TURN the leaves of ‘A sketchbook belonging to Lady Julia Conyers...’ and you will find some 80 drawings and watercolours by Lady Julia and her society friends that are for the most part unexceptional and predictable.
There are landscape and nautical views, drawings of the
Colosseum and other Roman ruins, a Rubens copy, silhouettes and a
number of canine portraits, as well as several scenes featuring
But then you come across the startling contributions of the most
famous of the amateur artists whose work found its way into Lady
Julia's sketchbook - those of Lady Caroline Lamb (1785-1829).
A portrait of her then dashing young husband, William, who as
Viscount Melbourne was to become the young Queen Victoria's first
prime minister and advisor, seems innocuous enough, as do two small
vignettes. A putto first gathers a winged heart and roses, but in a
sequel the winged heart has flown off, leaving the roses to
These may reflect on lost love or hope, but what are we to make
of the two most dramatic of Lady Caroline's pictures?
The largest of them shows a partly clothed woman lying on a bed,
her breast speared by an arrow held by a grinning, red-faced cupid
whose hand is guided by a skeleton which seems also to admonish her
with a raised bony finger.
The second shows a woman on a rocky shore, her arms draped
tenderly around two children as a third struggles in the waves
beside them. The drowning child lifts up its arms to a dark sky
from which strange, and in one case quite devilish, faces
Are these simply Lady Caroline's attempt to visualise some
gothic horror story that she had read or conceived - she was after
all a minor novelist herself, the first and most famous of whose
tales was Glencarvon of 1816, in which Byron and other
real-life characters were disguised in fiction. Or are these
pictures more psychologically revealing, and do they relate to
events in her own life?
As a child Caroline was said to be so highly strung that doctors
warned her parents it would be dangerous to her nervous system to
teach her anything. By turns, impulsive, vivacious, eccentric and
neurotic, Lady Caroline Lamb may be seen as a foolish or tragic
figure, but her behaviour eventually brought an end to her marriage
and there must have been many occasions in which her mental state
was, to say the least, troubled.
Lady Caroline Lamb's greatest claim to fame, of course, is the
infatuation she conceived for Lord Byron - whom she famously
described as mad, bad and dangerous to know. As one of my
biographical dictionaries so succinctly puts it, "he discarded her
in 1813 and she spent the rest of her life in a fragile and
turbulent emotional state".
Are these pictures related in any way to her Byronic tragedy, or
just harmless fancies?
Twenty years ago, the battered Lady Conyers sketchbook, which
contains works dating from the 1770s through to 1830, was sold for
£2000 or so at Sotheby's, but on May 6 last it made a much higher
than expected $46,000 (£30,665) at Bloomsbury New
York. It was part of the Paula Peyraud collection,
focusing on women writers in Georgian England, reported in the
Antiquarian Books section of this weeks ATG printed
There were just a few Byron lots in the Peyraud collection
including one linked to another of those he disappointed in
A portrait profile of the poet, aged 18, is mounted on an album
page inscribed W.S. Leacroft Esq. c.1806-07. Southall and
relates to a family he met while living at Southwell with his
Byron took such an interest in Julia Leacroft that her family
believed he intended to marry her, but when his true intentions
were revealed he was almost dragged into a duel with her brother,
Captain John Leacroft who is thought to have been the artist
responsible for this profile. It sold at $7000 (£4665).
By Ian McKay
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