The Bohemian Past of Madame GennadiusPosted: October 2, 2016
On Saturday December 27, 1902, a well-publicized wedding took place in London. John Gennadius, former ambassador of Greece to England and a great book-collector, age 58, and Florence Laing, the youngest daughter of Samuel Laing and the widow of painter Edward Sherard Kennedy, age 47, were married in a double ceremony, first at the Greek Orthodox church of St. Sophia and later that day at the Anglican church of St. Peter’s at Cranley Gardens. There are no photos capturing the ceremony or the reception that followed, but Gennadius, the creator of more than seventy scrapbooks, did keep numerous newspaper clippings announcing this celebrated marriage. More than a few of them mention that the bride had an annual income of roughly 8,000 pounds, leading some to hint that it may have been a marriage of convenience. Time proved that their union was a harmonious one; it lasted 30 years until his death in 1932. She outlived him by another twenty years. The Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) was the offspring of their union. The deed of gift was signed in 1922 and the building was completed in 1926.
The best source for John Gennadius’s life is a small, but thorough, booklet, Joannes Gennadios, the Man: A Biographical Sketch (1990), by Donald M. Nicol, director of the Gennadius Library (1989-1992). In it, there is very little information about the circumstances of how Gennadius met Florence Laing Kennedy. Nicol suspects that they were introduced by “Prince Alexis Dolgoruki, an acquaintance of Gennadios, [who] had married an English lady, Miss Fleetwood Wilson, who was an old friend of Florence.” In an endnote, Nicol mentions that Florence was an artist in her own right, having exhibited her “genre paintings” in the Royal Academy and other London galleries between 1880 and 1893.
THE UNASSUMING PORTRAIT
There are several photos of the couple in the personal papers of John Gennadius. Both are elegantly dressed; she is in stylish and exquisite clothes and hats. Her large, mature portrait by Philippe de Laszlo (1869-1937) hanging in the main reading room of the Gennadius Library, next to Gennadius’s own portrait also by Laszlo, conveys serenity and dignity. Both portraits were executed in 1925 and they must have been commissioned with one purpose: to be hung on the walls of the newly erected library.
What I always found fascinating, as well as a bit out of place, however, is a smaller portrait of Florence that hangs to the left of her large, matronly one. It is an oil painting (0.77x 0.64 m) depicting a seated young woman in three-quarter view. Dressed in a heavy, ruby velvet gown adorned with floral lace, Florence rests her left arm on the back of a seat supporting her head in a reflective mode. Her right hand rests on her lap holding a large Renaissance feather fan (ostrich?) together with a small bouquet of pansies. A wreath made of red ribbon and pansies adorns her head. The choice of flowers, a symbol of floral femininity, was not accidental. The pansies (derived from the French word “pensée”), together with the ostrich feather, allude to the steadfastness and pensive nature of young Florence Laing. The portrait is not signed or dated (or if it is, it is not visible) but carries an old label on its back: “No.2 Portrait of Florence – daughter of Samuel Laing Esq. M. P. Painted by Mrs. Anne Lea Meritt.”
THE CHIEF OBSTACLE TO A WOMAN’S SUCCESS: “THAT SHE CAN NEVER HAVE A WIFE.”
One of the first projects I undertook in 1994, as the newly appointed ASCSA Archivist, was to catalogue the three-dimensional art that was hanging on the walls of the School’s various buildings. At the time (pre-internet), there was very little I could do, in terms of research, with Florence Laing’s portrait, other than recording the painter’s name. I was fortunate, however, to spend two weeks in London in 1996 as a guest of Nicolas Barker, then director of the British Library, who had set up appointments for me with a number of leading libraries and archival repositories in town, as part of my training. In my free afternoons I would go to museums and galleries. During one of those excursions, I came across a beautiful pre-Raphaelite painting hanging on the walls of the Tate Gallery depicting a young cupid trying to open the door of a mausoleum. A closer look at the title, Love Locked Out, revealed that the artist’s name was “Anna Lea Merritt (1844-1930).” Years went by without me giving much thought to the portrait until recently, while revising the catalog, I decided to look her up on the web.
An American painter born in Philadelphia, Anna Lea spent most of her life in England, “living by her brush” as she proudly claimed. After her marriage to painter Henry Merritt in 1877, Anna Lea briefly gave up her career; however, his untimely death three months later forced her to resume painting. In the next two decades, Merritt would produce some of her best works, including Love Locked Out (1889), which became the first work of a female painter to be purchased by the Tate Gallery in 1890. Earning her living and reputation as a portrait painter, Merritt also excelled in allegorical themes. One of her most important, but also lesser known, achievements are the murals she executed for a small Romanesque church in Surrey. To earn such a commission –men dominated the field of mural painting- was an unprecedented achievement for a woman at the time.
Later in life Merritt would also take up writing essays. Her best known essay is titled “A Letter to Artists: Especially Women Artists” published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (v. 65, 1900). In a text that could have been written today (unfortunately), she nails down the chief obstacle to a woman’s success: “that she can never have a wife.”
“Just reflect what a wife does for an artist: Darns the stockings; keeps his house; writes his letters; visits for his benefit; wards off intruders; Is personally suggestive of beautiful pictures; always an encouraging and partial critic,’’
wrote Merritt in her “Letter.” Further down she added that women suffered from the syndrome of the “busy bee” denying themselves frivolity or rest, missing recreation.
Bringing Merritt’s comments to today’s world, you quickly realize that they resonate with some of Gloria Steinem’s sharpest observations: “There is no such thing as Superwoman. You can’t have everything if you do everything” or “I have yet to hear a man ask for advice on how to combine marriage and a career.”
But what about Florence Laing’s portrait? Hers was not just another “debutante” portrait commissioned by the family following the upper class customs of the time. Digging deeper into the life of the two women, I found that they had a lot more in common than one might have first thought.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO CHELSEA
A search on the web for Florence Laing Kennedy (1855-1952) produces very little. She comes up either as the daughter of Samuel Laing, esteemed member of parliament and friend of Gladstone or as the wife of painter Edward Sherard Kennedy (1837-1900). There is, however, one exception. In the British History Online, in the section about “Artists and Chelsea,” I found an interesting mention of a studio-house built for the Kennedys:
“R. Norman Shaw designed a studio-house, 1882-84, for an irregular site at the corner of Walton Street and Lennox Gardens Mews for Edward and Florence Sherard Kennedy, ‘Sunday painters’ with private incomes. Called Walton House, it had separate studios for the couple, and also the Victorian arrangement which allowed models to reach separate changing rooms unseen.”
Walton House, a five storey yellow brick with red dressings, where the Kennedys lived for sixteen years, still stands. Its exterior has been modified over the years but a recent proposal by the architectural firm Guard, Tillman, and Pollock aims to restore the conservatory of the first floor. I was lucky to find copies of the original drawings of Walton House attached to their proposal (the originals are stored in the archives of the Royal Academy).
One assumes that construction of the house must have been commissioned around the time of Florence Laing’s marriage to Edward Kennedy (1837-1900). She would have been about 27 years old in 1882 while he was about 45. We know nothing about the circumstances of their meeting but for her to marry a painter, chances are that he was her teacher and mentor. Her portrait by Anna Lea Merritt at the Gennadius Library shows a woman of about that age. Florence must have met and befriended Merritt in Chelsea, where the latter also owned a house on Tite St. (nos. 50 and 52). In the late 19th/early 20th century Chelsea was an artistic and bohemian colony with more than 1,300 domestic artists’ studios. Among Chelsea’s more illustrious residents were William Turner, James McNeil Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Singer Sargent.
THESE FRAGMENTS I HAVE SHORED…
It is unfortunate that so little can be pieced together about Florence Gennadius’s previous life in Chelsea. We can imagine that the Kennedy house on Walton Street was full of paintings, his, hers, and their friends. Today, we only know of four pastels by Florence, thanks to a Bonhams catalogue (lot 36, February 2006), but I suspect that there are more “hidden” in storerooms of museums and galleries waiting to be rescued from anonymity.
When Florence married John Gennadius in 1902, they moved to an apartment building at 14, De Vere Gardens. Photos of its laborious interior, preserved in one of Gennadius’s scrapbooks, show a heavy and eclectic decorative style, something between baroque and Greek revival, which was chosen to showcase John Gennadius’s collections. There are no paintings by Florence Laing Kennedy on the walls. One suspects that they may have adorned her private rooms or that she may have hung them in another house. (Mrs. Gennadius’s will shows that she was the owner of several properties until the end of her life.) Even the brightest and most accomplished women of her generation, once married (or re-married), had to live in the shadow or, at best, in the orbit of their husbands’ worlds. She did not “darn his stockings” but she kept his house and worked for his benefit.
With so little having survived of Florence Laing Kennedy Gennadius’s once riveting life at Chelsea, we are grateful for her decision to send to the Gennadius Library, together with the shipments of her husband’s books, her portrait by Anna Lea Merritt. It is our only glimpse of her once alluring past as a member of one of the most vivacious and bohemian colonies in London.
My colleague and reference archivist at the ASCSA Archives, Dr. Eleftheria Daleziou, dug up information about Florence Gennadius’s active participation in a number of philanthropic and relief activities of the London Greek community during the Balkan Wars (1912-13) and the Great War. She will be communicating the results of her research in a few days at a conference in London: “ ‘Distressed and Dismayed’: The Response of the London Greek Community to Greece’s War Trials and Refugee Crisis, 1912-1923,” in Greeks and Cypriots in the United Kingdom, 1815-1925: Culture, Commerce, and Politics, London October 14-15, 2016.