Home Truths from Down Under
It all started with a picture of a picture of a picture. A beautiful painting – a reproduction – used to hang on a living room wall in my uncle’s (on mother’s side) London apartment. It was of my grandmother. Entitled Kitty Powell, it was painted by the famous Australian artist, George Lambert, in 1907, I was told. A sibling had inherited the picture, but kindly gave me a framed sepia photograph of it. This now hung in my home, in Cape Town. The time was 2011. Over 100 years since those portraits had been painted.
Katherine Powell aka Kitty Powell aka my grandmother was raised in India as well as England. Her mother, our great grandmother, had been bundled off out of harm’s way by some of her servants in Meerut, India during the time of the Indian Mutiny in 1857. Kitty Powell was a beauty. She was also a smart independent woman. In London, she hung out with bohemians, artists, poets and intellectuals, joining the Chelsea Arts Club soon after it was founded in 1891 by Whistler and his group of like-minded friends during a time where Chelsea was the beating heart of London’s cultural and artistic life. There, she met the artists of the day. She was not interested in being a society debutante and enduring stultifying pairing with a chap from the right family. After she had been presented at court – the coming-out ritual for society debutantes with royal family connections – she declared she wanted to train to be a nurse and go abroad. And so she did, which is where, in Karachi, then India, she met in an Army surgeon, who, being equally unconventional, was the man she chose to marry.
Growing up, our family displayed an indifference to subjects such as geneaology, ancestry and heroic deeds of forefathers. Occasionally my mother would let slip something – Grandpa started life as a surgeon in British Guiana, South America, followed by service as an army surgeon in the Boer War. He was appalled and ashamed of the British treatment of women and children in the Boer concentration camps and wrote letters to the Crown
describing the shameful conditions. He was excommunicated from the Catholic Church because he sought to differ with the Church over their moral principle that, in the event of life-threatening pregnancy or birth, the child’s life must be saved over the mother’s (i.e. there can be no direct intervention on the child to save the life of the mother). This would have been in the early 1900’s – I think the Catholic Church has retreated on this question, and it is no longer an instruction whose defiance is an ex-communicable offence. Grandpa was an atheist after that, neither stepping foot in a Catholic church nor returning to his birth country of Ireland.
My mother, Alice Timbrell Fallon, was of the same ilk. And with the same strong looks and personality as her mother. Intelligent, non-conformist – but with a strong sense of obligation to give back to society. Three rather headstrong people that I feel proud to have as my ancestors. I like to think some of it was passed on to me.
Kitty Powell – Artist, Model, Nurse
However, the extent of Kitty’s independent spirit was not evident until I unearthed some interesting facts and rather pictures of her from an unexpected source.
My sister-in-law, Barbara, who lives in Brisbane, Australia was visiting us in September 2011. I showed her the photo of the painting of the painting, and said I thought that the original, or another one by George Lambert for which my grandmother modeled was in one of the major art museums in Australia. As a lifetime member of the Queensland Art Museum in Brisbane, she said she could get access of archival records about the whereabouts of Lambert’s paintings, and she promised to do this when she got home.
Some weeks later Barbara emailed: “I’ve just come from the Queensland Art Gallery where the Lambert painting is hanging in all its silken glory!!! It’s up at the moment as part of an exhibition of early portrait paintings, and is entitled Miss Kitty Powell. (I note in your latest email that you have also referred to your grandmother as Miss Katherine Timbrell!?)…”
A month or so later, Barbara emailed me with more findings: “I have now done some research into the painting of Kitty! I have an article about George Lambert and his time in London which I’ll photocopy and send to you. It’s from a book called Australian Art Brought to Light 1850 to 1965. There’s a full page repro of the painting of Kitty and a reference to her which describes her as an actress! From other books I discovered that she was also painted in the nude — there is one painting of her in the National Gallery in Canberra by G L called Sonnet 1907, painted at 2 Rossetti Studios, Flood St, Chelsea.
“There are two other (clothed) people in the painting, one is of Thea Proctor (also a well known Aus painter and supposed mistress of L), and a man reading a sonnet (Arthur Streeton, another of the famous painters of Aus). Elsewhere she is described as a student of Lambert’s. After her name is the name Fallon in brackets. Was this a later married name? The ref books were George W. Lambert Retrospective by Anne Gray of the Nat. Gallery in Canberra, and also George Lambert 1873 — 1930 Art & Australia Book Craftsman House 1996.”
“The collectors who donated the works were Sir Leon and Lady Trout. I am yet to do some research into them, and perhaps trace the acquisition of Kitty to a sale of paintings at some stage, perhaps somewhere like Sotheby’s.”
Barbara also mailed me an article of George Lambert entitled ‘Family and a Special Friend’. He seems to have had at least two ‘special friends’, one being my grandmother. She would have hated being called an actress. She dabbled in art but she was most proud of her nursing and teaching career.
George Washington Lambert Russia, Australia 1873 – 1930 Lambert’s principal work was in portraiture, both paintings and drawings. The paintings, often large uncommissioned studies of his family and friends, are invariably characterized by a sober palette, generalized landscape background, and a self-conscious treatment of hands, but a fine evoking of the tone of flesh and texture of costume.
I replied to Barbara’s hugely informative email “Dear B, I received your article in the mail last week and have found it fascinating reading.” Then, I followed her advice and started doing some of my own research. I looked for ‘Kitty Powell nude’ references on google and stumbled upon this.
Oooh la la! This is all quite a lot of fun! Don’t tell me that George and Kitty did not have an affair! That is what we heard through my relatives on the Powell side – that she did, and that is why she did not get married to some suitor when she was a young woman. Instead she trained as a nursing sister with the Royal Imperial College and went out to India to teach nursing to local girls in Pakistan, India and Burma. That is where she met my grandfather, James Fallon, a widower and surgeon with the British Army who was nearly 20 years older than her. They married in Karachi and came back to England to live in Bristol where my uncle and my Mum were born, when my gran was in her early thirties.
“Pleased you were able to see more about your gran and her ‘colorful’ history came a message from Barbara. “It’s probably true that she had an affair with GL. I am yet to find out more about how the Trouts acquired the painting. Had another look for more info on Lambert and Kitty. Discovered another painting of her dressed up in a fancy white dress. Called The Old Dress 1906, alternate title Portrait of a Lady.” She looks stunning.
The article about this picture, by Anne Gray, refers to the probable model: “The young woman was probably Kitty Fallon, one of Lambert’s favourite models at this time, who also took lessons in drawing from him. The dress is from the early Victorian era and was probably from his costume box. Kitty is portrayed ‘dressing up’ and posing for the painting in a rather artificial manner. Her facial expression is pleasantly bland, and Lambert may have intentionally sought to reduce the importance of her expression to emphasise the dress. Lambert was one of Australia’s most brilliant, witty and fascinating artists, who produced a diverse range of work, including a number of celebrated portraits. He lived and worked in London for about twenty years, and returned to Sydney in 1921 as the most successful Australian artist of the era. He painted The old dress during his early years in London, before he had achieved significant recognition.”
It is funny how things loop back. If I had not returned to South Africa, had not met Barbara, I would have known very little about Katherine Powell. Her curiosity and extensive knowledge of art and art history, that she lived in Australia – all this brought me closer to my grandmother. I understand more about the times in which she lived, more about my mother, and myself.