When Sir Magnus and Baby Wentworth enter the room together, Jenkins is struck by the appearance of this usually beautiful woman: she had an ‘almost hang-dog air;’ her ‘features had lost all gaiety and animation;’ she appeared ‘sulky,’ ‘almost awkward.’ [BM 147/] She reminds Jenkins of an painting of Adam and Eve leaving Eden.
Adam and Eve have been painted many times and are familiar to all; the scene is cinematically vivid in Powell’s witty prose, so why should we bother to blog about paintings that Powell was not describing? First, Jenkins is reminded of modern Biblical paintings, so this gives us an opportunity to learn more about other artists whose work Powell must have known. Second, we welcome the opportunity to ponder the end of the paragraph: “I almost expected them to be followed through the door by a well-tailored angel, pointing in their direction a flaming sword.”
Jenkins was imaging a modern painting, not one ‘in Mr. Deacon’s vernacular.’ He clearly was not thinking of the work above by James Tissot. We show it because, like Baby Wentworth, this Eve is small with dark curly hair and a face expressing her dismay.
Tissot (1834-1902) was born in Nantes and started painting in France, but anglicized his name from Jacques-Joseph to James. He built a career as a society painter. Proust says that Tissot’s La Cercle de la Rue Royale (1868), showing members of the Paris Jockey Club, includes his friend Swann (Karpeles, p237). Tissot spent his later career in Britain. When his beloved mistress Kathleen Newton died, he became more devoutly Catholic and often painted religious themes. A contemporary and friend of Alma-Tadema, Degas, and Whistler, Tissot was most akin stylistically to the first of these.
One painter from Jenkin’s era who showed Biblical figures in modern settings is Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). In the Zacharias and Elizabeth, he shows Archangel Gabriel telling Zacharias that his wife will bear a child from God. Spencer typically set his twentieth century versions of biblical scenes in his native village of Cookham, along the Thames. However, neither Spencer nor other modern biblical painters whom we have sampled, like Chagall, Rouault, or Joseph Epstein, depict their angels with quite the well-tailored look that Jenkins imagined.
Could Powell, by referring to that anachronisitic angel, be offering a sly reductio ad absurdum critique of those who would translocate the Bible to the twentieth century? Clearly not; Powell knew that artists for millenia have been transposing Biblical scenes into their local settings. Even Tissot, who went to the Holy Land so that he could paint the Bible authentically, reportedly paid homage to Kathleen Newton with Eve’s face and mistakenly modelled his Biblical headresses on Greek busts.
We are left to wonder whether Jenkins fantasizes that the avenging angel, dressed for the party, is there only for Sir Magnus and his mistress or is surveying the whole exotic crowd of men in white tie with their beautiful bejeweled women.