Culture Magazine

Tuesday 18th December: Susan Muir-Mackenzie

By Kirsty Stonell Walker @boccabaciata
It's a lovely feeling when you discover the model of one of your favorite paintings by one artist also modelled for another of your favorite artists.  That is a bit of a convoluted way of talking about the subject of today's post, Susan Anne Eliza Muir-Mackenzie...

Tuesday 18th December: Susan Muir-Mackenzie

Esther (1865) John Everett Millais

This painting took my breath away when I saw it at the Tate's exhibition about a decade or so ago and I've had her blu-tacked to my work cupboard ever since.  She is a decent size, just over a meter tall,  and that cloak is madly beautiful.  When I started to think who to talk about this month, I wanted to cover some of the women who appear in those huge Millais canvases, and so was delighted to see a name in the exhibition catalog.  I'll talk about the painting first, then about the fascinating lady.
The painting of the Old Testament queen, a heroic woman who saved her people from genocide, is a feast of deep glorious colours and textures.  The queen is presented in a flowing golden robe with dense smears of colour, holding her crown while removing pearls from her long, loose hair.  The model was Susan Muir-Mackenzie, daughter of Sir John William Pitt Muir-Mackenzie (1806-1855), a baronet from Perthshire.  The Muir-Mackenzie family moved to London in 1855, possibly due to the death of Sir John.  The painting happened a decade later when Susan and her mother were living at 68 Cadogan Place, Chelsea.  The invaluable John Guille Millais, in his biography of his father recorded the painting's creation, which involved the yellow 'jacket' awarded to General Gordon, after his secondment to the Chinese army.  The jacket can also be seen in Val Prinsep's portrait of the General which hangs in the Royal Engineers' mess-hall at Chatham. I always wondered why the silk embroidery was seemingly just impressionistic smears of colour, which seemed at odds with the precise depiction of her face.  The answer is, of course, Millais turned the garment inside out 'so as to have broader masses of colour', as Millais Junior reports - 'Millais was painting Miss Mackenzie's head when the Yellow Jacket was brought in, and, as he draped it on her, he said: "There! That is my idea of Queen Esther; you must let me paint you like that."'

Tuesday 18th December: Susan Muir-Mackenzie

Symphony in White, No 1 (1861-2) James Abbott McNeill Whistler

I was interested to read in the 2008 catalog of the Millais exhibition at the Tate that Millais might have been influenced by Whistler's images of single female figures in aesthetic surroundings.  Certainly the painterly effect of the silks inside the gown worn by Queen Esther struck me as having more in common with Whistler's handling of paint than the precision of Pre-Raphaelitism.  The loose, flowing auburn hair also echoes Jo Hiffernan in Whistler's work, but the saturation of color in Millais' painting is at odds with the white space created by Whistler's modern vision.  What always appeals to me when I look at Millais' queen is that she not only looks attractive, a queen who will save her people through her beauty, but she also looks rather capable, and that is a markedly strong arm holding the crown, which seems to have more in common with Judith's dealings with Holofernes.  So who was Miss Susan Mackenzie?
Susan Anne Eliza Muir-Mackenzie seems to have been a fascinating young woman. She was a great friend of Gertrude Jekyll, which is handy because as an unmarried woman, her achievements and talents might have gone unrecorded.  Mercifully, as Sally Festing says in her 1991 biography of Jekyll, we know that Susan was a fellow art student and toured Italy with Jekyll in 1868.  We have one of Susan's paintings in a national collection.

Tuesday 18th December: Susan Muir-Mackenzie

Montague Johnstone Muir Mackenzie (1893-1903) Susan Anne Muir Mackenzie

The subject of her painting was her younger brother Montague (1847-1919), a barrister and legal writer, who shared his sister's love of music.  Susan sang and played the piano and so it is interesting that she chose to portray her brother playing a cello rather than with some sort of law symbolism.  Susan's family were an interesting lot on the whole.  I am particularly tickled by her sister Georgina who went off round Europe with her friend, planning to travel by hitch-hiking on hay carts, before being arrested for being a spy.  Splendid.  Susan's interest in art extended to her not only posing for one queen, but two...

Tuesday 18th December: Susan Muir-Mackenzie

Boadicea (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron

In November 1865, at the French Gallery in Pall Mall, Julia Margaret Cameron exhibited a photograph of Susan Muir-Mackenzie, which presumably is this one, as held by the National Portrait Gallery.  Taking the Millais portrait as a comparative image for the same date, there are  few others images from 1865 (or 1864-66, as the Complete Catalogue published by Getty have them) which might be Susan...

Tuesday 18th December: Susan Muir-Mackenzie

Unknown Woman as Diana (c.1864-6) Julia Margaret Cameron

I wonder if this too is Susan, and my eyes are again drawn to the sturdy arms of the goddess Diana.  Those strong arms were criticised by G F Watts to whom she sent the only copy, who disliked that she had 'put young limbs into such positions as call forth muscular development.' (as repeated on the V&A collection, where the only print of this image is held).  Apparently Watts did not like his women to look like they could take him in an arm-wrestle, but I rather like that.
Susan's love of art was also demonstrated by her home called High Barn Farm or Warren Farm, but renamed 'the Hermitage', a refuge for artists who found themselves short of cash.  In the design and building of the home and its garden she called in her friend Gertrude Jekyll again, and possibly Edwin Lutyens.  There is also another home in Effingham in Lutyen's Close, called the Red House, which was apparently built by Lutyens for Susan.  It is gorgeous.

Tuesday 18th December: Susan Muir-Mackenzie

What a gorgeous house!

The Hermitage also became somewhere her family could stay when they found themselves in the country, as her brother John, an Indian civil servant, did and his daughter was born there in 1894.  As an unmarried woman, Susan actually seems to have enjoyed greater freedoms that would have been denied her as a wife, and her acts of charity are recorded to her, no disguised by her husband's name.  In the Hermitage she kept a small household of a cook, two maids and 'an outdoor man' (as recorded in an advert in 1902) and she gave her money to other charities beyond the one she ran, as recorded in the Morning Port of April 1898: 'On behalf of the Homeless Poor on the Thames Embankment we have received 10s from Miss Mackenzie, The Hermitage, Effingham, Surrey.'
When Susan died on 22 August 1908, she left her sizable, £12,000 fortune to her brother Montague and her nephew Kenneth, who had also trained as a barrister.  She is buried at St Nicolas Church, Great Bookham, close to her home in Effingham. She is definitely a woman I'd want to know more about and hopefully her time in the limelight will come.
See you tomorrow.

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