Paint, Pack and Follow – The Albert Letchford Affair

Orleans House Gallery, Twickenham – National Rail: St Margarets

There would be all the ingredients for an Agatha Christie novel.

A mansion at the top of the hill, overlooking the Gulf of Trieste…

… the old and charismatic landlord…

… his devoted wife…

… the insignificant-looking family doctor…

… the young and talented court painter…

… and, finally, the sister of the latter, a delightful creature.

At this point, after introducing the characters, it would be the right time to stage the crime. And in fact a death occurs, in the early hours of the morning of October 20, 1890.

But this is not a murder: the old and charismatic landlord, Sir Richard Francis Burton, dies in his bed because of a heart attack, in the presence of his wife Isabel, Lisa the maid and his personal doctor, Grenfell Baker.

The latter, after ascertaining the death of the patient, has a short message delivered to number 40 via Chiozza. Here lives Albert Letchford, who works as a painter, along with his young sister Daisy. For both of them to learn about Sir Richard’s death, is a big shock.

Today via Chiozza has become via Francesco Crispi. But number 40 is still there.

From this house I started my search for the traces left by Albert Letchford, a hunt that from Trieste took me some time later to a London suburb.

But let’s go one step at a time.

Let’s rewind the tape six years back, to 1884, and move to Florence.

Richard and Isabel Burton are guests of a friend and get to know the eighteen-year-old Albert Letchford, who in Florence is completing his art studies begun in Venice.

Born in Trieste in 1866, the son of Thomas Letchford, machinist of Lloyd Austriaco, he grows up in the district of Chiarbola and since childhood he’s remarkable for his thoughtful look and for his strong sense of beauty.

There is a curious episode told by Thomas Wright in his Burton’s biography.

One day little Albert is in church and at some point begins to implore his mother to be able to go home and take his little sword: sitting a few meters from them there is indeed an ugly woman and he wants to behead her!

As a young man he reads and draws from morning to night and lives in a world of his own, made up of books and images.

As mentioned he moves to Venice and then to Florence, later to Paris, London and finally to Egypt, where he becomes familiar with the East.

Eventually he’s back in Trieste in 1885 and gets a house at the end of what is now Viale XX Settembre, but at that time is still Viale Acquedotto, at number 53.

Four years later he is contacted by Lady Burton, who remembers their meeting in Florence and commissions him to produce a series of paintings of the various rooms of Villa Gossleth. The consul’s retirement is in fact imminent and the couple’s plan is to leave Trieste after 18 years and settle in London. Lady Isabel wishes to bring with her a memory of such a long stay and Albert Letchford is the ideal candidate to please her.

The young man therefore begins to attend more and more often the mansion at the top of the Promontorio and, room by room, he paints with absolute fidelity the world of Sir Richard.

His study…

By permission of the Richmond Borough Art Collection at Orleans House Gallery

… the sitting room…

By permission of the Richmond Borough Art Collection at Orleans House Gallery

… the bedroom…

By permission of the Richmond Borough Art Collection at Orleans House Gallery

… the splendid view of the gulf that offer the windows of the house.

By permission of the Richmond Borough Art Collection at Orleans House Gallery

Today all the paintings are in Richmond, a suburb southwest of London, inside the Orleans House Gallery.

It is here that the so-called Burton Collection is preserved. It contains objects, photographs and works of art related to the Victorian explorer.

Before leaving for London, I send an email to the museum and when I get the answer I seem to go back two years, at the time of the coincidences that happened to me when I started getting passionate about the life of Captain Burton. The answer to my email is indeed signed by a certain Chris Burton, “Exhibition and Collections Assistant”.

In the Study Gallery there is one of the paintings, the one that represents the sitting room of Villa Gossleth.

Let’s go back to Trieste, in 1889. Isabel is very satisfied with the result, so much as to commission him two more paintings: her husband at work in the study and dressed as a fencing master.

By permission of the Richmond Borough Art Collection at Orleans House Gallery
By permission of the Richmond Borough Art Collection at Orleans House Gallery

Then something unusual happens. Sir Richard, usually grumpy and arrogant with anyone, becomes attached to the young Letchford. He finds in him, despite coming from a petty bourgeois family, a kindred spirit, someone who can finally understand him and who doesn’t get on his nerves.

For his part, Albert Letchford seems to have some sort of veneration for Burton and the same goes for his sister Daisy.

There is one aspect that should not be underestimated: for Letchford, coming from a humble family, the assiduous attendance of the Burton house is an exceptional opportunity, a unique showcase to be noticed by other clients.

Therefore, apparently, the painter expands the times of execution of his works, to prolong as much as possible the stay in the house.

Everything goes smoothly, then.

Until the fateful October 20, 1890, the night when Sir Richard Francis Burton suddenly dies.

Isabel is understandably devastated, having lost the man she lived with for almost thirty years, the husband she faithfully followed in all the movements of his diplomatic career. “Pay, Pack and Follow”, this is the text of the telegram received years before from him, with which the end of the assignment in Damascus was communicated.

In the days of mourning Dr. Baker, Albert and Daisy Letchford are constantly beside the widow, dealing with all the bureaucratic formalities.

Among the dozens of people who go up to Villa Gossleth to pay their respects to Sir Richard, there are some who have the impression that the whole house resonates with Dr. Baker’s grief and the bulky presence of the Letchford siblings. Lady Burton, on the other hand, is petrified by pain and seems not to be there.

She assigns Letchford to make a cast of the head, hand and foot (you can see them them in Orleans House Gallery) and to paint from a photograph taken by Dr. Baker the portrait of the lifeless Sir Richard.

By permission of the Richmond Borough Art Collection at Orleans House Gallery
By permission of the Richmond Borough Art Collection at Orleans House Gallery

She also offers him and his sister to move in the house, in memory of the great affection that her husband felt towards them.

On October 25, “fearing that her mind or body may be affected by grief”, she gets pen and paper and makes Baker and Letchford executors of her wishes.

She asks the eighteen-year-old Daisy to assist her in sorting Sir Richard’s clothes and extracting the small amulets that her confessor, Father Pietro Martelani, had suggested to put in the pockets, with the aim of converting him to Catholicism.

“I helped Lady Burton to sort his books, papers and manuscripts. She thought me too young and innocent to understand anything. She did not suspect that often when she was not near I looked through and read many of those manuscripts.”

It is the tale of those days by Daisy and Dr. Baker that will feed the myth of the books holocaust made by Lady Burton, a myth that will last until now.

What is certain is that the manuscript of the translation from the Arabic of the “Scented Garden” goes up in flames in the fireplace of Villa Gossleth, along with documents deemed to be of little importance.

It is from this moment, the burning of the “Scented Garden”, that events precipitate.

Burton’s death leaves the widow almost bankrupt (the consul’s pension immediately ceases to be paid and the few savings run out almost immediately with the expenses for the solemn funeral and for the transport of the coffin to London) but nevertheless she decides to destroy the manuscript to defend the husband’s reputation.

Dr. Baker and the Letchford siblings, not knowing it was burned, would probably want to seize it, recalling that, years earlier, the translation of “The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night” has been enormously successful and has made Burton a great deal of money.

In a few weeks the relationships between the characters of our story degenerate.

On Christmas Day, Daisy Letchford disappears overnight leaving no explanation. Isabel relates this precipitate departure with the disappearance of part of Sir Richard’s diaries a few days before.

In January Grenfell Baker discovers that the manuscript of the “Scented Garden”, which he is about to offer to a couple of publishers, no longer exists. From that moment his attitude changes radically: from a gentle protector he becomes a bullying tyrant.

Convinced that there is a second copy of the manuscript, Baker and Letchford look for it everywhere and continue to torment the poor woman psychologically.

It is the visit of a cousin that finally opens her eyes. She demands the return of the power of attorney and she rescinds the arrangement whereby Letchford is to travel to England with the coffin.

The painter’s reaction is furious. He demands a letter of apology to his sister accused of theft and the payment of 500 florins for the portrait of Burton and the plaster casts, still in his possession.

Isabel Burton leaves Trieste on January 27 1891 and will never return.

To prevent Letchford from filing a lawsuit (she could not be present at the hearings to defend herself) after months of correspondence with the Trieste lawyer Ettore Richetti, she agrees to pay the sum, so as not to deprive herself of such precious memories.

Once this unpleasant matter ends, Lady Isabel writes many letters to friends she has presented to Albert Letchford in the past, to tell them what has happened to her and to warn them.

Letchford, meanwhile, leaves Trieste and settles in Bohemia and later in Vienna.

Finally he reaches Naples. Here he dedicates himself to illustrating the “The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night”, 70 tables that in 1897 will enrich the edition published by H. S. Nichols.

His style gives the stories a dreamy atmosphere, perhaps the fruit of his studies in Paris and the influence of symbolist painters such as Odilon Redon and Léon Bonnat, who has been his teacher.

But the most interesting thing is the fact that Letchford, who at that time is working in Naples, inserts realistic glimpses of the coast of Campania to act as a backdrop for the stories in the book!

A few years later his health, which has always been poor, suddenly declines. Daisy is beside him.

Feeling that the end is near he recites two verses from a Swinburne poem:

Though one were fair as roses,

His beauty clouds and closes.”

Then takes his last breath, after repeating the same words pronounced by Burton:

“I am dying. I am dead.”

It’s July 24 1905, Albert Letchford dies at the young age of 39.

Daisy will reappear 25 years later, in her late 50s.

After being widowed by General Giovanni Nicastro and in financial straits, in 1931 she asks the Chamber of Deputies to be exceptionally granted a pension.

Albert Letchford’s fortune was built on meeting the Burtons, who considered him a honest, tenacious and talented young man. They turned a blind eye to the humble origins thanks to his polite manners and the aspect of a true gentleman. However, the recent discovery of Lady Isabel’s letters sheds light on what she said was the true nature of Letchford. An upstart, capable of blackmailing his benefactress when, being widowed, she was very vulnerable, persecuting her for years with requests for money and favors.

It is a portrait that clashes with the one made by Thomas Wright when he writes about the death of the painter:

“His beautiful soul had left this world for ever, for it was indeed a beautiful soul”

Albert Letchford… a beautiful soul who disappeared too young or an evil profiteer?

I prefer to suspend my judgment and immerse myself in reading the first volume of “The Supplemental Nights” published by H. S. Nichols in 1897, which I bought a few months ago.

The book is in precarious conditions, the binding is now gone but the plates by Letchford are still perfect and, believe me, they have some kind of magic.

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4 thoughts on “Paint, Pack and Follow – The Albert Letchford Affair”

  1. This is so fascinating and well written. Can I ask where you got the information about Letchford and Baker trying to find the Scented Garden in order to potentially sell it?

    1. Hi Caitlin, thanks for your comment. I found the information on “A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton” written by Mary S. Lovell. It’s on chapter 35, “Actions and reactions”. Have you ever attended the Burton conferences? The last one was in Vienna last October and the next one will take place in Dublin this year. Where are you from?

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