- The Washington Times - Friday, October 29, 2010

By Duff Hart-Davis
Yale University Press, $55, 348 pages, illustrated

The life span of the celebrated portrait painter Philip de Laszlo, who was born Fulop Laub in Budapest in 1869 and died in London in 1937, coincided with the final flowering of the last great royal and imperial courts of Europe. Despite a humble background as the son of a Jewish tailor, de Laszlo’s formidable artistic talent, his drive to succeed and an equally strong ability to reinvent himself all combined to get him ennobled by Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef.

And so, with the impeccably Hungarian name by which the world came to know him and by now a Roman Catholic convert with a well-connected Anglo-Irish wife (a member of the Guinness banking family), he became par excellence the portraitist of European royalty, as well as many other prominent figures of his day. From 1907 until the end of his life, he was based in London, where, as president of the Royal Society of British Artists, he came to stand at the pinnacle of his profession in his adopted country.

There has not been a full biography of de Laszlo since 1939, only a couple of years after his death, and this new one has the great virtue of being based on the artist’s collection of papers - and then some:

“[F]ive more diaries written in English by the artist in the 1930s, together with an account in German of his childhood. … Two early diaries by his wife, Lucy, and a trunk of documents. … All these remain in private hands and I am grateful to de Laszlo’s descendants for giving me the chance to quote from them. The second indispensable source has been the huge archive of letters, diaries, notebooks, press cuttings and so on - some 15,000 items - which the artist himself amassed. After his death his widow put them into order, and since then the collection has been augmented and further ordered, first by members of his family, more recently by dedicated researchers.”

Duff Hart-Davis, who has written authoritatively on John James Audubon and on other artists, is uniquely well-qualified to undertake a life of de Laszlo, bringing not only a wealth of knowledge and a solid biographical methodology to his task, but a real feel for the spheres in which the artist operated. Himself a descendant of King George III and thus a distant cousin to Queen Elizabeth II, Mr. Hart-Davis is also related to British Prime Minister David Cameron and to the distinguished writers Duff Cooper and his son, John Julius Norwich. His connections to royal and aristocratic as well as artistic and literary circles are apparent in the ease with which he negotiates the shoals of these complex milieus.

Fortunately for those who believe a picture is worth a thousand words, this biography is lavishly and intelligently illustrated with no fewer than 145 plates (some of them color), many of them examples of de Laszlo’s portraiture. We see a wide range of subjects from Pope Leo XIII to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge; and of course innumerable royal figures including King Edward VII, his beautiful consort Queen Alexandra and his nephew “The All Highest” Kaiser Wilhelm II; and many members of the artist’s own family.

Inevitably, some of the de Laszlo portraits are more compelling than others, although all are of some interest. Particularly outstanding are portraits of an eerie-looking Benito Mussolini trying to look intense but succeeding only in looking weird and demented; one of first lady Florence Harding that tries its best to soften her rough, granite-hewn visage but doesn’t quite succeed; a striking one of the famously acidulous Margot Asquith that captures her essential asperity; and a beautiful 1933 portrait of an amazingly self-possessed 7-year-old Princess Elizabeth of York - none other than today’s Queen Elizabeth II.

There are, to be sure, a lot of sugary, gauzy portraits of royal ladies (including Elizabeth’s mother), but these testify to de Laszlo’s renowned capacity for flattery and reputation for being unusually easy to sit to - both central to his phenomenal success.

Mr. Hart-Davis is good at showing how de Laszlo accomplished his grand feat of social and professional climbing into the royal and aristocratic stratospheres. The minor but well-connected King Ferdinand of Bulgaria proved to be the perfect entree into Europe’s royal network, while his royal connections both on the Continent and in England then made rich, well-paying aristocrats beat a path to his door.

Mr. Hart-Davis also chronicles the terrible setback de Laszlo suffered when, during World War I, the naturalized British subject was imprisoned and then interned merely because he had illegally sent money to his family in Hungary, at this time an enemy nation. His career recovered, but the trauma lingered socially and psychically for him long afterward.

Although Mr. Hart-Davis makes acute and necessary comparisons of de Laszlo to his contemporary portraitists John Singer Sargent and Sir John Lavery, it is unfortunate that he does not do the same with younger contemporary Sir Oswald Birley, whose career overlapped his during its last decades. A more serious flaw is his downplaying almost to the point of extinction the effect of de Lazlo’s Jewish background on his personal as well as his professional life. Sometimes this can approach the ludicrous, as in the discussion of his future mother-in-law’s qualms about him:

“[H]e created a strong and not unfavourable impression on Lucy’s mother, who considered him ‘a most fascinating but dangerous man.’ What was it about him that provoked so enigmatic a verdict? His great charm? His fractured English? His clothes? His manners?”

It’s hard to think that his Jewish background did not, at the very least, factor in to the Guinness family’s wariness of de Laszlo. Not mentioning it makes it seem like the proverbial 2,000-pound elephant in the room. But this lack is a relatively minor failing in a book that should succeed in renewing interest in an artist who ably captured a glamorous, now-vanished world.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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