An elegant, stylish portrait has an enduring appeal, capturing the mood of a moment, the essence of the sitter, as well as the artist’s vision and skill. Our forthcoming Scottish Paintings & Sculpture auction will bring together two striking early 20th century portraits with exactly this flair, Francis Boileau Cadell’s stylish, Portrait of Nan Ivory and Stanley Cursiter’s dramatic, The Red Dress.
It was originally thought that Cadell painted this elegant portrait of Nan Ivory as a wedding gift for the sitter’s new husband, the artist’s close friend and long-standing patron, Ted Stewart. However, since the appearence of the piece in the most recent issue of our magazine International View, new information has come to light. It has been revealed that before she married Ted Stewart in February 1916, Nan had been briefly engaged to another close friend of Cadell’s, James Hamilton-Henderson in 1914.
The family of Ted and Nan were unaware of the portrait and feel it unlikely that such a striking portrait of their grandmother would have voluntarily have left the family. Knowing that she was engaged previously, and particularly to a friend of Cadell’s, it seems now that the portrait may in fact have been a gift for her previous intended. It would also explain why it had left the original family; the moving on of a reminder of a union that was not to be.
The portrait features the soft, feathery brushstroke of Cadell’s pre-war technique, before he moved into a more design-focussed approach. The close-crop perspective and soft technique add a more personal, intimate feeling; this is a portrait of a known sitter, rather than the use of a model for dramatic effect. Still, the elegance we so strongly associate with Cadell is fully evident, in the sitter’s distant gaze, sweeping hat, fashionable jewellery and the artist’s confident handling of the paint.
In his Self-Portrait (Artist), c.1914, which features in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland, we can see Cadell turns this skill, though in a more sketchy hand, to the drama of a male portrait, and specifically a self-portrait of himself as an artist. He stands tall and looks confidently out at us, surrounded by both the tools and results of his work. The brushwork is free and suggestive, yet he still clearly conveys his strong presence and personality.
Cursiter’s The Red Dress dates from less than a decade later, yet times have changed; the cultural landscape is still reeling from the shock of the war. In response, Cursiter abandoned the drama of his more experimental painting to focus on portraits and his eternally popular conversation pieces, indulging in elegance, youth and beauty as a restorative balm to the horrors of war. There is a drama to the masterful balance of this minimal composition; the elegant model and bright, shiny fruit set against a deep, sumptuous background. The sitter looks directly and straightforwardly at us, while her informal dress allows the artist to reveal his talent with paint, depicting the many gathers, folds, lights and shadows of the loose, cascading fabric.
In another example of an elegant portrait by Cursiter, in The Lace Frock, he depicts his favourite model, Poppy Low. She wears a rather serious expression, as well as the glamourous dress referenced in the title, set dramatically against a deep, dark background, with added furnishing details: the edge of a heavy curtain, pretty, decorated chair, and crushed, draped fabric. Closer inspection of the picture reveals a lovely additional detail; the artist’s two tone signature, which changes colour as it works its way across the bottom left edge, from the black background to overlap the sitter’s light dress.
These two great Scottish artists were working in Edinburgh at the same time, and aware of each other’s work, but with no great affinity in style or approach. Yet these two offered portraits unite them: revealing the artists’ shared joy in beauty and elegance, both to view and to depict. It is a joy we viewers can share, a century later.