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John Singer Sargent oil sketch of Elsie Palmer returns to Ightham Mote

A woman looking at an oil painting of Elsie Palmer by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent's oil sketch of Elsie Palmer | © National Trust Images / James Dobson

The enigmatic face of Elsie Palmer, one of renowned artist John Singer Sargent’s most famous subjects, has returned to the English country house where he painted her.

Lady in White

Sargent (1856–1925), the leading portrait artist of his generation, created a number of sketches and oils in preparation for his large-scale masterpiece Lady in White, which depicted Elsie seated in a silk dress set against the linenfold panelling of Ightham Mote in Kent where she and her family were tenants in the 1880s.

The Lady in White is now in the collection of Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, but one of Sargent’s preparatory oils, which has been in the Palmer family's ownership since it was painted, has been acquired by the National Trust from Elsie’s granddaughter Jane Kasmin.

The Lady at home

The sketch shows 17-year-old Elsie wearing a silk dress, tied at the waist, standing with her favourite collie dog lying at her feet in the Great Hall at Ightham Mote, which is now cared for by the National Trust.

Features of the hall's interior are recognisable in the background, such as the trefoil window, wood panelling, fireplace and carpet, all of which can still be seen today.

It's an evocative representation of both the sitter and the Great Hall, which was the heart of the house, with its atmospheric interiors by the architect Norman Shaw.

Capturing Elsie

“Sargent painted Elsie at one of the most creative moments in his career before he was ensnared by popular success," explained Richard Ormond, Sargent’s great nephew and an art historian.

"Unlike the finished portrait where Elsie is seated, the sketch intriguingly shows her standing, demonstrating how much thought went into the design of the portrait before the final pose was selected.

“The sketch is painted with great verve, capturing pose and atmosphere in a few bold strokes. The beauty and grace of the young girl in her white dress stand out from the mysterious darkness of the Great Hall. Her long, free-flowing hair and ankle-length dress indicate her girlhood status before her entry into society as an adult woman."

View of the South East Quarter of Ightham Mote Mansion
Ightham Mote in Kent, the former home of Elsie Palmer, where the sketch will be displayed | © National Trust Images/Paul Simons

Art and society at Ightham Mote

Sargent was a frequent guest of the American Palmer family at Ightham Mote. They used the house as the venue for artistic, literary and social gatherings that included guests such as acclaimed actress Ellen Terry and the novelist Henry James.

It was a time in Sargent’s career of creative energy and experimentation. Having moved from Paris to London, he was trying to establish himself as a portraitist and was kept afloat by discerning patrons like the Palmers. He quickly became good friends with Elsie and they remained in close contact until his death in 1925.

Bringing Elsie home

Bernadette Gillow, General Manager at Ightham Mote, said the sketch's return to its subject's home, was "highly significant".

“Due to the frequent changes of people who owned or leased the house, many objects associated with it were dispersed prior to being donated to the National Trust in 1985," she explained.

"Three years ago we managed to acquire and bring home a painting by Sargent that was also created here, of the Palmer family enjoying a game of bowls in the garden.

“This latest acquisition is a rare and highly significant addition for Ightham Mote. We are thrilled that Elsie has come home and that we can share this charming depiction of her with our visitors.”

The oil sketch on canvas measures 50cm x 31.5cm. The National Trust acquired it through the Private Treaty Sale scheme, which allows private owners to sell items to national organisations without recourse to an auction process and with prices beneficial to both.

The sketch of Elsie will go on display at Ightham Mote from Saturday 12 November.

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