June’s Object of the Month is special to us here at Shaw’s Corner for three reasons: firstly, and most simply it is a beautiful, clever picture. John Nettleship was one of the great animal artists of the nineteenth century, and this diving heron with a trail of bubbles in its wake is no exception. Secondly, it reminds us of Shaw’s great love of birds and the huge variety of birds that live in and around the gardens here at Shaw’s Corner – we frequently see the local heron on the way too and from work. But it is the third reason that is the most interesting.
This small and simple picture represents a complex network of artists, writers and actors that Shaw was at the very heart of and flows throughout the house here at Shaw’s Corner.
John Nettleship was married to Adaline Cort, better known as Ada Nettleship. It was the ‘divine Ada’ who made in crochet the famous beetle wing dress worn by the actress Ellen Terry to play Lady Macbeth. The dress is now at our fellow National Trust property Smallhythe Place, Ellen’s beautiful home in Kent. Shaw and Ellen Terry had a long and very close relationship despite only meeting a few times. Theirs was a ‘paper courtship’ that lasted decades.
John and Ada Nettleship had several children, and their eldest daugher Ida followed in her father’s footsteps and attended the Slade school of art, where she met Augustus John. The couple married and their son Caspar John went on to become British First Sea Lord.
John’s sister Gwen was also a passionate and talented artist. You can find out more about the complicated relationship between Gwen, Ida, Augustus and his mistress Doreila in this article by Michael Holroyd (who has also written biographies of Shaw and Ellen Terry).
So this Diving Heron in the Entrance Hall is already linked to last month’s Object of the Month, the portrait of Shaw by Augustus John, but the connections go a step further. Gwen John became sculptor Auguste Rodin’s mistress in 1904, the start of an affair that would last ten years and was at its height in 1906, when Shaw went to the Villa Meudin outside Paris to sit for the bronze bust that is now in the Drawing Room here at Shaw’s Corner. Many people came to visit Shaw and Rodin during the sitting – one of whom was Augustus John’s great friend William Rothenstein, whose unfinished portrait of Shaw now hangs in the Museum Room here!