Thursday 17 January 2013

Sargent's portrait of Edmund Gosse


I’ve stood in front of the painting of Edmund Gosse by John Singer Sargent in the National Portrait Gallery and tried to work out the mood of the sitter. He stares out at us, but there is something apprehensive in his expression and it is certainly not a formal portrait – indeed, he looks a little dishevelled.

The picture was painted in 1886, when Edmund was 36 or 37 years old and at a time when he was being attacked for the inaccuracies in his book From Shakespeare to Pope: an enquiry into the causes and phenomena of the rise of classical poetry in England. The book was based on lectures which Edmund had given at Cambridge University and, earlier, while visiting the United States. He was very much part of the London social scene and mixed with famous authors and artists, and had many infuential friends and contacts with whom he dined, so the adverse reaction of academics to his work was not welcomed. However, it was probably deserved, as Edmund was always capable of being careless and of stretching the truth.

 Although Edmund loved his wife Nellie and their three children (who were 9, 7 and 5 years old at the time the picture was painted), he also had homosexual relationships, an especially close friendship developing with the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft. It is likely also that Sargent was homosexual and he met Edmund at a house party in the Cotswolds the year before he painted this portrait. Perhaps the casual nature of Edmund’s appearance in the picture is a reflection of those relaxed times where open expressions of homosexual feelings were possible? But why the look of apprehension?

Edmund had a difficult relationship with his father, Philip Henry Gosse, to be detailed much later in the autobiographical Father and Son, Edmund’s best-known, and probably inaccurate, book published in 1907. Henry Gosse was a distinguished writer and illustrator of Natural History books and also an expert on several types of aquatic animals. He and Edmund made collections at the sea shore and they were very close when Edmund was a young boy, his mother, Emily, having died when he was 7 years old. Henry’s life was dominated by his deeply-held Christian beliefs and Edmund found this increasingly stifling, but he was able to break away from his father’s constant anxiety that he should be saved by moving to London in his late teens. Letters from Henry kept up the pressure, but Edmund had started to become part of the freer artistic Establishment. Poor Henry. Poor Edmund. There were still visits from the son to the father, but there was none of the closeness that they had enjoyed during Edmund’s boyhood, although Nellie and the children were always welcomed warmly.

In 1886, Henry was an old man and he died two years later. If I am right in sensing a look of apprehension in Sargent’s painting, it would have resulted from his disappointment at the reception of From Shakespeare to Pope: an enquiry into the causes and phenomena of the rise of classical poetry in England, having to maintain some secrecy over his homosexual relationships, and a concern about his relationship with his father. Henry would have found it impossible to condone Edmund’s sexual preferences and he still wished that Edmund could be with him and Emily in Heaven, when the time came. 

Of course, I could just be projecting that on to the portrait, but that’s what it shows to me.

[My thanks to Dr Susan England for discussion about about Hamo Thornycroft]

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