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 Mabel Eleanor (Sarton) Elwes  (1881 - 1950)



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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/District Of Columbia / England/Belgium      Known for: furniture design, embroidery textiles, miniature portrait painting

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Ad Code: 4
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Miniature of Young Girl
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born near London, Eleanor Mabel Elwes, usually referred to with the first name of Mabel, became a painter of miniatures, a designer of modern furniture and a designer of widely marketed embroidered fabrics. She was the daughter of Gervase Elwes, a civil engineer from an old Suffolk family and Eleanor Cole.  Gervase designed bridges including one for the first railroads in the Himalayas.  He also worked in Spain and Canada.  During this time, the children were literally 'farmed out'.  Mabel's brother, Hugh, went to boarding school, and she, a Victorian young lady with no opportunity for boarding school, lived with various families who were supposed to oversee her education, which meant it was very fragmented. For some years the only family of her own she saw was Hugh on holidays.

Of this childhood, Mabel's daughter, poet May Sarton wrote: "During the long months when Mabel was left along among strangers, she learned to depend on her own resources, to love nature passionately, and to observe it with the discriminating eyes of the solitary." Sarton described Mabel's mother as a "vain, fiery little woman who adored her husband at the expense of her children, and between them preferred her son."  However, the father was more charming and loving of Mabel, and they had a relatively close relationship.  She like him was not interested in religious affiliations, and the migraine headaches from which she suffered much during her life began when she was a youngster and one of the families tried to force church going and evangelical religion on her. 

When Mabel was a teenager, her father decided she needed more organized education and enrolled her at the Institute Kherkov in Ghent. A friend of Mabel's at this school, Celine Dangotte, who spent a summer with the Elwes family, described the father as very affectionate towards his daughter, calling her "Nellie dear" and "Petit Coq". She recalled him as an "ideal of an English gentleman with his full beard, blue eyes sparkling behind glasses, infinite courtesy and delightful inflection." 

When Mabel was nineteen and in art school in London, her father died suddenly, leaving the family nearly penniless because he had lost his money by investing in a Rhodesian mine.  Mabel had little relationship with her mother, and got through this time by getting a job back at the Institute in Belgium where she became a kind of governess and English tutor to students. Her friend Celine Dangott, however, became her rescuer, introducing Mabel to her family. The mother, Madame Dangotte, treated Mabel as her own daughter and found her work designing for an interior design firm in Ghent.

However, life continued to be difficult. When Mabel Elwes, age 30, was engaged to be married in Belgium to George Sarton, seven years younger, she sent to England for her birth certificate and learned she was born before her parents married. This meant she was legally illegitimate, which in turn caused her much humiliation with the bourgeois family of her fiance.  Because their son was marrying outside their culture, had this shadowing circumstance, and was seven years younger than the bride-to-be, they at first rejected her but later came to treat her with great affection.

Around the time of the engagement and the marriage, which was preceded by a period of estrangement with her fiance, Mabel chose miniature painting as a career and began to get quite a few commissions and win prizes.  However, she had a nervous breakdown linked to the estrangement with her lover, and her hands were so shaky that she set aside the painting for awhile and went to Zurich to study bookbinding. 

She returned to Ghent, reconciled with and married George Sarton.  For their home in Wondelgem, Belgium, she designed much of their furniture and worked with these projects with Celine Dangotte, who was married and had gone into the design business with her mother.  The Sartons had what is described as "four wonderful years" in Belgium.  In 1914, their lives were upended because of World War I, and they emigrated to the United States where George Sarton was supported financially by the Carnegie Institution. The family first lived in Washington DC.  But it was a frustrating time for Mabel, who in Belgium was on the brink of making a name for herself as a designer of modern furniture, much influenced by Art Nouveau. She found a partner in DC, a black woman, and through this experienced the racial tensions in the so-called 'land of the free." Prejudices worked against their business.

George Sarton took a professorship at Harvard University, and in 1918, the family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Mabel began to feel more at home and settled in her profession. She became a teacher of applied design at Shady Hill and at  Winsor School in Boston, and also kept ties with a dress designer firm in Washington DC, specializing in embroidered designs with brilliant colors and bird and flower motifs. 

Mabel traveled to Washington twice a year to create the designs in that business, which continued in spite of setbacks, and to teach the design making to the embroiderers. These pieces were bought and sold by many stores including Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus.  In 1924, she won a gold medal at the international exhibition of decorative arts in Paris for an embroidered altarpiece. However, the DC business ultimately failed because of inability to finance the sizable demands of the wholesale market.  But for many years its success meant she was making as much money as her husband, and because of her being able to pay for many family expenses, she made it possible for her husband to publish his poetry including Isis with his own money.  Mysteriously, perhaps because of self pride, he never acknowledged his wife's professionalism nor her financial contributions.

When Mabel was in her early 40s, she lost an infant son shortly after birth, and this caused her much mental depression, which shadowed the remaining years of her life.  She continued to work on her textile designs but failed to market them; she wrote short stories and did some painting.  In November 1950, she died of breast cancer with her husband having cared for her tenderly in the last months.

May Sarton, A World of Light: Portraits and Celebrations, pp. 49-60

Biography from Butterscotch Auction Gallery:
A native of London, Eleanor Mabel Elwes (1881-1950) exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Royal Miniature Society before working in Zurich and Belgium where she achieved immense success as a designer. 

In Ghent in 1911, Elwes met and married Harvard professor George Sarton.  They moved to the United states in 1915, settling in Cambridge.  Their daughter was the acclaimed poet and author May Sarton (1912-1995).

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