My Favourite Painting: Robin Muir

Photographic historian Robin Muir chooses a portrait by Ambrose McEvoy.

Robin Muir on The Hon Lois Sturt by Ambrose McEvoy

‘Wealthy Lois Sturt had a brief career as an actress, making three films, all forgettable. Thereafter, she became a cheerleader for the Bright Young People, who cut a swathe across London.

‘Her next public appearance was at Marylebone Court. She had devised an all-night drive-by treasure hunt and been summonsed for narrowly avoiding a policeman. “But I had to get there before some-one found the next clue!” she wailed.

‘In 1926, she ran over and killed a pedestrian. Neither incident changed her lifestyle in the slightest and, in 1937, she died suddenly in Budapest. All this lay before her when she sat for this vivid portrait. Perhaps the sparks of explosive colour indicated what was to come?’

Robin Muir is a photographic historian and consultant to the Vogue Archive. His exhibition ‘Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things’ is scheduled to open at the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, on April 1.

John McEwen on The Hon Lois Sturt

Lois Sturt (1900–37) was considered the ‘brightest of the bright young 1920s things’ and, according to the formidable artist/writer Percy Wyndham Lewis, ‘the most beautiful debutante of her day’. In an age of chaperones, ‘Bacchante’ (her nickname) smoked, drank, partied and, on a nocturnal London treasure hunt, was arrested in Regent’s Park at 2am for topping 50mph and failing to stop at the request of a policeman.

The Yorke family of her mother’s side embodies beauty and free spirit — Lois’s beautiful mother, Lady Feodorowna, was the daughter of ‘Champagne Charlie’, the Earl of Hardwicke. But Lois was also a pioneer: a professional artist with a London studio, who earned a pilot’s licence, starred as Nell Gwyn in The Glorious Adventure, Britain’s first colour feature film, and was a rare female racehorse owner.

The brief romantic interest of Prince George, Duke of York, was ended by George V. A marriage of convenience secured Lois a title, but ended in divorce. As a shooting star should, she died at 37.

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In the National Portrait Gallery’s 1920 annual show, there were seven portraits of her. She sat most to Ambrose McEvoy, whose rich colours and hasty technique captured her beauty and the ‘whiff of danger’, as art dealer Philip Mould called it, suitable to her character.

McEvoy, the son of a London-based Scotch engineer, was talent-spotted by Whistler and entered the Slade at 15. He was a Royal Naval Division war artist, but is best known as the portraitist who, above all, captured the exuberant Society belles of Roaring Twenties England.

Mr Mould’s 2019–20 exhibition ‘Divine People: The Art of Ambrose McEvoy’ marked his revival; as does ‘Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things’, scheduled for the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield (April 1–July 4) and then The Wilson, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. This portrait is its climax.