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The House of Fragile Things

James McAuley—

In late December 1962, the old woman, then 86, welcomed Philippe Jullian into her apartment in the avenue Gabriel, not far from the Champs-Élysées. Lady Alice Townshend, as she was known by then, had written a letter to Jullian, renowned aesthete, art critic, and man-about-town, who had recently published a biography of King Edward VII. As she told him in her letter, she had known the late king during her days as a young bride in late Victorian Britain. Jullian had then asked to meet her, and ended up publishing their conversation in Le Figaro.

The journalist soon discovered that Lady Townshend was more than the eccentric widow of Major General Charles Townshend, the British commanding officer who had overseen the doomed Siege of Kut, in modern-day Iraq, in 1915 and 1916, among the most humiliating Allied defeats of the First World War. She was herself a relic of a lost Parisian world and, as it happened, one of two young subjects of a Renoir portrait he remembered, Rose et bleu, completed in 1881 but by then already in the collection of the São Paulo Museum of Art. Lady Alice Townshend was born Alice Cahen d’Anvers, the youngest daughter of a Parisian Jewish banking family that had once been at the epicentre of cultural life in the capital. Renoir had also painted her eldest sister, Irène Cahen d’Anvers, in a canvas that was exhibited in the 1880 Salon and celebrated in the prestigious Gazette des Beaux-Arts. This had not been enough to satisfy the girls’ parents, Louis and Louise Cahen d’Anvers, who never displayed it in a position of prominence.

In any case, both paintings are now testaments to the destruction of a Jewish world at the hands of the Nazi regime and its French collaborators. The other subject depicted in Rose et bleu is Alice’s elder sister Élisabeth Cahen d’Anvers, who was arrested in Juigné-sur-Sarthe in February 1944 before her murder in Auschwitz in April of that year, at the age of 69. Alice’s eldest sister, Irène, survived the war, but her niece Béatrice de Camondo, who had carried her train at her wedding, did not. Irène’s portrait, known as ‘La Petite Irène’, soon became the evidence of a crime: it had hung in a place of pride in Béatrice’s apartment in Neuilly, and it was ultimately sequestered by the Nazis in 1941, one of the millions of objects looted from Jewish homes throughout France. But in the interview Alice gave to Jullian in 1962, all she was willing to say was a tongue-in-cheek complaint about the bourgeois nature of her upbringing. ‘It’s me, the smallest one,’ she said, laughing about Rose et bleu. ‘It was around 1880, when I was five. It annoyed me so much to have to pose, my only consolation being that I was allowed to wear an Irish lace dress that I so loved.’

From the article he published, it was clear that Lady Townshend had charmed Jullian, and his write-up reflects a considerable nostalgia for what he decided she represented: a certain ideal of Edwardian grace. ‘The dog barks – it’s time for a stroll,’ he concluded. ‘In five minutes, the passerby on the avenue Gabriel, passing this very little lady, will have no idea that she was the most beautiful model of Renoir, one of the ravishing women at the court of Edward VII, and the wife of a hero.’ Alice Townshend was indeed all of those things. But, like her sisters, she was a product of a Jewish elite that was already crumbling from within – decades before the Nazi Occupation and the horrors of the Holocaust. By 1962, she was a rare emblem of what others in her milieu might have become had they, too, managed to live long lives free of the identity categories that had shattered their cosmopolitan world after the rise of Nazism and the imposition of state antisemitism. With an Anglican baptism and a seat at the British court, Alice’s trajectory would not have pleased the majority of her Jewish forebears and their peers, although they had certainly all been well aware of this drift away from tradition decades before. Countering that trend was among the reasons these Jewish elites embraced collecting with such a fervour in the fin de siècle and the early decades of the twentieth century: collecting was a means of taking back control in a changing world, however imagined that control may have been.

From The House of Fragile Things by James McAuley. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.

James McAuley is the Paris correspondent for the Washington Post and a contributor to the New York Review of Books. He recently received his doctorate in French history at Oxford.

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