Elsie Palmer sketch

Ightham Mote general manager Bernadette Gillow with the oil sketch of Elsie Palmer. Image: National Trust Images James Dobson.

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The oil sketch of Elsie Palmer was painted in preparation for his portrait of the Young Lady in White which is now owned by Fine Arts Centre in Colorado Springs, USA.

Elsie (1873-1955) was the daughter of William Jackson Palmer, the American railroad engineer who founded Colorado Springs. She came to live at Ightham Mote with her two sisters and mother (known as Queen or Queenie Palmer after a nickname from her grandmother).

Queen Palmer and daughter Elsie with dog Kelpie

Queen Palmer with Elsie and dog Kelpie at Ightham Mote in the 1880s. Image: National Trust.

The family rented Ightham Mote in Kent for three years from April 1887 and Queen Palmer formed a salon of artists and writers, with visitors including author Henry James, costume designer Alice Comyns Carr, actress Ellen Terry as well as Sargent.

Sargent painted the work before he became internationally famous for his portraits of high-society society figures in Paris, London and New York. 

Elsie Palmer sketch

Elsie Palmer by John Singer Sargent. Image: National Trust Images James Dobson.

The picture has been sold to the now National Trust-run property from Elsie’s granddaughter Jane Kasmin. It had been owned by the Palmer family since it was painted.

The price of the transaction, via a private treaty scheme with the assistance from the Arts Council, was undisclosed.

Sargent created a number of sketches in preparation for the finished picture which depicts Elsie seated in a silk dress against the linenfold panelling of the tower corridor of Ightham Mote.

In the sketch 17-year-old Elsie is shown wearing a silk dress, tied at the waist, standing with her favourite collie dog lying at her feet in the Great Hall of her home.

The interiors are recognisable in the background such as the trefoil window, wood panelling, fireplace and carpet, all of which can still be seen today.

Richard Ormond, Sargent’s great-nephew and art historian, said: “The sketch is painted with great verve, capturing pose and atmosphere in a few bold strokes. The beauty and grace of the young girl in her white dress stand out from the mysterious darkness of the Great Hall. Her long, free-flowing hair and ankle-length dress indicate her girlhood status before her entry into society as an adult woman."

Having moved from Paris to London, Sargent was trying to establish himself as a portraitist and was kept afloat by discerning patrons such as the Palmers. He quickly became good friends with Elsie and they remained in close contact until his death in 1925.

Having grown up surrounded by members of the aesthetic movement, Elsie had artistic connections that continued in later life. Alongside her husband Leo Myers, she socialised with the elite of the Bloomsbury set, including Virginia Woolf, JB Priestley and George Orwell.

Ightham Mote

Ightham Mote, west front and moat. Built nearly 700 years ago, the house has been owned by medieval knights, courtiers to Henry VIII and high-society Victorians. Image: National Trust Chris Jonas.

Bernadette Gillow, general manager at Ightham Mote, said: “Due to the frequent changes of people who owned or leased the house, many objects associated with it were dispersed prior to being donated to the National Trust in 1985. Three years ago we managed to acquire and bring home a painting by Sargent that was also created here, of the Palmer family enjoying a game of bowls in the garden.

“This latest acquisition is a rare and highly significant addition for Ightham Mote. We are thrilled that Elsie has come home and that we can share this charming depiction of her with our visitors.”

The sketch of Elsie will go on display from November 12.

Read more about Sargent’s painting A Game of Bowls that the National Trust bought in 2018