Gwen John
Chloë Boughton-Leigh 1904–8

Artwork details

Gwen John 1876–1939
Chloë Boughton-Leigh
Date 1904–8
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 584 x 381 mm
Acquisition Purchased 1925


Chloë Boughton-Leigh is a small portrait by British artist Gwen John depicting a seated woman facing forward. Her head is tilted downwards and to her left, and she stares out of the canvas beyond the viewer. Her arms hang loosely and her hands rest in her lap, her left hand lightly holding a piece of paper. The woman wears a grey checked dress with a scooped neckline, high waist and wide sleeves, which expose her elegant wrists and accentuate her hands. Around her neck she wears a gold locket decorated with pearl pendants that match her earrings. Her dark hair falls loosely around her shoulders and is tied with a black ribbon. The space around her is bare apart from a painting in a black frame hanging on the wall. The colour scheme is subtle and muted, with sandy browns, light greys and blacks dominating. The woman’s grey dress stands out against the subdued wall and is echoed by the painting’s grey mount.

This portrait was likely painted in John’s attic room and studio at 85 rue du Cherche-Midi, Paris, to which she moved in spring 1907. The image was executed by softly and methodically applying oil paint to the canvas. Some scumbling appears, along with broken applications of paint around the sitter’s head. John has used opaque colours but applied them fluidly in other areas (for instance in the dress and face), giving them a translucency. This traditional method of paint application was taught at the Slade School of Art where John was a student in 1894–7. John’s biographer, Sue Roe, notes that the artist added ‘a strip of wood … along the foot of the picture, enabling her to paint the whole of the hands, which in the original version were cropped for no apparent reason’ (Roe 2002, p.88).

The sitter is Ellen Theodosia Boughton-Leigh (known to family and friends as Chloë), daughter of Edward Ward-Boughton-Leigh of Brownsover Hall, Warwickshire. Chloë became part of John’s intimate circle along with her sister Maude, who had also studied at the Slade. In this painting Chloë sits lost in thought, paying little attention to the viewer. Her quiet repose, the muted palette and shallow picture plane encourage a sense of intimacy. As Roe has noted: ‘the portrait has a quality of intimate informality; it is a subjective interpretation of her sitter, suggesting unpretentiousness and gentleness and hinting at reciprocal warmth’ (Roe 2002, p.87). Roe also observed intimacy in the textures captured by John: ‘somehow through her candid attention to surfaces – the crinkled dress, the hair, the texture of the skin – Gwen has succeeded in conveying the exact tenor of the sitter’s inner life, and Chloë is attentive, alert, preoccupied, ever so slightly distrait, with the potential to be both nervily and deeply engaged’ (Roe 2002, pp.87–8). The distinctive grey checked dress is markedly similar to that worn by Dorothy McNeill in John’s portrait The Student 1903–4 (Manchester City Art Gallery, Manchester), suggesting that is was one of the artist’s props.

The portrait’s subject, in which a woman sits alone in an interior, is characteristic of John’s work from this period. David Jenkins Brown has argued that this format is reflective of the artist’s own retiring personality: ‘no one would doubt who it is that lives in her empty room’ (quoted in Rotraud Sakerlotzky, ‘Interior: The Brown Teapot’, Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol.75, no.4, April 1988, pp.98–111, p.106). Self Portrait 1902 (Tate N05366) and A Lady Reading 1909–11 (Tate N03174) are similarly composed portraits in Tate’s collection. Art historian Rotraud Sakerlotzky noted in 1988 that John ‘had been searching for ways to create paintings in delicate colours since her student days’, which saw her move from London to Paris in 1898 to study with James McNeill Whistler at the Académie Carmen (Sakerlotzky 1988, p.103). Chloë Boughton-Leigh exhibits strong but subtle painterly qualities, which bear comparison with Whistler’s portraits, such as Miss Agnes Mary Alexander c.1873 (Tate N05964).

John painted Chloë again in 1910–14 (Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds), showing her in a similar pose, but in reverse and looking more directly at the viewer. Chloë was also the model for John’s Woman Holding a Flower c.1908–22 (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Birmingham), numerous drawings by John and a portrait by her sister Maude, the undated Chloë Boughton-Leigh (Tate N05802). Chloë was favourably received when it was exhibited at the New English Art Club in 1908 and was described by T. Martin Wood as ‘one of the greatest achievements in the exhibition because of [its] sincerity’ (quoted in Dana Arnold and David Peters Corbett (eds.), A Companion to British Art: 1600 to the Present, London 2016, p.66).

Further reading
Mary Taubman, Gwen John: Her Life and Work, Ithaca, New York 1985, reproduced p.66.
Sue Roe, Gwen John: A Life, London 2002, pp.87–8.
David Fraser Jenkins and Chris Stephens (eds.), Gwen John and Augustus John, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London, and National Museum Cardiff, Cardiff 2004, reproduced pl.43.

Jo Kear
May 2016

Supported by Christie’s.