In 1925, a Hungarian nobleman of Polish origins, named Tibor Scitovszky de Nagyker, and his wife Hanna, built and occupied an elegant villa in neo-baroque style in the hills of Buda in Hungary. Today, the British Ambassador’s Residence in Budapest, this exquisite building continues to have strong connections with its first owners.
Tibor was born in Nőtincs in the county of Nógrád on 21 June 1875. He was the son of János de Scitovszky (1850-1903), Vice Lord Lieutenant of Nógrád and a Member of Parliament, and his wife, Eugénia Szitányi de Szitány (1850-1934). Tibor studied at the universities of Budapest and Paris.
This is footage from 1924 showing Tibor as Minister of Foreign Affairs [click image to view]
As undersecretary in the Ministry of Commerce, he served as an economic advisor to the Hungarian delegation at the peace negotiations at Trianon that followed the First World War. He was Minister of Foreign Affairs from November 1924 to March 1925, in the government of Count István Bethlen. He then became president of the Magyar Általános Hitelbnk [Hungarian General Bank of Credit], and in 1927 entered the Upper House of Parliament.
He married Hanna Hódosi (1886-1977) and they had a son Tibor (1910-2002) who emigrated to the United States later becoming a celebrated economist and professor at Stanford and Berkeley.
At the Scitovszky villa in the 1930s
Travelling back in time, let’s imagine a visitor to the Scitovszky villa climbing up the magnificent spiralled staircase and stepping into the atmospheric Salon. Here, they would have been invited to take a seat on the French furniture chosen with great taste and refinement by Madam Scitovszky.
One of the most sought-after portrait painters in Europe at the time, the Hungarian-born Philip Alexius Laszlo and his wife, Lucy Guinsess, were among the regular guests of the Scitovszkys. On one special occasion in 1935, de Laszlo recounted:
We dinner [sic] with the Scitovszky’s in their splendid House with the very best taste – of which I saw none equally beautiful – from every point of view perfect in style & only very good thinks [sic] in it – was pleased to see my two fine portraits of them painted some 8 years ago in Paris.
The pendant portraits mentioned by de Laszlo were made by the artist 1927 and were displayed with great pride in the most important room of the Scitovszky villa. This commission conferred the sitters’ high status and aligned them with the Hungarian aristocracy who frequently called upon de Laszlo to portray them. Renowned for their elegance, naturalism and fluid brushwork, de Laszlo’s portraits often depicted European monarchs and politicians.
Tibor and Hanna lived in their villa until 1946 when they left for the United States and leased the building to the British Government for use as the Residence of the British Ambassador. It was expropriated by the Hungarian State after the family decided to remain in America and the British Government continued to lease it until they purchased it in 1964. What happened to the two paintings by de Laszlo? A note in the Residence archive written by one of Tibor Scitovszky’s daughters gives us a clue:
Mother left them to me when she died; but since they were too big to display in our modest house with its low ceiling and too beautiful to stack away in the attic, I donated them to the Hungarian Benedictine monks’ nearby boarding school, whose then director was my parents’ old friend, who often visited them and officiated at both their funerals.The paintings were hung in the school’s library, which seemed a suitable place to display them and where, I had hoped, they would stay.
However, the paintings did not remain at Woodside Priory School, and because of the school’s financial difficulties, they were sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 1993, to Scitovszky’s daughter’s dismay.
Would the elegant portraits ever emerge again from private ownership? For the next twenty-six years, the charming portrait of Hanna veiled in her extraordinary, translucent shawl and that of her husband adorned with decorations such as the blue sash, the badge of the Finnish Order of the White Rose, the Imperial Order of the Iron Crown, the Knight’s Cross of the Imperial Order of Franz Joseph, the Hungarian Bronze Medal of Merit with the Holy Crown and the Jubilee Medal for civilians, would remain in an anonymous private collection.
In March 2019, the founder of The De Laszlo Archive Trust, Sandra de Laszlo, alerted us to a Christie’s sale in New York which featured the two paintings. Our bid was successful and we were delighted to acquire the works with a view to return the portraits to their original home in Budapest. But not before a short visit to de Laszlo’s home since 1907: London. Here, the paintings were looked at by a conservator who found them in excellent condition and in their original frames, possibly chosen or designed by De Laszlo himself. After structural work and glazing with museum glass for protection, the paintings were ready to undertake their final journey home: Budapest.
The two paintings were installed in the Residence to great acclaim in September 2019, echoing the original display from the 1930s. This event was carefully planned to coincide with the opening at the Hungarian National Gallery of the first retrospective of De Laszlo’s work in his country of birth: ‘Philip Alexius de Laszlo (1869-1937): I am an artist of this world’, marking the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birthday. Such findings are rare and proof that among the GAC’s almost 400 locations, there is always a perfect place for a work of art. After such a long journey across space and time, the Scitovszky portraits by De Laszlo have finally returned home where they will continue to be at the heart of the cultural and diplomatic relationships between the UK and Hungary.
Article by Dr Laura Maria Popoviciu. We are very grateful to Sandra de Laszlo for alerting us to the Christie’s sale, the British Ambassador Iain Lindsay and to Dr Katherine Field from the De László Archive Trust for providing information about the two paintings and supplying the archival material.