When the young Marquis of Headfort, Geoffrey Thomas Taylour, fell in love with a beautiful Gaiety girl – yes, an actress – and insisted on marrying her, in 1901, all of gentry society, in Ireland and in England, was scandalised.
Not only had Rosie Boote been on the stage – and her mother and father before her – but she was also a Roman Catholic, which was almost worse in the eyes of the establishment at the time.
Everyone, including King Edward VII, tried to stop the match. Everyone said it couldn’t last. Lord Headfort was warned that he would have to resign his commission in the very grand Ist Irish Life Guards, where he was much esteemed: a former actress could not be presented to the regiment! Everyone told Headfort that high society in Ireland and England would snub the couple, since this was mesalliance between a peer of the realm and a stage performer who was only one step up from being a chorus girl.
Geoffrey, Marquis of Headfort, ignored all the nay-sayers and married his lovely Rosie in a quiet ceremony at Hythe, near Folkestone, in 1901, with just two witnesses present. And all the naysayers turned out to be wrong. Rosie Boote became the 4th Marchioness of Headfort, in Kells, Co Meath: she gave birth to their son and heir in 1902, and the occasion was celebrated at Headfort with a firework display that was still remembered a century later.
Rosie and Geoffrey had two more children, another boy and a girl, and truly, they lived happily ever after. By the time Rosie died in 1958, aged 80, she was hallowed and honoured by all: she had proved to be an excellent wife, very popular with the local people and had helped her husband recover from the debts with which the estate was encumbered, by good management and retrenching.
Elizabeth Bowen caught a glimpse of Lady Headfort, at the Shelbourne Hotel in 1944, where Rosie was staying with her companion, Miss Pearson (Geoffrey had died suddenly in 1943, at Cahir Park in Co Tipperary). According to the Shelbourne’s chronicler, Michael O’Sullivan, Miss Bowen described Rosie, then aged 66, as “the most cracking Edwardian beauty”: she had “something much subtler and less drearily biological than what is now called sex appeal”.
And now the most stunning portrait of Rosie Boote painted by the great Irish painter Sir William Orpen is to be put up for auction by Sotheby’s in a London sale of British and Irish Art. It should fetch between £300,000 and £500,000 sterling.
Geoffrey’s smaller portrait by Orpen will also go under the hammer, estimated at between £60,000 and £80,000. He’s a dashing-looking fellow, but Rosie’s portrait is something special, painted in 1915 when she was 37. It is luminous, delicate, the texture of the paintwork exquisitely sensual.
“It is one of those paintings that really brings a character alive,” says Grant Ford, the Sotheby’s expert. “You can see she’s a strong woman. She has earned her place in high society by her character, and people are, at this point, very keen to see her. The portrait itself is quite modern and timeless. Orpen has brought out the spiritual nature in her character.” Orpen still holds the record as the highest-valued Irish artist -one of his paintings sold for just short of £2 million sterling. (Our Bruce Arnold is, of course, the world expert on Orpen.)
This magical portrait has come to Sotheby’s from an unnamed descendent of the Headforts, who lives “somewhere overseas” – not in Ireland or Britain. It would be wonderful if it were purchased by somebody in Ireland – perhaps for the National Gallery?
Because the Headfort story is also part of Irish history, although the demesne at Kells is now a school and the family connections are gone: the Headforts once presided over 22,000 acres, between Kells and Virginia Park in Cavan. The present Marquis lives in Oxfordshire, and his heir is the Earl of Bective.
Rose Elizabeth Boote was born in Luton in 1878: her father Charles was an actor, though he died when she was seven. Her mother Annie, then took to the stage, calling herself Marie Hassell, and Rosie was sent to the Ursuline Convent in Thurles as a boarder.
She stayed there during the 1880s and early 1890s, and retained a lifelong devotion to the Ursuline nuns. The Ursulines were committed to giving young women a good education and Rosie left school well equipped intellectually to make her way in life.
From 1894 onwards she toured with repertory companies and developed a dazzlingly high kick as a dancer. She delighted theatre audiences and by the late 1890s she had become a celebrated beauty. And so the Marquis fell in love with her, and she with him and true love won out despite the storm of opposition.
As Sotheby’s catalogue records, an obituary notice described Rosie as “brilliant and witty, an inveterate theatre-goer, a great supporter of charitable causes and a loyal and enchanting friend. Although she was devoted to her Roman Catholic faith, her friends were to be found among every denomination and every station in life.”
Like most of his peers at the time, Geoffrey Headfort was a Southern Unionist: but he did serve as a Senator in the first Free State Senate, which embraced members of the old ascendancy so that they, too, should be included in the new Ireland. Most of them have dispersed now, but their stories are still there, as are the gorgeous Orpen portraits which immortalise the amazing Rosie and the husband who forever adored her. ENDS. March 2012. I.I. Mag