Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Intrepid Women: Helen Vincent, Viscountess D'Abernon

Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Susan reporting:

I've always been intrigued by the elegant fin-de-siecle portraits of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925. While it's easy to dismiss his sitters as empty Edwardian society ladies, not all of them fall into this category. One of the most beautiful was also one of the more interesting: Helen Venetia Duncombe Vincent, Vicountess D'Abernon (1866-1954).

Daughter of the Earl of Feversham, Helen's beauty was extraordinary, and when she married the equally handsome financier and diplomat Sir Edgar Vincent (1857-1941) in 1890, she soon became a celebrated London hostess. To some she was "by reason of her outstanding beauty, intelligence and charm, one of the most resplendent figures" of her age; a far less flattering description by architect Edwin Lutyens called her "a lovely Easter egg with nothing inside, terribly dilettante and altogether superficial."

The truth must have been somewhere in between. As Sir Edgar rose both in the financial world as an international banker and as an ambassador in diplomatic corps, Helen helped further his position by serving as his hostess and as a patroness to English artists and museums. She also welcomed the leading intellectual figures to her salon, including American writers Henry James and Edith Wharton and prominent statesmen George Curzon and Arthur Balfour. She was also drawn to the romantic history of her namesake Venice, and at her urging the Vincents purchased the Palazzo Giustiniani on the Grand Canal. It was here, during an extended visit, that Sargent painted the bravura portrait, above left, in 1904, and made the sketch, right. As isn't always the case, the beauty in the portraits was real, as seen in the stylish photograph of Helen from 1906, lower right.

But when the glory days of Edwardian England collapsed with the onset of the First World War, Helen didn't retreat to the safety of her country estates. Instead she took the unusual step for an aristocratic lady of training as a nurse anaesthetist (anesthesiologist), and served with the Red Cross in Europe, often in risky makeshift circumstances close to the front. She acquired a reputation as the fearless, unflinching lady in the operating room, and treated thousands of patients.

Although she returned to civilian life at Sir Edgar's side after the war, traveling with him through Germany while he was the British Ambassador to the Weimar Republic, it was her own wartime contribution that she believed was her greatest personal accomplishment. In 1946, she published a book of her experiences drawn from her diary, Red Cross and Berlin Embassy, 1915-1926: Extracts from the Diaries of Viscountess D'Abernon. Fascinating reading!

(A random note: As I watched the last episode of this season's Downton Abbey on PBS with its cliff-hanger with the coming war, I wondered if the screenwriters for next season were already reading Lady Helen's diary. I suppose we'll know if Lady Diana turns up as a nurse anaesthetist in France with the Red Cross!)

Above left: Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess D'Abernon, John Singer Sargent, 1904, Birmingham Museum of Art
Right: Lady Helen Vincent, John Singer Sargent, 1905, York City Art Gallery
Lower left: Lady Helen Vincent, photograph by Lionel de Rothschild, c. 1906, copyright Solent News & Photo Agency


Felicity Flower said...

What an interesting lady, to train to be a battlefield nurse like that and in her forties too. She was beautiful. In the drawing she looks a lot like Barbara Stanwyk, doesn't she?

Grace Elliot said...

What an interesting post. Isnt it amazing how real life can be so much more interesting than fiction sometimes?
And what style - that Singer-Sargeant painting is amazing!

JaneAustenBooks said...

I found another photograph of her at the National Portrait Gallery:

Wow! Thank you for the post!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Felicity, you're right - she does look a bit like Barbara Stanwyk (another intrepid woman in her own right.)

Grace, I've always thought that if I could have my portrait painted by any artist (art history fantasy time), it would be either Sargeant, or Gainsborough. Tough choice. *g*

JaneAustenBooks, thanks so much for the additional photo! It's so interesting to compare photos and paintings - this was the first era that it was possible. I'm guessing that there are probably more of Helen, considering that she was such a "celebrity" in her time....

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Went a-googling, and found another interesting photo - this Helen with her sister Hermione, another Beauty, in 1888, when Helen would have been in her early 20s.

Cecilia Grant said...

I love Sargent's portraits. I suppose they're a bit glossy/idealized, but I always imagine the sitter looking at the finished work and thinking, Yes. This is who I really am. Particularly with women, he had a knack for making them look like people of substance instead of frivolous ornaments. (Easter egg, indeed! And how did you spend your time during the war, Edwin Lutyens?)

Jenny Rae Rappaport said...

Dear Nerdy History Girls,

I'd e-mail you this question, but I can't seem to find a way to do so.

I'd love if you guys would address this on your blog:

How did people deal with infections that we normally treat with antibiotics? In particular, I've got a raging sinus infection, and I'm fairly sure it's not going to heal without antibiotics (I'm currently on them, to reassure you about my welfare =). So, if I lived 200-400 years ago, would I just be doomed to an early death? Or were there historical methods of treating infections that you know about?

Thanks so much in advance!


Carey said...

What an interesting lady. I love being able to see the photographs as well as the paintings. I really love the sketch.

nightsmusic said...

It's been my experience that it takes a very intelligent and yes, sometimes cunning woman to truly help advance her husband's career rather than sitting around being a frivolous 'egg'. Her service during the way is testament to that. Anesthesiology is extremely difficult to conquer without killing your patient!

It's such a shame though that we don't have any pictures of Sir Edgar when he was young except for that one silly caricature of him standing sideways to the artist.

Marti said...

It doesn't appear that my comment posted. I was wondering about the color photo. It looks too good to be from 1906.

Also, I think I recognized the actress who plays Lady Mary as the late Princess Margaret in "The Queen" that aired this past Sunday.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Cecilia - Exactly!! :)

Jenny Rae - thanks for the suggestion. We'll toss the idea into our future-blogs-file, and you never know when it may pop up. Hope you feel better soon, too.

Carey, I like seeing the pictures/paintings side by side too. Often the comparison isn't flattering, but with her it is.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Theo, I know there are lots of portraits of Sir Edgar, but I can't find any on line of his younger self. Everything online is him looking portly & distinguished. But here are telling quotes from his bio in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

"Margot Asquith classed Vincent among ‘the four best looking men I ever saw’ (Bonham Carter, 129), and Sir Colin Scott-Moncrieff judged him as ‘beautiful … like a son of the gods’ (Hollings, 157), [He and Lady Helen} made a resplendent, seductive couple, although Vincent's extramarital affairs earned him the nickname the ‘Piccadilly Stallion’.


Susan Holloway Scott said...

Marti, the color photo was in fact a very early color image. I'll try and find its original location for more info - tonight the internet's being very slow with images, so I'll try to find the link tomorrow.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

What a fascinating post Susan!

Marti said...

Susan - did you ever find more info on the photo?

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Marti, I'm sorry - I found info, then forgot to post it. Duh. Here's the most info I could find, and fascinating, too. Who would guess the picture was by a Rothschild fiddling around with new technology?

Susan Holloway Scott said...

And please note, too, now that I'm aware of the picture's origins, that I've added the proper credit line. :)

Marti said...

Wjat a great article!

Marti said...

I guess I should have proofread first. It's hard sharing a keyboard with a cat.

Praetorian said...

I have stayed at Lady Helen's former home Esher Place, Surrey, on a number of occasions as it is now one of our Union's residential training course locations. It is a magnificent stately home still retaining many of the features that would have been so recognisable to Lady Helen. In the old library there is a magnificent painting of her on a throne like a goddess looking down and still looking after the place all these years later!

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