Even if you knew nothing of their sitter, looking at these two paintings together you would probably assume she was rarely at home to Mr Boring. And you’d be right. Lady Jane Digby, born into the English aristocracy in 1807, pursued a life for which there were few precedents among her gender, class or nationality. The closest comparison would probably be Lady Hester Stanhope, but the trickle of tattle that followed her was as nought to the waves of indignant uproar that Digby’s exploits sent throughout Europe.
In 1831 Digby had already divorced her first husband, Baron Ellenborough, amid a storm of controversy and moved on to Munich. Like a drunken backpacker she hooked up with a stranger at that year’s Oktoberfest, but her encounter wasn’t “some guy from Dunedin, I think his name was Jake”, rather Bavaria’s king, Ludwig I. The first painting is by Bavarian court artist Josef Stieler and was executed shortly after Digby became a royal mistress. While the beauty that enraptured Ludwig is evident, she is presented as an idealized being, emerging from silken drapery. There’s an almost Renaissance cast to the fabric and braiding contradicted by Digby’s modish do, and she appears as a national personification like Britannia or Marianne, perhaps the embodiment of a country yet to be discovered. This painting shows up in Ludwig’s Gallery of Beauties in Munich’s Nymphenburg Palace and so Digby joins such 19th century eye candy as Lola Montez, an archduchess of Austria and the king’s own daughter.
Flash-forward 28 years. Digby has married thrice and divorced twice since we last saw her, and she has counted Ludwig’s son King Otto of Greece among her numerous lovers. But now she is the wife of a Syrian sheikh to whom she will remain faithful until the end of her life, dividing her time between Damascus and the desert. Another German artist, Carl Haag, painted this watercolour of Digby in the ruins of Palmyra. While she had adopted Arab dress by this time, she spent most of her time in a blue covering of a more practical cut for riding. But this outing was evidently important enough for her to crack out something ritzy. Where in Munich she had held her own against the drapes, here Digby is swamped in fabric, great folds which seem to draw her to the ground. There is still something coquettish to the long, trailing, sheer face covering, which in seeking to modestly mask her features instead draws attention to them, downcast eyes avoiding the artist’s gaze but utterly conscious that he is there.
An original spirit to the last, Jane Digby died in Damascus in 1881.