1927, July 17: A Restless Artist

John Singer Sargent, 1903. [Larger version here]

John Singer Sargent [1856-1925] was a painter born to American parents in Florence, Italy, and who spent most of his life in Europe. He produced around 900 oil paintings and 2000 watercolors, and was considered "the leading portrait painter of his generation." Among other rich and/or famous patrons, in 1903 Sargent had Theodore Roosevelt pose for him. In 1924, the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York honored him with a major retrospective showing of his work in 1924. Sargent had a long life full of travel, friends, and adventure, and his death came rather suddenly in 1925 due to a heart attack shortly after he returned home to his Chelsea studio in London, England, after visiting New York.

        About a year after Sargent's death, his studio was taken over by his friend and fellow portrait painter, Alfred Everett Orr, and Orr's wife. The couple converted a first floor room of the studio into their bedroom. This room also happened to be the room that Sargent had died in. Sixteen months later, on July 18, 1927, the Associated Press ran an article in North American newspapers that got wide attention... Mr. Orr was reporting a haunting in the Chelsea studio.

        Orr had told the Associated Press that both he and his wife had frequently heard footsteps in the building where they knew no one to be; and that the footsteps had the same distinctive heavy tread that they both recognized as Sargent's steps. Sargent had been "tall and heavy set," and the sound of his footsteps were something that had been easily recognized by all of his friends in the area when he lived. Orr was quoted by the Associated Press:

        "I'm not a spiritualist by any means, but neither am I a skeptic. Anything is possible. Both Mrs. Orr and myself have heard footsteps and we often sort of sensed Sargent's presence. Sometimes the footsteps seem to be in our bedroom leading to the stairway, now sealed up, that Sargent used in going into the studio next door.

        "The most mysterious thing about the whole business was what happened one night when I was in bed. I heard footsteps and at the same time distinctly saw the knob of the bedroom door turn all the way around and then back again. I jumped up and summoned the butler. We searched the house from top to bottom but found nothing unusual.

        "Sometimes when I hear footsteps I call out 'come in, Pop' -- we all used to call him Pop Sargent -- but then they cease and I do not hear them again for several days."

        The report describes Mr. Orr as "a slender, dignified man of 40 who ranks high among London artists and whose subjects includes some of the most aristocratic British nobility"... which is of interest. Let me explain why.


        The Associated Press article describing the strange haunting appeared in newspapers that covered both Canada and the United States... which is why it's strange that I can't find a single mention of the haunting in any British or European newspapers, where I expected the story would have run first. In digging for that non-existent article, however, I learned a lot about Alfred Orr.

        Alfred Orr not only occupied Sargent's old studio, he set about trying to take up where Sargent left off, doing portraits for nobility; and he was doing well with it until just around November, 1927... around four months after the news story hit the North American presses. This is the last month that I can find a mention of Orr in British newspapers -- they state that he had a display of paintings up at the Glasgow Art Galleries -- and then nothing more about him can be found. Orr's story, however, picks up in the North American newspapers.

        According to an article in a San Francisco, California, newspaper released on November 20, 1927, Orr had a patron named Sir Charles Higham who had admired his work, and had bought Sargent's studio after the artist's death and leased it to Orr for "a nominal rental." But, the newspaper continued, Alfred Orr was declaring bankruptcy and was cutting ties with Sir Charles. Sir Charles, seeing that Orr was having money issues, had offered to forgo six months rent that Orr owed him, and offered to buy Orr out of the remainder of his lease for "a substantial sum," but Orr refused the offer. Sir Charles therefore withdrew his patronage, and put the house up for sale, evicting the artist from Chelsea. The scandal likely also evicted Orr from the London art scene... and hence why he no longer appeared in the British press.

        By May 1828, Orr was living and working in Paris, France, where he is mentioned as having paintings in various shows and galleries until around August, 1932... and then there's no more mentions of the artist I can find. In fact, modern art sites that auction older paintings disagree on when Orr died, so it looks as if no one really knows; which seems to say something about how much the art world actually cares about it.

        So, at the time that Orr gave a story to the Associated Press regarding the well-known artist John Singer Sargent haunting the studio where Orr lived and worked, Orr was keenly aware that he needed to drum up money; and Orr wouldn't have wanted anyone in London to know that, which may be why the story didn't appear in British newspapers. Overall, there is a suspicion that the actual reason for the story was to associate Orr's name with Sargent, who was better known in America, previous to trying to either seek out new job overseas, or with an eye to possibly having to move back to the USA when things in London went sour. All of which leaves a question mark over how to regard this ghost story!

        As for the question of when Alfred Orr died -- which likely only I'm worried about -- maybe I'll find an obituary someday when I finally get better access to French newspapers. And I'll also keep an eye out for any other mention of a haunting in Sargent's old studio... which later occupants seem to have been quiet about.

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