Oxford Brookes University is the most successful of the universities created from former polytechnics. This academic year saw the arrival of Professor Janet Beer to become the University’s first female vice-chancellor.
I hope she has many glittering years at Brookes before being marooned on our desert island with her favourite antique or work of art. Professor Beer’s choice reveals a major influence in her life.
“As a scholar of late 19th/early 20th century American literature and culture, and having an incurable obsession with the life and work of Edith Wharton, I have always felt powerfully drawn to the paintings of John Singer Sargent and in particular his portraits.
“So many of his subjects had a relationship with Edith Wharton, either they were her friends and acquaintances, or she knew about their lives and transformed the spirit – if not the letter – of those lives into her fiction.
“One of my special favourites – and a strong contender for the desert island slot – is Sargent’s 1913 portrait of Henry James, held in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
“James looks coolly askance from the frame. The portrait gives us Wharton’s cher Maître’ but it is the Master’ at the end of his life. Edith Wharton’s relationship with Henry James was central to her sense of herself as an artist, living the life she wanted to lead, among people who inspired her; when James died she wrote in a letter that: His friendship has been the pride and honour of my life.’ “Another friend of Edith Wharton painted by Sargent is the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt; the portrait, painted in 1903, hangs in the White House. She and the President were regular correspondents, he greeted her with the words: Well, I am glad to welcome to the White House someone to whom I can quote The Hunting of the Snark without being asked what I mean!’ “The portrait catches the big-stick carrying man of action at the turn of the staircase, ready to go – up or down – and clearly intolerant of the usual poses of the sitter. Wharton said of him: he was so alive at all points, and so gifted with the rare faculty of living intensely and entirely in every moment as it passed’.
Something of this energy is communicated in the painting, but the energy seems to derive from his impatience.
My final choice has to be The Duke of Marlborough Family at Blenheim Palace and almost over-burdened with signification for me as a Wharton scholar.
“Wharton has her heroine, Lily Bart, in The House of Mirth (1905) take part in a tableaux vivants in which she dresses as Mrs Lloyd by Joshua Reynolds. In this painting, Mrs Lloyd, inscribing her husband’s initials in the bark of a tree in a carefully composed pastoral setting, is showered with light, a light which foregrounds her womanliness as she poses, clad in clinging Grecian folds.
“Wharton used the moment at which Lily is revealed in this pose as the turning point in her heroine’s life; she becomes what she seems to be – a woman whose display of self has breached the code which decrees that women and their portraits must have a sponsor if not a master.
“Painted to update the family story from the portrait of the 4th Duke of Marlborough and his family by Joshua Reynolds, Sargent’s The Duke of Marlborough Family positions the sponsor of the portrait interestingly to the side and lower than his wife, the American heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt, elements of whose story Wharton was to dramatise in her final, unfinished novel, The Buccaneers (1938).
“Their marriage, one which brought to the British landed aristocracy a substantial infusion of American wealth and beauty, was publicly acknowledged to be unhappy and it ended in divorce.
“Interestingly, in her own autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold (1973) Consuelo commented on Edith Wharton’s marriage: her husband seemed more of an equerry than an equal, walking behind her and carrying whatever paraphernalia she happened to discard. Indeed, Edward Wharton could not hope to do more than fetch and carry for a personality so far removed from his orbit.’ This is an accurate picture of the disastrously ill-suited Whartons – who were especially incompatible intellectually and divorced in 1913 – but they did have one passion in common, small dogs, dogs very much like those which sit and stand in the Marlborough family portrait and which feature in numerous pictures of the Whartons.
“Themes that pervade Wharton’s life and work can be drawn from this painting, its painter and its subjects. Born into the leisure classes, Wharton tried all her life to find an alternative world – the land of letters’ where she could be happy; she knew what it was to be pressured by a domineering mother into a suitably prestigious marriage, she knew what it was to be disappointed and unhappy in that marriage.
“Like Consuelo and Sargent, she lived in Europe for most of her adult life – by choice – and all three moved in some of the same international, leisure class circles. As with Sargent and Henry James, Wharton’s subjects moved in a transatlantic world, they crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic and were heirs to some of the most seismic shifts in the structure of women’s lives – the new possibility of divorce being simply the most obvious.
“On my desert island, the portrait could summon up so many different strands of Edith Wharton’s life and add to it some of my own – most importantly my recent move to Oxford.
Shortly after moving to Oxford this summer, I had a birthday and spent that day, with my husband and children, at Blenheim Palace. It would remind me of my family on that glorious sunny day.”