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Did a Monet go missing from an important art collection in Zimbabwe? I spoke to Louisa Treger about the novel she wrote after she investigated this rumour. Her novel The Dragon Lady (2019) is based on the life of the exotic Lady Virginia Courtauld who was pivotal in the story.

“It began with a family visit to Harare. Someone asked me if I’d heard about Zimbabwe’s secret Monet,” she says via phone from England where she is in the throes of moving house.

The story goes that a painting by Monet was among a collection of 93 works bequeathed to the Rhodesian National Gallery by Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia Courtald in the Seventies.

“I was intrigued. Since I was in the country at the time I decided to see what I could find out about it,” says Treger.

“I managed to talk my way into the gallery vault in Harare. The staff were extremely cagey and I wasn’t allowed to see much, but I did see works by Renoir and Dürer.”

We may never know whether or not there was indeed a painting by Claude Monet in the Courtauld’s bequest - Treger thinks not - but it was the spark that ignited her imagination. During her visit she travelled to the Eastern Highlands to see La Rochelle Estate, the Courtauld's beautiful former home. The more she learned about Lady Ginie, the more she was captivated

Rebellious ambitious ruthless

Lady Virginia Courtauld, nee Peirano, was born in Romania in 1885. She was the only daughter and youngest child of Riccardo Peirano, a prosperous shipping merchant, and Rosa Balint whom records unkindly describe as “a Romanian peasant.” In 1890 the family moved to London where she was enrolled in a convent school. Her rebellious spirit reared its head from early on.

While still in her teens she had an enormous black snake tattooed up her right leg from ankle to thigh.

In an era when Queen Victoria had barely vacated the throne this was profoundly shocking. There’s not much to go on, but it seems her home life was difficult.

As a young woman living in Italy, she wed the Italian Count Spinoza. She abandoned that plan in 1923 and in the same year she met Major Stephen Courtauld, a British war hero and heir to a vast textile fortune. She deceived Courtauld into believing she was carrying his child so that he would marry her. Treger defends Virginia saying, “I think he would have done anyway, but it’s one thing I don’t admire about her.”

Ginie the Impaler

The couple returned to England where they built a spectacular Art Deco mansion adjoining Eltham Palace, the childhood home of Henry VIII. It became the decadent backdrop to legendary society parties attended by the glitterati and avant-garde of the day. Despite their greatly differing personalities, Treger maintains it was a happy marriage. The vivacious Ginie and the scholarly Stephen shared a love of the arts and he had the wealth to amass it. The outlandish half-Italian, half-Romanian woman who claimed to be a descendant of Vlad the Impaler finally had everything. And nothing.

As a divorcee and someone who would certainly have been considered a most peculiar foreigner, her reception in English society would have been cool enough. Her devil-may-care temperament and a snake tattoo up one leg didn't help.

Stephen provided her with the privilege of both immense wealth and high position. She was hugely glamorous. Yet, although she could be “a kind and loyal friend” she cuts a rather pitiful figure. Treger agrees that Virginia’s fundamental lack of belonging may have contributed to the couple’s startling exit from the high life to live permanently in Africa after just ten years at Eltham Palace.

New beginning. Again

They set sail in the early Fifties and took Rhodesian citizenship in 1954. The house they built at La Rochelle is a rare example of early Modern Movement architecture in Africa. They devoted the next 13 years to the estate, to educational and community projects, patronage of the arts, and the nationalist movement that culminated in today’s Zimbabwe.

As Rhodesia became embroiled in a vicious guerilla war, yet again Virginia earned a reputation as a troublemaker. “She was capable of great warmth and kindness,” defends Treger and quotes Virginia’s niece Margaret Bernard who said, “she had enormous charm, and she was full of character and life.” However “she didn’t care what she said to anyone, or what she did.”

Sir Stephen died in 1967. Virginia left Rhodesia three years later. La Rochelle and the art collection passed to the country’s National Trust.

The collection included Caravaggio, Pissaro, Rembrandt, Goya, Hogarth and other celebrated names but the catalogue that presumably accompanied such important works is long gone.
It’s rumoured that the collection was hidden for safekeeping from the main political party, Zanu PF. Some say it was buried in the National Gallery vaults. Realistically, it is highly unlikely anything so valuable has survived the despotic Zanu PF regime of the last 40 years. Odds are, the collection was looted, broken up and sold off directly or laundered via the art black market, which is a global trade worth billions on a par with the drug, weapon and trafficking rackets.

Lasting memento

Virginia died on the island of Jersey in 1972. For Treger, discovering Virginia Courtauld sparked not only her deep admiration but also a step towards self-actualization. “In an era when women were meant to be reserved and well behaved, she lived as she wanted to, she was her own woman. I find her inspiring.”

It’s been three years since that trip to Africa. Treger has left her marriage of 22 years and sports a tiny snake tattoo on her ankle. “It took me a long time to find my own voice,” she says, “and I’m resolved to live as vividly as I can, in every possible way.”

Louisa Treger's novel The Dragon Lady is available on Amazon.
Images courtesy of National Trust of Zimbabwe; Portrait of Stephen and Virginia Courtauld with their pet lemur Mah-Jongg in 1934© Bridgeman Art Library, English Heritage; Photo of the young Virginia : Fratelli Archivi Alinari Museum, Florence (photographer: Kosel, 1910). 
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