Flora Lion

Flora Lion, 1878-1958, English portrait painter, b. London 3 December 1878. Her father, Michael L. Lion, was born of Franco-Jewish immigrants. He, like his father and other members of an extended London Lion clan, was a successful boot and shoe manufacturer. Flora painted her mother, Regine Levilion, a French citizen, in 1909. This portrait was presented in 1915 to the Tate Gallery where it remains. In 1915 Flora Lion married Ralph P. Amato, who later assumed her surname. There is no record of their having children.

Flora’s formal art training began close to home: six months at St. John’s Wood Art School, 1894. There followed the Royal Academy Art School, 1895-1899, and the Academie Julian in Paris, 1899-1900. She had a long career painting portraits of the distinguished and socially prominent, and also did landscapes, murals, and lithographs. During the First World War, she was commissioned to paint factory scenes of the “home front”; two are in the collection of the Imperial War Museum, London. The National Portrait Gallery, London, has nine portraits spanning 1912-1923. In 1956, the British Museum had 23 of her lithographs, and the Victoria and Albert Museum six.

Among her varied commissions were a group portrait of a young Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Duchess of York (the late Queen Mother) flanked by two cousins; a portrait of the wife of the Spanish ambassador, for which she received the Silver Medal, 1921, from the Société des Artistes Francais; the suffragette Flora Drummond (1936); the celebrated conductor Sir Henry Joseph Wood (1937); and, a second time in 1940, Elizabeth, now queen-consort to King George VI. She received the Gold Medal from the Société des Artistes Francais in 1949. Compared to her contemporaries Sir John Lavery (1856-1941) and Sir Oswald Birley (1880-1952) she has fallen into relative obscurity. As of January 2005, her pictures rarely appear at auction; many of the portraits belong to permanent collections. Her life and work merit further study. The Tate Gallery, London, holds five pertinent documents in Mrs. Lion’s hand from 1956, outlining her life and career.

Flora Marguerite Lion’s birthdate - Flora gives her birthdate as 3 December 1878. The Civil Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths in England & Wales shows her birth registration in early 1879 but this is just the date the birth was registered. Her birth certificate confirms her date of birth as 3rd December 1878, and her death was on 15th May 1958 at age 79.

The National Archives, London, census data for the years 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901 reveal a good deal concerning Miss/Mrs Flora Lion’s family background. A word of clarification: this either/or of her name is due to her husband, Ralph P. Amato’s assuming her surname some time after their marriage in 1915. Two entries from the census of 1881 and 1891 may be the family of Ralph P. Amato. In 1881, Carmela, 40, is Head of household, born in Malta and a naturalized British Subject. In 1891, the same Carmela is Wife and 48! Rodolph, 3, is now Ralph, 13. Assuming this is Flora Lion’s husband, a desire to shed his foreign names and anglicize is evident.

Flora’s Franco-Jewish heritage is demonstrable from the Civil Registry. A French-born [Jacob] “Lion Lion”(sic), age 54, a “Boot & Shoe Manufacturer,” is in business in London in 1871. This is Flora’s grandfather, a naturalized British Subject. His wife is also a French-born British Subject. The oldest son in the enumerated household is Michel, 23, Flora’s father. Ditto marks indicate that he is following his father’s occupation. (1871 Census, image 85)

In the 1881 census Michel Lion, now 33, is married to a French citizen, Regine Lion. Her 1871 census entry shows Regine as born in Strasbourg, France, not Paris as Flora vaguely remembered in 1956 in a letter to the Tate Gallery. Flora on several documents gives Regine’s surname as Levilion (Levi+Lion?) The ledger is a clerk’s transcription. Was Regine a cousin in some degree?

Ten years later, Michel and Regine have a two-year-old child, Flora. (1881 Census, image 41) Both of Flora’s paternal grandparents are French-born. In four censuses, her father is always listed as Michel, though Flora calls him Michael in the 1956 form. Her mother is a French immigrant who does not naturalize (become British).

An intriguing folder in the University of Southampton Libraries Special Collections is pertinent in more than one way:

MS 116/3 Phillips and Lion family papers, 1817-1901
Phillips and Lion family papers, 1817-1901, including manuscript birth certificate of Joel Phillips, 21 Apr 1817; memorial inscription of Philip Phillips; bill for Lion Brothers for a Portland headstone in memory of Alexander Lion; invitation to the marriage of Rachel Phillips and Jacob Lion Lion; portrait of Lion Lion published in BOOT AND SHOE TRADE JOURNAL, Aug 1887; photographs of Alexander and Jacob Lion in BOOT AND SHOE TRADE JOURNAL, Nov 1889; birth certificate of Philip R. Lion, 3 Nov 1890; invitation card for the opening of Raphael House by Gustave Tuck, 6 Jul 1899; invitation card on the occasion of the barmitzvah of Alexander Lion, 9 Feb 1901; visiting card of Mrs L. Lion; manuscript genealogy of descendants of Godfrey Phillips, 1826-1900, with covering letter, 9 Jun 1972.

The Lion brothers, presumably, are Michel and Jacob (Jr.), billed for a headstone for their brother Alexander. They must be of some importance in their trade to merit photos in a trade journal. For the Alexander Lion barmitzvahed (age13) 9 Feb 1901, this Alexandre (sic) Lion in the 1901 census is a fit.

A second dynasty of Lions is enumerated in the Census of 1871. Emanuel L. Lion, 56, is a “Boot and Shoe Manufacturer” born in France and a British Subject. The middle “l” (like Michel’s) may indicate another “Lion Lion.” He is two years older than (Jacob) Lion Lion (possibly a brother or cousin) and in the same trade. Emanuel reappears in the 1881 and 1891 censuses. By 1891 a search of London Lions by “Head of household” (always male) shows an extraordinary number of boot and shoe manufacturers with some recycling of given names.

All this is by way of showing that Flora grew up in a French-English Jewish home. The boot and shoe business must have thrived; in 1901 Michel was supporting his wife Regine, Flora, 22, five younger children and five live-in domestics. Flora’s mother remained a French subject, and one of the servants was French. Her father Michel, though a British subject, maintained his French legal name. Flora had an enormous extended family, mostly living on the boot and shoe trade. She may well have spoken French, easing her study of art in France. Her circumstances were comfortable and sufficient for a lengthy art education, though she lacked the social advantages of contemporary portrait artists Sir John Lavery and Sir Oswald Birley who achieved great wealth and status. We may speculate that her career was somewhat handicapped in her being a woman, Jewish and from “trade”. She is listed among Jewish artists in The Jewish Contribution to Civilization by Cecil Roth (London: Macmillan, 1938, p.130 f.n.)

Flora “began to exhib. at the Royal Academy in 1900 with ‘The Lady of Shalott’.” (Wood, Victorian Painters) In a The Mikado humor, she painted 'The Dancing Geisha' in 1904. An early work of Flora’s viewable online is 'Portrait of a Lady' (1907), in the permanent collection of The Guildhall Art Gallery, London. The portrait is refined, sensitive and uncluttered. In 1909 she painted a portrait of her mother, b.Regine Levilion, in the collection of the Tate Gallery since 1915.

We get some glimpses of her early career in a contemporary periodical, The New Age, edited by A.R. Orage from 1907-1922. From the Art column of 25.November.1909: “At the Exhibition of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters one may see how closely modern painters have entered into the question of colour and light as they appear in Nature. . . . Miss Flora Lion’s 'Farmhouse Dresser'. . . [is] another very successful study. It is, however, hung too high to allow the details of its carefully observed effects of light and colour being seen.” (p.92) In the issue of 10.March.1910 the art critic writes: “That the work of the Women’s International Art Club, now being exhibited at the Grafton Galleries, is above the average is clear from the beginning.” A list of the exhibits follows, including this passing notice: “Flora Lion’s characteristic ‘Portrait Study’ . . . should be seen.” In the issue of 19.May.1910 the critic notes: “Among the many good things by women which have found their way into the Royal Academy this year are . . . by Flora Lion, her clever study, ‘The Skylark,’ being rather black in colour.” The New Age art column of February 13, 1913, “The Modern Society of Portrait Painters at the Royal Institute,” though not mentioning Miss Lion, is comically merciless in its dismissal of vanity portraiture. A generally scathing review of 17.July.1913 asserts: “The Royal Society of Portrait Painters have a depressing and, in many ways, a vulgar show at the Grafton Galleries. . . . I do not remember better work by [N.]; but of Flora Lion, I certainly do. Even her ‘Theodora’ (No. 172) in this show, though not by any means a pleasing work, is better than No. 46.” Flora is 34 years old at this point and painting varied subjects.

A tiny window on Flora’s social life is provided in an article on the expatriate New Zealand artist Raymond McIntyre (1879-1933): “By 1911 one infers from some of McIntyre's letters that he was quite well- established and had made some useful and agreeable friends. One, Mrs Flora Lion, a London portrait and landscape painter of some note in the period prior to and immediately after World War I introduced the young colonial painter into the complex art world of London.” (Art New Zealand) A correction is in order; in 1911, Flora was Miss Flora Lion, four years before her marriage.

It is noteworthy that in 1956 Flora still owned five early works on general subjects: 'The Flower Girl' and 'Reverie' (1909), 'Motherhood'(1913), 'The Bathers'[hw?](1914), 'The [hw] Dress?'(1914). From recent auction records we know of a few more: 'Elderly Lady with Ostrich Fan' and 'The Harbour, St.Yalenie'(1919); 'Jonathan'(1922); 'Villa Fedora'(1927); 'Seated Lady with Dog'(1928). The 'Elderly Lady' and 'Seated Lady' are probably commissioned portraits now missing their subjects’ names. A Who’s Who entry for 1914, highlights her public career to date. She was unmarried and living in Hampstead where she grew up. The entry only mentions portraits, for her a more secure source of income than painting her choice of subjects. At 34, Flora is of the age when many people face the fact that they are not a top-drawer talent, and settle for a secure living. Did Flora sell out her talent? Did her father tire of supporting her? Or does the entry merely represent her public persona?

The Great War (1914-1918) was a defining event for England and an opportunity for Flora to contribute to the war effort and broaden the scope of her subject matter. She was commissioned to paint scenes of the “home front.” Two are in the collection of the Imperial War Museum, London: 'Building Flying Boats' and 'The Women’s Canteen, Phoenix Works, Bradford.' Flora did not list these illustrations as among the highlights of her career. They anticipate her later murals for “Great Westminster House” (now demolished): 'Sir John Evelyn crossing the frozen Thames at Horse Ferry 1683', 'The Last Frost Fair, 1814' (Who’s Who 1957).

From 1920 until her death, Flora gave her professional address as 3 Avenue Studios, 76 Fulham Road, Kensington. This was number 3 of 15 artists' studios, which still survive, since 1867 housing many prominent artists and scuptors.

A search of the web turned up a 1933 letter that suggests more than it tells:

Dear Mrs. Flora Lion
I had a talk with Sir John Lavery about this Hitler portrait after our talk on the telephone.
He has no wish to upset anyone & is calling a special Council meeting to consider it & of course there can be no question of this picture being exhibited before the meeting takes place.
I am ?/ Oswald Birley

It would appear that Flora had taken the initiative in protesting the public display of a portrait of Hitler at the Royal Academy, of which Sir John Lavery was president. She knew Oswald Birley and felt she needed his influence to inform or motivate Sir John Lavery. In 1933 many in the upper classes were indifferent to, or admirers of the Nazis, including the Prince of Wales. Flora’s being Jewish would have sensitized her earlier than most to the Nazi threat. What is remarkable here is that two influential art establishment figures should take up her cause. (Minutes of the special council meeting would reveal the decision.) A comparison of Who’s Who,1933, for the above three principals is instructive: Flora is the junior in influence and prestige to the two male members of the Chelsea Arts Club.

It would be interesting to know how or why Flora got the commission to paint Flora Drummond, an early suffragette. This picture, in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, can be found on-line. Among later commissions is a portrait of Earl Alexander of Tunis, the last British Governor General of Canada, 1946-1952. Flora wrote in 1956 that it hung in “Government House” (Rideau Hall) Ottawa. The Who’s Who entry of 1957, a year before her death, sums up her career.

Flora Lion has sunk into relative obscurity and her pictures that have recently appeared at auction did not fetch high prices. The notes and citations of this study are offered as an invitation to a student of art and social history to do a thoroughly researched biography of Miss/Mrs Flora Marguerite Lion, 1878-1958.

Further Resources

  • The New Age “Art Notes” column of 28 February 1918 is a closely reasoned analysis of the rationale and aesthetic of portraiture by B.H. Dias (pseud. of Ezra Pound), an insightful frame of reference for viewing any portrait, ancient or modern.

Lion, Flora -- Exhibitions

1. Paintings in oil : landscapes and portraits by Flora Lion. Name: Konody, Paul G. (Paul George), 1872-1933. Publisher: London : Barbizon House, 1929.

2. Flora Lion, R.P.S. : portraits, landscapes and flower pieces. Fine Art Society (London, England) Publisher: London : Fine Art Society, 1937.

3. Exhibition of a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen and of the Duchess of Kent and other portraits by Flora Lion, R.P.S. Name: Lion, Flora, 1878-1958 Publisher: London : M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., [1940?]

4. An exhibition of portrait drawings by Flora Lion : and architectural & theatrical subjects by M. Dobouzinski, G. Loukomski and William Walcot : May 13th to 26th, 1942. Name: Lion, Flora, 1878-1958 Publisher: [London] : Walker [1942].

  • Wood, Christopher. (Dictionary of British Art, Volume IV) Victorian Painters 1. The Text. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors' Club, 1995.

LION, Mrs. Flora ROI 1876-1958(sic) Painter of portraits, figure subjects and landscapes. Studied in London and Paris. Began to exhib. at RA in 1900 with 'The Lady of Shalott'. Elected ROI 1909. Married in 1915, and her husband adopted her name. Bibl: Who's Who; Salaman, Modern Woodcuts, etc.; Studio Special Number 1919; Studio XXXVIII 1906 p.248; also LVIII, LXXXIII-LXXXIV; Connoisseur XXVIII 1910 p.314; XLII 1915 p.180; LVII 1920 pp.114-15; LIX 1921 pp.115,121; LXVI 1923 p.182; Art News XXIV 1925-6 No.5 p.1. Exhib: London, Fine Art Society 1937; Knoedler's 1940.

  • "John Singer Sargent's Fulham Road Studio." (Internet Search)

Appendix to Flora Lion, biographical notes -- A computer search turned up this interesting item:

Title: 'Miss Flora Lion' Date: undated Medium: Oil on canvas Dimensions: 75.5 x 53 cm Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art DEACCESSIONED, 2000

In the painting Flora, prior to her marriage, is modeling an exotic outfit. The painting, offered at auction at Adam’s auction house in Dublin 25 May 2005, failed to sell:

Title 'Miss Flora Lion In Her Oriental Costume' Medium Oil on canvas Size (H x W x D) 29.9 x 21.3 in / 76 x 54 cm Signed Yes Stamped No Inscribed No Dating N/A Lot number 82 Auction time 25 May 2005 Auction result Unsold With premium No Edition N/A Foundry N/A N/A

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