John Singer Sargant: Duke of Marlborough

Figure 1.--Sargent painted the 9th Duke of Marlborough and his wife Consuella Vanderbilt with their two sons, the Marquess of Blandford and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill. Notice the bust of the 1st Duke of Marlbourough at the top of the painting.

John Singer Sargent painted the 9th Duke of Marlborough and his wife Consuella Vanderbilt with their two sons, the Marquess of Blandford and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill. Few portraits could be more steeped in British and American history. Not only are the individuals scions of two of the most notable British and American famolies, but it illustrates a fascinating development in the late 19th century--wealthy American heiresses marrying wealthy American heiresses. The Duke here is rather a non-entity, but Consuelo and her mother Alva (not pictured) were fascinating individuals.

The Portrait

Sargent painted the 9th Duke of Marlborough and his wife Consuelo Vanderbilt with their two sons, the Marquess of Blandford and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill. The painting hangs in the red drawing room at Blenheim. The duke was nicknamed 'Sunny'. He wears his robes of the Order of the Garter--the most prestious order of knighthood in England. I'm not sure just when the portrait was painted, but would guess about 1903. Notice the bust of the 1st Duke of Marlbourough at the top of the painting. Presumably the portrait was done at Blenheim, the monumental home of the 1st Duke of Marlbourgh, built for him by a grateful Queen Anne.

9th Duke: Charles Richard John Spencer Churchill

The 9th Duke pictured here was rather a non-entity. With all his influence and money, I know of nothing of any significance he accomplished. He focvusded his life on Blenheim and it much as it had been run for centuries. One historian describes a hunt which included 80 beaters dressed in light brown Holland smocks and red caps used to drive out birds, about 1,000 of which were bagged. [Stuart] The Duke needed, however, Consulelo's money to refurbish Belnheim which had 150 rooms and 1 bath and required massive outlays to maintain. He proved to be a terrible husband and criticized his new wife for any initiative she attempted on her own. [Stuart]

10th Duke: John Albert Churchill (1898-1956)

The 9th Duke's oldest son Jophn Albert Churchill, the future 10th duke, stands in front of his mother Consuelo. His younger brother, Ivor (1898-1956), stands at his mother's left. He was commonly known as Bert. His parents were Charles Richard John Spencer Churchill (9th Duke of Marlborough) and Consuelo Vanderbilt (Duchess of Marlborough). Bert became the 10th Duke of Marlborough. He and his family were painted by noted American portratist John Singer Sargent in a noted painting by at Blenheim. He and his brother appear to have worn satin and velvet suits in the portrait here. A photogrph shows the boys a couple years later wearing longpants single blazer suits.


Bert, the older boy, appears to be wearing some sort of satin cavalier outfit. Ivor, the younger boy, looks to be wearing a grey velvet suit with a lace collar. As Bert wears a "historic" costume, based on a 17th century cavalier outfit, the portrait does not tell us as much as we would like about contemporary boys' clothes. We are unsure as to just where Bert would wear this outfit, other than for this portrait. I think it is unlikely that he would have worn this to parties or formal events, but am not positive about this. Ivor's velvet suit proably was the outfit he would normally wear for formal events.

Family Connections

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, a direct descendant of John Churchill 1st Duke of Marlborough, was born on November, 30 1874 at Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Winston's father was the brilliant, but mercurial Lord Randolph Churchill (1849-95) 3rd son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. Winston's mother Jennie Jerome married Lord Randolph Churchill the 2nd son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. This would mean that Winston was the cousin of the 9th Duke. The 8th and 9th Duke, as well as Winston's father who was the 8th Duke's younger brother and the 9th Duke's cousin the 8th Duke of Roxburghe, all married Americans. (After his divorce from Consuelo Vanderbilt, the 9th Duke married another American.) [MacColl and Wallace, p. 337.]

Wealthy Americans

Consuelo Vanderbilt did not get on that well with her husband. She married him for this title and he married her for her American fortune. There were several other examples at that time (late 19th-early 20th century) of rich American heiresses marrying cash strapped British aristocrats for the title. Edith Wharton's aclaimed novel The Bucaneers (1938) dealt with this. Lord Randolph also married an American--Jeanie Jerome, making their son Winston perhaps the most famous half American Englishman.

The Vanderbilts

The Vanderbilt patriarch was Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) who came to be known as The Commodore and the richest man in the world. The family descebnded from Jan Aertson, a Dutch farmer from De Bilt (a village in Utrecht). Aertson came to New York as an indentured servant (1650). The family name is based on the village with the "van der" (of the) added on. Cornelius was born on a small Staten Island farm, the fourth of nine children. He was a rambunction boy who didn't care for school and got little out of it. He had very limited reading and writing skills. He liked being outdoors. He quit school at age 11 and began working on ferries. There were no bridges at the time and thus ferries serving the growing city of New York were a prosperous enterprise. Cornelius began making money ferrying people and freight back and forth between Staten Island and New York City. At age 16 he began operating his own ferry. He married his cousin and neighbour, Sophia Johnson (1795-1868) (1813). They had 13 children, one of which, a boy, died young. Vanderbilt's ferry grew and began operating up the Hudson River (1830s). Vanderbilt gradually establish control over the entire New England voastal trade. Even the California Gold Rush created opportunities for him. He set up a steamship line operating between New York to California through a Nicaragua portage. Vanderbilt through his steamship interests got involved with railroads. He became a director of the Long Island Rail Road (1844). The Railroad was part of a route between Boston and Newyork that included a steamboat transfer. As railroads grew in importance, Vanderbilt took a growing interest in them. Next he became a director of the New York and Harlem Railroad (1857). After this he began shifting his capital from steamships to railroads and became a railroad magnate. He purchased the New York and Harlem Railroad (1862-63), the Hudson River Railroad in 1864, and the New York Central Railroad (1867). The railroads merged into the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad (1869). The next step was to acquire other railroads which extended his railroad lines to Chicago, the developing mid-West metropolis (1873). He attempted to acquire the Erie Railroad and lost $7 million to Wall Street manipulator Jay Gould. His son William also had a run in with Gould over Western Union and American Telegraph Company. Sophia Vanderbilt died. Cornelius than eloped in Canada where he married a distant cousin from Mobile, Alabama, Frank Armstrong Crawford. She was 43 years younger. A nephew convinced Vanderbilt to finance a new university which became Vanderbilt University. Vandebilt was a ruthless businessman. He was essentially a mean-spirited person that was a terror to his employees and not very kind to his own family. He disowned his sons with the exception of William who Cornelius thought the only one sufficently ruthless to oversee his business empire. He amassed a fortune of about $100 million, $95 million of which went to William. His eight daughters got $0.5 each. Tragedy marked the family. One son commited suiside after unsuccessfully contesting his father's will. One of the major tabloid topics in the early 20th centuiry was the custody battle over Lottle Gloria.

Alva Vanderbilt

Alva Erskine Smith came from a family of modest means. She married the Commodore's grandson William. It was Alva who engineered the Vanderbilt's rise to social priminance in Guilded Age New York become the preminent socialite. It was Alva who insisted that her daughter marry the Duke of Marlborough. Alva found life with her husband William frustrating. William possessed a huge fortune, but had nothing to do. Thus Alva was active in the social swirl, dressed well, and decorated mansions. She was reportedly very abusive toward servants. She wanted a more personally satisfying life. She thought that Consuelo's marriage would help her daughter do just this. [Stuart] Alva eventually tired of Vanderbilt and married another wealthy individual, Oliver Belmont. She became in contrast to her daughter, a militant femenist. She was a makor force in the National Woman's Party. She strongly supported Alice Paul who chsined herself to the White House fence during World War I to dramatise the fact that American women did not have the right to vote.

Consuelo Vanderbilt

Consduelo did not want to marry the Duke. Her mother insisted going so far as to fein illness. The marriage proved a disaster. The Duke was ill-tempertred and critical of her. They had two sons, but the Duke made no real effort to make the narriage work once he got his hands on some of the funds he wanted. He was increasingly critical of everything she attempted. The relationship was not helped by the facvt that her mother-in-law despised her. The boys came soon after the marriage. Thereafter the two were increasingly estrained. They separated after 11 years of marriage (1906). She had a more liberal outlook than her husband and changed with the times. She this emerged as a popular personality in Edwardian England while her husband became increasingly irrevelent. [Stuart] Her succes was no mean feat in a society which was basially hostile to American heiresses. (Consuelo and Jennie Jerome were the notable exceptions.) Winston Churchill and other notables were friends. Consuelo found her niche with philanthropy. She emerged as a conservative feminist and helped run several projects for the underprivlidged. Even so, she remained a snob expressed particulsarly with her anti-Semitism. She was apopular punlic speaker on both topics. She married French aviator Jacques Balsan (1921).


MacColl, Gail and Carol McD Wallace. To Marry an English Lord (1989).

Stuart, Armanda Mackenzie. Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt (Harper Collins, 2006), 579p.


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Created: June 21, 2002
Last updated: 1:52 AM 1/23/2006