Who Were the Wyndham Sisters? The History Behind the Sargent Painting

Editor's Note:

Claudia Renton graduated from Trinity College, Oxford, with a first in History; she was awarded the Gibbs Book Prize for History. Renton, a practicing barrister, was an actress in television and theater. Those Wild Wyndhams was awarded the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize. She lives in London with her husband.

Hanging in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is a vast 10-foot-by-7-foot canvas by John Singer Sargent. Executed with the American artist’s characteristic verve, the painting depicts three women arranged on a couch, swathed in clouds of white organza, taffeta, and tulle. From the murky greenish gloom behind them another painting of a statuesque woman in a gown splashed with sunflowers — their mother — can just be made out. With his customary cool eye, Sargent was hinting at just how prominent a role this mother played in these sisters’ lives.

Mary Elcho (1862-1937), Madeline Adeane (1869-1941), and Pamela Tennant (1871-1928) were the three charming and vivacious daughters of the bohemian aristocrats Percy and Madeline Wyndham. Percy and Madeline, close friends of artists and royalty alike, had commissioned their daughters’ portrait to hang in their fantastically named mansion Clouds, built to be their dynastic seat. By the turn of the century, many aristocrats feared their traditional dominance was being eroded by agricultural crisis, the advent of democracy, and the rise of meritocracy. The Wyndham Sisters trumpeted a dynasty and a class triumphant. When Sargent’s triple portrait was first displayed at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in London in 1900, it was the hit of the Season. In an age where aristocrats were celebrities, the Wyndham sisters became famous. To many of those who gazed at the imposing portrait, these sisters were already well known, and with a hint of scandal, too.

Perching at the back of the couch is the eldest sister. Mary Elcho, then in her late thirties, was a renowned Society hostess and the long-suffering wife of the philandering gambler Hugo, Lord Elcho, heir to the Earldom of Wemyss. Mary was a leading light of the Souls, the intellectual aristocratic set that thought its members Britain’s future rulers. The Elchos and their flock of children lived at Stanway in the Cotswolds, a few hours west of London. Despite the grand title that Hugo stood to inherit, the family was strapped for cash. Their magical house was dusty and threadbare. Still, an invitation to one of Stanway’s famous, eccentric house parties where Cabinet Ministers rubbed shoulders with clairvoyants was a prize that could make an aspiring politician’s career. Mary’s longstanding love affair with Arthur Balfour, leader of the Conservative Unionist party and later Britain’s Prime Minister, was an open secret in politics. Some whispered that Lady Elcho’s fair-haired youngest son and daughter, Yvo and Bibs (born in 1896 and 1902 respectively) were actually Arthur’s. Few realised that their older sister Mary Charteris was the illegitimate daughter of the iconoclastic poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. To make matters more interesting still, Blunt, Percy Wyndham’s cousin, had been the lover both of Mary Elcho and of her mother Madeline Wyndham a quarter-century before.

Madeline Adeane, or “Mananai” to her family, the sweet-natured middle sister, sits on the left of the couch, gazing off into space. Quieter than her sisters, Mananai was married at nineteen to Charlie Adeane, a Cambridgeshire landowner whose family were courtiers to Queen Victoria. Madeline Wyndham had been unenthusiastic about the match, thinking Charlie insufficiently wealthy or grand. Yet Mananai’s marriage was the only success story. Mananai herself, who carved out a career in charity work, was undoubtedly the happiest of the three sisters. In an age of primogeniture through the male line, Mananai and Charlie’s domestic bliss was marred only by the fact that they had daughters, but no son to inherit the family estate. Some six months before the painting was finished, Mananai, pregnant for the fifth time, had given birth to a premature son at twenty-four weeks. The baby lived for just twelve hours. Mananai’s palpable sadness in this painting is the result. It was to be another five years before Mananai and Charlie had their longed-for heir.

Pamela Tennant, the spoiled youngest sister, is in the central position, imperiously staring down at the viewer. A feted beauty, Pamela scorned Society in favor of her children’s company, a bucolic existence in the mellow landscape of Wiltshire in south-west England, and her budding literary career. Gracious to her acolytes, Pamela was also sharp-tongued and hot-tempered. She terrorized her long-suffering husband Eddy Tennant, the heir to an industrial fortune. Her great love was Eddy’s closest friend, Edward Grey, the Liberal politician who as Foreign Secretary was to take Britain into the First World War. By the time war broke out, Pamela, Eddy, and Grey lived in a contented ménage-a-trois, in which Grey was more of a husband to Pamela and father to her children than Eddy.

Sargent’s painting captured the sisters at the zenith of their beauty, influence, and privilege. Yet all the wealth in the world could not inoculate them against the horrors of the First World War. It killed five of Madeline Wyndham’s grandsons and brought an end, conclusively, to their way of life. In post-War years, the great estates of the rich began being broken up and sold by aristocrats who could no longer afford to live in them. In 1924, Mary, Mananai, and Pamela’s nephew Dick Wyndham let out Clouds and began selling off its paintings to fund his playboy lifestyle. In 1927, he sold Sargent’s Wyndham Sisters to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The alternative,” he told his aunts, “is keeping a picture in a house, where neither I nor any heirs will ever be able to live.”