Sunday 4 March 2012

The Beautiful Souls

Of late, I have been thinking how fortunate I am to mix, virtually, with such talented people.  I now count among my friends art lovers and blog writers whose passion and ability never fails to impress me into a swooning heap of appreciation.  In a more whimsical moment last week I pondered how we have managed to form a sort of virtual 'salon', exchanging views and opinion via the medium of little electronic wires (or pixies, or however the internet works).  Such random pontification came about as the inestimable Mr Walker took possession (professionally) of a glorious collection of portraits.  The bright and beautiful faces on show in these astonishing pictures belong to a group of high-minded, high-spirited, high-class friends, styled as 'The Souls'.

Self Portrait Violet Manners, Duchess of Rutland
Photograph of Violet Manners
The images that are now in the Russell-Cotes Museum and Art Gallery (and are now available for purchase here) were portraits of the Souls Group by Violet Manners, Duchess of Rutland, leading light of the Souls and a beauty, described as possessing the looks of a Burne-Jones Medusa.  After looking through the large group of beautiful images, I have to admit to becoming a little bit obsessed with Violet and her Soul sisters and brothers, as there is a glittering, heart-wrenching glory to the group of rich establishment figures who were serious about their art and serious about their politics.  Here is a brief and inexcusably inadequate introduction to some of the most glamorous people you may ever meet.  If you are able, I suggest you visit the National Portrait Gallery's temporary exhibition (like I intend to) and for those who are unable, have a look at this splendid mini-site.  On with a bit of Soul searching...

Violet had shown talent from a very early age and her father had sought the advice of Burne-Jones as to which art school she should be sent.  Burne-Jones advised against formal training and instructed that young Violet should be placed in front of a mirror to draw herself until she got it right, that was all the instruction she required.  Although this sounds quite mad, Violet's talent is all too obvious in her portraits of her friends, and so possibly Ned knew what he was talking about.  It is perhaps unsurprising that the group seems to have felt quite a close affinity with Burne-Jones, both in their style and in their preference of art.  Not only did Violet's family know Burne-Jones, but another leading light in the Souls, Lady Horner, formerly Frances Graham, was a beloved model of the artist.

Frances Graham Edward Burne Jones
Photograph of Frances, Lady Horner

Her friendship with the adoring artist stood Frances in good stead.  The Horner family were not out in Society and so her chances of marrying well were reduced, but because of the connection to Burne-Jones, as well as her own talents and charms, Frances married Sir John Horner, a suave, good-humoured man without any artistic aspirations.  He gave her the position to become part of the art establishment in her own right, which she took full advantage of.

Frances and John Horner had two children, Edward and Katherine.  Edward, lover of Violet Manner's daughter Diana (later Lady Diana Cooper) died in the Great War, as did Katherine's husband Raymond Asquith (and a horrifying number of the Souls' sons).  Raymond Asquith was the son of the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and step-son of his wife, Margot Tennant.  Margot was another leading Soul, rather the Alexa Chung of the outfit, having an unusually strong taste for fashion and popular culture. Keeping up? Good.

Margot Asquith, nee Tennant, as an oriental snake charmer.  As you do.
Margot Tennant was a game girl, blessed with social courage and a plethora of connections.  I particularly like the story of how she brought back 'skirt dancing' (or the can-can, I suppose) from her trip to Paris and set about teaching it to her fellow Soul-sisters.  She was daring, enormously game and described as having the 'light of victory in her eyes'.

Margot was one of an entire orchestra of children of Sir Charles Tennant, who was married twice and had sixteen children.  Her sisters married Lord Ribblesworth (Charlotte), Alfred Lyttelton (Laura) and Thomas Graham Smith (Lucy), among others.  After marrying Lyttelton, a Soul, Laura gave birth to a son, but died, just a year into her marriage.  A beautiful young woman, apparently one of the young beauties tripping down Burne-Jones' Golden Stairs, she was remembered by this famous, gorgeous memorial, again designed by Burne-Jones (he knew everyone)...

Okay, following me so far?  Margot Asquith wasn't the only Soul with Prime Minsterial connections. The man who could possibly be named the 'leading Soul', Arthur James Balfour was PM from 1902-1906.

Known as 'King Arthur' due to his position in the Group, he was romantically linked to a number of the members, but it was rumoured that his heart had been broken by the death of May Lyttelton, sister of Alfred.

Possibly the best known of the group has to be Lord Curzon, later Viceroy of India.  He gave extravagant dinner parties where the group could meet and be seen.  It was during these parties that the group was named: Lord Curzon wrote a rhyme for his guests involving the lines 'Souls sparkled and spirits expanded', and also Lord Charles Beresford remarked "You all sit and talk about each others' souls — I shall call you the 'Souls'".

Ethel 'Ettie' Grenfell
Although many of the Souls were titled, none moved in royal circles quite so accomplished as Lord and Lady Desborough (or William and Ettie Grenfell).  Queen Alexandra was godmother to the youngest Grenfell daughter, and Ettie became Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Mary in 1911.  Well-connected and accommodating, the Grenfells played host to almost as many parties as Lord Curzon.  Their guest list included the families of the Souls, together with the rather amusing and eligible bachelors, Balfour, Curzon and Henry Cust.

Oh deary me, Henry Cust...

Harry Cust Violet Manners
Harry Cust. Sigh and Swoon.

Harry Cust is possibly a very good reason why I shouldn't be allowed a time machine.  He was swoony handsome and wasn't too fussy who he fell into bed with, fathering many illegitimate children, including Violet Manners daughter, Diana.  His rather slutty behaviour finally caught up with him when he was marched to the alter with the allegedly pregnant Nina Welby-Gregory.

Nina Cust Violet Manners
Poor Nina suffered somewhat at the hands of the Souls, and not just the one she was married to.  She was never really accepted among their number despite being an artistically accomplished, beautiful young woman.  Maybe it was because she, an outsider, caught the most eligible of Soul-chaps, maybe because the baby that was the reason for their marriage was never mentioned again and the couple actually never had children.  Harry went back to philandering and Nina waited, sad-eyed and lonely, forever in love with her beautiful husband.  When he wrecked himself with drink and rather bad behaviour, he returned to the ever-open arms of Nina who cherished him for the last year of his life.  When he died, in his fifties, Nina carved a beautiful tomb for him, above which is inscribed 'Of all sorts enchantingly beloved, Full of noble device.' Also Full of Brandy and lustful thoughts about other men's wives, by all accounts.

Heavens, who have I got left?  Well, there are the Wyndhams, the daughters all married well and glamorously, like so...

The Wyndham Sisters (1900) John Singer Sargent
From the left, we have Mary who became Lady Elcho, Pamela who became Mrs Tennant and Madeline, who married Mr Adeane.  Behind them is the portrait of their mother, Mrs Percy Wyndham, by G F Watts.  Mary's Sister-in-Law, Hilda, married another Soul, St John Brodrick and her maiden name was Charteris, another family with many connections to the Soul circle.  Coming into the circle were people like Henry James, Edith Wharton, Lady Randolph Churchill and your friend and mine, Wilfred Scawen Blunt (another reason I'm not allowed a time machine, but with entirely different connotations).  There was no part of artistic society in Edwardian England that did not have a Soul in its centre.  From late Victorian to Edwardian England, they married and influenced everyone of artistic and creative note - so why aren't they better known now?

The Great War.

When the Souls all married in the latter years of the nineteenth century they produced a generation of sons just the right age to be slaughtered in France.  Yesterday in Salisbury Cathedral, I saw a plaque to Edward Wyndham Tennant, nephew of Margot Asquith, who died, aged 19, at the Battle of the Somme.  So many of that generation were wiped out that the daughters of the Souls found themselves either widowed or without their fiances by 1918.  Diana Manners married Duff Cooper, seen as unsuitable by many of her friends, but the last of her admirers left alive. She fared better than her sister Letty who married the far more suitable son of Lord Elcho, Hugo Charteris, only for him to die during the war, along with his brother.  In the back of a rather marvellous book on the Souls by Jane Abdy and Charlotte Gere, there is a circular diagram of how everyone is inter-related.  The outer ring, with its many crosses, symbols of death in action, makes sombre reading.

This is definitely a subject I wish to return to and in the meantime, have a look at the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition (on until August) and drool over the beautiful portraits by Violet Manners, for sale on the Russell-Cotes art on demand site. 

I'm guessing I'm not allowed to buy a big picture of Harry Cust...well, not to hang in the bedroom, anyway...


  1. I loved this post! I particularly enjoyed the Burne-Jones sketch of Frances Graham (Graham being my maiden name).

    I have thought more than once about how wonderful our online experience is and how we have, without planning it, formed our own version of a Sisterhood. It is an Awesome Thing indeed.

  2. Also, being online does take the pressure off having to do all that bed-hopping. Really, who has the energy?

    I need to work out how many of the Soul girls were walking down the Golden Stairs...

    1. I am a fan of EBJ's Golden Stairs and I have been tempted with the idea of producing a photograph of the Golden Stairs with the girls all numbered then posting it on the PRS Facebook page with the object of obtaining a concensus of members views as to who each girl is. What do you think?

    2. Anne Anderson wrote a great article on just this subject, identifying the girls. I'll see if I can find it and send it to you :)

    3. Many thanks Kirsty, that would be great. I did have an exchange of emails with Fiona MacCarthy at the end of 2011 after publication of The Last Pre-Raphaelite re: The Golden Stairs and claims by Lillie Langtry that she appears twice. Unfortunately Fiona was unable to shed any light. Enjoy Sunday at Watts.

  3. Having encountered in 2013 & then read Lantern Slides and Redoubtable Champion (@ Violet Asquith), things progressed and here I find myself in
    the company of a talented writer with a sense of humor.

    ("Donald! Put the mirror down!")

    Reading this was quite fun

    Oh, I forgot. This started as a search for Ettie Desborough (Grenfell)'s birthday. Have you one handy?


    Don Reed (USA)

    P.S. Is the background portrait (lady with red hair) Rossetti's mistress?


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx