“The Cheat” by Hon. John Collier, a painting depicting four people playing cards, ca.1900
This large and gloomy engraving used to hanging in my grandmother’s sitting room. Even as a child I wondered why she had chosen that particular picture to decorate her room. It shows two men and two women dressed in Edwardian evening clothes, around a card table. One of the women is standing and both look cross, each in their own way. Research shows this to be an engraving of ‘The Cheat’, by John Collier. When first exhibited around 1905 it was much discussed as a ‘mystery painting’ and it aroused great indignation amongst women who saw in it a libel on womanhood.
As there was at least one other picture of symbolic significance in the flat I assume that this one, the most prominent, was also symbolic. But symbolic of what?
My grandmother remains something of an enigma, and her relationship with my grandfather more complex than the surviving evidence can uncover.
The story below appeared in the Register, an Adelaide newspaper. The inspiration is evidently Collier’s painting, though we will never know if it was the event, or the story, that was inspired by it.
The Register (Adelaide, SA : 1901 – 1929), Thursday 4 May 1911, page 3
Tale Of The ‘Cheat.’
Great Picture Realized By Living Personages. Girl Whipped By Guests.
That the Hon. John Collier, when he painted his famous picture of ‘The Cheat’ had justification for doing so is proved by a Story told by ‘Elizabeth of U.’ in The World.
The story concerns a woman who was discovered by two other women cheating at bridge, and who was not only forced to disgorge, but received personal chastisement at the hands of the self-appointed judges. The woman’s consistent winning, it is said, was greatly commented on, and many a hint was thrown out as to the lady’s fairness at the bridge tables. Two ladies of title, who had been staying at a certain country house, first detected this petite madame deliberately cheating. Naturally they avoided playing with her again, and what follows really sounds far more like fiction than plain fact, and yet it is true. It so happened that these three ladies again met at another house party; the two honest dames avoided as far as possible playing at the other one’s table. They congratulated themselves, and (in the secrecy of confidential bedroom chats at night) each other on the deftness with which they had managed to hold aloof from the cheating one and her play, and at the same time prevent their host and hostess from noting the fact.
One night, however, their wrath rose at the sight of the distress this unscrupulous little person was causing a young girl who was her opponent. The two wise ladies watched the small innocent-seeming dame cheat time after time and win. The girl was very unsophisticated; she continued playing, although her face grew white and drawn, for she was losing more than she could afford. Several times she attempted to leave the table, but each time the other three players persuaded her to play on. At length the game ended, and the girl stood up the loser by a sum that ran well into three figures. Like a thorough little sportswoman she made no outcry about her losses, but the other two — the lookers-on — knew what they meant to her; they knew the girl, and they knew her family a great though not wealthy one, one which, even in these censorious days, no scandal had heretofore touched. After the girl had left the room and gone to bed the two who knew hastily held a secret consultation, with the result that they invited little madame to the room of one of them for a midnight chat. She was flattered at their invitation, and readily agreed.
Both of them accompanied her to the room of the one guest whose room lay furthest from those of the other members of the house party, and something very like the following took place — ‘You are a cheat,’ one haughtily contemptuous dame asserted as soon as the bedroom door was locked on their victim. ‘We, Lady Barbara and myself, have watched you on several occasions; for the sake of your poor unfortunate husband’s name we have remained silent, but tonight was too much. First of all, you will return to us all you have won from poor little Laura tonight, and also give back to us her I.O.Us. We insist.’ After a feeble and frightened protest the money was handed over, and the pieces of paper signed by the little dupe were quickly placed on the red hot coals and burned to ashes. ‘Now we will see that Laura receives the money which you fleeced her out of, and also we will guarantee that from us she will never learn the truth.’
‘No! you cannot go yet.’ as the little terrified madame turned towards the door, ‘and it is useless your trying to escape, for, I have the key of the door. Painful as it is to us, we have determined to teach you a severe lesson. We are going to beat you. If you scream you may attract the attention of some other guests; if they come and demand au entrance they shall be admitted; if they inquire the reason of such drastic treatment we will tell them the truth. I should advise you not to to scream. Now, are you ready?’
Without more ado one lady held the wriggling, sobbing small person, while the other administered a sound and well-deserved whipping.
The little lady did not desert the house party; her two detainers were sweetly amiable to her for the remainder of the visit, and to their delight, and every one else’s amazement, she quietly refused to play cards again during the remainder of her visit at that country house.
The original article, along with an OCR rendition, may be found at http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/59037218
Women are Angered by a Painting, Denounce It as a Gross Libel on the Sex
Hon. John Collier’s Remarkable Academy Picture. A Marked Card.
Narrating Modernity: The British Problem Picture, 1895-1914