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Philip de László: Royal Portrait Painter and Prisoner

As an author focusing on British royal history, I find it interesting to explore situations that have been largely forgotten.

A self portrait of artist Philip de László (1869-1937.)

A self portrait of artist Philip de László (1869-1937.)

Painter of the Elite in Society

If you view a portrait of a European royal, church or aristocratic figure from the early twentieth century there’s a high probability that the Hungarian-born artist Philip de László painted it, and to great acclaim.

Among his long list of sitters were Queen Alexandra and Kings Edward VII, George V and VI of Britain, Queen Louise of Sweden, Queen Olga of Greece, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, Queen Marie of Romania, King Alphonso XIII of Spain and his wife Queen Victoria Eugenie. He also painted presidents of the United States Teddy Roosevelt and John Calvin Coolidge Jr., and even Pope Leo XIII.

His portfolio of over 2700 portraits, his estimate, is a feast for the eyes. Further proof of his success has been in the continued discoveries of forgeries, works with fake Philip de László signatures that have sometimes fooled the art world’s experts.

Fülüp Laub Becomes Philip de László

He was the eldest son of Jewish tailor Adolf Laub and his seamstress wife Johanna. Fülüp was born on the 30th April 1869 in Pest in the Kingdom of Hungary. This was before Buda and Pest were joined to form the capital. The surname de László was adopted by Philip and his brother Marczi in 1891 as a sign of patriotism. Philip’s name translates as László Fülöp Elek. One of nine siblings, only five of them survived infancy.

Philip de László was born with the gifts of artistry, determination to succeed and a commendable work ethic. He was apprenticed to a portrait photographer in his childhood and he studied at The Drawing School and Budapest School of Applied Arts. His talent and application led to his acceptance into Hungary’s National Academy of Art at the unusually young age of sixteen. Here he studied under acclaimed artists and tutors, then attended the Royal Bavarian School in Germany and Paris’ Academie Julian.

Queen Victoria Eugenie of Spain by Philip de László.

Queen Victoria Eugenie of Spain by Philip de László.

The Portrait Commissions Roll In

Philip de László specialised at first in historical images but he soon earned a commission to paint a portrait of a prominent Hungarian lawyer. In 1894 he was asked to paint the Bulgarian royal family by a friend who, luckily for Philip, was the Secretary of Fine Arts in Hungary’s Ministry of Education. Five years after this work was carried out Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Queen Victoria sought his talents.

The new century brought commissions to paint several members of German royalty and Pope Leo XIII which earned him great praise and the coveted Grand Golden Medal at the 1900 Paris International Exhibition. His status as a consummate and considerate portrait artist was established. He was a leading exponent of the Grand Manner style of painting.

Philip de László's 1908 portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, the primary instigator of the First World War.

Philip de László's 1908 portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, the primary instigator of the First World War.

Lucy Guinness, Mrs. de László

He found time to marry in 1900. Philip and Lucy Guinness, a member of the illustrious banking and brewing family, first met in 1892 in Munich, Germany but their relationship had been halted because he had no fortune and so was thought of as an unsuitable marriage prospect by her family. By 1900, his circumstances were sufficiently changed that no objections were raised to their marriage, much to the relief of Philip and Lucy.

The newlyweds lived in Budapest in the house that he also used as his studio. Three years later they relocated from Budapest to Vienna and in 1907 they took up residence in London, England. Lucy and Philip had five sons. Remembering his humble roots, he sent money to his family in Hungary.

In 1909 he was inducted into the British Royal Victorian Order by King Edward VII. Several royal sitters for his portraits honoured him with medals and awards over the course of his career.

Philip, Lucy and one of their sons in another self portrait by de László.

Philip, Lucy and one of their sons in another self portrait by de László.

A Dangerous Man?

During the early months of the First World War, Philip became a British national and he was generous with his time, painting numerous officers’ portraits and donating artwork to charities for fundraising endeavours. The money he sent to his relatives in Hungary, by then an enemy territory, led to a police and Home Office investigation in 1915. He was cautioned not to communicate with his Hungarian relatives but he did.

On the 21st September 1917, Philip was arrested and detained in Brixton Prison under the Defence of the Realm Act as a dangerous person for allegedly trading with the enemy. Several notable figures spoke in support of him at his trial seven days later but to no avail. He was not released and in November 1917 he was moved to the Islington Internment Camp. He was denied access to his family and, cruelly for an artist of his calibre, no oil paints were allowed. He was permitted to sketch with a pencil and he painted some water-colours.

Edwina Ashley on her wedding day. She married Lord Louis "Dickie" Mountbatten, a cousin of King George V of Britain in July 1922.The portrait was completed the following year.

Edwina Ashley on her wedding day. She married Lord Louis "Dickie" Mountbatten, a cousin of King George V of Britain in July 1922.The portrait was completed the following year.

Breakdown And Recovery

His imprisonment was reviewed just before Christmas 1917 but his release was vetoed by MI5 who still felt that he presented a danger to British interests. His life and reputation were in shreds. Unsurprisingly, he suffered a nervous breakdown. The Home Office released him into the care of a London nursing home in May 1918 where he was finally allowed to see his wife and children again. He was given oil paints to work with. He created portraits of religious figures and his family members, he painted still lifes. His spirits rose a little. He was later kept under house arrest with his solicitor but this period in his life was highly productive.

Philip de László's portrait of the Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Gordon Lang.

Philip de László's portrait of the Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Gordon Lang.

The Reputation of Philip de László Restored

Between the 23rd and 27th June 1919 Philip de László's court case for continued residence in the country as a British national was heard. Sir Austen Chamberlain, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, acted as one of the character witnesses for him. The judgement was that there was no evidence that he was a traitor. His British citizenship was not revoked. He was, after an interminable wait, a free and respected man. He returned to his life with Lucy and their children and resumed his career.

He passed away in London on the 22nd November 1937. Lucy died in 1950 aged eighty. He had converted to Roman Catholicism from Judaism several years before he died so husband and wife were laid to rest at the All Saints Churchyard in Tilford, Surrey.

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© 2021 Joanne Hayle

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