John Singer Sargent and the Palmer family at Ightham Mote

John Singer Sargent Portrait of Miss Elsie Palmer (A Lady in White)

In the late 1880s, a young American named Elsie Palmer spent several years of her childhood at Ightham Mote in Kent. Her stay was to be recorded for posterity in a most dramatic fashion when her mother, 'Queen', Mary Lincoln Mellen Palmer, arranged for Elsie’s portrait to be painted by one of the foremost artists of the day, John Singer Sargent.

For the first time in over 125 years, Elsie's hauntingly beautiful portrait can be seen in the house in which it was first painted. Professor Philip Stott sheds light on this brief, magical interlude in Ightham Mote’s 700-year old history.

Queen Palmer and her rural salon

In April 1887, Queen Palmer brought her three daughters, Elsie, Dorothy and Marjory, from the mountainous terrain of Colorado in the southwest United States to live at the late-medieval moated manor house of Ightham Mote in Kent, England. The family stayed until March 1890. Their father, William Jackson Palmer, a famous railroad engineer and Union Army General who built Colorado Springs, visited them from time to time, as work permitted.

Queen was a passionate supporter of the Aesthetic Movement. Indeed, her fascination with the movement, and its tenets of art for art's sake and the cult of the beautiful, was why she had chosen to rent an English moated manor house in the first instance. Soon she began to turn it into a rural ‘salon’ visited by such luminaries as the American writer Henry James, the actress Ellen Terry, the costume designer Alice Comyns Carr, the artists Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, and the controversial American portraitist John Singer Sargent.

Queen’s distinguished visitors adored the old house, its historic atmosphere, the swans on the moat. They also took pleasure in their highly-sociable hostess. Henry James described Queen as ‘spontaneous, loquacious and really charming’, wryly noting ‘her native and, I should suppose characteristically Coloradoish hospitality’. 

The enchanted Mote

While Queen was entertaining her distinguished guests, her daughters, particularly Elsie, would have shared in the artistic life organised by their mother. But above all, the girls relished the old house and its enchanting surroundings. They had a love of nature and the outdoor life and in her diary Elsie fondly recorded learning about the geological formation of the chalk rocks of Kent.

Elsie and her sisters enjoyed riding horses around the estate and taking natural history rambles in the local woods and fields. When their father visited from America, they would engage in moonlit walks to see the stars.

It was during this magical time that Queen invited John Singer Sargent – the portraitist whose work in England was regarded as avant-garde and, in his own words, as 'beastly French' – to paint her eldest daughter in the Mote's medieval setting.

John Singer Sargent, painter of Edwardian luxury

John Singer Sargent was born of American parents in Florence, then the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. In the words of his biographer, Sargent was ‘at home everywhere, and belonged nowhere.’ In the 1870s he studied in Paris with the painter Carolus-Duran and later visited Spain to make studies after Velázquez and other Spanish masters.

Back in France in 1883, Sargent began work on his most famous portrait, that of Madame Pierre Gautreau (Madame X), an American woman living in Paris. The finished picture – with its unconventional pose, modeling and treatment of space – caused a furore at the Paris Salon in 1884. So great was the impact of the scandal on his career that by 1886, Sargent decided to leave Paris for London.

John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883–84 / Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Madame X painting by John Singer Sargent

Several years after relocating to London, Sargent began working on the portrait of Elsie Palmer. It was a bold move by Queen to choose such a controversial portraitist to capture her young daughter. Following the scandal of Madame X and the Salon of 1884, it took time for Sargent to establish his reputation as more than just a 'beastly French' painter. In time, Sargent would be recognised as the premiere portraitist of his generation, prized for his evocations of Edwardian opulence and elegance.

A young lady in white

At the request of Queen, Sargent painted Elsie’s portrait against the oak linen-fold panelling of the south-west corridor of the house. It is there that Elsie is depicted, seated on a wooden bench. She wears a pleated silk dress, subtly shaded in an array of off-white tones, from oyster, ivory to cream. A muslin or silk gauze undershirt shows at the neck and the cuffs, and a wide sash well above her waist. The dress falls in two bands, with a mauve-ish shawl (mauve being the colour of the Aesthetic movement) draped round her hips. The dress, exquisitely rendered, is a dazzling juxtaposition to the rich, earthy browns of the bench and background panelling.

Sargent painted Elsie’s portrait against the oak linen-fold panelling of the south-west corridor at Ightham Mote.
Sargent painted Elsie’s portrait against the oak linen-fold panelling of the south-west corridor at Ightham Mote.

Elsie herself is an unsmiling subject. Her gaze is fixed, her large eyes staring straight ahead (indeed she may have suffered from a hyperthyroid problem in her left eye), suggestive of haunting and mystery. Contemporary commentators detected a tension between the artist and the sitter, one observing that ‘the expression of the face indicates that the stubborn nature has not yet been subdued by torture’.

Indeed, Elsie recorded in her diary that she found it 'difficult to oblige' the great man. There were many sittings over a total of nearly 18 months during which Sargent would often argue over literature or other matters. Elsie employed the delightful term ‘catermang’ to describe this lively banter. Ultimately, it seems that Elsie took pride in being painted by Sargent, and, in later years, she often invited him to dinner parties. They remained friends until Sargent’s death in 1925.

American interlude

The portrait has travelled a great distance to return to the house in which it was painted. It normally resides in Colorado Springs, the city founded by Elsie’s father, William Jackson Palmer. Through the generosity of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, the portrait of Elsie is now on view at Ightham Mote for the duration of 2017. She is exhibited proudly, just yards from the linen-fold panelling against which she first posed.

When Elsie left Ightham Mote in March 1890, she was wistful, writing in her diary: ‘Lovely morning. Everything fresh and beautiful … Little walk before breakfast. After breakfast wandered about and said goodbye. Last place I sat on at the Mote, was the first place I had sat on there: the bench under the little fir tree, looking across the lake to the house with the poplar tree behind’.

When Elsie's portrait returns to America in December, it will be Ightham Mote that feels the poignancy of departure and loss.