Dr. Tessa Murdoch is a stately woman, whose regal bearing combines a statuesque height, formidable intellect and a distinguished ancestry. She is the great-granddaughter of Adèle Meyer, the subject of John Singer Sargent’s masterpiece Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children which made its debut at London’s 1897 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Closing this Sunday, February 5, the exhibition at the Jewish Museum, curated by the Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator Norman Kleeblatt, features the painting and other art and objects depicting the family’s life in England.
The painting depicts her great-grandmother as a young woman flanked by her children: Tessa’s grandfather, Frank, and great aunt Elsie, at ages 10 and 11. Luminous and enchanting, the painting was an instant sensation. Dr. Murdoch received her PhD at Westfield College, University of London in1982. A distinguished curator herself, her career has spanned both the Museum of London and the Victoria & Albert Museum which she joined in 1990. In 2004, the portrait left family ownership for the Tate Britain after Tessa’s father, Anthony, passed away.
Last week at the Jewish Museum, Tessa shared her recollections of growing up with Sargent’s portrait of her great-grandmother. The lecture gave an illustrated account of Adèle’s life as the wife of a leading financier and mother, as well as her role as philanthropist and society hostess drawing on the family archive of letters, sketches, and photograph albums. These sources provide remarkable insight into Edwardian family life of these well-established first generation immigrants to Britain, with their homes in Mayfair and at Shortgrove, Newport, Essex.
Tessa’s own understanding of the painting transformed from her first encounters with it as a girl, to an adult understanding of the context of the portrait and the lives of her family. “I got to know the portrait as a young teenager,” she shared. “I was very impressed then with the beautiful dress and the image of the daughter, Elsie who was close to my age. As an adult, however, my understanding began to change when I learned more about the context of their lives as British people with European origins and their lives as part of the Anglo German community in London. For me, especially now, it brings home how the culture was enriched by the presence of immigrants. I never met my grandfather (who is depicted in the portrait as a 10 year old boy and died in 1935),” Tessa continued. “But the portraits’ sheer quality and Sargent’s painting stimulated by interest in art at an early age. I was conscious of art as an important value in our family, something that I think continues on in each successive generation of our families.”
The Meyer’s religious status—both Carl and Adèle were born and raised as Jews, and had a Jewish marriage in 1883, but had all of their children baptized as Christians—is something else which intrigued Tessa.“It would be fascinating to know their reasons,” she shared. “Even with 30 years of correspondence there are really no clues. I assume it had something to do with independence of mind and becoming accepted as a British citizen.”
Whatever family legacies transformed themselves, the portrait remains a touchstone. “A love of art and philanthropy is evident in all their descendants,” she concluded. “The portrait’s show at the Jewish Museum has been a wonderful occasion for a family reunion with cousins who were not previously in touch coming together around the exhibition.”
See John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children before it closes this Sunday, February 5, and view a digital album of Meyer’s family photographs on our website.