Mr. Beak and Katie Lewis: Who was Katie Lewis?
The Biography of Sir George H. Lewis and his family
I’ve seen this painting by Sir Edward Burne-Jones numerous times and always wanted to know who this little girl was; more specifically, how she enamored a man like Ned? As I did some research, I discovered the Lewis family beginning with Katie’s parents, Sir George H. Lewis and Lady Lewis Elizabeth Eberstadt of Mannheim, Germany.
Study of Katie Lewis by Edward Burne-Jones
Another study of Katie Lewis by Edward Burne-Jones, Christies
This might be my favorite drawing of Katie Lewis, study of portrait of Katie Lewis by Edward Burne-Jones, British Museum
Sotheby's provides background information on the portrait of Katie Lewis above, 'This portrait is even more unusual as Burne-Jones cast out all traditional notions of how a sitter should be presented and did not paint her sat rather stiffly in a chair facing the spectator as in the portrait of Margaret Burne-Jones, also exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1887.
Katie is outspread on a couch, the sleeves of her very simple velvet dress are rolled up, her hair is loose and a little tangled and her stocking feet are bare. In short, she is presented the way a little girl really is, her shoes cast aside no doubt so that she could chase the little dog that now lies beside her. An orange is pushed aside as she immerses herself in a book and no doubt when she has finished the page, she will leap up and be off to more mischief elsewhere.
The couch littered with cushions and the drapes behind, recall one of Burne-Jones’ most famous images of maidenhood The Sleeping Princess, which was painted as part of the Briar Rose Series at Buscot Park, which portrayed the artist’s daughter laid out upon a similar couch. The informality of the reclining pose is strikingly unconventional and makes the portrait so charmingly intimate. The pared down simplicity and the limited colour scheme of gold and dark blackish-blue, adds to the intensity of what is perhaps the most Symbolist of British portraits.
The story Katie is reading so intently is not just any story, but that of Saint George and the Dragon. The story of Saint George was one close to Burne-Jones’ heart as he had painted several pictures of the subject, but perhaps he was also suggesting that Katie was a girl who enjoyed the romance and violence of this sort of story, rather than the simpering tales that little girls were supposed to enjoy.'Sir George H. Lewis photograph by Frederick Hollyer, V&A Museum
George Lewis was born in 1833 and came to England from the Netherlands during the eighteenth century. He entered University College, London, at the age of fourteen, in 1847. Three years later, he joined his father’s legal firm of Lewis and Lewis where he worked for the next fifty years! His first famous case was the so-called Balham Mystery of 1876. He quickly met the Prince of Wales and became known as the solicitor to London society known for keeping secrets. He refused to write his memoirs or keep a diary explaining, ‘when I die the confidences of London society die with me!’ Well known by the 1890s, he was knighted in 1893. He usually wore a fur coat, eyeglasses and always had sideburns.
In 1865, George Lewis’s first wife died and a year later he married Elizabeth Eberstadt. She was eleven years younger than George. She came from a cultured background and a wealthy family. Max Beerbohm said of her, ‘good books, good plays, good pictures and, above all, good music were for her no mere topics of conversation, but vital needs of her nature'.
Four years into their marriage, during the 1870s, George and Elizabeth Lewis moved to 88 Portland Place where Elizabeth began a career as a hostess, giving her the opportunity to start a salon where she had such dinner guests as: Burne-Jones, Whistler, Alma-Tadema, Sargent, and the Du Maurier’s. The closest friendship was with Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and his family. It is not exactly known when they met only that they were the closest of friends.
Gertie Lewis, daughter, pained by Edward Burne-Jones, 1884
Elizabeth gave birth to three children: George, born in 1868, Gertrude (Gertie) born in 1871 and Katherine (Katie) born in 1878. There was a seven year age difference between the two sisters and they were quite different in personality and temperament as well with Katie being the strong-willed and determined one while Gertie was known as being more sympathetic. Amongst the famous family friends it was Gertie who they protected with Katie was known for her banter and dialogues with them, even at an early age. It seems she was very inquisitive. Burne-Jones became enamored with Katie, having his children grown and it was Katie who talked to him developing a closeness. She filled a gap of loneliness for Burne-Jones, so much so, that in addition to painting both sisters, he wrote letters to Katie with little drawings which became a book called, ‘Letters to Katie’ and she even gave Burne-Jones the nickname of Mr. Beak which made him laugh. I myself had a closeness with a dear family friend, though he was not artistic, I have a childhood filled with treasured family memories, so this close relationship between Katie and Mr.Beak, is very charming and I understand the connection quite well!
Photograph of Katie Lewis from Letters to Katie
Burne Jones drawing of Katie Lewis, British Museum
George Lewis died in 1911, his wife Elizabeth outlived him and died in 1931. As for the sisters, while Katie never married, though she had many opportunities, she died in 1961, outliving them all and leaving strict instructions for her letters to be burnt.
Gertie married and had three children: Susan, born in 1904, Rachel, born in 1906 and a son Anthony in 1911, the year his grandfather died. Sadly, her husband committed suicide after the First World War ended and his company went bankrupt. Gertie’s life changed completely. She withdrew from society, separated herself from her friends and even her sister, Katie. Gertie found solace in reading her friend Henry James’s novels, while Katie moved to the Cotswolds occasionally vacationing on the Belgian coast. Gertie’s children, Susan married a barrister Seymour Karminski who became a Lord Justice. Her son Anthony became an accountant being knighted for his work on various Government Commissions. Rachel, her daughter, never married and died of leukemia in 1956 just one year after her own mother passed away.
The New York Times obituary for Sir George Lewis, December 8, 1911 issue
Finally, some of Burne-Jones drawings from Letters to Katie