Pallant House scoops beautiful Degas nude once owned by Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough

By Richard Moss | 15 April 2016

Pallant House Gallery takes delivery of a gorgeous Degas that once belonged to a society Duchess

a drawing of a nude young woman combing her hair
Edgar Degas, Femme se peignant, c.1887-1890, charcoal and red chalk on tracing paper, Accepted by HM Government in Lieu of Inheritance Tax from the estate of Stephen Brod and allocated to Pallant House
It’s a simple charcoal drawing with red chalk highlights on tracing paper of a nude woman combing her hair, and it could be by no other hand than Edgar Degas.

Femme se peignant (c.1887–1890) by the French Impressionist is the latest acquisition at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, who have secured it through the government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme, but as well as its beauty - and value - the drawing has a fascinating provenance.

It has always remained in private hands and was bought directly from Degas by the French art dealer Ambrose Vollard who published it alongside several other large charcoal works in a celebratory volume of Degas’ work in 1914.

It was then bought by one of the great Fin de Siècle socialites, Gladys Deacon, who became the Duchess of Marlborough in 1921, after a life as an unconventional and beautiful socialite with an eye for an artwork and a circle of friends that included Rodin and Proust.

Deacon even met Degas and sat for the society portraitist Giovanni Boldini and John Singer Sargent and was seemingly admired by every male in aristocratic and artistic circles in the 1910s and 1920s.

Society figures reportedly captivated by her included Wilhelm Crown Prince of Russia, RC Trevelyan, Anatole France and Hermann von Keyserling. Her art collection included works by Degas, several sculptures by Rodin, and an oil painting by Toulouse-Lautrec.

Degas' studio

She is thought to have bought Femme se peignant personally at auction in Degas’ studio in the year following his death in 1917 and the gallery has pictures of it in situ in the Marlborough’s London house.

Welcoming the acquisition of what he described as a “remarkable Impressionist drawing”, Pallant House Gallery Artistic Director, Simon Martin, said it would be a “very significant enhancement to Pallant House Gallery’s permanent collection” and thanked the Arts Council and Acceptance in Lieu panel for allocating the drawing “to a regional gallery where it will be available to all”.

“It will enable us to demonstrate the profound influence of Degas on British artists, in particular his friend Walter Sickert,” he added, “but also to explore the story of Gladys Deacon, one of the most fascinating female collectors of the 20th century.”

a portrait of a society lady in pink chemise on a chaise longe
Gladys Deacon, by Giovanni Baldini
Sadly, Deacon’s life took an unhappy turn after her 1921 marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. The union was an ill-fated one and two years before his death in 1932 the Duke evicted her from Blenheim Palace. 

As Dowager Duchess she became a recluse and by 1966 she had succumbed to a mental illness that saw her forcibly moved to a hospital, where she died in 1977 aged 96.

Femme se peignant was purchased at auction by the late owner Stephen Brod and Pallant House Gallery was chosen by the recipient of Brod’s estate to receive the work in lieu of Inheritance Tax through the AiL scheme in a deal brokered by Sotheby’s. 

  • Edgar Degas’ ‘Femme se peignant’ is on display at Pallant House Gallery until August 2016.


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