‘Exhibition Review – At the Heart of “The Souls”

At The Heart of the ‘Souls’: The Drawings of Violet Manners, Duchess of Rutland

Until 24th April 2017. At The Russell-Cotes Museum and Gallery, Bournemouth.

Curated by Kirsty Stonell Walker.

Exhibition reviewed by William Rose

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Self portrait. 1891


This is an intimate group of portraits by an accomplished artist and a celebrated personality of the late Victorian ‘aesthetic’ period. They are sensitive pencil renditions of the glamorous and often aristocratic group in which Lady Violet Manners (1856-1937) was a substantial member. As a childshe might have been tutored by Burne-Jones himself, but he confined his assistance to just telling her father to insure that she did some self-portraiture in front of a mirror. Clearly, it worked, and at the same time the influence of Burne-Jones and the aesthetes is very evident.

Violet was a beauty herself and her circle included other beauties, as well as refined and artistic intellects, some of them quite partial to surreptitious encounters in the bedroom. There is no harm in an exhibition of fine art being enhanced by written details in the catalogue and we benefit here from the curator’s interesting researches and her anecdotes about some of these characters. They were, in fact, the precursors of the Bloomsbury group, and were popularly known as ‘The Souls’ with Violet herself considered to be their ‘Queen’. Queen of the Souls, quite a title.

As we admire the portraiture and wonder about these characters, a glance at the catalogue adds extra detail. Lady Ulrica Duncombe, ‘Mouche’ (drawn in 1896) had worn guaze veils to avoid freckles and when growing up had washed her face every morning in ‘freshly gathered dew’. Did it come in a bottle I wonder? I expect that the servants gathered it from the stately lawns. One of the most attractive of the portraits (1899) is that of Mrs Beerbohm Tree (formerly Helen Maud Holt). She was surely a remarkable Victorian pioneer: A classics scholar of Queens College London and at twenty a professional actress who married the serially unfaithful actor, Herbert Beerbom Tree. It is an excellent drawing, the subject wearing a stylish hat above her lovely face upon which is a somewhat wistful sideways look. Perhaps beguiling too, though we are told that it was the husband who had the affairs.

Mr Henry ‘Harry’ Cust (drawn in 1892) was ‘Famous for his love life rather than his professional life’ and ‘…romantically attached to a vast swathe of late Victorian high society’ – and this included the artist herself. It would seem that he had not fallen too much from her affection at the time of the portrait as he looks splendid, but yes, maybe, someone not to completely trust.

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Harry Cust by Violet Manners. 1892. Russell-Cotes Museum and Gallery, Bounemouth.

The exhibition contains nine drawings of a similar size and technique. Despite the delicacy ofexecution there is a strength to the work which is particularly noticeable in the expressive rendition of the eyes. The portrait of Mrs E. Tennant (Lady Glenconner) is a notable example.

Amongst the celebrity and glamour there is also poignancy; some of the sitters were to lose loved ones in the Great War, Rudyard Kipling being a sad and well known example. This exhibition at the beautiful Russell-Cotes Gallery has been researched and curated by Kirsty Stonell Walker. It is held in the Morning Room of the Museum, with its Anna Zinkheisen painted ceiling, and it was a pleasure to see two young school children (boys) making the most of the paper and pencils on offer there to have a go themselves, and to leave behind their own works for posterity.

Recommended and continuing until April 24th.

William Rose