In this month’s staff pick, Gallery Assistant Becky Higgins tells a story of tragic love and loss.
John Currie, The Seamstresses (1913), oil painting, Gift of Sir Michael Sadler, 1923, image (c) University of Leeds
Becky writes: "Having started my job as a Gallery Assistant in December, the last few months have been spent familiarising myself with the wonderfully varied artworks that form the University Art Collection. Whilst I am still hesitant to name a specific favourite, one of the most interesting things about paintings for me is the stories behind them and I have been particularly struck by the story behind John Currie's The Seamstresses (1913). Many works within museum collections have romantic and often tragic tales attached which tell of longing, lust and jealousy, and this one is no different.
The Seamstresses was a gift from Sir Michael Sadler, Vice Chancellor of the University of Leeds from 1911 to 1923 and a great friend and patron of John Currie. Sadler had been invited to the artist's home in Hampstead in 1913 and purchased several works during his visit, including this one, which he described as "still unfinished". It was Sadler who suggested to Currie that this painting be given the title "The Seamstresses" and his recollections of visiting the artist's home, in an account that was later published by his son in 1949, has given us a very interesting insight into the circumstances surrounding the creation of the work. Sadler recounts a scene in which Currie painted his two models whilst reading Dostoevsky aloud, in a small painting room decorated with photographs of landscapes by Cezanne and works by Italian primitives. Sadler identified the two women in the painting (who look less than enraptured by Currie's choice of literature!) as the fair-haired Dolly Henry, Currie's live-in mistress, and her Irish cousin Mary, who had come to stay with the couple in 1913 "in a status between guest and servant". He found Mary to be "silent and intense", and his description of her added credence to the suggestion that she was the subject of a further painting by Currie in 1913 entitled Head of a Woman, which is now held by the Tate Collection: http://bit.ly/1Sy8k2e The sitter hasn't been formally identified, yet it shows a dark-haired girl of slightly peasant-like Celtic features, whose intense expression fits Sadler's description of Mary.
However, it is the relationship between Currie and Dolly Henry that provides the rather fascinating yet tragic backdrop to this work of art. In 1911 Currie had left his wife Jessie Brandon, whom he met at Newcastle Art School, and his young son to begin an affair with Henry, who worked in a store on Regent Street. She became his model, muse and mistress, yet their relationship was turbulent and characterised by violence and jealousy. The attractive and promiscuous Dolly was disliked by Currie's friends, who saw her as a bad influence, and the couple separated frequently over the next two years. Currie wrote in 1913 that "this crazy passion has wasted my strength and broken my will. Henry deserves to die for the ruin of my career", and painted a rather unflattering portrait of her that same year, tellingly entitled The Witch: http://bit.ly/1Ydwy5I
On October 8th 1913, the same month a one-man exhibition had been planned for Currie at the Chenil Gallery in London, Currie shot and killed Dolly before turning the gun on himself, dying the following day at the Chelsea Infirmary. The event shocked the art world. Regarded as one of the most talented painters of his generation, his admirers were left to wonder what might have been, and his highly-regarded works are now held in various public and private collections. A romanticised account of the shooting even appears in Gilbert Cannan's 1916 novel Mendel. In truth, the life of one of the 20th century's most promising artists, as well as that of his mistress, came to a sad and violent end. It was, as Sadler later described it, "a sad story of thwarted genius" and "a calamity to art".
You can see The Seamstresses on permanent display at The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery.