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Object in Focus: No. 31 – Sir John Lavery – “My Lady Disdain”

BERMG: 1442 “My Lady Disdain” (Oil painting on canvas) by Sir John Lavery (1856-1941)

Berwick Museum and Art Gallery

This portrait of a strong featured but beautiful russet haired girl painted by Sir John Lavery is entitled My Lady Disdain – Shakespeare’s Beatrice from Much Ado about Nothing.

In Act 1 scene 1, confirmed bachelor Benedick greets sworn spinster Beatrice with “What, my Lady Disdain! Are you yet living”? To which she replies, “Is it possible disdain should die while she should hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?”.   The role of Beatrice was to prove an apt one for the picture’s model, Alice Groom, who was later to specialise in acting the part of wisecracking ladies of a certain age.  But who was Alice Groom?

BERMG: 1442 “My Lady Disdain” (Oil painting on canvas) by Sir John Lavery (1856-1941)

Alice had started out as a painter at the Royal Doulton factory in London. John Lavery first met her at the 1888 Glasgow International Exhibition where she was working on the Royal Doulton stand.  The artist later described her as “a fascinating, red-haired beauty, attracting crowds by her dexterity in decorating vases”.  His painting of her as Beatrice was completed the following year.  Alice had by this time married another artist, Frank Markham Skipworth, who also used her as a model in many of his paintings.  At the same time, she embarked on a career on the London stage.

A few years later, Alice moved to New York, where she changed her name to Alison Skipworth and made her Broadway debut with a part in “Madam Butterfly”.  In 1897 she joined the company of Daniel Frohman at the Lyceum on Broadway and toured the UK and US singing in light opera. She went on to tread the boards on Broadway as a noted Shakespearean actress, and toured with Viola Allen in three productions of Shakespeare, “Cymbeline”, “Twelfth Night”, and “As You Like It” in 1905 and 1906.

Although she had appeared in her first silent movie back in 1912, “Skippy” made her debut in talking pictures at the grand old age of 67, by this time often playing the role of a plump aristocratic English “grande dame” starring alongside such early cinema stars as WC Fields, George Raft and Mae West. In 1935 she appeared in “The Devil was a Woman”, directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich.

The model and the artist were to encounter each other one more time, almost 50 years after they first met, when the by now famous artist Sir John Lavery visited Hollywood in search of new celebrity commissions.  Alice had all the connections to make the necessary introductions.

Alice Skipworth died of natural causes in 1952 at her home in New York City, three weeks short of her 89th birthday.

Today “My Lady Disdain” is on show at Berwick Museum & Art Gallery, one of 46 paintings, drawings and watercolours donated to Berwick in 1949 by the Glasgow shipping magnate Sir William Burrell to form the basis of an art gallery for the town. In 1896, Burrell had commissioned the artist to paint his sister Mary’s portrait

BERMG: 1442 “My Lady Disdain” (Oil painting on canvas) by Sir John Lavery (1856-1941)

 

 

Grateful thanks for help from our colleagues at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum (particularly Jackie Macaulay) in the preparation of this article. 

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