She turned her back on convention and made her big bid for a life less ordinary. Gathering all her naïve courage and audacity, she went on the stage. She changed her name to Eleanor, which was so much more sophisticated than Nelly, and added the name Velasco in front of Thornton to lend a Spanish flair that chimed with her dark looks. Like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, Eleanor Velasco Thornton was born. Capitalizing on her beauty, her youth and her highly engaging personality, I suppose she nabbed a handful of minor roles in forgettable plays that ran in small theatres until they fizzled out.
Did she hope to find fame and fortune as an actress? Other women had done it so why shouldn’t she. In that day and age the actresses Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt were superstars. Did Eleanor, like scores of other girls with stars in their eyes, hope to emulate these idols? But being an actress was not very respectable and being a bit part ingénue in second-rate theatres was only a step up from being a prostitute in the eyes of society. Moreover, it probably paid extremely badly.
It is likely that her work as an actress was not enough to live on in which case Eleanor would have needed some kind of second job, something that didn’t conflict with her theatre schedule. The other employment that Eleanor took probably paid better but was no more respectable. If anything it was worse; it was positively racy. She became an artist’s model.
Though holding a pose for hours and hours half-dressed in a cold, draughty studio can’t exactly have been fun, the job had priceless benefits. It drew Eleanor right into the heart of bohemian London, into a vibrant, highly dubious yet oddly fashionable world of writers, painters and their patrons, people who were creative, inventive, well-connected, often well-heeled and who knew about everything that was happening in the great city of London.
Eleanor, with her intelligence, good-humoured patience and kindness evidently made many friends. Even more importantly, she kept them – kept them all her life. One of these was the artist Charles Sykes, at that time an up and coming talent. Said to be one of his favourite models, Eleanor is thought to have posed as a saint in one of his paintings and as a water sprite in another. Sykes was highly versatile. Not only could he paint but he was a gifted sculptor and he also did lots of illustrations for magazines. Magazines were all the rage and publishers paid handsomely for appealing pictures to make their printed offerings stand out from the crowd.
So Sykes had lots of connections and it was possibly through him that Eleanor first got wind of a job opening that would turn out to be a lucky break.
(To be continued…)