Sunday, July 26, 2015

From the Archives: Helen Vincent, Viscountess D'Abernon, an Intrepid Woman

Sunday, July 26, 2015
Isabella reporting,

Dipping one more time into our archives....The current exhibition of John Singer Sargent portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art reminded me of this post about one of his more fascinating - and beautiful - sitters. 

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!

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


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