Find the Lady
We were contacted by the Senior Curator of the Kimbell Museum in Austin Texas asking us to help him establish the location of this portrait of May Sartoris who lived in Westbury House in East Meon in the 1860s
Follow the story as we use clues in the painting to come to no particular conclusion …
Malcolm Warner, Senior Curator of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, asked for help in establishing where this splendid portrait was painted. It was painted in around 1860 by Sir Frederick Leighton, the celebrated Victorian painter who had strong links with the pre-Raphaelites.
The painting features May Sartoris who lived at the time with her family in Westbury House (the westernmost property in the parish of East Meon, despite the fact that it borders West Meon). They rented the property from Viscount Gage, the descendant of a distinguished Irish peerage who owned a great deal of the Meon Valley.
Malcolm Warner asked for help in identifying the two buildings featured – the mill at the top right of the painting and the church at May’s right shoulder. He wanted to establish where May would have stood for the painting to be made.
The Sartoris family was colourful. May’s mother Adelaide was one of the illustrious theatrical family, the Kembles, and one of the greatest opera singers of her time. Adelaide and her wealthy husband Edward lived at Westbury as tenants from 1859 to 1863, in which year they inherited the nearby Warnford Park and moved there. Adelaide was a great hostess and friend of many of the great artistic, literary and musical figures of their age – including Robert Browning … and Frederick Leighton.
There are two buildings in the painting. The windmill on the hill was almost certainly Marland’s Mill – which sits on a hill a mile north of the village and which couldn’t be seen from Westbury House.
The second building is the tower of a church. It is harder to establish which church this might be. It is certainly not the church of East Meon . The present church of West Meon was built after Leighton painted this portrait. In the grounds of Westbury are the ruins of St Nicholas chapel which is reputed to be 13th century in origin. It is much smaller and ruinous today than at the time of the painting. Our colleagues in West Meon have found reference to the chapel being restored in the 1790’s or thereabouts for use by the family of the third Viscount Cage. However, it is a small building and would never have had a square tower.
It is most likely that the church tower is that of West Meon’s previous church. There is no viewpoint from which Marlands Mill and West Meon Church could have been seen together (still less St Nicholas Chapel) so it is most likely that Leighton painted May first, then walked around the neighbourhood with his easel, filling in the background from items which caught his fancy,
Malcolm Warner wrote to us: “I’m thinking, somewhat reluctantly, that I’ll have to say that Leighton composed a background for the portrait based generally on the landscape in your area but not showing any particular view. Isn’t that the conclusion we’ve reached?”
The Gage family later sold Westbury House; the original building was burned down in a dramatic fire in 1904 ((Click here for an account in The Times of the fire,) It was rebuilt at considerable expense, became a preparatory school for boys, and is today a nursing home for patients with head injuries.