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Lord Ribblesdale
Lord Ribblesdale

From John Singer Sargent: Portraits of the 1890s, by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray. Volume II of The John Singer Sargent Catalogue Raisonné, Published for The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, New Haven and London. See below to order these three volumes.

Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Used by permission.

Oil on canvas
101¾ X 56½ (258.4 X 143.5)
Inscribed, lower right:
John S. Sargent 1902
National Gallery, London

homas Lister, fourth Baron Ribblesdale (1854-1925), the eldest son of the third Baron Ribblesdale of Gisburne Park, near Skipton in Yorkshire, was born in Fontainebleau and spent much of his childhood in France. His father's extravagance and gambling debts had injured the family's finances, compelling him to mortgage the Gisburne estate and let the house itself to tenants. The young Thomas Lister returned to England to be educated at Harrow, joining the army (64th Foot) in 1873, transferring to the Rifle Brigade in 1874, and retiring as major in 1886. He succeeded to the title as fourth Baron Ribblesdale on the suicide of his father in 1876 and took his seat in the House of Lords in 1877, where he sat as a Liberal. That same year, he married Charlotte ('Charty') Monckton Tennant, daughter of the industrialist and collector Sir Charles Tennant (see no. 406) and a leading figure in the aristocratic coterie known as 'the Souls'; it was the Tennant fortune that paid off the Gisburne mortgage and bought the Ribblesdales' Mayfair home, 32 Green Street. Charlotte suffered from consumption and died in1911, and their sons, Thomas and Charles, were killed in Somaliland (1904) and in the First World War (1914), respectively.

Ribblesdale was lord-in-waiting to Queen Victoria (1880-5 and 1886), Liberal whip in the House of Lords, alderman of the London County Council (1898-1904), trustee of the National Portrait Gallery (1895-1923), and trustee of the National Gallery (1909-23). An enthusiastic sportsman, he was Master of the Royal Buckhounds from 1892 to 1895 and author of The Queen's Hounds and Stag-Hunting Recollections (London, 1897). In 1919, he married Ava Willings, widow of Jacob Astor.

Caricature of Sargent's
portrait of Lord Ribblesdale

Punch (7 May 1902), p. 341.


Sargent had painted Lord Ribblesdale's daughter, the Honourable Laura Lister (Portraits of the 1890s, no. 323), in 1896. According to the account of another daughter, Lady Wilson, the genesis of the present portrait was a speech given by Lord Ribblesdale at a dinner for the Artists' General Benevolent Fund, where Sargent was so impressed by Ribblesdale that he asked to paint him (Ribblesdale 1927, pp. xxviii-xxix). The Stewards' Books of the Artists' General Benevolent Institution record that Ribblesdale gave his speech at the anniversary dinner in 1894 and note that the date of the dinner was 9 May 1894 and its venue the Whitehall Rooms, Hotel Metropole (minutes of the Quarterly Meeting, 11 January 1894, Artists' General Benevolent Institution, London).

It appears to have been some five years before the portrait was actually begun. Sargent stayed at Gisburne Park in the summer of 1899 after visiting the Sitwells at Renishaw (see no. 392). During this visit he drew Lord Ribblesdale's younger son, Charles, with part of a seventeenth-century portrait of Master Thomas Lister and his pony by William Dobson in the background. This drawing, which is inscribed (upper right) 'John S. Sargent / August 30th 1899', is reproduced as the frontispiece to Charles Lister: Letters and Recollections with a Memoir by His Father Lord Ribblesdale (New York, 1917). The 1644 painting by Dobson is reproduced facing page 1.

The portrait was almost certainly painted in Sargent's Tite Street studio, though the dates of the sittings are not recorded. Lady Ribblesdale attended the early meetings, 'but her passionate keenness for the success of the portrait created a difficult atmosphere, and it was agreed by all concerned that the artist and model did better when left to themselves' (Ribblesdale 1927, p. xxviii-xxix).

There was some deliberation about costume and composition. The initial idea was that Ribblesdale should be painted in dark green gala coat, green and gold embroidered shoulder-belt, white leather breeches, and black boots with champagne tops, the livery of the Master of the Queen's Buckhounds. For photographs of Ribblesdale in his Master of the Queen's Buckhounds costume, see Lister 1930, facing p. 110, and Egerton 1998, p. 236, fig. 1. This idea was rejected because according to the sitter's daughter, Lady Wilson, 'there was the difficulty of the leathers—an unpleasing mass of white for the painter' (Ribblesdale 1927, p. xxviii). Ribblesdale was renowned for the Regency air of his appearance and for the antique charm of his character: Edward VII called him 'The Ancestor' (see The Times, 22 October 1925), and Lawrence Jones wrote that his picturesqueness was such that 'he never stepped out of his picture frame', but that 'for patrician good looks, expressing intelligence and sensibility, I have never seen his equal' (Jones 1956, p. 236). The Times described the dress in which he is represented in the portrait as 'a riding costume suggesting the period of George IV' (The Times, 3 May 1902, p. 16). He is, in reality, portrayed in a formal Chesterfield coat with velvet collar (identical to the coat worn by Graham Robertson see Portraits of the 1890s no. 306) over a brown jacket, buff waistcoat, white stock, black silk muffler, box-cloth breeches, highly polished black butcher boots, black top hat worn at an angle and grey kid glove on his left hand. This was the unconventional hunting costume, which Ribblesdale habitually wore—dress that would have been called 'ratcatcher' in Edwardian parlance—and was very individual to him. His daughter wrote that he 'always wore mufti when hunting' (Ribblesdale 1927, p. xxviii), and a cartoon by Sir Leslie Ward ('Spy') published in vanity Fair (11 June 1881) identified him by the single word 'Mufti'. Ribblesdale's views on aspects of hunting dress are recorded in his book The Queen—Hounds and Stag-Hunting Recollections: he wrote that he did not object to the queen's field riding 'in ratcatcher' (Ribblesdale 1897, p. 156) and confessed to being 'a stickler for the tall (hat', which 'looks the best, and in every way is the best for riding of all kinds, which includes falling' (Ribblesdale 1897, p. 157). The 'butterfly' muffler, worn to one side when hunting, features prominently in the Punch caricature which appeared in its review of the Royal Academy of 1902 (fig. 83).

In her introduction to her father's memoirs, Lady Wilson records that Sargent and Lady Ribblesdale both favoured an architectural background for the portrait and spent time searching among the pilasters of Somerset House, London, for a suitable setting. A preliminary oil sketch shows Lord Ribblesdale in a different pose standing, with one leg raised, on some stone steps against a background of architectural columns (see no. 422). In the event Sargent posed his sitter against the pilaster and panelling of his Tite Street studio (see Accessories, p. xxix, no. 18), with the herringbone pattern of the floor faintly indicated at the left. The spare perpendicular grid emphasizes Ribblesdale's lean, attenuated figure and forms a geometric background, which is, like the neutral colour scheme, austere. The fine red line describing the thread of the coiled riding crop in his left hand is the single bright colour accent in a muted tonality of black, light ochre and pale greenish grey.

Character is expressed in every inflection of pose. Ribblesdale stands with one hand on his hip, and the suggestion of movement in the long coat gives the figure a degree of swagger not unlike that imparted by a cloak in a number of Van Dyck's compositions. The silhouette is essentially compressed and taut, and some pentimenti in the area of the left arm and the position of the riding crop suggest that Sargent may have refined the pose further to emphasize its attenuated outline. Elizabeth Prettejohn has calculated the extent to which Ribblesdale's figure, measuring some ten heads, exceeds the traditional tenets of figural composition (seven and a half heads), which were derived from the ideal of classical sculpture and classified in, for example, Charles Blanc's Grammaire des arts du dessin (see Prettejohn 1998, p. 40). Richard Dorment has suggested that the extreme slenderness of the figure may be indebted to Whistler's portrait of George W. Vanderbilt (1897-1903, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; see Dorment and MacDonald 1994, p. 280). In terms of grace and elegance of pose, Ribblesdale's stance—his toes positioned at right angles—meets the demands of eighteenth-century portraiture; it is certainly reminiscent of Gainsborough's Dr Ralph Schomberg, c. 1770 (National Gallery, London).

Reviewing the Royal Academy exhibition of 1902, The Times complained that the picture was hung so badly that the head was obscured (The Times, 3 May 1902, p. 16), but Frank Rinder called it Sargent's 'most masterly portrait of the year' (Art Journal, 1902, p. 210). The Academy critic turned from the allure and brilliance of The Ladies Alexandra, Mary and Theo Acheson to what he regarded as the more lasting satisfaction of the 'quiet power, and unaffected humility' of Ribblesdale's portrait (Academy, 10 May 1902, p. 488), and the Graphic felt the sitter's' quaint oldworldness' was 'caught and realised in... surprising fashion' (Graphic, 3 May 1902, p. 595). The image captured the contemporary imagination as an embodiment of patrician manners and style. Lord Ribblesdale wrote about its reception at the Societe nationale des beaux-arts exhibition in Paris in a letter dated 3 May 1904 (it was in fact 1903):

"My picture here looks exceedingly well, and I am assured is regarded as the great feature of the Exhibition. It has forced a greatness on me which is quite embarrassing; and wherever I go, I am recognized and much chuchotement and pointing out to friends goes on. At the vernissage, which I just dropped in for, it was really tiresome; and several people - but all I think artists - have introduced themselves to me, on the plea of not being able to resist offering their congratulations." (Lister 1930, p. 182)

Lady Wilson confirms that the picture was the cause of some talk: 'My mother told me that when she and he visited the Salon [Societe nationale des beaux-arts exhibition] to see his portrait by Sargent exhibited there, he was followed by an embarrassingly large crowd from room to room. People were nudging each other as they recognized the subject of the picture and whispering "Ce grand diable de milord anglais'" (Ribblesdale 1927, pp. xvi-xvii). It was 'hung inconspicuously in a small room' but looked 'finer than ever, and dominates the whole exhibition by its superb dignity and individuality' (Art Journal, 1904, p. 212). Virginia Woolf saw Ribblesdale years later and wrote to Duncan Grant (6 March 1917): 'Directly I left you, by the way, I ran straight into Lord Ribblesdale, the very image of his picture—only obviously seedy and dissolute' (Nicholson 1976, p. 144).

A sketch of Ribblesdale by R. G. Eves, presumably after Sargent, was sold via Phillips, London, 30 October 1973, lot P52.

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