Historical Feature: David Jagger and the Female Gaze

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C20th Painting / David Jagger / Historical feature / KatherineCaddy / Painting / Portraiture / Solitude / Yorkshire Art Journal

David Jagger was a highly esteemed early twentieth-century painter, born in the village of Kilnhurst near Rotherham in 1891. Jagger famously created portraits of illustrious members of society. His paintings draw on the spirit of the sitter; they are characterful and evocative. Some of the identities of Jagger’s portraits are lost today; these works cause us to wonder who the person depicted was, and what they did. They are highly searching, vivacious, and predominantly glamorous portraits. Jagger focused on his sitter’s temperament and style, contemplating the way in which they responded to the world around them. Within this article I will primarily focus on these elusive, now anonymous works.

Jagger is remembered as a fairly reclusive character – more so than Atkinson Grimshaw – little is known about his life today. He and his brother, Charles, and sister, Edith, all painted, sometimes exhibiting together, under the title ‘The Jagger Family’. David painted landscapes, which are difficult to locate, as are the majority of his works, commonly held within private residences. The sitter’s name is entirely lost for many of these works. The lack of information encourages creative speculation. What I am highly interested in is the common aversion of the female gaze compared to the strikingly purposeful stare of male sitters within Jagger’s paintings, and the effect this has on viewer mindsets.

tumblr_mkisgj9PTc1r3fkjno1_12801. David Jagger, Kathleen. Date unknown.
Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 71.1 cm.
Williamson Art Gallery & Museum.

Jagger’s ‘Kathleen presents a luxuriously dressed lady, his wife, in a sensationally theatrical pose, emphasised by a stark, black background. Kathleen’s shawl and brown hair appear to merge with the darkness, while her hand clasps her sleeve, as Jagger articulates the soft, flowing lace that ripples across the sitter’s form. Light above is implied in Kathleen’s eyes and on her skin: she gazes upwards, creating a striking stance, her long, fine neck allowing for focus on the sheen of her illuminated face. Portraiture’s conventional solitude encourages limelight for the figure, who almost appears to be spotlit, with no sense of location in the murky backdrop. Kathleen is given substance through her gown, which dominates the lower half of the canvas. Her averted gaze enhances a sense of drama; it is as though the sitter is in her own world, and has more to contemplate than the viewer’s presence. The aversion of eye contact offers a dignified and modest tone to some degree. However, this pose is highly contrived and is of course intended to give the impression of a refined lady, intensifying a youthful glow through the gleaming nude silk. The averted gaze allows for an intriguing facial viewpoint, enabling the artist to demonstrate his understanding of foreshortening, painting only one of Kathleen’s eyes, while maintaining a strong sense of a gaze.

His honest depictions of society’s leading lights appealed to a set of patrons whose exuberant character felt no need for extravagant backdrops and overt prettifying.” (1)

The anonymity of some of Jagger’s sitters today is bizarre considering the artist’s renown for painting illustrious members of society. This can be read as marking a lack of regard for female sitters compared to male, whose identities are notably better preserved and easier to decipher. The portraits highlight gender disparity and the lack of serious societal acclaim offered to women during the early twentieth century. Men are painted in military attire, offering them a stronger identity and sense of place within British society. The idea of female strength and refinement is perhaps hindered by the sitters’ timid and elusive expressions, which work to enhance beauty, but do little to express individuality. At the time of creation, these works would have held weight in capturing the magnificence and status of their sitters. Our lack of awareness as to who the female sitters are causes them to appear striking yet anonymous, alluring through the stories and histories they conceal.

3d857dd2842bb6702dd995fe55655b5a2. David Jagger. Lady in Green. Date unknown.
Oil on canvas, 91.8 x 71.4 cm.
Private collection. 

Jagger’s ‘Lady in Green‘ exemplifies this. The work is undoubtedly exquisite; the artist demonstrates his ability to subtly capture human emotion through the articulation of a slight, earnest frown. Jagger brings his lady to life through vivid moss-green eyes that reflect bright light beyond. She grasps her fine emerald green jacket and is reflected in the convex mirror behind her, which contains a hint of the artist’s form. The work has lost its true title, today referred to as either Lady in Green or Elegant Ladyyet this painting is likely to represent one of the most illustrious ladies in twentieth-century British society. The work sold for almost £40,000 at Christie’s in 2012, demonstrating its fine quality, while alluding to a lingering regard for Jagger’s work today.

Many of Jagger’s ladies have lost their identities for us today, while I could only find one identity-less male portrait by the artist. ‘Portrait of a Man‘ demonstrates Jagger’s entirely different treatment of male subjects: he stands upright, facing us, making direct, confident eye contact with the viewer. There is no sense of figural melodrama or timidness; he is depicted as self-assured, the only theatre provided by the impending dark clouds beyond. He does not cling to his clothes, gazing away, but stands upright with hand firmly in pocket, the depth and sheen of his coat adding to an image of magnitude. Today he lacks identity, yet arguably appears assured and thus characterful to a greater extent than the ladies noted previously. (Of course, sadly for this man, this does not make for a beguiling painting). Jagger’s men are commonly depicted in professional attire, within mahogany interiors that exemplify their success.

(c) Gillian Jagger; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation3. Jagger, D. Portrait of a Young Man.
Date unknown. Oil on canvas, 127.6 x 88.4 cm.
Museums Sheffield.

Jagger was painting during an extraordinarily turbulent time; he painted many esteemed military men throughout two World Wars. This is perhaps why a juxtaposition of now anonymous female sitters and prestigious, remembered male sitters is so stark. The comparison today is flawed; during Jagger’s day, these works were privately commissioned by those depicted. Our lack of information about the women is partially due to the paintings’ having passed through private hands rather than into gallery ownership early on. We cannot fairly compare the male and female depictions in terms of their expressing identity, as we have lost so much detail historically regarding the ladies in these works. In addition, the artist must have painted a plethora of portraits during his lifetime, but digital copies are limited. There are likely to have been other male portraits whose identities are lost.

The works may tell us a great deal about the portrayal of women in portraiture during a period of fluctuation. Sewing (below) presents Jagger’s wife, Kathleen, again. A comparison of the two portraits may demonstrate a progression in early twentieth-century illustrious portraiture. In ‘SewingKathleen glances helplessly, directly at the viewer, marking a turning point in Jagger’s work: hardly any of his ‘anonymous’ works contain this affecting female eye contact. Jagger again provides no sense of context besides the domestic act of sewing. The partial nudity of the figure is less restrained than in any of his other works: painting his wife allowed for a greater degree of artistic freedom. Her face is undeniably beautiful and suited to Jagger’s artistic practice; here he conveys melancholy and longing, a lady amidst a whitewashed space, focusing solely on the figure sewing.

Jagger’s work illuminates aspects of portraiture during the Wartime period. A sense of instability can be read in his ‘anonymous’ female sitter’s faces that may be said to allude to the tempestuous period in which he lived, while demonstrating gender differentiations of the early twentieth century. Jagger’s portraits are at worst tedious depictions of renowned military men who wished to be remembered – but at best, they demonstrate the artist’s exceptional skill, expressing quiet emotion and a certain tension. Today, the mysterious works, I believe, have become more than they were before, their elusive quality allowing for speculation and distanced comparison of constructed gender differences in this period.

Intriguing is the photograph from the National Portrait Gallery’s archives, of Vivien Leigh, beside a painted portrait of the actress, alongside David Jagger himself, paintbrush in hand. The photograph invites us to consider the nature of representation, in that it is at once a photograph of Vivien and a photograph of a painting of Vivien: a representation of a representation. Seeing Vivien beside her portrait is in itself intriguing; the inclusion of the artist makes for a special work; he looks at Leigh as if painting or sketching her. This photograph is staged to announce the finished portrait; Jagger is given his identity by the paintbrush and his gaze, while the viewer is acknowledged by Vivien Leigh and her portrait simultaneously. The work encapsulates notions discussed above, combining theatricality and attentive female gaze, alluding to a progressive period in which refined women began to confront the viewer. This painting highlights Jagger’s place within society: to have been asked to paint Leigh’s portrait demonstrates his being held in high regard. More must be done to uncover details of this artist’s life and work.

*

Works

1. Jagger, D. Kathleen. Date unknown. Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 71.1 cm. © Williamson Art Gallery & Museum. © The Jagger estate. Source.
2. Jagger, D. Lady in Green. Date unknown. Oil on canvas, 91.8 x 71.4 cm. Private collection. © The Jagger estate. Source.
3. Jagger, D. Portrait of a Young Man. Date unknown. Oil on canvas, 127.6 x 88.4 cm. © Museums Sheffield. © The Jagger estate. Source.
4. Jagger, D. Sewing. 1927. Oil on canvas, 102.2 x 76.8 cm. © National Museums Liverpool. © The Jagger estate. Source.
– A photograph of Vivien Leigh and David Jagger by Keystone Press Agency Ltd. Bromide print, 27th September 1941. 182 mm x 240 mm. Source.

With kind thanks to the Jagger estate for the special opportunity of sharing these paintings.

Katherine April Caddy, 6th June 2014.

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4 Comments

  1. Enjoyed the article but it would have been better if you stated David Jagger was born near Rotherham – in the village of Kilnhurst, instead of “near Sheffield”!

  2. Enjoyed your article – my father was from East Yorkshire. Jagger was a personal friend of my grandfather’s: Edgar Grotrian 1872-1949. Members of my family hold 6 of his works – the best a fine (to some “unfinished”) portrait of my grandfather – reputed to be sketched after a “good lunch” it absolutely captures the man – and has none of the more contrived background and props. My nephew holds a beautiful sketch of Kitty, Jagger’s wife. The others are of my three Aunts and my father – if they were not still held by family members – they could easily join the anonymous sitters you write of.

    • Thank you, R. How fascinating. I’m sure the sketch is beautiful. He was a wonderful painter and draughtsman.
      All the best,
      K.C.

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