We have had a really heartening notice about Edwardian Opulence by Sylviane Gold in this morning’s New York Times, and it coincides with a small but fascinating discovery among my papers. One of the most beautiful sculptures in our exhibition is the marble bust of Miss Eve Fairfax by Auguste Rodin—known also as La Nature. The reason why we borrowed this bust is that it was the first of a string of notable British portrait commissions executed by Rodin through the Edwardian decade. Miss Fairfax was most probably Rodin’s lover, ca. 1902, or soon afterwards, but what I did not realize until after the catalogue went to press was that she was still alive in 1978. The following obituary was published in The Times on June 12 of that year:
Miss Eve FairfaxG. writes: “This grand old lady passed away in her 107th year on May 27 in York in which city or nearby countryside she had spent most of her long and fascinating life. A direct descendant of General [Thomas] Fairfax, she was born on October 10, 1871, at Bilborough, near York, where she spent her childhood. She rode her pony eight miles to school in York, winter and summer, taking tea most days at Bishopthorpe Palace with Archbishop Thomson’s family. As a young woman she spent many hours in the saddle following the fox-hounds round York. She was presented at Court to Queen Victoria at Windsor in 1888. The second Lord Grimthorpe commissioned Rodin to scupt her in 1902 and the result was a beautiful bust in marble, now in the National Gallery in Johannesburg; copies in bronze are in Paris and New York. That from Paris was shown several years ago in London and portrays superbly the fine figure and wonderful bone structure of Miss Fairfax. After the death of her parents she always lived in York and was a powerful figure in the Old Yorkshire Club and a frequent attender of the Snow and Summer Balls at the Old Assembly Rooms—long since discontinued. She became a welcome visitor to many great houses in England and Scotland, arriving for a few nights and frequently staying for several weeks complete with her huge autograph book of names, pictures and anecdotes of her life, and a voluminous sewing bag. A fine story-teller and avid bridge player (she played well past her 100th birthday), she was feared by children and grown-ups—but a friendly sparkle in her eyes charmed everyone. Latterly increasing infirmity of her legs prevented much movement and she was a patient for her last few years at The Retreat in York, where the devotion and wonderful kindness of the staff kept this often cantankerous and difficult old lady in high good humour. Only a few weeks before she died she was sitting up in bed reading her favourite newspaper without spectacles. Alas there will never be another Eve Fairfax, straight of back, her tall and stately figure surmounted by her beautiful nearly white hair, gave all the houses an added luster when she was around. To her few remaining friends and relations, she represented a fascinating chapter of history starting in the reign of Queen Victoria and ending after man had successfully walked on the moon.”
As obituaries go, this one takes many words to say surprisingly little. It was presumably the work of a friend or relation, who, while affectionate and admiring, also let slip some not entirely reassuring particulars. Feared by young and old alike? Cantankerous and difficult? Invited for a few nights, but stayed for several weeks? And what about that autograph album—evidence, perhaps, of the modern equivalent of scalp-hunting? The author is also muddled about the bust. Rodin carved no fewer than five versions in marble. She is right about one of them, which is indeed at Johannesburg Art Gallery (the South African National Gallery is in Cape Town). Another, the one we have here in New Haven at present, is normally to be seen in the galleries of the Legion of Honor (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). Another three, together with many related plasters and subsequent bronzes are mostly at the Musée Rodin in Paris. If Rodin’s preoccupation with Miss Fairfax was erotic, as seems likely, in due course it waned. Some time after he finished the San Francisco bust, the sculptor inscribed it on the reverse: “À Loïe [Fuller],” and signed it a second time. Perhaps Eve Fairfax was eclipsed by the celebrated danseuse, although satisfactorily “G.” points out that Miss Fairfax was for many years an enthusiastic dancer, but purely non-professional.