Sir John Lavery (1856-1941)
Such was Margaret's fame that she was immortalised by Cole Porter in his 1934 Broadway musical ‘Anything Goes’ in the song ‘The Top’...
Margaret, Duchess of Argyll was one of the most beautiful and notorious women of the twentieth century, whose elegance propelled her to a position of almost unrivalled celebrity in the United States and Britain.
This atmospheric study was painted by Sir John Lavery and was produced in preparation for his now lost work ‘Their Majesties’ Court, Buckingham Palace’, which was exhibited to great acclaim at the Royal Academy in 1931. The finished work, which was much larger in scale, depicted the women of George V’s court, some seated, as seen in this study, and others standing and parading into The Grand Hall. This study must have been painted in 1930, the year that Margaret was introduced to the court as a deb (or debutante) – a process by which young females of aristocratic roots were formally introduced to the court, thus signaling their eligibility for marriage.
Soon after her introduction to the court, Margaret announced she was engaged to Charles Guy Fulke Greville, 7th Earl of Warwick, however the marriage never took place and she later married the American stockbroker and amateur golfer Charles Sweeney in 1933. Such was her fame that she was immortalised by Cole Porter in his 1934 Broadway musical ‘Anything Goes’ in the song ‘The Top’;
You’re the top; you’re an Arrow collar,
You’re the top; you’re a Coolidge dollar,
You’re the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire,
You’re Mussolini, you’re Mrs. Sweeny…
Margaret later married the Duke of Argyll and seemed content to settle into a life of aristocratic grandeur. However, her awkward personality began, with age, to outshine her famous beauty. Soon the Duke referred to her as ‘S’ – for Satan – and during their divorce proceedings (until recently the costliest ever) a High Court Judge dubbed her “wholly immoral”. Her biographer concluded, ‘She had known everybody, been everywhere, had every material advantage, been bestowed with legendary good looks. Never had so much fortune been used to achieve so little.’ Certainly, she possessed a mastery of acerbic comments; “I don’t think anybody has real style or class anymore. Everyone’s gotten old and fat.” And yet, she was in many ways a symptom of the aristocracy’s inability to adapt to the seismic changes in society after the Second World War. She could neither boil an egg nor make her own bed and was unable to cope with life outside the confines of wealth and class. Whatever her fame or repute, she remains an icon of twentieth century celebrity.
 Charles Castle, ‘The Duchess Who Dared’, London 1994.