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SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 25 (2005) 241-256

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Shaw's Goddess:

Lady Colin Campbell

"When I got home in the afternoon," Shaw noted in his diary on 17 October 1889, "I did a thing that has been in my mind for some time—[I] wrote to Edmund Yates asking him to give the art-criticship of The World to Lady Colin Campbell, as it is no longer worth my while to do so much work for so little satisfaction, not to mention money." As Shaw was not only the art reviewer "G.B.S." in The World but also, as "Corno di Bassetto" in The Star, the most readable music critic in London, and busy in myriad other ways, he was eager to relinquish what had become a bore.

Decades later he would write to Frank Harris, "From Lady Colin Campbell onward, I have been familiar with celebrated beauties and with what is by no means the same thing, really beautiful women." Yet when he gave his art columns over to Lady Colin, he had yet to meet her. A vivid presence, the statuesque, dark-eyed Irishwoman, born Gertrude Elizabeth Blood in May 1858 in County Clare (and thus two years younger than Shaw), already had a column in The World. In the mid-1880s she was one of the most glamorous, and most disreputable, women in England. Inauspiciously, Shaw had first encountered her on canvas. On 8 December 1886, he covered an exhibition that included a full-length portrait of her in a white bouffant satin gown by Worth of Paris, Harmony in White and Ivory, by James McNeill Whistler—"which, being unfinished," G.B.S. dismissed, "has no business in the gallery." Since Whistler was then the dictatorial president of the Society of British Artists, he got his way, although he had failed to capture her for enough sittings before her scandalous divorce court appearances ended them.

Her lawyer, Sir George Lewis, was then cross-examining one of her alleged (and actual) lovers, Lord Blandford, who denied everything but acquaintance. Over the protests of scandalized SBA members, the publicity-seeking Whistler also exhibited in their annual show, which [End Page 241] opened on 19 November 1886, a landscape by Lady Colin, Glimpse of the Thalassa. He had asked no one's consent. Whether or not she had any artistic talent was no matter. Whether or not her picture belonged in the show, she was a beauty.

A striking subject, portraitists sought her out. Gertrude Atherton, an expatriate American novelist who first met her in the 'Nineties, called her "one of the most beautiful women I have even seen; quite six feet tall but perfectly made, poised, and balanced; she reminded me of a spirited clean limbed race horse. Her eyes and hair were black, her skin of a luminous ivory hue; she had no color save her lips and used no make-up. Unexpectedly, she had a great deal of animation, and a keen satiric, brilliant, mind."

Although Whistler made a sketch of his unfinished portrait, published in the Pall Mall Gazette on 30 November 1886, he was frustrated by his inability to complete it, and apparently destroyed the canvas after the exhibition. Although he had called her his "lovely leopard" and confessed that he was "heartbroken" that her "superbly sitting" for him had exhausted her, Lady Colin did not return after the trial. Another engraving of Harmony in White and Ivory, by Bernard Partridge, who would later do a memorable drawing of Shaw rehearsing Arms and the Man, appeared in the illustrated magazine Judy on 8 December 1886. Whatever its variations, Lady Colin's striking portrait was all Shaw would see of her until 29 April 1890, by which time she had assumed most of his art assignments, and Shaw had moved his music columns, signed now "G.B.S.," from The Star to Yates's The World.

Always known by the name of the husband she had left in 1884, suing then for a legal separation on grounds of cruelty, Lady...


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