Friday, February 15, 2013

Miss Preston

Mr. John Proctor and Miss Alison Preston have arrived from Perth, Western Australia, thanks to the generosity of Wesfarmers Limited. This beautifully-painted action portrait by the Australian expatriate George Washington Lambert, the father of the composer Constant Lambert, was originally exhibited as Mearbeck Moor, probably to avoid raising indelicate questions as to the exact character of the relationship between a middle-aged gentleman and a much younger lady with different surnames posing together in the same portrait. In fact they were uncle and niece, and the atmosphere of the salubrious outdoor exercise and country sport are perhaps also misleading. Mr. Proctor was a London barrister, a professional man whose authoritative pose as a huntsman and maybe squire is therefore strongly aspirational in tone. I wonder also if the al-fresco cigar, a Cohiba Robustos surely, encodes a hint of metropolitan taste that is slightly at odds with the briskness of a day out riding on the moor, and even slightly vulgar. The brilliant part about getting hold of the objects in an exhibition and having an opportunity to examine them again at close quarters and for some considerable time is that you notice many new and intriguing things. 
So it was not until last evening that I grasped that Miss Preston is wearing a pince-nez, or possibly spectacles, which I suppose seems prudent but rather inconvenient when riding side-saddle. She must have needed them. Alison Preston is an interesting figure, because the very fact that she is participating in a hunt at all, and on horseback, implies an independent-mindedness and a definitely progressive spirit that underlies this particular social gathering, and certainly her own cheerful participation in it. Edwardian ladies did not usually go out shooting. Indeed, the late Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, remembered her father-in-law King George V being genuinely shocked to learn that she firmly intended to accompany the Duke when he went stalking at Balmoral. And that was in 1935. Given the longstanding conventions of portraiture, the wearing of spectacles is always noteworthy: Reynolds made no secret of his, on the contrary. Whistler positively advertised his rimless monocles. But it is nevertheless most unusual for young women to be portrayed wearing specs. A tactful artist might have chosen to omit them, and some ladies may also have preferred to be portrayed without. That Miss Preston wears hers here strongly suggests to me that the detail existed either with her blessing, or possibly at her instigation. I like her choice of hatpin, too: a jumbo South Sea pearl to go with the riding outfit. Splendid! 


  1. Most entertaining and informative commentary on this work.
    But am curious to know what's beyond the horse's rump?

    1. The rest of the horse, plus a vista of freezing Yorkshire and, in the foreground, two slavering hunting dogs. Dillon was up a ladder to the right putting in the lights when I took this, so I couldn't get the whole thing.

  2. lambert also fathered the execrable sculptor maurice