To me, decoding this portrait is the key to the whole story of Elvira Barney. How much can we legitimately read into this image? Elvira becomes magical, alluring, sinister, cruel, symbolic – depending upon what weight we place on any aspect of the picture. If the background is to be trusted then, arguably, Elvira is almost the embodiment of an era. Ignoring the background, then ,with her mink and her tribal jewellery, she exudes a sense of mystery and p0wer. As I’m sure she would have wished, this version of Elvira exudes a dangerous sexuality. Notice the ring – it is not a wedding ring. Nothing in the picture is devoid of resonance – but how are we to make sense of it?
Is it pure fantasy? Certainly, no photograph of Elvira corresponds to this portrayal. Nor do they convey anything of the combination of strength and sensuality herein displayed. One is entranced but also skeptical – as Viva King says “this is the image of herself that she wished the world to see.” .
But even if it is romanticized and idealized – that in itself is very suggestive. What role did Elvira have in this painting? Is it her self-projection or what Eliot Hodgkin saw in her?
Sadly, I have no idea what the actual painting looks like. The content, though rich in detail, is perhaps distorted by the black and white reproduction. Hodgkin’s colours were generally very light and decorative. His was a very gentle, very English take on modernism.
The painting below, from the same period, offers us something to compare and to contrast. It also raises a few questions of its own.
Portrait of Douglas Fitzpatrick by Eliot Hodgkin 1930
Here is what the catalogue says of this portrait.
“Portraits are not common in Eliot Hodgkin’s oeuvre, as he is most well- known for intricate tempera still life paintings which he made from the 1950’s onwards. However, records of Hodgkin’s work show that he was more experimental in his early years and, although there are few known portraits by him, as an artist trying to establish himself he would have most likely looked for commissions.”
“It is highly likely this portrait was commissioned by the sitter, Douglas Fitzpatrick or Hodgkin’s friend Henry Thomas Upcher. Eliot Hodgkin was a friend of Thomas Upcher from Harrow School where they were both in West Acre House between 1920-1924 . Thomas Upcher serves as the link between Hodgkin and Douglas Fitzpatrick. According to letters from the Upcher estate at the Norfolk Record Office, Thomas Upcher and Fitzpatrick travelled Europe together during the 1930’s and lived together at both Bradfield Hall in Suffolk and later Sheringham Hall in Norfolk, which Upcher inherited in 1954. It can be assumed that the pair were life-long companions and lived together for majority of their adult life.”
Have we found more members of Elvira’s circle? Arthur Jeffress was at Harrow at about the same time. We know that various Skeffington-Smyths became Fitzpatricks at the drop of a hat – and the picture surfaced in California, where both Jeffress and Denys Skeffington-Smyth lived for a time – could it even be Denys Skeffington-Smyth?
Actually, it couldn’t. Douglas Fitzgerald (1906-1986) was a real person in his own right. He was, in fact, a cousin, by mariage, of Olivia Wyndham. He also is,apparently, the man who taught Douglas Bader to fly. He is best known as a vintage car enthusiast, owner of the “Metallurgique” -a 1907 car that could still do 120 mph in the 1960s. Locals at Bradfield and Sheringham remember him buying drinks for the assembled company in exchange for push-starting this beast.
Tommy Utcher (1906-1985) belonged to a wealthy and long-standing Norfolk family and was largely responsible for Sheringham Hall’s current reputation for as fine a display of rhododendrons and camellias as that county can boast.He was more of a London socialite than Douglas and his friendship with Hodgkin is definite. I think they both knew Jeffress well – but were probably not close to Elvira. Nonetheless, it is interesting how relatively under-explored the Harrow-Cambridge set, as opposed to the Eton-Oxford glitterati, has been in any writings on the Bright Young People.
Whatever. It is a certainty that there is more work to be done here. Where is the painting of Elvira now? I would love to see it – or even a colour reproduction. Anyone have any ideas?