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Lafayette L5112
Neg. Date:
copyright V&A

Constance Edwina, Duchess of Westminster (1875–1970), younger sister of Daisy, Princess of Pless, known to family and friends as Shelagh, photographed in the Lafayette studio most probably late 1906.

In 1901 she married her childhood sweetheart and neighbour, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster (1879–1953), known as Bendor after his grandfather’s chestnut Derby winner. He owned immense amounts of property and land and together they had two daughters and one son. It has been calculated that upon inheriting the dukedom in 1899, the Duke’s income was the equivalent today of almost £47,000 per day.

Naturally, Shelagh’s mother had played no small part in getting her second daughter married off to the “most eligible bachelor” (i.e. the richest duke) in England. At a house party in Blenheim Palace, Patsy convinced the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) to take Bendor aside and to point out to him that having been discovered alone in the garden with Shelagh, the only course of action for a gentleman would be to make an honest women of her.

Bendor claimed years later that Patsy had actually sent the two of them out into the garden for a walk with the intention of accusing Bendor of compromising her daughter’s reputation! Shelagh was not a popular choice of wife for Bendor and too many members of their social circle were aware of Patsy’s match-making machinations. Lady Randolph Churchill, who was also at Blenheim during this incident, wrote to her sister that Shelagh was “certainly not popular but [people] will cringe to her when she is a Duchess…”

Shelagh and Daisy, albeit markedly different in appearance and character, were very close sisters. They visited each other often, travelled together widely, and shared many friends. Both married extremely wealthy men, were leading hostesses and entertained on a royal scale – Shelagh at Grosvenor House in London and in Eaton Hall in Cheshire, and Daisy at her palaces in Pless and Fürstenstein in Silesia. Shelagh and Bendor were in love, and, when in 1904 the all-important son and heir arrived, the marriage seemed well cemented. They indulged in similar pastimes – hunting and polo-playing, and shared a passion for motor racing and yachting.

However, Shelagh’s parents’ expectation of financial support from Bendor, the prolonged absences of his wife from home and children, and his own prejudice and conservative views, including criticism of the Edwardian frivolity so readily displayed by Shelagh’s mother and sister, all put strain on their relationship. When their five year-old son Edward died after an operation for appendicitis in February 1909, while Shelagh was again away, their marriage was doomed. Bendor blamed Shelagh for his heir's death, laying against her charges of neglect and carelessness. Appearances were kept up until the birth of their next child, but abandoned the moment a girl was born. Bendor did not even bother to view the new baby!

In 1913 he asked for a separation and offered Shelagh an allowance of £13,000 a year, which she declined. The Great War brought them much needed distraction. He joined his regiment and introduced the first armoured car into battle, while she ran a military hospital in Le Touquet, for which service she was awarded the CBE. In June 1917 she obtained evidence of his adultery and was later granted a divorce. In 1920 Shelagh married Captain James FitzPatrick Lewes. She died in 1970. Bendor did not remain long without female company. He divorced his second wife in favour of an affair with Coco Chanel. When this came to an end in 1930 he went on to marry twice more.

This image, minus the leg of the photographic equipment still visible here to the far left, was reproduced as the front cover of The Car magazine in May 1907. A month after the publication of the photograph, Shelagh had to appear in court on a charge of dangerous driving. She admitted to having driven her car at up to 11 miles per hour and was fined £5.

Shelagh must have been satisfied with the results from this photographic session at the Lafayette studio, which most probably took place in late 1906 and had some vignette versions printed up for distributing to her family and friends. In one of Daisy’s photograph albums, on a page commemorating a get-together at one of Shelagh’s residences (Eaton) in January 1907, Daisy stuck a vignette version a photographic from this session next to the signatures of their fellow guests, a common practice at country-house weekends and one which must have helped Daisy when she came to write her memoirs.