Philip Alexius de Laszlo -- British painter (1869-1937)
Oil on Canvas
173 x 117 cms (68 x 46 in)
Signed and dated l.l. de László / 1933
From: Christopher Wood Gallery, London
In 1932 Sir Merrik Burrell was taken by his daughter Dreda to see a performance in which the beautiful and talented German actress and singer Anny Ahlers was performing. He was smitten by her immediately. At the time he was a bachelor, being recently divorced from his second wife; from then on he became an ardent admirer of Miss Ahlers. He commissioned a half-length portrait of her from de László, of the sort that was customary, especially on the Continent, for the leading lady to display in the foyer of the theatre at which she was currently appearing. The artist, when faced with a sitter of such striking appearance, couldn’t bear to be so constrained by such a subdued commission and embarked upon the present full-length portrait of her. Unfortunately, Anny Ahlers died as a result of an accident before the portrait was completed. On 14th March 1933, aged only twenty-six, she fell from the balcony of the apartment in which she was living at the time, she died instantly from a broken neck. Sir Merrick’ daughter Dreda was persuaded to sit for the completion of the painting. She wore Anny Ahlers’s dress, which fitted perfectly, apart from being a little short, and recalled the artist painting the actress’s hands and shoulder and silver slippers as she posed for him.
Contemporary photographs exist of the portrait both in its unfinished and finished states. The emerald ring that Anny Ahlers wears on her left hand was a present from Sir Merrik and remains in the possession of the family. After her death Sir Merrik obtained a lock of her red hair, which he had set under glass in the lid of an antique French box, and personally wrote an inscription in her memory, which was placed in the box.
The portrait, though an unqualified success in painterly terms, was indeed somewhat large for the commissioner’s home, Floodgates, near the family seat, Knepp Castle, but the commissioner treasured it nonetheless. de László also painted three landscape studies at Floodgates over the years apparently in 1927, 1934 and 1937.
Miss Anny Ahlers, 1906-1933, actress and vocalist, born in Hamburg, was the daughter of Wilhelm Ahlers and his wife Augusta Victoria Liebirg. She studied at the Operatic School of Dancing, Hamburg from the age of seven at which time she made her first stage appearance. After World War I she appeared as a première child danseuse at the Vienna Opera House, and then at the Berlin State Opera House. In 1924 she returned to Hamburg where she studied operatic singing under Professor Schweinberg, making her grown-up debut at the Volks Operahaus, Hamburg, that same year. Her success continued in Berlin, where she co-starred with Richard Tauber in the Song of Love at the Metropol Theatre. She also performed to great acclaim in Vienna.
Ahlers made her first appearance on the London stage in 1932 at His Majesty’s Theatre, as Jeanne in The Dubarry. She was brought over to London by a wealthy impresario, Mr. Scott, with whom Miss Ahlers was much in love. However, once in England he largely ignored her, apart from presenting her with cheques that she hardly knew what to do with, having almost no command of English and no friends or relations in London. After her untimely death, her mother and sister came over from Germany for her funeral and cremation. Half the ashes were taken back to Germany for burial there. It was some time later that the funeral directors contacted the Burrell family; Mr. Scott had requested the retention of the remainder of the ashes but had never paid for, or indeed arranged, the burial ceremony. Accordingly, Sir Merrik arranged for the casket containing those ashes to be buried in Shipley churchyard, the church close to Knepp Castle. Such was the popularity of Miss Ahlers that the whole orchestra and cast from The Dubarry at His Majesty’s Theatre came down from London for the services of committal. Heddel Nash sang in the church and there was a tremendous gathering at Floodgates afterwards. There are memorials to Sir Merrik and Miss Ahlers in Shipley church, the parish church to Knepp Castle, West Sussex.
Sir Merrik Burrell, Bart; and thence by family descent.
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., London, Portraits by Philip A. de László, M.V.O., Loan Exhibition held in aid of The Artist’s General Benevolent Institution, June – July 1933, no. 6: The Late Miss Anny Ahlers. To be included in the forthcoming exhibition of work by Philip Alexius de László: A Brush with Grandeur, Christie's, London, 6 – 22 January 2004.
Sitters’ Book, Vol. II, p.74: Anny Ahlers 26 XI 32. National Portrait Gallery 1933 Album, p.10. Owen Rutter, Portrait of a Painter: Philip De László (London, 1939) p. 373 and ill. facing p. 384 (the artist photographed with the sitter and the portrait). Derek Clifford, The Paintings of P. A. de László (London, 1969) monochrome ill. pl. 46. To be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being compiled by The Hon. Mrs. de Laszlo.
As of 2/3/2004, the work was offered for sale at Christopher Wood Gallery, London, for £100,000
Special thanks to Matt Davies, of
Kansas City, a friend
of the JSS Gallery, for sending me the link to the image.
By: Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2004 all rights reserved