Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Ballerina, Her Mother And The Genteel Art of Forgery.

* This story is perhaps my most obscure yet. But the idea of  a genteel daughter of the Anglo-Irish peerage pulling off one of the most brazen art-frauds of the early 20th century appeals to me. Also, the fact that her daughter was the great, ferocious Doyenne of modern English ballet - Dame Ninette De Valois also adds a bit of colour. I really think Ealing Studios, or perhaps P.G. Woodehouse could have had a lot of fun with this one .........

* The gentlemen of Sotheby's Auction House on New Bond Street in London were in something of a pickle.

They had been consigned one of the greatest collections of antique Irish and British glass ever put together, the famous Harding Collection, for sale in their venerable auction rooms.

Ninette - 1925
But the collection of 17th and 18th century glass, previously estimated to be worth in the region of £16,000 (just over £1m in today's money) had failed to generate any excitement amongst the buyers. In fact, the Harding Collection was under something of a cloud. There had been whispers in the showrooms on New Bond street, dark mutterings about pedigree and provenance. Some had even gone so far as to utter the one word that could send a shiver of fear through the genteel staff of the world's greatest auction house, a business which had traded on its impeccable reputation since 1744.

That one word? "Fake!"

There was a huge sum of money on the line. The reputation of the great auction house, the ridicule facing a gullible, sadly departed philanthropist and millionaire. There was also the scandal that could wreck the career of the greatest ballerina and choreographer of the age, the fierce Irish dancer who had starred under Diaghilev at the Ballets Russes, worked with WB Yeats at the Abbey in Dublin and charmed the British Royals.

Dame Ninette de Valois was about to create one of the great dance dynasties, the company that would become The Royal Ballet. But in the early 1930s, one lady could still wreck all of that.

And that lady was her mother.

Elizabeth (Lilith) Graydon-Stannus, born into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy at a country house in Lacken, Co Wicklow in 1876 was an artist, entrepreneur and star of the British Art-Deco movement. She had become an expert in highly-collectible antique Irish glassware, established her own glass-works in amongst the post-war bohemians of Battersea in London and watched her daughter Ninette become one of the most celebrated prima-ballerinas and choreographers in the world. Ninette had changed her name from Edris Stannus to the more French sounding Ninette de Valois when she made her professional debut in London in 1911. Aged 13.

Ninette Aged 16 - Already a Seasoned Pro

 Ninette was a child prodigy. But also fiercely determined. She went from child dancer to prima-ballerina to Godmother of British dance through the 20th century. The Irish woman made a star of Fonteyn and sensationally brought Nureyev to London.

Her mother Lilith was, if one contemporary is to be believed; ""The greatest villain in the manipulation of the history of Irish Glass"

Ms Graydon-Stannus might have begged to differ.

To her mind, she was not copying or faking rare and highly valuable antique glass - heaven forfend! She was merely "creating" and "improving".

Or as she once declared herself; "My endeavour is to create. Not to copy!"

And if the buyer, usually very rich but perhaps not expert collectors, were under the impression that they were actually paying for the real thing, well, these things happen, darling!

What Elizabeth Stannus did - as far as we can tell - was mix straight up forgery with very clever and sophisticated "reproduction" and "improving".

In some cases, she would take genuine old Irish glass pieces - decanters, goblets, etc - and "improve" them by getting her highly skilled workmen to do additional engraving and cutting, turning a commonplace, boring piece of glass worth £10 into a rare jewel worth £100.

Or, she would find old moulds, the ones used to produce the original pieces, and use them to churn out scores of new-old copies.

Elizabeth even went so far as to melt down old Irish glass to use its unique look and qualities to create highly convincing "reproductions" (even if that particular word was nowhere to be seen on the label).

It was clever, sophisticated and totally against the rules of the antiques business. It was fraud.

The real kicker is that Graydon-Stannus was something of a great artist herself - her highly colourful, beautifully designed Art-Deco pieces were very popular in their day and are hugely desirable to collectors today (look for the Gray-Stan mark in your local junk-shop).

She could produce modern classics - but she also had the skills and the, er, nerve to copy, fake and fool. And in her marvellously genteel way, charming the American visitors to London, hob-knobbing with the artistic elite of 1920s London, she set out to rake in the cash.

There has also been speculation that Lilith didn't stop at forging Irish antiques - she may have also tried her hand at famous contemporary names such as Lalique.

Strangely, it was the lady herself who gave the game away. In a speech to the Royal Society of Arts in 1926, she vehemently rejected growing claims that she was faking. But admitted that she owned old Irish moulds and had been working on reproducing the look and design of Old Irish Glass.

Lilith had literally written the book on Old Irish Glass - her handbook of that title had been considered at the time to be the bible on the subject, but today, the copy in the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford has a sticker on the front that says; "Use With Caution! Contains Many Factual Errors!"

The errors contained inside are mostly images and drawings of old Irish glass pieces, that had either been hacked-about or "created" by the lady herself.

Her reputation went into sharp decline. But it was too late for well-heeled buyers like Walter Harding, who visited her shop in Battersea in the 1920s and bought up almost her entire stock of "Old" Irish pieces.

When Harding - a millionaire philanthropist from Liverpool - died in the mid-1930s, his collection came up for sale in Sotheby's in London. Expected to fetch at least what he had paid for it, £16,000 (or almost £1m in today's money) - it sold for just £900 (£57k). Word about Elizabeth and her creative ways had obviously got around.

It should have been a huge scandal, perhaps resulting in legal action. Curiously, it was not. Some have speculated that her daughter Ninette - using her connections at the very top of British society - had the affair hushed up. There were rumours of some of the more irate customers being paid off, of favours being called in and mother being quietly packed off down the country.

The affair quickly died down. Sotheby's went on making money, Ninette went on building her Ballet empire and Lilith? Well, she is accused of many things, including creating such a mess of the history of Antique Irish Glass that many of her fakes may still be doing the rounds as the real thing.

But where's the harm? After all, new, old, fake or "improved", aren't they all simply lovely things?

Now, would you be interested in a lovely Jacobean wine goblet, at all? Fresh in from a gorgeous old Irish house..... so perfect! It looks as if it could have been made yesterday, darling!

**HEY! THANKS FOR READING!******* And by the way, if anybody is interesting in paying me to make a doc/write further about this, I will work for food. Also, antique glassware.


  1. - copy of the book. Nice piece

    1. Hey Brian, thanks for that, glad you enjoyed the piece!

  2. I'm the great grandson of Elizabeth Stannus and this has always been an interesting family story. Actually I now realise I hardly know anything about it and suspect that my Great Aunt's career just simply overshadowered whatever it was that happened. Enjpyed your article though.

    1. Hi - thanks for commenting - glad you found it interesting - I'm actually trying to get more information on the story of Elizabeth Stannus - if you would not mind talking further - you might drop me a line on - I'd appreciate any more info you could give - thanks again - joe


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