My Favourite Picture of Ancient History II

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Brock, Edmond, 1882-1952; 'Circe and the Sirens': A Group Portrait of the Honourable Edith Chaplin (1878-1959), Marchioness of Londonderry, and Her Three Youngest Daughters, Lady Margaret Frances Anne Vane-Tempest-Stewart (1910-1966), Lady Helen Maglona Va

Charles Edmond Brock (1925) Circe and the Sirens: A Group Portrait of the Honourable Edith Chaplin, Marchioness of Londonderry, and Her Three Youngest Daughters

Edmond Brock’s magnificent 1925 painting of Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart as Homer’s sorceress Circe is, at present, more prominently displayed than usual at Mount Stewart, the Marchioness’s family estate on the Ards peninsula, conserved by the National Trust since the 1970s.


The gardens and neoclassical facade of Mount Stewart, North Ireland, County Down ©Sitomon

This is because Edith’s children’s book ‘The Magic Inkpot’ is currently spotlighted in much of The National Trust’s visitor engagement there, including some superb wood sculptures of its characters in the newly opened woodland walks, and a series of Hallowe’en events focussing upon the fables published by Edith. The actual ink pot sat in Edith’s husband, the Viscount Castlereagh’s study, and in the stories written for her children, was magically transformed into the likeness of the all-father, Daghdha, of Irish mythology. This powerful psychopomp fetched two of the young Vane-Tempest-Stewart children, Robin and Mairi, away under the waters of Strangford Lough and to the Land of Shadows on Narnianesque adventures. Edmond Brock illustrated ‘The Magic Inkpot’, and his life size classical portrait has been moved to pride of place in an anteroom off the main house entrance, beside his smaller artworks; the book itself and five of Brock’s original colour plates of the story illustrations.

EDITH, MARCHIONESS OF LONDONDERRY, by Philip de Laszlo (1869-1937), in Lady Londonderry's Sitting Room at Mount Stewart House, Co Down, Northern Ireland

Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart (née Chaplin), Marchioness of Londonderry (1878-1959) Philip de László (1927)

Brock was a close friend of Edith, Lady Londonderry and her husband Charles, and had links to the society gatherings of Edith’s ‘Ark Club’. The Club met frequently during World War I, and every member – from Lloyd George to Neville Chamberlain, Sean O’Casey and John Lavery, Lady Nancy Astor, and Princess Helena Victoria – took a nickname from a mythological character (Churchill as ‘Winston the Warlock’; the Duke of Windsor styled as ‘David the Dragon’). It is believed that the close connections forged in the Ark were responsible for many of Brock’s most celebrated commissions, such as his portrait of Ramsay MacDonald (Edith’s most avid admirer), and those of the Duke and Duchess of York’s family painted prior to George’s succession to the throne. Edith, hostess of ‘The Ark’, took the nickname ‘Circe the Sorceress’, to the dismay of her friends (Ramsay MacDonald complained of ‘wicked witch’ connotations, calling Circe a ‘hussie’), but the Marchioness justified her choice, stating that Homer’s necromancer had a personality ‘pregnant with mysterious interest’, and claiming that the enchantress possessed ‘mental equipment far above the average’. Some of Edith’s friends would know her as ‘Circe’ for the rest of her life (cf. Diane Urquhart, ‘The Ladies of Londonderry: Women and Political Patronage’, 2007).


Homer Roman copy from Baiae, Italy of a lost Hellenistic original of the 2nd c. BC, currently in the British Museum.

Homer conveys a similar reverence for his ‘formidable goddess, with a mortal woman’s voice’ (‘Odyssey’ X, trans. E. V. Rieu), so ruthless and fearful that Odysseus requires immortal aid and a herbal preventative simply to parley with her, such is the ‘evil in her heart’. Homer leaves it to his audience to decide whether it is to Odysseus’s desolation or delight that Hermes instructs him not to ‘refuse her favours’. He continues to do so for a year, after – of course – Circe has restored his crew from pigs to men, sworn a solemn oath to do him no harm, and shown him some splendid xenia, with edible delicacies in golden dishes on silver tables, and a personal olive-oil rub-down after a soak in her bronze bathtub.


The contemporary Northern Irish poet Michael Longley, too, seems to share this wonderstruck view of the prophetess, as he imbues her with cunning and sensitivity, as well as potency as he gives her voice in his poem ‘Circe’:

The cries of the shipwrecked enter my head.

On wildest nights when the torn sky confides

Its face to the sea’s cracked mirror, my bed

– Addressed by the moon and her tutored tides –

Through brainstorm, through nightmare and ocean

Keeps me afloat. Shallows are my coven,

The comfortable margins – in this notion

I stand uncorrected by the sun even.

Much like the ‘glimmering Circe’ (vitreamque Circen) of Horace’s ‘Odes’ (1.17), quoted by Louis MacNeice in his eponymous poem when he describes the Lady as having ‘something of glass about her, of dead water’, Longley likewise links Circe’s body and physical presence inextricably with the ocean, whence she receives ‘husband after husband’. In Brock’s enormous group portrait, entitled ‘Circe and the Sirens’ (Edith’s three youngest daughters Margaret, Helen, and Mairi are ranged around her, nymph-like), the Marchioness is appropriately attired in sea-green and glimmering blue, appearing an exact embodiment of the goddess as Homer depicts her in her final scene in ‘Odyssey’ XII. There, Odysseus describes ‘[the Nymph … putting] on a long robe of silvery sheen, of a light fabric charming to the eye.’ Instead of the ‘splendid golden belt’ that Homer has Circe fasten round her waist, Edith has her robe pinned with a brooch of Celtic appearance, which might bear some relation to the clan Sutherland, of her maternal grandfather.

In fact, the feathery brushwork and predominance of blue and green in Brock’s shading, as well as the wave-like greenery amidst which the figures are placed, make the whole scene distinctly nautical. If the gaze is allowed to follow an arc from the bright cobalt and ultramarine mid-height on the left-hand-side of the canvas up and over the loggia and figures, to the darker cerulean or Prussian blue tones of the foliage (suggestive of cedar or Mount Stewart’s characteristic eucalyptus) and down to the light patch of sky above Mairi’s head, it is not difficult to imagine that we are looking upon an undersea landscape.

Edith becomes, not only an embodiment of Homer’s pharmakeia, but she emerges from Brock’s choppy brushstrokes as an ethereal, watery creation, appropriate to the ‘glassy Circe’ (vitreamque Circen) of classical literature.


J. W. Waterhouse’s ‘Circe Invidiosa’ *(1892) and ‘Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus’ (1891)

Compare the corporeal, dark earthliness of J. W. Waterhouse’s two Circes of 30 years previous (‘Circe Invidiosa’ and ‘Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus’), and this difference is recognisable. Indeed, Brock’s Circe the Sorceress could aptly utter the goddess’s majestic claim at the close of Longley’s poem: ‘I extend the sea, its idioms.’

Erin Halliday

On the artist, Edmond Brock (1882-1952)

One thought on “My Favourite Picture of Ancient History II

    […] by the fact that Lady Londonderry was also known as Circe and can been read about here – and how this epic tale of adventure and curiosity has inspired countless books, poems and BBC […]


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