The artist and his stepfather
In 1912 an artist moved into ‘Glencairn’, 46 West End Lane, a large detached house between Acol and Woodchurch Roads. His name was Albert de Belleroche. Born in Swansea in 1864, Albert was the son of Edward Charles, the Marquis de Belleroche, whose family, one of the oldest Houses of Europe, was connected to the Royal Family of France. His Huguenot ancestors left France for Britain after the Revocation des Edit de Nantes in 1685. Albert’s mother Alice was the daughter of Desire Baruch of Brussels. His parents’ marriage was unhappy and they separated. Albert was only three when his father died and he was brought up in Paris by Alice and his stepfather, William Harry Vane Milbank whom Alice married in March 1871. Described as possessing ‘almost legendary beauty’, Alice entertained lavishly at their home in the Avenue Montaigne.
|‘The artist’s mother’, Mrs Milbank, lithograph by Albert Belleroche|
|Mrs Harry Vane Milbank, by John Singer Sargent|
In 1882, Milbank had commissioned Carolus Duran, a noted portrait painter, to paint his wife. While the work was in progress, Alice gave a dinner party for Edward VII, then the Prince of Wales. At the party Duran saw sketches by the young Belleroche and suggested that he should study at his studio. However, Belleroche wasn’t happy with the formal structure provided by Duran, and he only stayed a short time. Albert believed that art could not be learned in schools but rather in museums among the masters. Botticelli, Vermeer, and Frans Hals were his favourite painters.
During that year, Belleroche attended a banquet given in honour of Duran by his students. It was here that he first met the American John Singer Sargent, a former student of Duran, whose early successes at the Salons were the talk of Paris. Belleroche and Sargent were to become life-long friends, and shared various studios in Paris and London. Their affiliation was one of mutual admiration, sympathy of taste and artistic direction. What Sargent was able to do drawing freely and spontaneously with charcoal on paper, Belleroche would go on to do with lithographic crayon on stone. It was Belleroche who encouraged and instructed Sargent in his experiments in lithography. Of the seven lithographs known to have been executed by Sargent, two are portraits of Belleroche, both done in 1905.
|Albert de Belleroche, by John Singer Sargent, 1905|
|Ellen Terry, John Singer Sargent, 1887|
The Café de la Rochefoucauld and the Restaurant l’Avenue were their favourite Parisian haunts until Sargent’s permanent move to London in 1886. Among their friends who used to gather there were Émile Zola, Oscar Wilde, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. In 1882, Belleroche painted Lautrec’s portrait as a souvenir of their friendship: they were both eighteen years old.
Albert Belleroche fits many of the romantic conceptions of an artist in Paris in the 1890’s. He had a studio opposite the Moulin Rouge, and like Lautrec, he enjoyed the freedom and life of Montmartre. Here he met Lili Grenier, the model made famous by Lautrec, but soon to pose almost exclusively for Belleroche and become his mistress for almost ten years. He painted such personalities of the quartier as the dancer Cha-U-Kao; femme fatale and spy Mata Hari; Olympia, the model immortalized by Degas, and the famous Japanese wrestler, Taro Myaki.
|Lili Grenier, by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, 1888|
Belleroche was reserved, even critical of his own work; he discouraged visitors to his studio and he painted out of passion, not financial reward. He was of course fortunate not to need the money. Commissioned portraits never appealed to Belleroche. Given his social position and his special talent in portraiture, he could have enjoyed the fame of Helleu and Sargent, whose commissions were growing in demand. However, Belleroche believed that when an artist accepted a portrait on commission he risked becoming a slave to the sitter. And because Belleroche was financially independent, he could choose his subjects, selecting only personalities who appealed to him.
|Lili with a feathered hat, Belleroche, 1907|
The turning point in Belleroche’s career came in 1900 when he realised that instead of painting, lithographs were his true medium. His drawings on stone with a greasy wax crayon have the appearance of being literally drawings on paper. Belleroche produced his most creative work and he considerably advanced the technique of lithography. His hand was so sure that he did not need preparatory sketches, but could draw directly on the stone. By 1904, his work was receiving critical acclaim as well as the respect and admiration of his peers, such as Renoir. At that year’s Salon d’Automne an entire room was devoted to his work. Degas bought one of Albert’s lithographs and a painting was acquired by the Musée du Luxembourg.
Belleroche, then aged forty five, married the beautiful Julie Emilie Visseaux in 1910, at All Saints Church, St John’s Wood. She was twenty eight and the daughter of his friend, the sculptor Jules Edouard Visseaux. His previous lover Lili Grenier, was furious and tried to break up the couple, which helped Belleroche’s decision to leave Paris. He returned to England to live, as his mother had done before him, following the death of her husband. Alice took up residence in fashionable St John’s Wood, at 11 and then 22 Grove End Road, where she died in 1916. She lived well with seven servants. Alfred and Julie lived with her in 22 Grove End Road and then in 1912 they moved to 46 West End Lane, where they stayed for about six years. In 1918 they moved to a 13th century house at Rustington in Sussex where they raised their three children. His son William (1913-1969), became active in the art world as a painter and a writer. Belleroche continued to make lithographs, although after World War I he worked only intermittently and in seclusion.
|Hampstead, by Belleroche, 1916 (Probably looking towards Christchurch)|
In the 1930’s, Belleroche presented large collections of his lithographs to the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; the Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels; and the British Museum in London. A smaller collection was given to the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. In 1933, the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels held a major retrospective exhibition of 291 lithographs and published an extensive catalogue of the exhibition. In conjunction with this honour, King Albert of Belgium awarded Belleroche the order of Chevalier de l’Ordre de Leopold.
At the outbreak of World War II and the bombing of the coast, Belleroche moved his family north to Southwell in Nottingham where he lived a simple life in retirement. In a small rented room over an electrician’s shop, he kept a makeshift studio where he stored the work of his Montmartre days. No one was allowed in and this became his retreat, full of memories of his life in Paris. Belleroche died in 1944 at the age of eighty in Southwell, after a long illness.
His previous home at 46 West End Lane was one of the houses destroyed by the VI flying bomb in June 1944.
Harry Vane Milbank
Albert’s stepfather William Harry Vane Milbank had a very colourful life.
Generally known as Harry Vane Milbank, he was born in 1849, the son of Sir Frederick Acclom Milbank, M.P. After attending Eton, Harry held a commission as Cornet (2nd Lieutenant) in the Royal Horse Guards until the end of 1870. By the time he turned 21 on 29 December 1869, Harry was already in debt to the tune of £30,000. Around the time of his marriage to Alice on 1 March 1871, Harry went into voluntary bankruptcy, owing his many creditors over £76,000. An early report appeared in January when Harry was being pursued for money by a photographer. In early April, his bankruptcy by arrangement with creditors was agreed. At the time, the judge called it ‘a case of a young man with splendid expectations,’ able to raise the money to pay off his creditors in full, which he intended to do. Harry was expected to inherit what a friend called ‘pots of money’ on the death of his father and his grand-uncle, the Duke of Cleveland. Alice must surely have known about Harry’s financial problems. But was she aware he’d only recently tried to marry someone else? Harry owed over £1,000 to a Piccadilly dress shop, for clothes supplied to Mabel Gray between February 1870 and January 1871, when Mabel was ‘living under the protection’ of Milbank. The Times politely called her a ‘celebrity’ but in reality Mabel was a notorious ‘demi-mondaine’ of the 1860s, a lady supported by a number of wealthy lovers. Her real name was Annie King, and she’d worked as a shop girl in London’s West End before embarking on her new career. Mabel’s photographs sold in huge numbers, ‘a beautiful creature, tall, slender, elegant, refined, she wore outrageously costly but prefect toilettes and some of the best diamonds in London.’ It took the ‘robust intervention’ of his father and the Duke of Cleveland, to prevent Milbank marrying Mabel Gray. It was rumoured that they had bought her off with a large sum of money.
When Mabel died of tuberculosis in 1871, the papers recalled their alliance, without naming him:
‘At one time she was engaged to be married to the heir to one of the oldest English dukedoms, but by the strenuous interference of his friends, and the granting for life to her of a liberal provision, what would have been a gross mesalliance was fortunately prevented.’
But the reporters were also generous to Mabel:
‘Many stories are told of her eccentric extravagance, but let the soil lie lightly on her remains, for in times of biting distress Mabel Gray was a woman whose charity covered a multitude of sins.’
As well as spending money and gambling, Harry was a noted duellist, fighting 18 duels and killing four men. He came to particular prominence in the press in 1892 as the second of the American Hallett Alsop Borrowe who was challenged to a duel by James Coleman Drayton over his wife Augusta.
By now, Harry had been ill for some time. He travelled to Switzerland hoping for a cure but died in Davos in October 1892, of a haemorrhage. He left only £100 in his will, a ‘nominal personal estate’ as one paper put it. It was said the reason the Duke of Cleveland left Harry none of his vast fortune was due to;
‘the sad tales of Harry Vane Milbank’s career on the Continent which from time to time reached home. Those who remember the fast society of Paris of 20 years ago will well recall the personality of the handsome, dashing officer in the Blues, who brought down to his duelling pistol more than one rash opponent.’
In addition to the tributes which might be expected, given the man and his lifestyle – Harry was a sportsman, a crack rifle shot and an accomplished huntsman – one paper noted he was also a keen scientist. Harry’s body was brought back to England for burial and Albert Belleroche attended the funeral. Alice’s floral tribute was a conical wreath over six feet in diameter, covered with white flowers and heliotrope.