De László’s portraits of society still matter

  • Themes: Culture

The Hungarian-born Jewish painter Philip de László was fêted by pre-war social elites, but his flourishing career foundered upon an enduring antisemitism.

Portrait of Arthur Balfour by De László.
Portrait of Arthur Balfour by De László. Credit: The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo

On 8 March 2024, a portrait of Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour, housed at Trinity College, Cambridge, was defaced by an activist from Palestine Action, a pro-Palestine protest network. Balfour, a former British prime minister and chancellor of the Cambridge University, is primarily remembered as the namesake of the Balfour Declaration, which he signed in November 1917 as foreign secretary in the Lloyd George Cabinet. The declaration, a public statement expressing official British support for Zionism, is considered a first step towards the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine.

I don’t want to delve into Balfour’s political career or comment on the events of 8 March. Rather, I want to explore the life and work of the author of the damaged canvas: Philip de László. A truly cosmopolitan artist, De László was a Hungarian Jew who worked extensively throughout Europe and America, becoming a favourite among social elites, winning commissions from all manner of luminaries from Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg, the queen of Spain, to Lady Curzon, the wife of the viceroy to India. His list of subjects includes major political and religious figures of the day, such as Pope Leo XIII, Theodore Roosevelt, and Benito Mussolini, to name just a few.

Born Fülöp Laub in Pest on 30 April 1869, De László was the son of Adolf and Johanna Laub, an impoverished tailor and seamstress of Jewish origins. Despite financial challenges in his youth, his pictorial talent earned him admission to the Hungarian Academy of Arts, followed by studies in Munich and Paris where he developed his distinguished style: fluent and spontaneous. In 1891, he and his brother Marczi changed their surname from Laub to its Hungarian version László, as a patriotic gesture. The following year, he met his future wife Lucy Guinness, an Anglo-Irish socialite from the Guinness family’s banking branch. Baptised into the Hungarian Catholic church in 1894, he later converted to Anglicanism. Relocating from Vienna to London in 1907, he swiftly established himself as a preeminent artist, attracting patrons from the royal family, aristocracy, and government. In 1912, he was ennobled by Emperor Franz Joseph I and assumed the name László de Lombos, although he preferred De László. Two years later, he was granted British citizenship. At the peak of his career, he painted the Balfour portrait.

Commissioned for Trinity College in 1914 and funded by subscription, the Balfour portrait represents the sitter, an alumnus of the Cambridge college, wearing a red doctoral gown and holding a book. The painting was unveiled in London at Devonshire House on 15 July 1914, just weeks after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The Duke of Devonshire recorded the event in his diary: ‘Picture by Laszlo not quite good. Rather a nice ceremony.’ A decade later, a more articulate assessment of the painting was published in The Illustrated London News: ‘The portrait of Lord Balfour is a notable example of the work of an able and popular painter, of whom it has been said that he “dramatises the vocation” of his sitters.’

László’s fortunes shifted dramatically with the outbreak of the First World War, as he became ensnared in the ‘spy furore’. Despite his influential connections, recently acquired British citizenship, marriage to a British woman and five sons holding citizenship, he was arrested on suspicion of treason.

After relocating to London, De László had maintained frequent correspondence with his family in Hungary (his mother, who died in 1915, and four younger siblings), providing them with regular financial assistance. This practice continued after the outbreak of the war, although he had to resort to sending letters via the Dutch diplomatic bag (the Netherlands had remained neutral during the war) with the help of Adriana van Riemsdijk, a sister of the Dutch minister of foreign affairs. Clandestine contact with the enemy was a serious offence, especially considering De László’s position as a portraitist to the British elite, granting him access to privileged information.

On 15 August 1917, Philip de László underwent interrogation by Basil Thomson, the head of Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Division, known for his involvement in the prosecutions of the spy Mata Hari and the Irish nationalist Roger Casement. Historian Giles MacDonogh meticulously reconstructs the interrogation. Initial questioning focused on De László’s alleged divided loyalty, to which the artist responded by relating his sense of alienation from his native Hungary, where he had been expelled from associations of Hungarian artists. Unmoved, Thomson accused De László of sending confidential information on British politics to Baron Gyula Forster (1846-1932), a Hungarian patron of the arts, in the hope of regaining favour. Thomson claimed that he possessed concrete evidence that De László had passed on intelligence, including details on British ship losses, mine production, and rumours about the king’s views on the war. De László vehemently denied any involvement, admitting only to having expressed hopes for peace in a letter to his brother.

According to MacDonogh, ‘the fact that de László was born of Jewish parents had some bearing on the case’. Some of Thomson’s questioning focused on his Jewish origins. MacDonogh comments: ‘People at the time saw the Jews as being devoid of national loyalties or patriotic feelings. The idea of a “Jewish world conspiracy” had also been hatched in Tsarist Russia before the war and blossomed in the immediate postwar years with the aid of a literary forgery called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In Thomson’s eyes, de László’s race might have made him more suspicious and more likely to be a traitor. Many of the others pursued by the service at the time – Ernest Cassel (1852-1921) and Edgar Speyer (1862-1932) to name but two – were also born Jews.

Thomson failed to produce evidence of De László’s alleged treason. Despite this, the painter’s abuse of diplomatic channels and secret contact with the enemy led to his arrest in September 1917. He spent three weeks in Brixton Prison followed by six months of internment in an old Islington workhouse. He also endured social disgrace: Eton College refused admission to his sons. In May 1918, due to declining health, De László was released from internment and placed under house arrest at a nursing home in Notting Hill, where he could finally resume oil painting. In June 1919, his case was brought before the Naturalisation Revocation Committee, which ruled that no disloyalty had been proven. With his name cleared, reputation restored, and British citizenship reaffirmed, De László was finally able to resume his life and work.

Philip de László died in Hampstead in 1937, a few months before Miklos Horthy’s Hungary implemented its antisemitic legislation, modelled on the Nuremberg Laws. Seven years later, the German occupation of Hungary led to the deportation of Hungarian Jews, with around 437,000 sent to Auschwitz between May and July 1944, most of whom were killed upon arrival.

The Balfour portrait is not the only De László to have suffered damnatio memoriae. In 1911, the artist portrayed Kaiser Wilhelm II in full military attire, with a horse and a Borzoi dog at his side. This painting was damaged in Berlin in 1945, when the face of the emperor was bayoneted by an unknown Soviet soldier; it was restored in 2004.

The memory and artistic legacy of Philip de László is upheld by an Archive Trust, which has created an online Catalogue Raisonné. It will ensure access to his extensive body of work for researchers, scholars, and art enthusiasts.


Guido G. Beduschi