The portrait seems to say it all: On a billowing silken couch that resembles a giant peony, three women swathed in white appear to bloom, their beauty and privilege an expression of nature as much as art. John Singer Sargent had done a good job. Commissioned in 1899 by Percy Wyndham to paint his daughters, the American artist captured the blithe supremacy of the British ruling class. But there was more to it than that. “At a time when the upper classes felt that their traditional hegemony was being eroded by a myriad of diverse forces,” Claudia Renton writes in this splendid new biography, “the painting represented a distinct salvo on behalf of the beleaguered aristocracy.”
In the prologue to “Those Wild Wyndhams,” Renton then leads us into the shadows of Sargent’s canvas where “gleams Madeline Wyndham,” the girls’ tempestuous mother. Within a few pages, private lives and public affairs are dexterously entwined, and from then on Renton’s nimble touch never fails. Drawing on letters, diaries and historical records, she affords us an intimate yet clear-eyed view of a dynasty that both embodied and shaped a tumultuous era. Her portrait, no less than Sargent’s, is a triumph of observation, insight and erudition.
Let’s start with the money. In 1860, when Percy Wyndham and Madeline Campbell married, they received almost 36,000 pounds (around $4 million today) from Percy’s father, Lord Leconfield. No wonder Henry James, contemplating an 1870 portrait of Madeline, judged it “a ‘sumptuous’ picture. . . . That is, the lady looks as if she had thirty-thousand a year.” With only 1 in 5 property-owning males eligible to vote, the Wyndhams and roughly 400 other families constituted the hub of Britain’s imperial machine.
Yet Percy married for love, besotted with sensual Madeline — or “Mananai” — whose aristocratic roots were Irish and whose lovers included Percy’s cousin, the poet and anti-imperialist Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. Blunt went on to seduce Mananai’s daughter Mary and to father one of her children, while Mary maintained a lifelong affair with Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, an intimacy spiced by spanking. Indeed, there was plenty of spice in the Wyndham offspring — Mary, Madeline, Pamela, George and Guy.
Raised in a bohemian manner to venerate Beauty and Feeling, (there was much Romantic poetry and Pre-Raphaelite posing), they formed an intellectual clique known as the Souls, which briefly embraced the likes of Oscar Wilde for whom one session was enough. “Stark naked, the future rulers of England,” Wilde mused in 1891 when George Curzon, having viciously lambasted Wilde’s sexuality, stripped to swim with vile George Wyndham and other manly chaps. This is the same George Wyndham who observed of an evening in Paris in 1913, “No Jew was there. No American. . . . I had struck an oasis of civilization.” He died four days later, Renton dryly reports.
An elegant, restrained writer, she rarely comments. Consequently, her subjects seem to reveal themselves. Mary the sly eccentric, Madeline the serene grown-up and Pamela the narcissistic beauty materialize both as fascinating specimens of their class — inhabiting great houses, commanding scores of servants — but also as complex, flawed individuals. Of Pamela, Renton writes, “She had simply been spoiled so long that she could not see anyone else as more than a circling planet and she the sun.” While Mary the idealist returns from a 1902 meeting of the Fabian Society, “shining-eyed, full of talk about how her new friends had promised to save her from being first against the wall when the revolution came.”
But world war comes instead. “The sound was so loud that Asquith heard it in Downing Street,” Renton writes of the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, “wave after wave of soldiers . . . mown down . . . pulped under the feet of the men who came up behind them only to fall themselves.” Five Wyndham grandsons were killed, 1 in 5 British peers died, and a chasm opened “between the generation that fought and those who sent them there, nowhere more so than among the elite,” whose way of life was ending. “The wrecking ball was a familiar sight,” Renton writes of London after the war, “demolishing the private palaces in which the Wyndhams had danced to make way for natty blocks of flats.”
Faced with punitive taxes, they sold or leased their country estates, and here, as throughout this biography, Renton’s descriptions are as evocative as they are informative. She ends with Pamela in 1928, returning to the family demesne, now sold, where, “she saw themselves as children . . . saw the great teas where thirty or more sat and waited for toast, always cold and curling after the servants’ trek down miles of corridor.” Through Renton’s flawless lens, the reader sees them, too.
Anna Mundow is a freelance journalist and reviewer in central Massachusetts.
By Claudia Renton
Knopf. 458 pp. $30