the Mysterious Model

February 8, 2012

I first saw this oil on canvas painting hanging on the walls of the Victoria&Albert museum, under the scrutinizing views of thousands of cultured and less cultured visitors, in a time when I was specially susceptible to visual messages (which I still am in a milder way), and it struck me as being not particularly beautiful or entrancing (be serious! she sort of reassembles a frog!) but the fundamental Victorian belle, with the features and facial proportions wildly appreciated in the age. Through her appearance I could literally catch a glimpse of one of England’s most flourishing epoch’s ideal in a single moment. Her wet, wide eyes like licked stones, as Virginia Woolf would’ve said, her tiny, red mouth and dark hair call to mind the very haughty Queen of her time.

The portrait above depicts this lady, the object of my expressed admiration: finished in 1840 by quite obscure Charles Robert Leslie (1794– 1859) under the  alleged title “Griselda”, who was the prototype of patient, obedient woman in folklore and inspiration for Boccaccio, Petrarch and Chaucer (kind of like Julianna Marguiles as Alicia, in “the Good Wife”, only better).

Charles Robert Leslie

I became so intrigued with the model’s impeccably Victorian looks that I just had to find out more about her mysterious character; experience taught me most people represented in art have delicious life-stories to relish with a cup of Starbucks and some French macarons. Thus I hastily did my research, studied the records, read the required books, googled a couple of individuals and, voila, I barely succeeded to find a thing or two. It sincerely shocked me the little amount of information about this distinct figure in Leslie’s work. The sitter’s identity, in which I channeled all my interest, was merely presumed as being a certain Sophia Riley Gillman thanks to the notifications provided by one of her granddaughters, Mrs Ianthe Gillman.

This Sophia, whose father, Alexander Riley, lived in “Euston Square, London and the Burwood and Raby Estates, near Sidney, New South Wales”, married James Gillman Jr. (born 1808) on a sunny February day, 1837, in the Chapel of the British Embassy at Paris, the reason why they were abroad remaining unclear.

Sophia Riley as "Sophia Western"

The bride, as Leslie’s later paintings attest, was indisputably charming, of mixed Irish and Spanish descent (so she should’ve been fiery, intellectually emancipated…), with a raven mane Ianthe reported as one of her distinctive traits.  A good match and a lovely wife at that. Insipid James, turned Reverend at a point, was never heard to have been complaining about her, probably because he spent more time renovating churches and pleasing the Duke of Wellington than checking on his presumptively devoted spouse.  However, they seemed happy, having 7 plump children (James, the eldest, Alexander, Arthur, Charles, Lucy Eleanor, Amelia and Sophia).

James Gillman

Sophia died in 1862 and her husband followed, ten years later. That’s pretty much all I could discover, really unsatisfactory compared to what I’m used to when it comes to portraits of gripping women… The material I’ve obtained this time disappointed me.  No mention of the way she met Leslie from either parts, no specification in his otherwise detailed autobiography! How did he feel about her and why did he paint Sophia repeatedly if no commissions from James Gillman generated the many celebrations of her gentleness on canvas? It’s compelling… and also gives way to our rich human imagination.


Was she his well concealed mistress? The responsible wife I’ve read about?!

Was she his tenth muse without acknowledging it, a person he’s seen only several short times but whose remarkable features persisted in his mind so well he could paint her over and over again without refreshing any memory? His friends sustain Leslie was so keen he could’ve do somebody’s portrait after approximately two hours of gazing the sitter, which denoted a huge observatory talent. And with Sophie’s looks, epitome of the Victorian Aphrodite, it mustn’t have been hard.

I bend for the second supposition (don’t you?) as he doesn’t appear like the dream lover but more like her own husband: elder, of mediocre status, possibly stout and certainly not flattering. And the puzzle pieces would blend better through that prism. On Sophie’s side I really don’t spot one reason why she’d open her legs, and less probably her heart, for such an ordinary artist.


Leslie, on the other hand… he kept using her figure to model many of his painted ladies for decades, almost up to the day he died, 5 May 1859, composition after composition. Some works he even titled with her first name, pretending to belong to the fictional darling of  Tom Jones, hero of a popular novel in the age, Sophie Western. Coincidence? A melancholic gesture?

She’s a hell of a mysterious model!

the toilette/necklace


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