Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (1912 - 1993) 1950s

Sir Herbert James Gunn (1893-1964)

Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (1912 - 1993), Sir Herbert James Gunn
Oil on canvas
20th Century
90 x 60 inches 228.6 x 152.4 cm
The Duchess’s biography plays out in the proceedings of perhaps the most sensational and scandalous divorce of the twentieth century, counter pointed by the statements of complacence and almost hypnotic self-regard that survive in sources such as the Duchess’s autobiography ''Forget Not'' written in 1975.

In her own words: "I had wealth, I had good looks. As a young woman I had been constantly photographed, written about, flattered, admired, included in the Ten Best-Dressed Women in the World list and mentioned by Cole Porter in his hit song ‘You’re the top'. The top was what I was supposed to be. I had become a duchess and mistress of an historic castle. My daughter had married a duke. Life was apparently roses all the way."

The historic castle, Inverary Castle, is shown in the background of this portrait. However the Duchess’s insatiable nymphomania – as it struck contemporaries, and even now there is no better way to describe it – was her undoing. Her ducal husband, Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll tired of her compulsive infidelity and initiated proceedings in the now infamous ‘headless man’ court case, where the central evidence was a photograph – taken possibly with the only Polaroid camera then in the country which belonged to the Ministry of Defence – of a naked man whose head was cut off the top of the frame and in which the naked Duchess was identifiable by her triple string of pearls.

The Duchess was duly divorced, and her life became a desperate scrabble to cling on to the high life from which indebtedness and notoriety remorselessly excluded her. Since this life had been her raison d’etre, and since her last years saw her removed from her London house to a hotel, and then – by her children when she was unable to pay her hotel bills – to one room in a Pimlico nursing home where she died her life became a pitiful spectacle, fitfully played out in public again and again as successive writers and commentators speculated over the identity of the Headless Man.
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