There is much to treasure in this book, not least Hedley’s portrait of the redoubtable Erica Brausen, whom she describes as ‘one of the first dealers in Britain to realize that the work of living artists was about to become internationally fashionable.’ But what of Jeffress as a collector? I would have welcomed more discussion and assessment of his collection and the oddly haphazard pattern of its acquisition. Certainly he ended up with at least two works by Jackson Pollock (a drawing and a painting), although he had no sympathy at all with abstraction. More spectacularly, he owned Picasso’s Seated Woman (1938), a Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of Emile Bernard, and works by Douanier Rousseau, Delacroix, Soutine, Rouault, Derain, Balthus and Vuillard. Among British artists he owned good things by Sickert, Edward Burra, Christopher Wood and Lucian Freud. But what does it all add up to? Even now, the elusive Mr Jeffress manages to avoid explanations.
Whether hobnobbing with his neighbour Peggy Guggenheim or swanking around in a fur coat lined with the pelt of 45 wild hamsters, he never stopped striving for effect, and friends noted an underlying melancholy that suffused his sybaritic lifestyle. Indeed Gill Hedley’s biography makes no claim for any particular originality or lasting achievement. Jeffress’s portrait is sketched through his frenetic social life which, thanks to his inordinate wealth and extravagance, encompassed just about everyone who was anyone. The author’s pursuit of so many biographical byways does make the chronology creak and the head spin at times.