Sargent’s mug shots

Violet, Countess of Powis, by John Singer Sargent, 1912, at Powis Castle, Powys. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Last year we managed to acquire a charcoal sketch by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) of Violet, Countess of Powis (1856-1929), for Powis Castle. The portrait is redolent of the grandeur and style of Edwardian upper-class life.

Nancy Astor by John Singer Sargent, at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Sargent was hugely successful as a portrait painter, but in 1907 he effectively abandoned portraiture in oils. He was financially independent and preferred to focus on landscapes and other subjects.

Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry, by John Singer Sargent, 1913, at Mount Stewart, Co. Down. ©NTPL/John Hammond

However, he could not entirely escape the demands of his high society clientele, and in response to persistent demands he would agree to do a charcoal portrait, which he could finish in an hour or two.

Charles, seventh Marquess of Londonderry, by John Singer Sargent, 1910, at Mount Stewart, Co. Down. ©NTPL/John Hammond

More than 500 of these ‘mug shots’ (as he called them) are known. He originally charged twenty-one guineas for them, which rose to fifty around 1910 and later to a hundred.

Jenny, Lady Randolph Churchill, by John Singer Sargent, at Chartwell, Kent. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

Celebrities captured by Sargent in this way include Winston Churchill, King Edward VII, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother), Henry James, Vaslav Nijinsky and W.B. Yeats.

The purchase of the portrait of the Countess of Powis was supported by a grant from the Art Fund.

4 Responses to “Sargent’s mug shots”

  1. Toby Worthington Says:

    Astonishing, what JS Sargent could capture in under two hours and for
    a mere fifty guineas. It gives new meaning to the word Mug Shots.
    If only he was around when my most recent Passport photo was taken…

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes, but, according to the historical inflation calculator I used, 25 guineas in 1907 would be roughly £2,348 today – a fairly expensive passport photograph 🙂

  3. The Ancient Says:

    EdB —

    You might be surprised how many living artists charge as much or more for a charcoal or pencil portrait. And I have never seen one that comes close to a Sargent mug shot.

    (Also, having once spent an absurd sum having a sketch made of my nephew, I was surprised and mildly unnerved to have a far better sketch done in forty minutes atop the Piazza di Spagna for about 30 euros.)

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    So Toby will have to head to the Piazza di Spagna to have his ‘Sargent’ done 🙂

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