The Misattribution of Evelyn Beatrice Hall

Last year I posted some notes about the famous free speech formulation “I hate what you say, but defend your right to say it” which is erroneously attributed to Voltaire. I think the fact that it was actually written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall about Voltaire’s philosophy is now quite widely known, as evidenced by the extent of the gleeful crowing of ‘well actually’ every time some-one prominent (like education minister Sam Gimyah MP in The Times last year) gets the attribution wrong.

While writing my post about Hall (whose pen-name was S. G. Tallentyre) I naturally searched for a picture of her online. A Google image search for ‘Evelyn Beatrice Hall’ throws up dozens of versions of the image below: a young, determined looking woman with a sword. Many of the images that the search yields include the famous free speech quote, properly attributed to Hall.

'The Sword' by Alfred Pierre Agache (1896)
‘The Sword’ by Alfred Pierre Agache (1896)

Except, the image appears elsewhere online without the Evelyn Beatrice Hall label. The title of the portrait is ‘The Sword’ and it was painted by the French artist Alfred-Pierre Agache in 1896.

This presents something of a conundrum. Could the picture, which is clearly about the concept of justice and liberty, feature Evelyen Beatrice Hall as the model? Hall was born in 1868 so would have been 28 years old at the time this painting was created. The woman depicted looks about that age, so it could be Hall… and it would be rather marvellous if the author of one of the most famous quotes about liberty were to also feature in an iconic painting about the same subject.

Sadly, this is not the case. I contacted the curatorial team at the Art Gallery of Ontario, which has ‘The Sword’ in its collection, to ask about the woman depicted. Aleksandra Bursac, from the Prints & Drawings curatorial team, was kind enough to reply.

[T]he model for The Sword is not Evelyn Beatrice Hall. It is in fact a woman named Gabrielle Leroy, who was known as mademoiselle Sygne. She was the artists’ model and source of inspiration for many of his works. It is uncertain what their relations were exactly, but she did live with the artist for 20 years, and he left her a generous sum upon his death.

Most models that figure in his works after 1888 borrow several of her traits (the Sword included). She seems to have been his inspiration for all his genres: portraits, allegories, etc.

So why does everyone online think that ‘The Sword’ is a picture of Evelyn Beatrice Hall? The answer lies, as it so often does in the 21st century, with algorithms and poor web page design. It turns out that ‘The Sword’ is included on the Evelyn Beatrice Hall Wikiquote page. The practice on those pages is for contributors to include pictures that illustrate the concepts that are quoted, and long-time user named ‘Kalki’ added ‘The Sword’ when they improved the page in January 2009. A thumbnail image of the painting has appeared on that page ever since.

And so for exactly a decade, the words ‘Evelyn Beatrice Hall’ have been associated closely with ‘The Sword’ in the ‘mind’ of the Google search engines. Other people have taken this to mean that Agache’s painting depicts the author, and they have used the image, in whole or in part, to illustrate Hall. This has reinforced the erroneous belief in the minds of other people, and within those same Google algorithms.

Its fascinating to me that the same essential process that resulted in Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s words being attributed to someone else, has in this case resulted in someone else’s face being attributed to Hall. Beauty over brains: a sadly emblematic case of how our culture (and our technology) treats thinking women.


Side note: Yes, I’m well aware that including the portrait of Gabrielle Leroy under the title ‘The Misattribution of Evelyn Beatrice Hall’ might further entrench exactly the algorithmic mistake that I have identified. Unsure what to do about that, though I have labelled the images correctly in the hypertext.

Update

Fay tweets:

Yes, I am very curious. Unfortunately Hall died without marrying or having kids, as did her sister Ethel (who married the author Hugh Stowell Scott). So there’s no obvious extant family who we could contact for images.

3 Replies to “The Misattribution of Evelyn Beatrice Hall”

  1. I am fascinated by that Rob – now tempted to research their grandparents and maybe great uncles or the like with issue?!
    Poor Evelyn – her words said NOT to be hers and her face NOT her face – may do something in honour of all Evelyns and another Evelyn we all know!! Xx

  2. Thank you, Robert, i’ve already read this story on the painting while looking up your quote misappropriation article, and already thought about including it in my voltaire misquoting post on 11k2, as a second layer of falsified reality. But then i stopped before getting to meta about it and confusing my readership even more. Anyway it’s a great coincidence, a nice example of pre-internet rumour generation.

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