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Revolutionary Lives: Constance and Casimir Markievicz

Lauren Arrington
Princeton University Press


From 1: Origins

The studio is cluttered with brushes and easels, oils and watercolors. Her own paintings and the work of her friends hang haphazardly on the walls alongside prints torn from folios and tacked-up tapestries. In the corner, a low iron stove heats a kettle. Copper, iron, and enamel pots hang from a shelf that runs along the back. Constance Gore-Booth slouches, smoking: her elbow on the table, the ash of her cigarette hanging precariously over a neglected cup of coffee. The surface is littered with dirty cups and bits of paper. A single candle stuffed into the neck of a wine bottle serves as a centerpiece. Opposite, in high-collared, austere taf­feta with leg-of-lamb sleeves, the artist Althea Gyles tilts her chin upward, looking defiantly at the photographer. Constance, wearing a spattered smock thrown carelessly over a shirt, unbuttoned and showing the soft indentation at her clavicle, looks away. A hint of a smile plays across her face. She has made it to London, the place she regarded as "the centre of the Universe!"1

Frustrated by a life in "isolation" in County Sligo on the west coast of Ireland, where she met "no people with ideas beyond our own happy little circle," Constance Gore-Booth longed to leave her family's estate, Lissadell, to study at the Slade School of Art. In 1892, at twenty-four years of age, she was anxious to "cut the family tie" and make a life of her own, and she be­lieved that art was the "opening" she needed.2 She had been born to a sense of adventure; her father, Sir Henry, was an Arctic explorer who was constantly setting sail from Sligo to regions unknown. Both Henry and Constance's mother, Georgina, encouraged their children's interests, giving Constance free rein to pursue her passion and skill in horsemanship and even allow­ing her to ride with the men in the local hunts. Josslyn, just a year younger than Constance, was sent to school at Eton and treated to expensive private tutors in London before he joined the Royal Munster Fusiliers and settled briefly in Canada, later returning to assume his duties as heir.3 Eva, two years younger than Constance and also a strong rider, accompanied her father on his travels to the West Indies and the United States and was supplied with endless books on English and German literature, poetry, philosophy, and his­tory. Mabel, born in 1874, and their youngest sibling, Mordaunt, born in 1878, were equally indulged. Riding and painting helped to channel Con­stance's seemingly boundless energy, but boredom bred mischief. Not long before she left for London, she masterminded the theft of a neighbor's cow and calf and took inordinate delight in hearing the family "call 'Sucky Sucky' on the Sligo road til midnight!"4 Many anecdotes would circulate after her death about Constance's kindness to the Gore-Booth family's tenants, but her transgression of the boundary between the Big House and the peasant cottage was mostly a matter of fun and would give rise to "enduring jokes about pigs in Irish parlours."5

Impatient with the pace of life, Constance was, on the whole, insensi­tive to her extraordinary privilege. Constance and Eva were sent with their governess on tour to the Continent, where they rowed on the Rhine, heard Wagner at Beyreuth, and studied painting and sculpture in Italy. As a fam­ily, the Gore-Booths attended the London season each year, staying at their pied-a-terre, 7 Buckingham Gate, where Constance had been born. In Sligo, Georgina arranged for the best tuition in drawing and painting, with les­sons from the Irish painter Sarah Purser, who had recently returned from the Academie Julian in Paris, and from the Swedish artist Anna Nordgren. Geor­gina commissioned Purser to paint Constance and Eva, then aged twelve and ten, and Purser observed an aptitude and precocity in the elder sister and urged Georgina to cultivate her talent. None of this care and generosity was evident to Constance, who complained in her adolescent diary of her insuf­ferable and "parsimonious family."6

The "whirl of excitement" of family theatricals provided some relief from the constraints of daily life, and Constance relished the attention lavished on her at dances at home and in London.7 Beside a newspaper clipping that praised her "fine style" during the Sligo Harriers' latest hunt, she pasted in her diary a gossipy article about a party given by Lady Jane Lindsay, where "Prince George accompanied his brother, and they both showed consider­able discrimination in giving their early dances to Miss Gore-Booth, whose beauty was universally admired."8 This was the future king against whom she would later demand insurrection. For the present, she thought simply: "What Vulgar People the Royalties must be—This is the conclusion I come to after going to the Victorian Exhibition—NO taste in anything & every family event birth & marriage being celebrated by an awful Daub by an in­competent painter."9

Seven years after Constance was presented at court during Queen Victo­ria's golden jubilee, she had yet to meet her match. At first she had longed for a lover—"even a married one"—but now she simply longed for freedom. She had been afraid of disappointment—"So many people begin with great promise, greater hope, & end in nothing but failure & the poor house or improper"—but she finally mustered the courage to make a break and con­vinced her "arrogant narrow conventional unreasonable mother & soft mild milk & water father" to send her to the Slade.10

London was a study in perspective. Constance had been born there and had spent months socializing under close scrutiny, but she could now negoti­ate the city on her own terms. She lived lavishly at Sloane Terrace on Sloan Square and had no qualms about offering a five-shilling reward should she happen to mislay her sketchbook—compensation that was equal to more than twenty pounds in today's money.11 Despite her privileged existence, she began to notice the poor and working-class people living around her: catch­ing in hasty lines the figure of a street hawker beside his cart and a young girl selling flowers; stopping to draw a portrait of a man, face shaded by a flat-cap, sitting on the steps of a grand terrace house, holding a baby wrapped in swaddling. The urban environment awakened her to the extreme economic disparity that had been masked by the Gore-Booths' patronage of their ten­ants in Sligo. Constance was drawn toward the bourgeois, non-Marxist so­cialism that was fashionable among London's artists, and she attended a lec­ture by Beatrice Webb on "Trades Unionism & Socialism" at the Essex Hall.12