Childhood seen: Children’s book tells a story of a painting
Last year my friends at the Susan Salzman Rabb & Associates Literary Publicists sent me a children’s book by Candian author Hugh Brewster.
A former editor for Scholastic, Inc., Brewster has written on many subjects for young readers — including Tsar Nicholas’s daughter Anastasia, the Titanic, World War Two, and dinosaurs.
Here he tells a story of the great painter John Singer Sargent and works that he completed over nearly two months in the small English village of Broadway in 1885. The painting is one of the most beloved of the late 19th century and launched Sargent’s career.
But Brewster focuses on the drama of a little girl, Kate, who almost got to pose in the painting, but at the last minute didn’t, for various casting reasons (related mostly to her age. She was only four.)
I reviewed the book in the February 2008 issue of American Artist magazine. You can read it below, as well the interview that Brewster recently gave to this blog.
“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose: The Story of Painting,” with paintings by John Singer Sargent, by Hugh Brewster
Reading level: All Ages
Format: 8″ x 9 1/4″ (203.2 x 234.9 mm) 48 pages
Published: September 2007 by Kids Can Press, Toronto www.kidscanpress.com
Review by Mark G. Mitchell
When his once-promising career as a portrait painter blew up in his face with the unveiling of his picture of Madame Pierre Gautreau – a work soon to be called “Madame X” – the young John Singer Sargent actually considered hanging up his palette and brushes. The painting shocked audiences and critics at the 1884 Paris Salon because the woman wore a black satin gown and had one shoulder strap down, (before Sargent relented and painted it back up. The picture now hangs at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
Mme. Gautreau and Sargent were suddenly finished in French polite society, the market in which Sargent had expected to make his living.
The shaken artist beat a retreat across the English Channel and found a safe haven at the home of an American family, the Millets, in the village Broadway in Worcestershire, England. In this tiny resort town in south-central England — which evokes the landscapes of The Wind in the Willows and Beatrix Potter illustrations — Sargent nursed his wounds, mulled over his next career move and met an array of writers and artists who would greatly influence his life, from the era’s top painters Edwin Austin Abbey and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema to novelists Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson.
His hosts, Frank and Elizabeth Millet were the magnets who drew these cultural luminaries (Francis was a history painter, muralist, journalist and a war correspondent who died on the Titanic disaster years later), and it was in their backyard garden that Sargent painted one of his greatest works – a large canvas that delivers, maybe better than any “big picture” in the history of art, the innocence and almost supernatural enchantment of childhood,
Sargent called the painting Carnation, Lily, Lily-Rose (after a popular song of the day and as a nod to Elizabeth “Lily” Millet), and how he painted this masterpiece of two children lighting paper lanterns in a flower garden is one of the most charming and instructive of art-making stories.
Now we have a children’s book that tells the story behind the painting, titled Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by Hugh Brewster with paintings by John Singer Sargent (Kids Can Press Ltd., Toronto 2007) and one of its many delights is it is told by a child. Or more accurately, Brewster narrates from the viewpoint of a little girl, Kate Millet, the Millet’s youngest daughter who auditioned to be a subject for the painting but was rejected by Sargent in favor of the daughters of the illustrator Frederick Barnard, her parents’ friend. The Barnhard girls, Dolly and Polly, were older and fair-haired (which Sargent decided he wanted for the design), and perhaps more importantly, they held still better than the wiggly four-year-old Kate. [Interesting note: Forty years after they were painted by Sargent, the sisters Polly and Dolly joined the artist at a special dinner in his honor in Boston — on the night Sargent died in his sleep.]
Along with many others (an audience of her family and friends), Kate witnessed the Plein-air painting sessions, which occurred in her backyard and continued for many weeks. The two older girls held their poses Sargent had given them, lighting their paper lanterns in the garden, for only 20-30 minutes of twilight each evening from August through September of 1885, while Sargent struggled to capture the colors and magic he saw.
The story ends with Kate seeing the painting with her parents at the huge exhibit in London, where Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose stole the show to become the most talked-about painting in London that season.
The painting was later bought by Royal Academy, in London, a great honor for an artist who was not a native Englishman. It hangs today at the Tate Gallery in London.
This is an exquisite book, gently written and beautifully produced. It’s filled with Sargent’s paintings, sketches and even his cartoons and doodles in letters. There are also some photos of the painter at work and of this charming time and place. The book makes compelling, essential reading for anyone of any age who is interested in painting and loves art.
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When we visited electronically a few weeks ago, Hugh Brewster and I found that we shared many of the same interests — reading and writing history among them.
He took on all of my questions that day. It was better than shoveling the snow off his front walk-in Ontario, he said.
You’ve written and are writing books for young people on World War Two battles. But in “Carnation Lily, Lily Rose” you write about a young artist not yet successful or famous, who painted two children lighting paper lanterns in a garden. This is a gentler subject than military history. What brought you to it?
Brewster: I’ve long been a fan of John Singer Sargent’s paintings. I think at first, like many people, I was simply drawn by the sensuous loveliness of them and by the lost, leisured world of the Gilded Age he so often depicts. But my appreciation grew with more exposure, At first, for example, I thought ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’ was a charming, sentimental painting but it was by no means my favorite. Then in 1999, I saw the original in the large touring Sargent exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I was struck by two things –- first, that the painting was so much larger than I expected, and secondly, by how it actually glowed as if lit from within. This is something no reproduction can capture, alas.
What else was it about this painting?
Brewster: After being struck by the extraordinary glow of the lamps, I noticed the colors of the lilies and the roses and thought how difficult it must be to capture that time of the evening (the French call it ‘l’ here bleu’) when pinks and blues stand out in the twilight. But the painting is more than just a technical ‘tour de force.’
An art historian friend pointed out to me how the painting seems to be painted from both an adult’s and a child’s point of view. That is to say, the perspective is the artist’s, looking down on the two girls holding the lamps. and yet it also depicts a child’s world with the lilies towering overhead. I wondered who the two little girls in the painting were and what became of them, so I decided to do a little research.
You tell the story from the perspective of a five-year-old girl, Kate Millet, who wasn’t included in the final painting of the girls (although the setting was in her parents’ backyard garden) because she is too young and too wiggly — and her hair is too dark for it to work in the scene. Why did you decide to tell this story from her point of view? I think I can see a strong, lively personality in the photos of the older Kate that you show toward the end of the book. But what was it about her that drew you?
Brewster: When I discovered that the painting had been done in the English garden of the American painter, Frank Millet, the coincidence of this was quite striking to me. I already knew a little about Frank Millet because he died on the Titanic. As an editor and publisher, I had worked with Robert Ballard on several books after he discovered and explored the wreck of the Titanic in 1985 and 1986. I had also worked on several subsequent books about the Titanic as well as writing two children’s books about it, so was well immersed in the story.
Several art historians referred to the letters of Lucia Millet, Kate’s aunt, who came to England to stay with her brother and his family in 1885-86 and described the goings-on in Broadway, Worcestershire to her parents back in Massachusetts. So, I thought there might be research material there that would allow me to tell a real story about a child’s encounter with a famous artist rather than the more fanciful ones featured in many children’s books.
I also rather liked the fact that Kate was “dumped” by Sargent and that she was reportedly angry about this. Childhood is full of disappointments! I also thought this would make her a good observer of the events.
And the portrait Sargent did of Kate in 1886 shows such a self-possessed little person! When I met Kate’s son and grandson in Winchcombe in 2004, they showed me the photographs you mention and told me stories that confirmed that she was indeed a remarkable character throughout her life.
In your “Author’s Note” you refer to letters written by Lucia Millet (Kate’s aunt), and recollections of others in the charmed circle of artists and writers around the Millet family during this time (1885-86) in Broadway in Worcestershire, England.
How were you able to research this material so that you were able to tell the story in a close-up, intimate (albeit semi-fictional) way — as if seeing it from the eyes of a child?
Brewster: Lucia Millet’s letters are in the Millet Family Archive at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in Washington D.C. Letters and recollections from Edmund Gosse and other members of the Broadway circle were also available so that I did not have to invent the actual events of the story – except for occasional embellishments.(For example, we don’t know for certain that Ye Shepherds Tell Me (the song from which Sargent took the title for his painting) was actually sung at Lily Millet’s birthday party but we do know that it was a favorite of the Broadway gang that summer. For how Kate reacted to events, I drew on my own childhood memories.
How difficult was it to keep yourself from getting bogged down in all the family and “art historian details”?
Brewster: That’s a very good question! My early drafts were just a little too art history-ish. When publishers were not responding to the book, I showed it to an editor friend who said, “Kate gets lost. You introduce her and then tell the story of the painting. We need to know how Kate feels all the way through.” This was excellent advice and with that, I was able to rewrite the book and sell it to Kids Can Press. Karen Li, my editor there, would also frequently write in the margins, “What does Kate think of this?” to remind me to keep to my young narrator’s perspective.
What else you would like to say about your work on this project or the paintings, sketches, and photos in the book?
Brewster: It was a huge amount of work to assemble all the paintings, sketches and photos and to get permission to use them but I’m very grateful to the Adelson Gallery in New York and all the collectors and to Kate’s family for their help with this. It was also a treat to make several trips to Broadway and environs – one of the loveliest areas in England—and see where it all took place. Broadway is little changed in over a century.
What do you think this story of Kate and Sargent and this canvas says to our time and place? And what might it say to the young people who come across your book?
Brewster: My main hope is that they find it to be an engaging story. Yes, they may learn a little about people like Sargent and Monet and Henry James and about how artists work. And I hope that it evokes a world before TV and the Internet when people entertained each other with songs and games. I suppose there may also be a life lesson about disappointment in it. But the biggest thrill of all for me would be to hear someone years from now say that they first developed a love for Sargent from reading this book as a child.
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