Tag Archive: Eliot Hodgkin


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.”

 

Eliot Hodgkin

“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.

http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=716

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?

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As the person who had spent the most time with Elvira and Michael on the 30th of May, Arthur Jeffress was  the first witness interviewed by the Police. He had been at the cocktail party, then at the Cafe De Paris and The Blue Angel. He does not mention the late night party at his Orchard Court flat, to which Elvira was invited but declined to go

His statement is brief and relatively uninformative. He claimed no knowledge of any friction between the couple “beyond the ordinary tiff” and states that both were “quite sober and responsible” when they left The Blue Angel. He had known Elvira for five years and describes her as a “good friend”. Rather unnecessarily, one would have thought, he denies that there was any “intimacy” between them.Michael he had  “known of” for a similar length of time, but only knew him to speak to since his relationship with Elvira had begun. some six months earlier. Jeffress had met him about six times at William Mews, always at cocktail parties.

Arthur Jeffress 

For Jeffress, the Monday night was primarily a chance to catch up with people, as he had just returned from a three month trip to Italy and America. That he chose to spend the bulk of the evening with Elvira suggests that she was not simply someone he bumped into during the endless round of parties and social functions that made up his London life in the period. His willingness to appear in court also indicates that he was keen to support a “good friend”.

Commentators on the case, at the time and later, have taken his self-description as “of independent means” to dismiss him as one of an army of idlers that surrounded Elvira in her pursuit of  general dissolution. However, there was a bit more to Jeffress than that.

He was the younger son of a very rich Virginia tobacco merchant. His family were American but he was born in England (1905) in Middlesex and was educated at Harrow and Cambridge. His father died in 1925 and Arthur, I assume, inherited a considerable fortune, which he took great delight in spending. His extravagance knew few bounds and the adjective that keeps cropping up in reference to him is “flamboyant”.  His Red and White party of 1931 (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/the-red-and-white-party/ ) is the most notorious example of his excesses but his lifestyle generally is one for which the word “lavish” might have been invented. A personalised Rolls-Royce, a taste for Charles Xth  furniture and a penchant for rare artworks were just some typical Jeffress traits.

Arthur Jeffress’ Rolls-Royce

To include Jeffress in Elvira’s crowd is to add another dimension to  this particular “Gay Bohemia”. If Howard and Gathorne Hardy represent  literary London,  Wyndham and Ker-Seymer photography, the various actresses – stage and cinema, then Jeffress’ friends belong more to painting and fashion design.All of which indicates  that this tiny group of people were involved in pretty much every aspect of the Arts in 1930s London, which seems to me quite remarkable. If Frederick Ashton and Billy Chappell also knew Elvira, which is more than possible, then we can chuck in ballet too. Decadent they certainly were but they left a distinctive mark on English cultural life between the wars.

Jeffress may have played some part in the commisioning of the above portrait of Elvira, by Eliot Hodgkin. This painting, which is so evocative of the era, was analysed (and eventually owned) by their mutual friend,Viva King ( see  https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/viva-king/  ). It was probably Viva King who introduced Elvira to Jeffress and Jeffress who introduced Eliot Hodgkin to Elvira.

There is a strong likelihood is that Elvira would have met all the people in the series of photos of Arthur and chums in the National Portrait Gallery archive ( see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/gay-young-people/    ). If they were not all actual attendees at either the cocktail party or The Blue Angel then they are at least representative of the young men who were.

Jeffress, Hodkin and friends

Jeffress also knew Beverley Nichols and many years later  they reminisced about the Barney affair at a lunch with Peter Cotes. Nichols made some disparaging statements about Michael Scott Stephen but it is unclear what knowledge Jeffress imparted . He was, according to Cotes, “both witty and wistful”. The meeting would have taken place some fifteen years before Cotes’ book came out but given that he states that Jeffress was “a mine of information” about the case it is a pity that it is impossible to identify exactly the extent of his contribution to “The Trial of Elvira Barney” (Cotes 1974) .

Jeffress died in Paris in 1961, exactly 25 years after  Elvira’s death in the same city. The intervening years were full of incident, anecdote and, unlike so many of Elvira’s peers, achievement. I will touch on a few of these in an upcoming post.

Elvira’s Reading Matter

During and after the trial various rumours circulated about certain books that were said to be on display at 21 William Mews.

“The library was furnished with publications that could never have passed through His Majesty’s Customs” (McDonald Hastings 1963).There was no library  in the mews. The police blueprint does not even indicate a bookcase. There would have been books around the place and no doubt some may have tended toward the exotic.

First Edition Paris 1922

Elvira liked to portray herself as “Modern”. In the portrait she commissioned Eliot Hodgkin to paint of her, the background is filled with markers of the lifestyle she (or Hodgkin) wished to present to the world. It is a rather hectic collage and includes a saxophone, the hands of a jazz pianist, a rugby football, a lifebuoy (why?) and what looks strangely like a needlework sampler. There are also two books – both beloved icons for the more bookish among the Bright Young People. One is James Joyce’s Ulysses  – still banned but much smuggled into London by channel-hoppers such as Elvira – the other is Ronald Firbank’s “Prancing Nigger”.

Ronald Firbank was the subject of something of a cult among the BYP and writers (and would-be writers) such as Harold Acton, Anthony Powell, Jocelyn Brooke, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh and Brian Howard fell under his spell. His influence with the younger aesthetes was enormous and “Firbankian” came to denote not just a literary style but a whole way of being. Camp,witty, irreverent he was the perfect writer for the social circle Elvira moved in.

Ronald Firbank  (1886-1926)

Were these the books that so scandalised “hardened policemen”?  Quite possibly. If so, were they among Elvira’s favourites as the portrait seems to suggest or were they just chic accessories – proof of Elvira’s self-image as a sophisticate? We cannot know. However, thanks to a careful compilation,by C.I.D. officer John Scurr, of the reading matter stacked up in the bathroom of  21 William Mews we do know something of what Elvira actually did read. The picture that emerges is considerably less high-brow but very illuminating.

Why the police felt the need to make such a catalogue is a little puzzling, but I am very glad they did. What you get is a very instructive snapshot of what one wealthy, young, club-hopping woman  of the era perused while awaiting the next invitation or outing.Yet, I would put money on this being a fairly typical list of periodicals and newspapers and would have been found in many a Chelsea or Mayfair flat.

There are 48 items, mostly magazines with some programmes and the odd letter. There is only one novel, “This Delicate Creature” by Con O’Leary. I know nothing of this work  but the title is, in the circumstances,  more than a little ironic. O’Leary was a reasonably popular author – but no modernist.

The newspapers Elvira read were the Daily Sketch, The Daily Express and The Sunday Express – all very conservative and middle-brow, the Sketch veering towards the “Tabloid” end of the market. She took two illustrated  news weeklies The (National) Graphic and The Bystander.The Graphic  was in its final days and  may have simply been a favourite from younger days in the Mullens household (it was very popular in World War One). The Bystander was reinventing itself as a glossy magazine -with greater concentaration on leisure and fashion. I think the edition in Elvira’s bathroom was this one

which would make sense.

The Bystander lasted until 1940 when it was absorbed into The Tatler, copies of which were also in the pile. It would be surprising if they weren’t – no woman of Elvira’s age and class would want to miss the society news and gossip that journal offered its readers. Equally unsurprising is the presence of the rather more sophisticated Vanity Fair, with its mixture of literary pieces, humour, stylish photography and glossy adverts.

Elvira’s continued interest in the theatre is evidenced by a copy of The Stage. Read widely but specifically aimed at those within the profession, one can imagine Elvira following the careers of many acquaintances with interest – and perhaps some regrets.

There are a few issues of an obscure magazine called The Picture Budget,  which was presumably devoted to cinema. There is no mention of Elvira as a regular movie-goer but it would be odd if she was not.

There are more copies of  “Britannia and Eve” than any other title. This was a popular and stylish woman’s journal, much valued today for its delightful and evocative cover art-work. Here are a few that PC Scurr listed –

There are two American satirical magazines Hullabaloo and Ballyhoo in the collection. These were the forerunners of the likes of Mad magazine and specialised in cartoons and spoof adverts. They would have also been considered quite “racy” for the era. How available they were in England at the time I don’t know – but not very, I suspect

Also a little on the “fast” side was London Life – a magazine devoted to fashion, feature articles and “What’s On” listings. Its notoriety came from the amount of fetishists who  commandeered the letters pages – under the guise of asking for fashion tips. I’m sure Elvira was suitably amused.

Also to be found are copies of The New Yorker  and Cosmopolitan, then still basically a literary magazine. These were classy journals, with nods towards highbrow culture but were also markers of a suave and comfortable lifestyle.

Finally there are two journals I cannot identify – The Courier and The Nightlight.

I will deal with the theatre programmes separately but these magazines and newspapers tell us a lot about Elvira, her interests, her self-image and the sort of world with which she identified. Cultured, hedonistic and consumerist, modern but not avant-garde, a little daring, a strong sense of visual style, little interest in politics or world events (even in 1932) and a general sense that the pursuit of pleasure and fun were what mattered in this life- that is the picture they suggest to me. All of which fits perfectly well with what we know about Mrs.Barney from other sources. I’m sure she was familiar with Firbank and Joyce but I am confident that these periodicals take us closer to  her real enthusiasms and shine a singularly helpful light on a very specific, but not atypical, way of life. Quite by accident, PC Scurr captured a moment of cultural history and I, for one, am very grateful to him.

Gay Young People

I find these photographs both charming in themselves and very evocative. A group of young gay men enjoying the freedom of an afternoon party in an English garden. So much of the imagery around pre-war gay culture is secretive and “after dark” that these portraits seem very refreshing. Arthur Jeffress is central to the Barney case, Eliot Hodgkin painted the most fascinating picture of her. The others may not have known her at all but my guess is that they would have been  very familiar with the worlds of The Blue Lantern and The Blue Angel.

Guy Osborn; Budge Fraser; Arthur Jeffress; Eliot Hodgkin and friends, by Unknown photographer, 1930s - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Budge Fraser; Eliot Hodgkin; Guy Osborn; Arthur Jeffress and friends, by Unknown photographer, 1930s - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Guy Osborn; Budge Fraser; Arthur Jeffress and friends, by Unknown photographer, 1930s - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Arthur Jeffress; Budge Fraser; Guy Osborn; Eliot Hodgkin; and friends, by Unknown photographer, 1930s - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Where,when exactly (some time in the late 1920s, I’m told on good authority) and by whom these snaps were taken is a bit of mystery, In the pictures are Arthur Jeffress (1904-1961), Eliot Hodgkin (1905-1987) , John “Budge” Fraser (1906 -1977) and Guy Osborn. I think Michael Sherard (1910-1999) is there too -either in front of or behind the camera. Jeffress was to become one of the most significant art dealers and gallery owners in London, Hodgkin is today best remembered for his still-life works in tempera and Sherard and Fraser ran a successful dress design and costumier business (Sherard was the designer).

Viva King

My take on the Elvira Barney case changed dramatically after reading Viva King’s fascinating  ( if, in places, unreliable) memoirs.

” One of the quintessential female Bohemians was Viva King, who, when we went around together, would become furious if anyone assumed her to be my mother. An uncommonly beautiful woman before she became stout and puffy, she and her husband Willie, of the British Museum, were more attracted by young gay men than by each other. In later years, one of her most cherished friends was April Ashley, who had emerged as a stunningly glamorous butterfly from the drab chrysalis of a lanky merchant seaman.” Francis King 

Somewhat older than the “Bright Young People” , really a member of Augustus John’s set, she was nonetheless a key figure of the 20s scene both as hostess and party guest. She was a close friend of Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, Arthur Jeffress and knew both Elizabeth Ponsonby and Elvira Barney well. Brenda Dean Paul had been her bridesmaid. Despite some patent inaccuracies, her chapter on Elvira is very revealing.

A CAUSE CELEBRE

“My friend Georgia Sitwell had, at some period before I was married, introduced me to a schoolfriend of hers called Elvira Mullins”

Georgia Sitwell (née Doble), by Bassano, May 1935 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Georgia Doble (Sitwell)

“Elvira’s father was a stockbroker to the government and they lived in great splendour in Belgrave Square.Not that Iever  saw  much of this splendour as Elvira had a real nostalgie de la  boue, so that her home had a curious atmosphere of gilded misery. She also had that fatal gift to which I have referred, always being “In love, my dear!” – said in a slightly Cockney voice. One of her victims was Charles Graves and Elvira sat out. I forget howmany hours or days, in her car waiting for him to leave his flat in Royal Avenue in Chelsea.When he finally emerged, she took a pot-shot at him with a revolver and happily missed. She drove a large car, the first I had ever seen with chromium and not brass fittings, and we would sometimes gofor a night or two to a cottage that she had near Henley. I would wash up the dirty dishes left in the bath and sweep up mountains of champagne corks – which rather annoyed her as she said that they were souvenirs of gay nights.”

6 Belgrave Square

“Three American singers came over to perform in the Halls, calling themselves the Three New Yorkers and Elvira married the ugliest and fattest of them, called Barney.He treated her very badly and with surprising jealousy and Willie (Viva’s husband) and I were witness to ugly scenes. At last he he took himself back to America and Elvira took to drugs. Drug taking was not then the legally hazardous thing it is now and she would ring me up to ask for my help. I was, of course, unable to assist her. But one day we were all surprised when she was told by a friend that if she took her car to Richmond and at a certain point drove right then left then right again she would find a teashop where, on demand, a waitress wold supply her needs. We were even more surprised to learn that the white powder for which she paid so dearly “Really was, my dear, cocaine.”

“As Willie hated parties, we did not go to her last, attended by so many of our friends, who were later grilled by the police.After the party was over, Elvira waited for her lover to return. when he did appear, out came her revolver and in a rage she fired it, bang,bang,bang! or only one bang!, which killed him.He did not die at once but went into the bathroom to staunch the blood coming from his wound and mouth, emerging after a few minutes to fall dying at her feet. She wisely sent at once for the family doctor and he stayed an hour with her before the police were called.

She was arrested and put in the infirmary of Holloway prison and Sir Patrick Hastings got the brief for defending her on a charge of murder.She was living in a mews flat, and in those days such flats were still mostly inhabited by chauffeurs and their wives over the garages.The statements of these women of the number of bangs that they heard varied considerably,ergo:according to Sir Patrick they were unreliable witnesses and only one bang could have killed the victim in the struggle for the revolver, which went off accidentally. Thus Elvira was acquitted.”

Holloway HMP

“I was upset by this terrible affair, and imagined Elvira to be prostrate after her ordeal and weeks of anxiety on remand in prison.But when I opened my Daily Mirror the next day, there she was with a happy grinning countenance, stepping into her car on the way to the hairdressers.She soon came to see me and said that she had kept a picture of Tallulah Bankhead with her in prison and that looking at it had kept her spirits up.Willie and I did not know what to make of this and I wonder if Tallulah ever later realized that among her other achievements, there had been this help she had been able to give to a suspected murderess.

Tallulah

“Elvira was found dead in her hotel bedroom sometime afterwards and I received a letter from her mother saying she had left me all her pictures and books, but as she had died insolvent they had been in their rights to keep the best of these to pay for her funeral.However I did get the portrait of Elvira that Eliot Hodgkin had painted of her,It was an image of Elvira that she wished to show the world. Elvira was not even her name. She had changed it by deed poll from something far more ordinary (untrue).”

Eliot Hodgkin

Eliot Hodgkin