"The face that launched a thousand questions"
By Mark Archer
Published: February 28 2006, Financial Times
I loved the painting as soon as I saw it. Entitled “Portrait of a Lady with a Red Scarf”, it was being exhibited at the London Art Fair two years ago.
There was a haunting, melancholy quality about it, with the impassively sculptural face contrasting with the arrangement of the woman’s hands, clasped in a seemingly symbolic gesture. The period influences in it – the Bloomsbury Group’s attention to decorative design, a palette that suggested the Scottish colourists, the sculptural face reminiscent of art deco portraits by artists such as Tamara de Lempicka – were all clues waiting to be solved. Intrigued, I bought the painting for £2,800 and set about discovering what I could about it.
Rebecca Wilson Stephens, the gallery owner, told me the artist was Jessica Dismorr (1885-1939). The portrait, painted around 1927, was of her friend Rachael Levy, an anthropologist and secretary to the Hellenic Library. Rebecca directed me to Quentin Stevenson, from whom she had bought the painting.
When I contacted Stevenson, he refused to disclose anything because he was working on a biography of Dismorr, but he directed me to his introduction to an exhibition of her work held at the Fine Art Society in 2000. In this Stevenson argues that Dismorr had a traumatic love affair with Wyndham Lewis, that this profoundly influenced her work and that it led ultimately to her suicide in 1939. He quotes Kate Lechmere, a former lover of Lewis, who remembers Dismorr and her fellow artist Kate Saunders as “little lapdogs who wanted to be Lewis’s slaves and do everything for him”. Another friend recalls Dismorr in a “wild phase of her life”, determined to trample on her “puritanism” with alarming psychological results. One example may have been when Dismorr decided one day to take off all her clothes in the middle of Oxford Street. According to Lechmere, this was to prove she would do anything that Lewis asked her.
Was this the Jessica Dismorr who lay behind my portrait – a mentally unstable artist with a talent for disastrous relationships? Or was she a victim of the sexual politics of the time? I spoke to Jonathan Ody, son of Robin Ody, Dismorr’s close friend and the executor of her will. He repeated his father’s view that Dismorr “personified the Edwardian phenomenon of the new woman”. The daughter of a wealthy businessman, she enjoyed a private income and lived a varied and cosmopolitan lifestyle, visiting France frequently and maintaining a studio on the King’s Road in Chelsea. But it was hard to be an emancipated woman artist when painting remained a largely male preserve. At the inaugural meeting of the vorticist group, which Lewis founded in 1914, Christopher Nevinson is reputed to have retorted: “Let’s not have any of these damned women”, whereupon Lewis confessed with embarrassment that the Rebel Art Centre, where the group was based, was entirely financed by Kate Lechmere, his former lover. When the affair broke up, Lechmere’s hostility towards Dismorr can perhaps be explained by the bitter legal battle she mounted against Lewis to retrieve the debts he owed her.
That Dismorr and Helen Saunders, the two female members of the group, were regarded as outsiders by the other vorticists is captured symbolically in the painting by William Roberts, “The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring 1915”. In the painting, Roberts installs Lewis, himself and six other figures in a frieze-like frame in the centre of the picture. Dismorr and Saunders are treated like a late arriving couple (Dismorr is the furthest female figure in the doorway), compositionally separate from the inner circle of vorticists.
Critics have tended to recycle the view of Dismorr as a minor figure in the vorticist circle. But the first complete catalogue of her works, which I discovered in an unpublished PhD thesis on Dismorr by Catherine Heathcock, reveals that she was critically acclaimed in her day. She studied at the Slade in 1902-3 and in 1910-13 at the Academie de la Palette in Paris, where she worked with the group of fauvist painters associated with John Duncan Fergusson, one of the Scottish colourists. Indeed, she exhibited with Fergusson and his fellow colourist S.J. Peploe, at the Stafford Gallery in London in October 1912, an exhibition that prompted the Observer’s art critic to wonder why no place had been found for these painters in Roger Fry’s second post-impressionist exhibition, which had also opened that month.
The letters between Dismorr and Lewis, collected at Cornell University, give little indication of an affair between them. In one letter in 1924 Dismorr indicates that she regarded the whole businesslike process of marriage bethrothal with considerable humour:
“I have also been amused in watching the tentative efforts of a titled French family to secure me and my prospective thousand a year for their fils à marier – I have just watched them from afar as it were, with the malicious knowledge up my sleeve that should I marry a Roman Catholic I would lose half my fortune, which would suit neither party. It is all too funny for words.”
For much of the first world war Dismorr was in France nursing the wounded and, later, working as a bilingual field officer with the American Friends Service Committee. In common with many of her contemporaries, she did suffer some sort of nervous collapse after the war and around 1920 she had a nervous breakdown. Lewis’s letters are typically cordial:
“I was glad to learn of your recovery from your breakdown, and hope soon to get more and better news of you still. I think that the doctors’ theory that you should not paint is all rubbish. They probably think that your paintings are very funny and pathological and that had made you ill. I should think that a bit later on when you are stronger, that the best possible distraction for you would be to paint. But you will ultimately decide for yourself.”
Dismorr contributed illustrations and poetry to many avant-garde publications of the period. She was an acquaintance of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and remained at the heart of London’s artistic world into the 1930s, when she made a series of portraits of poets such as C. Day Lewis and Dylan Thomas. In one contribution to Wyndham Lewis’s Blast magazine, she describes a solitary nighttime journey through London, at a time when, even in the 1920s, women were often unable to eat out after 10pm in restaurants and cafés without a male escort. In this she responds imaginatively to the architecture of the city, an urban landscape that she later translated into an entirely abstract idiom in her surviving vorticist oil paintings:
“Now out of reach of squalor and glitter, I wander in the precincts of stately urban houses. Moonlight carves them in purity. The presence of these great and rectangular personalities is a medicine. They are the children of colossal restraint, they are the last word of prose. In admiring them I have put myself on the side of all the severities.”
Dismorr continued to paint and exhibit every year until her death. She exhibited from 1926 until 1938 with the London Group, whose members included Charles Ginner and Barbara Hepworth, and the Seven and Five Society, where she showed with Ben Nicholson and Ivon Hitchens. Her work shows a search for new forms, through landscape, abstraction and portraiture, the latter centred around a close- knit network of female friends that included Rachel Levy, the Lady in the Red Scarf, and her sister Gertrude Levy, whom she also painted. Indeed, Robin Ody’s conjecture that her relationship with Lewis “was almost certainly platonic” was amplified by his son Jonathan, who repeated the family view that she “was more inclined to prefer women to men”. The role female friendship played in her life is perhaps illuminated by her will, in which only females are recipients of her estate. Was this a political choice? Her close friend Kate Saunders was twice proposed to by Walter Sickert but later in life told a relative that she thought it was unwise for artists to marry each other as, in every case she knew, the woman had subordinated her artistic needs to those of her husband. Certainly, there is a sense of isolation and personal sadness that emanates from a portrait such as “Lady with a Red Scarf”, conveyed by the staring, unsmiling face of the sitter. It is tempting to conclude that this mood is revealing of Dismorr’s innermost feelings and psychological make-up. Whether to do with this inner loneliness or with the onset of another world war, on August 29 1939 she hanged herself. To one who had simply bought one of her paintings, this finding was a sad conclusion to a fascinating journey of discovery.