiership.
In later years Lady Sybil would describe herself in Who's Who as 'poet, writer, designer, and artist'; according to her Times obituary (26 February 1955, p.8), she was 'a striking figure, very fair, and to a serene and kindly disposition she added humour and a bright intelligence.' In 1903 she married Charles Grant, a young officer in the Coldstream Guards who had been wounded in the Boer War. He was to rise to the rank of General, being mentioned seven times in despatches during the Great War and seeing service in Egypt in the 1920s; he was knighted in 1934 and ended his distinquished military career as Governor of Edinburgh Castle (1937-40). During the 1914-18 War Sybil seems to have accompanied him to the front, editing the first weekly war newspaper, The Home Letter, for a company of his regiment. She also acted as an official photographer for the Admiralty, specialising in airships, about which she made films and wrote articles for the newspapers; the Glasgow Herald appointed her its Special Airship Correspondent in 1919. Inheriting her father's literary talent, she had published Samphire and The Chequer-Board, collections respectively of essays and short stories, in 1912. Four volumes of poetry were to follow (1913-22), as well as a novel (The Riding Light, 1926). This appeared under the pseudonym Neil Scot, which she adopted in memory of her brother Neil Primrose who was killed in action in 1917.
Lady Sybil had three country houses: Pitchford Hall, a magnificent timber-framed Elizabethan manor-house near Shrewsbury; Bearnock, in Glen Urquhart, which must have satisfied her 'lifelong love of Scotland'; and The Durdans, near Epsom, with its famous collection of pictures and books relating to racing, which she inherited from her father. Always unconventional, she had a passion for caravanning, and this gave her a keen interest in gypsies, particularly those who camped on Epsom Downs during Derby week. As the Times put it, 'as the chatelaine of The Durdans ... she was able to help her protégés in many ways, and she instituted the Carolus prize for the best-kept camping-ground on the Downs, which, she said, surpassed all expectations in the results achieved.' Having been active again in war work during the Second World War, she died in 1955, five years after her husband. One of her last literary productions was a song written a few months before her death as a tribute to the present Queen Mother.
Leighton's portrait of Lady Sybil is one of a number of family portraits commissioned by Lord Rosebery from leading artists of the day. He himself was painted by Millais (R.A., 1887) and G.F. Watts, (from 1892), and sculpted by Boehm (1886); Hannah was painted by Watts (1875) and Leighton (c.1880-81; Ormond, op.cit., pl.153), who also executed a posthumous portrait of her mother, Baroness Meyer de Rothschild (Ormond op.cit., p.165, no.281). Meanwhile Leighton and Millais shared the honours of painting the Rosebery children; for about the same time that Leighton painted Sybil, Millais executed a companion portrait of her younger sister Peggy (repr. J.G. Millais, op.cit., p.357). The two pictures were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1885, hanging as pendants in Gallery III. It is interesting that within a year Burne-Jones was painting his well-known portrait of Katie Lewis, the daughter of the famous solicitor, who was Jewish not just on one side of her family, like the Rosebery children, but on both. The picture (repr. Martin Harrison and Bill Waters, Burne-Jones, 1973, col. pl.38) is dated 1886 and was shown at the Grosvenor Gallery the following year. Although in a totally different idiom, it must have been painted with knowledge of the Roseberry portraits, and may be read as Burne-Jones's 'answer'.
Lord Rosebery's relations with the artists he patronised were warm. Boehm appears in a photograph of a house-party at Dalmeny in 1880; Watts received a letter from Rosebery on his eighty-fifth birthday. Millais was a 'dear friend' for whom Rosebery was happy to act as a pall-bearer. As for Leighton, he stayed at Dalmeny when painting Hannah's portrait, making a sketch of the Firth of Forth for the background (Ormond, op.cit., p.165, no.280), and after his death, when his studio in Holland Park was being established as Leighton House, Rosebery bought a drawing for the collection. It would be interesting to know more about the circumstances in which Lady Sybil was painted. Was the portrait executed in Leighton's studio or at the Roseberys' London house, 38 Berkeley Square? Was Rosebery as 'delighted' with it as he was with Millais' Lady Peggy; and did Lady Sybil and Leighton become as attached to one another as Millais and his little sitter, who sent him a tress of her hair as a souvenir (J.G. Millais, op.cit., pp.166-9)? All this is obscure. What we do have, however, is a sketch for the painting (British Museum; 1897-5-12-31). A typical Leighton drawing in black and white chalk on buff paper, it shows the composition well established, and certain details, such as the cushion and the ostrich-feather hat, in place. However, two important compositional elements, the doll and the bow on Lady Sybil's head, are missing, and must have been comparatively late additions.
When exhibited in 1885, Millais' and Leighton's portraits naturally evoked comparision. F.G. Stephens, writing in the Athenaeum, noted Peggy's 'bright sweet face' while characterising Sybil as a 'vivacious and wilful child'. Similarly, the Art Journal found Peggy 'merry [and] apple-faced..., in strong contrast with .. her sister, ... who, dressed in her best clothes, and in an elegant attitude, is playing decorously with her doll.' Such comments say as much about the artists as they do about the children portrayed. Peggy is seen as a typical Millais infant - big eyes, flowers clasped in a muslin skirt, hints of a sylvan landscape - while Sybil is treated with that dazzling sense of style which so often makes Leighton look more like a French than an English academic artist. His exhaustive continental training in the 1850s had, after all, culminated in three years' study in Paris, and he may have been encouraged to go there by his contemporary William Bouguereau, whose virtuoso manner is recalled by the brilliant handling of the silks and other details in the portrait of Lady Sybil. But the picture, though stylish, is not heartless. On the contrary, the empathy with children that Leighton, a lonely bachelor wedded to his work, frequently reveals in his painting, emerges here in a particularly telling form. The most familiar vehicle for this emotion was Connie Gilchrist, the child actress and dancer who posed for many of his pictures. She, however, is invariably distanced by a context of classical myth or historical genre. In Lady Sybil Primrose the artist's feeling for children is focused on a 'real' sitter to create one of the most arresting child-portraits in late Victorian art.