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Lafayette L2219
Neg. Date: 09-12-1899

copyright V&A

Lady Randolph Churchill, née Jennie Jerome (1854-1921), mother of Winston Churchill, photographed in December 1899.

The half-length portrait, with the sitter swathed in muslin, evoked the famous paintings of Lady Hamilton by the English portrait painter George Romney and was a very popular pose between 1897-1903 with the great society beauties.

Jennie was the daughter of Leonard Jerome, a wealthy New York financier. Her first husband was the British politician Lord Randolph Churchill. A high-spirited woman, Princess Marthe Bibesco recounts that in 1874, Jennie heavily pregnant with a son, Winston, only “reluctantly tore herself away from the ballroom only after he had made his impatience to come into this world known by the most obvious signs.”

After her husband’s early death reputedly from syphilis, in 1900 she married Daisy’s brother, George Cornwallis-West – ‘the handsomest man of his time.’ Jennie herself was considered a great beauty, and she appeared in the all-important Book of Beauty in a portrait by JS Sargent.

There is a note in Daisy’s diary about the marriage between George and Jennie pointing out that her brother was the same age as Jennie’s son Winston. While Jennie and George were on holiday in Fürstenstein (Ksiaz), Daisy observed: “Jennie still loves him immensely, poor dear, she is uncommonly nice and still very handsome, but of course the difference in age is sad and a terrible drawback”. Jennie must have been deeply in love with George, for on top of the gossip they would have to endure, she was marrying a mere “Mr.” which meant she would lose her title of “Lady,” or as a newspaper wittily remarked after her marriage:

“The papers give this information,
At Lady Randolph's own request
That now her proper designation
Is Mrs. George Cornwallis-West.”

The marriage lasted thirteen years and their relationship was not helped by the coldness exhibited by George’s mother Patsy. In a letter to Daisy written in August 1914, Daisy’s mother compared Jennie to George’s second wife, the popular British actress Stella Patrick Campbell: “Daisy, do you know I like that woman [Stella], she is nice to me, which the other [Lady Randolph] never was…”

Jennie was a very expensive wife for a man of modest means, as George himself wrote: “In money matters she was without any sense of proportion,” and as George’s biographer pointed out “there were as always plenty of amusing ways of losing money and Jennie and George neglected few of them.” After her divorce from George, the Court Circular pointedly mentioned that ‘Mrs. George Cornwallis-West will in future be known as Lady Randolph Churchill!”

Jennie married for a third time Montagu Phippen Porch in 1918. After many years as a leading hostess of London society, Jennie busied herself with charitable work and became a famous journalist.

Although the surface of the negative shows some serious degradation on the left arm area, the portrait nevertheless shows the skill for which Lafayette was famed. It possibly took little persuasion to convince sitters to commission a chiffon-draped portrait, and almost all extant images from the studio in this style live up to the words of JB Schriever in his photography manual: “Very beautiful, sketchy effects can be produced with the shoulders daintily draped… With simple drapery all the interest is centered in the face of the subject, the drapery assisting in carrying out the lines of the face.” Surprising as it might be to the modern mind, Victorian women were accustomed to wearing low cut clothing and presenting their cleavage and bare shoulders on formal occasions.

A version of this photograph was published on 22 March 1900 in The Lady magazine.