2016 will be a year like no other at Polesden Lacey. It’s the year our exciting new 363 plans officially begin which will see new offers, stories and treasures from Polesden’s past come to the fore, for 363 days of the year.
With all this re-interpretation of old and new spaces, our avenues of research are reaching farther and deeper than ever before. 2016 will also be the year of a brand new Research Talk series for our volunteers, where the house team will be presenting talks called ‘Peek at a Painting’, ‘Cast your eyes over a Ceramic’, ‘Burrow into a Book’, ‘Contemplate a Clock’, ‘See into the Servants’ Stories’ and ‘Find out about that Furniture’…
The House Team will all be drawing on our own specialisms and experience to present these aspects of our collections in these Research Talks. Personally I’ll be focusing on bringing the history of our paintings and clocks to life, as I’m the incurable Art History postgrad and clock winder… We’ll also have the below-stairs expert Tracey (House Steward – Visitor Experience) focusing on ‘Seeing into the Servants’ Stories’, whilst Book Team manager and general ceramic looker-after-er, Charlotte (Conservation and Engagement Assistant) will be ‘Burrowing into that Book’ or ‘Casting her eyes over those Ceramics’.
This week, in order to complete some conservation work on the wall behind Mrs Greville, the team had to take her down for now. (If she was known as a weighty presence in her time, I can certainly confirm that she is a weighty portrait too). All this got me thinking, I can see no better start for my Research Talk series than ‘Peeking at a Painting’ of the main lady herself.
So let’s waste no more time, and give you all a taster of the first Research Talk, ‘Peeking at a Painting’ that has become synonymous with Polesden Lacey and its owner: Carolus-Duran’s Mrs Greville.
Synonymous in more ways than one, Carolus-Duran’s portrait of Mrs Greville has not only become the keystone of every guidebook for Polesden Lacey, but a visual expression of exactly the kind of life she lived here.
The first thing you often end up saying about Mrs Greville is the way in which she flew up society’s echelons from the lowly daughter of a Scottish boarding house-keeper, to the heiress of the multi-millionaire brewer Mr McEwan, to her marriage to the Right Hon. Ronald Greville, and her subsequent hob-nobbing with as much royalty as you could think of. Carolus-Duran’s portrait of her is no less unconventional and no less synonymous with this rags to riches tale.
What we must remember, is Emile-Auguste Carolus Duran (1838 – 1917) was a French Painter who is known for his part in a tradition of racy, full-length portraits of society ladies who stood proud to the viewer and didn’t shy away from the limelight.
Have a look at this earlier portrait of Mrs Greville, or Margaret (Anderson) McEwan as she was then, before her marriage to Ronnie Greville…
Well the first thing to notice is the mid-length of the portrait, as opposed to Carolus-Duran’s daring head-to-foot depiction of every inch of Mrs Greville. Schmiechen of course was painting for a different purpose, the purpose of gaining Maggie a husband, for which you needed a demure portrayal of a reticent and reserved girl who doesn’t thrust herself to the centre stage of the picture plane.
Thing is, we all know Maggie wasn’t the reticent type. Carolus-Duran’s portrait is a far more truthful expression of Maggie’s attitude to her life at Polesden Lacey. Carolus-Duran’s racy, bold and self-dependent portrayal of Mrs Greville is exactly synonymous with the unconventional way in which she thrust herself into the limelight, despite her lowly origins, exclaiming she’d “rather be a beeress than a peeress”.
There really is so much to see in this portrait, but I will save the rest for my first Research Talk…