Sunday, 13 April 2008


Maud McCarthy, Matron-in-Chief in France and Flanders, had a couple of portraits done during the war. One was the work of Austin Spare, who she sat for in the spring of 1919 and although it was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum I can't track down its present home. The other is a well-known work by Frank Salisbury, which was completed in 1917. The latter is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery, and I popped in there last week to have a look at the original.
The place was absolutely heaving with people - obviously a very popular choice for a free outing on a Saturday afternoon - and I had to weave and bob my way up to Room 30 on the first floor. Room 30 is a small room, and the theme of the 13 portraits displayed is the First World War - a selection of personalities who, by their actions during that period contributed to change within Britain. Unlike its neighbours, Room 30 was in semi-darkness, and I didn't feel that the lighting did justice to some of the works there.
The Frank Salisbury portrait of Maud McCarthy is a small work, and I felt disappointed by it on two accounts. Firstly, it just doesn't seem to bring out any of her vitality or personality; it's a very muddy portrait, the grey of her uniform barely distinguishable from the muddy brown of the background, and her face eclipsed between the strength of colour in the red of her collar trimmings and the dark brim of her hat. She looks rather pretty and womanly, but with no strength or definition in her face, and eyes that hardly look as though they have seen the world.
But worse than this, was the hanging scheme in the room. Miss McCarthy's portrait is hung above that of John Singer Sargent's portrait of Sir John French (so far so good), her eyes and shoulders inclined towards her left. On her left is a self-portrait of Dame Laura Knight with a nude figure, and I had to wonder what Maud thought of it all. The Knight picture was painted in 1913, so not actually of the period of Room 30, and the artist herself spent the entire war living in Cornwall, well away from the war - how does she come to be included here? What was her contribution to change during the Great War that puts her among Generals and Statesmen? And how can any contribution be compared to Miss McCarthy's five years in France, working 16 hour days, with just a few weeks leave during that whole period. I did think it might be some sort of joke by the staff of the NPG, on a theme of 'those who did, and those who did not.'
I don't think Maud McCarthy would have been happy with the thought that her gaze must fall in perpetuity on a nude woman who played no part in the war. But perhaps I'm prejudiced!

The contents of Room 30, the National Portrait Gallery, can be viewed by using the link below. One other slight 'oddity' there is Lady Ottoline Morrell, but even she can claim to having helped the Great War cause by allowing her house to be used as a convalescent home for officers.

Room 30 portraits, National Portrait Gallery

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