My favourite painting: Douglas Boyd

'I love this painting for the passion and empowerment one can sense in her profile and the complete control she exudes'

Madame Suggia, 1920–23, by Augustus John (1878–1961), 6ft by 5½ft, Tate Collection.

Douglas Boyd says:
I love this painting for the passion and empowerment one can sense in her profile and the complete control she exudes. And that astounding red dress: this is no Handmaid’s Tale gown of oppression, but a statement of the fire and brilliance that were characteristic of her playing.

Three little anecdotes: my wife, Sally Pendlebury, cellist with the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, was inspired as a child by Jacqueline du Pré, who in turn was influenced by Suggia. Augustus John had a daughter, Amaryllis Fleming, whom I knew, who became one of the great cellists and teachers of her time. And finally, John’s step-granddaughter married John Paul Getty Jr. The Getty estate at Wormsley is, of course,
the wonderful home of Garsington Opera ’

Douglas Boyd is artistic director of Garsington Opera, for which he is conducting Capriccio this season (until July 22). He is also music director of the Orchestre de chambre de Paris.

John McEwen comments on Madame Suggia:
Augustus John, whose brain was once teeming with ideas for great compositions, had ceased to do imaginative work and was painting portraits,’ wrote William Rothenstein, his contemporary, of John’s art between the World Wars.

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This portrait took him 80 sittings – so long, rumour falsely suggested he and its subject, the Portuguese cellist Guilhermina Suggia (1885–1950), were living in sin. Suggia was in England from 1912 to 1923, her virtuosity ecstatically acclaimed. Young Edward Hulton (1906–88), later publisher of Picture Post and Eagle, was briefly engaged to her – the age difference an expression of her passionate effect, the portrait a betrothal present.

The end of the engagement annulled the commission and turned the portrait into what Andrew Wilton has described as ‘a striking image, and to cause a stir that would promote both sitter and artist’. John succeeded. Madame Suggia was bought by the supreme art panjandrum, Lord Duveen, and presented by him to the Tate in 1925.

The dramatic pose showed Suggia playing with legs astride, instead of to one side as convention demanded of female cellists. In fact, as the famous accompanist Gerald Moore recalled, her playing was ‘calculated, correct and classical’. She played Bach during sittings and noted John would ‘walk up and down in time to the music’ and, when he was pleased, ‘on tiptoe’. It was ‘a portrait not only of a musician but of her instrument – more of the very spirit of the music itself… John himself is kind enough to call it “our” picture’.

‘Augustus John: Drawn from Life’ is at Poole Museum, Dorset, until September 30

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