DANIEL E. SUTHERLAND: LETTERS FROM AMERICA
The annus mirabilis of 2020 concluded with an intriguing auction. On the block at Holt Auctioneers, in Norfolk, was a rare, hand-crafted shotgun. It attracted wide press coverage, with publications as varied as the Daily Mail and Town&Country reporting the event. Bids came from around the globe, including Europe, America, Australia, and South Africa. The gun had been valued at £3,000 to £5,000; it went to an undisclosed UK buyer for three times the high estimate.
That staggering sum as well as the pre-auction excitement was inspired as much by the identity of the gun’s original owner as by the beauty of the weapon. The whole affair acquired a deliciously salacious flavour when the auction house further identified that person as “a banjo-playing Victorian prostitute.” The owner had been Valerie Susan (née Langdon) Meux, and while the evidence for her being a fille de joie is circumstantial, she certainly led a flamboyant and controversial life. She also sat for two of James Whistler’s most sumptuous portraits.
The self-styled Valerie (she was christened Susan) claimed to have been an actress—reason enough to be thought a “fallen” woman in Victorian England—but she appears to have performed only briefly, and then chiefly in pantomimes and at music halls. It has been suggested that she sang and played the banjo at the Casino de Venise, at the corner of High Holborn and Kingsway, one of the most “fashionable” of several West End dance halls in the 1870s (later rebuilt as the popular Holborn Restaurant, now a Sainsbury’s.) However, the Holborn, as it was also known, employed a “celebrated band,” and a banjo hardly seems a likely instrument for a program of polkas and quadrilles. That said, Val may have entertained patrons in the casino’s “magnificent,” richly appointed saloon. A photograph from the early 1880s does show her strumming the instrument, although she had married and gone “legitimate” by then.
Val’s more questionable associations stem from reports that dance halls like the Holborn Casino were known haunts for prostitutes, both professionals and “amateurs.” Yet, every dance hall had its own, distinct atmosphere. Quite a few p laces were, indeed, rather “shady”; but the Holborn, known for its “mad gaiety” and as a “cheerful, bouncy sort of place,” boasted a “superior” clientele. Novelist and editor Edmund Yates, a good friend of Whistler, described the male patrons as mostly young lawyers, medical students, government clerks, and shopkeepers. The women, he insisted, exhibited “some element of respectability.” Similarly, a visiting New York journalist thought the women “well and neatly dressed, and very quiet and well-behaved in their manners.”
Still, it was risky business for a woman to be associated with the “fast life” and flirtations of the casinos, and the admittedly unabashed, uninhibited Val was a known “habituée,” perhaps even a hostess, at the Holborn. At some point, she began living with a Corporal Reece of the Life Guards and, seeking at least a cloak of respectability, adopted his name. Those were her circumstances when she met young Henry B. Meux, heir to a thriving brewery but also bent on sowing his wild oats. Seeing a better chance than her corporal, Val, with her seductive figure and dazzling violet eyes (think Elizabeth Taylor), nabbed Meux, at least five (perhaps as many as ten) years her junior. Their secret marriage in 1878 stunned the groom’s family, but when Henry inherited the title of baronet five years later, the former Val Reece became Lady Meux.
London Society was not impressed, so that not even a house in Park Lane and a country estate in Herefordshire could spare Val from being shunned as a parvenu. She responded by flouting convention and tweaking the noses of her critics. Some of her most flamboyant acts, such as traversing London in a carriage drawn by a pair of zebras, passed into legend. More substantially, she joined her husband to stalk deer in the Scottish Highlands, rode to hounds, invested in race horses (one of which won the Derby in 1901), attended prize fights (in disguise), and enlarged and renovated her husband’s country house, Theobalds, even adding a Turkish bath and roller-skating rink. Most famously, she convinced Henry, who denied her nothing, to purchase Christopher Wren’s recently dismantled Temple Bar from the City of London and re-erect it as the entrance to the grounds of Theobalds. (The structure was returned to London in 2004; Theobalds is now a hotel, called The Birch.)
However, the irrepressible Val was no vacuous, air-headed bimbo. She became an enthusiastic collector of ancient Egyptian artifacts—a result of her honeymoon trip down the Nile River—and eventually amassed some 1,700 items. Known for her generosity and charitable work, she bequeathed the lot to the British Museum. She also exhibited an enquiring mind by attending meetings of the Theosophical Society. During the Second Boer War, she showed a patriotic side by purchasing six twelve-pounder cannons for the British army.
Her connection to Whistler began when Sir Henry, hoping to ease his wife’s way into Society, commissioned three portraits from the artist in 1881. Whistler completed only two of the pictures, but they are both stunners: Arrangement in Black: Lady Meux (YMSM 228) and Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux (YMSM 229). The commissions, worth £1,500, came at an opportune moment for Whistler. Recently returned from his exile in Venice, he was still trying to recover financially from bankruptcy and rehabilitate his artistic reputation after the Ruskin trial. Happily, he and Val proved kindred spirits in their rebellion against the Establishment. As Val told him in 1892, “I suppose we are both a little eccentric and not loved by all the world. Personally, I am glad of it as I should prefer a little hate.”
A year earlier, Whistler had suggested another portrait, this one to depict Val as “a Spanish female of the 15th Century.” She rejected the idea out of hand. “If you ever paint me again,” the lady replied, “I should like you to paint me in something dreamy. I look best in soft colours,” she purred. And, of course, meux meaning creamy. Unfortunately, Whistler was living in Paris at the time, which led Val to reason, “I fear you will never have the pleasure of painting me again now that you are not in England, as when in Paris I spend all my time at the dressmakers.”
The vivacious Val died in 1910, no doubt remembered by many—as Dr. Watson described the enchanting Irene Adler—as a lady of “dubious and questionable memory.”
We continue to be grateful to Emeritus Professor Daniel Sutherland for his outstanding contribution to the Whistler Society.