Scottish artist James Archer painted this portrait in London between trips to the United States (in 1884) and India (in 1886) in search of sitters. His sitter, Francis Maria Adelaide, Lady Arnold, remains elusive—and intriguing.
Born into a privileged American family, raised on two continents, the daughter of a social reformer, and married to an English writer, “Fanny” (as she was known) must have been worldly and well-connected. Her father, William Henry Channing, was a Unitarian minister. An advocate for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and temperance; an associate of the Transcendentalists; and a reputed mystic, he spent much of his career in Liverpool and London—although he returned to the United States during the Civil War to serve as chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Her husband, Sir Edwin Arnold, was a journalist, editor of the Daily Telegraph, and poet, whose hugely popular narrative poem, The Light of Asia (1879), recounted—and embroidered upon—the life of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. The couple met in May of 1868, when she was painting a copy of Perugino’s Virgin and Child with Angels in London’s National Gallery. As he recorded in a poem written on the spot, her copy improved on the Renaissance original by incorporating a heartfelt, “lustrous” single tear into the depiction of the holy infant’s smile. Within three months, the two had wed.
Archer shows Lady Arnold wearing a black satin dress with a pronounced bustle, high collar, and close-fitting sleeves—characteristics of the most advanced fashion of the mid-to-late 1880s. Her sparkling Aesthetic Movement hair ornament, which probably represents a dragonfly, was likewise, à la mode.
Lady Arnold died in March 1889 at the untimely age of 51; Archer exhibited the portrait in the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy later that year, and its pendant, showing her husband, in 1890. This portrait came to the Mead from a member of the sitter’s family: Laurence Channing, brother of the poet Anne Elizabeth Channing Porter and brother-in-law of the painter Fairfield Porter (a visiting artist at Amherst College in 1969-70), donated it in 1980.
EEB, May 2013