Exploration of a portrait: Dame Freya Stark – by Paul Aysford Methuen PPRWA

Lily McAuley uncovers the remarkable story of Dame Freya Stark – subject of a portrait by one time RWA President, Paul Aysford Methuen…

by Lily McAuley

Portraiture is interesting not just for what it can tell us about how to create tone, depth and shape, but for what it can tell us about the subjects depicted. Historians have long used portraiture to learn about the cultural, political and social aspects of the past.

The painting above is Dame Freya Stark (1893–1993), Seated in a Chair by Paul Asyford Methuen RA, who was President of the RWA from 1939 to 1971. At first glance, the woman appears quite ordinary. However, when you look at the details, the portrait tells a more intriguing story…

The extraordinary life of Dame Freya Stark

Dame Freya Stark (born Jan. 31, 1893, Paris, France) was a British/Italian writer and explorer. Over her lifetime, she wrote more than two dozen books about her expeditions.

What made Freya all the more extraordinary was how she was one of the few Europeans, let alone women, to have travelled to relatively unexplored parts of Turkey and the Middle East. She had no formal education as a child, and travelled extensively with her parents, both of whom were artists. After working as a nurse during WW1, Freya attended the School of Oriental Studies, and wrote her first book ‘Valley of the Assassins’ in 1934. 

Thereafter, Freya travelled extensively throughout the Middle East, Turkey, Greece and Italy. Later, she founded the Anti-Nazi ‘Brotherhood of Freedom’, after working for the British Ministry of information in Aden, Baghdad, and Cairo. Once the war ended, she continued to write about her travels, and was made was Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1972.

An exploration of a portrait

So what can this portrait tell us about Freya’s life? Fashion, although often perceived as superficial, can tell us a lot about the wearers. Her hair, for example, tells a story. While the artist’s technique obscures its texture, it appears that she is wearing a very short flapper-ish style, reminiscent of the 1920s- the decade previous to the date of the painting.

Although, of course, it took time for styles to transition between the decades, Freya’s aversion to the looser, longer styles of the thirties is an oddity. This may have been no accident. As a child, Freya was involved in a horrific incident with a factory machine that resulted in her right ear being torn off. This would explain why she rarely deviated from the bobbed style throughout her life. The trends of the 20’s accommodated the wearing of hats, which Freya did to hide her injuries.

Portrait of Freya Stark aged 30, wearing the tight hairstyle designed to obscure her right ear injury.
Portrait by Herbert Arnould Olivier (1923), National Portrait Gallery, London

A day dress, or something more unusual?

Freya’s dress is also interesting. It’s a loose fitting garment, which was common for English day dresses of the time. However, the embroidery, loose sleeves and neckline are quite distinct.

In the years before the portrait was painted, Freya had travelled to Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Iran. During the 1930’s, styles from these regions were rarely worn in the West. However, a few travellers and eccentrics wore Kaftans, often brought back with them from their travels.

Kaftans (also known as caftans) are traditional garments which originated in Persian, and later spread in popularity across Central and Western Asia. There are many variants of Kaftans, although typically they are distinguishable by their collarless robe and wide sleeves.

A brocaded silk kaftan, Moroccan, early 20th century. Image credit: Kerry Taylor Auctions

Transcending the painting

Although only a snapshot, even the most unassuming paintings can tell rich stories about their subjects. Initially, this painting simply appears to be a Englishwoman sitting for a portrait. That is, until you start to looking at the details. The closer you look, and the more you pick apart, the more you can garner about the woman in the painting.

The portrait Dame Freya Stark (1893–1993), Seated in a Chair by Paul Asyford Methuen RA is © trustees of the Corsham estate. Photo credit: Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland

The Friends of the RWA is an independent charity that supports the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol’s first art gallery. 
For just £35 a year Friends can make unlimited visits to RWA exhibitions and enjoy a host of other benefits, as well as making an important contribution to the arts in Bristol and the South West. Find out more and join up here.

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