When Sophie Haydock was researching her debut novel, The Flames, she was surprised to discover the burial place of one of the subjects of her book, unmarked and unremembered. This is the story of how she became determined to make sure Adele Harms’s life, and name, would be recognised and honoured.
I walked past grand tombs, carved with curlicues and covered in ivy, and elaborate moss-covered headstones – showing angels, their dirty wings outstretched – as I searched for the grave I’d travelled all this way to visit.
I was in Vienna’s Ober-Sankt-Veit cemetery and I’d made the trip from my home in London to research my debut novel, about the four muses to the celebrated Austrian artist Egon Schiele, who’d lived a short and controversial life.
Egon Schiele was just 28 when he died of the Spanish influenza pandemic that ripped through Europe in 1918. He’d succumbed to the deadly virus on October 31, just days before the end of the First World War.
Tragically, he died three days after his wife, Edith Harms, who was six months pregnant with their first child.
I knew that they were buried in adjacent plots in this cemetery, in the west of the city. And I wanted to see it for myself, to both help set the scene for the relevant chapters in the novel, and also to pay my own respects to these people who had captured my imagination, and whose stories I was determined to tell.
It was a low-skied day, in late July, and around me, magpies rustled for worms, and bouquets of flowers faded in their cellophane wrappers where they’d been placed in memory of those dearly departed.
I found myself in front of the simple grave, much less grand than what I’d expected might have been erected to celebrate one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.
I looked at the carving of a couple, a man and a woman, shown without clothes, hunched; all so different to the radical depictions of the human body that Schiele portrayed.
The gravestone was etched with Egon and Edith’s names, their years of birth and death. But as I was doing my research, I uncovered something that had never been reported before. There was another person in the grave alongside Egon. Another coffin had been buried there half a century later, carrying the body of a woman Schiele knew and painted: Adele Harms.
Adele Harms, as a young woman, has been immortalised in one of Schiele’s most famous paintings: Seated Woman with a Bent Knee, created in 1917, the year before his death. In the painting, she is seen wearing a green chemise, her legs spread wide open, clad in black stockings, an intense look on her face, one that to me, suggests desire, and perhaps regret.
I’d had a postcard of this artwork taped to my wall as a student at the University of Leeds, and had often looked into the model’s piercing eyes, without bothering myself with the question of who she was or how she ended up posing for the artist.
It was only a decade later, in the Courtauld Gallery, after an exhibition of Egon Schiele’s artwork, called the Radical Nude, that I discovered the model’s name was Adele Harms, and that she was, in fact, the artist’s sister-in-law. Her sister, Edith, had married Egon Schiele in 1915.
I was instantly intrigued: why was Adele buried in the same plot as Egon Schiele? Why was she not placed in the same plot as her sister, Edith?
I struggled to get answers to my questions. She never married, had no children. There were no living relatives that I could track down to ask, and my questions to the caretakers at the cemetery were politely rebuffed.
A year or two before, I’d been told by the Schiele scholar Christian Bauer at the Egon Schiele Museum in Tulln, the town where Egon was born in 1890, that Adele Harms had died in 1968 when she was 78 years old – penniless, practically living on the streets.
As a young woman, her life had been filled with opportunity and privilege. She was educated, and enjoyed the finer side of what fin-de-siècle Vienna had to offer. I was shocked and saddened that she had fallen on hard times. I wondered how Adele must have suffered when her sister died so young, and if she’d harboured regrets, or jealousies of her own?
These questions birthed the opening scenes of my debut novel, The Flames (which was published by Doubleday in March), in which we meet Adele Harms, as an old woman. She is wandering the streets of the wealthy neighbourhood where she first encountered the charismatic artist, spotted from her apartment. Distracted, she is involved in a collision, and this sparks a chain of events that will offer her a chance to forgive herself in her final days.
In The Flames, we also see the world from Edith’s perspective, as the sisters vie for the handsome artist’s attention; as well as the viewpoints of Gertrude Schiele, Egon’s little sister, with whom he shared an intimate bond, and Walburga Neuzil (known as Wally or Vally), who Schiele met in the studio of the great Austrian artist Gustav Klimt.
What was most saddening, perhaps, is that there was no marker for Adele Harms in the cemetery. Nothing to indicate that she had lived at all, that she had died on 9 May, 1968, or that she was buried in the same plot of earth as Egon Schiele and her sister.
I wanted to see that rectified.
I knew that in 2015, the delapidated grave of Walburga Neuzil had been identified in Sinj, now in Croatia – when the area was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – where she’d been stationed as a military nurse with the Red Cross when her relationship with Schiele came to an end. An Austrian historian, Robert Holzbauer had established the Wally Neuzil Society in order to restore her grave and give her the recognition she deserved.
In time, I hope to be able to do the same for Adele Harms. She was a key inspiration for Egon Schiele, and fuelled his greatest artworks. For me, this will be an ongoing project, not without its challenges.
But Adele Harms’s life mattered (to me, at the very least, and hopefully readers of The Flames will connect with her story, too). I want to see her honoured, so that people will see her name, that they will know it, and that they “damn-well never forget it”.
Read more about the book.
Sophie is an award-winning author living in east London. The Flames is her debut novel. She is the winner of the Impress Prize for New Writers.
She trained as a journalist at City University, London, and has worked at the Sunday Times Magazine, Tatler and BBC Three, as well as freelancing for publications including the Financial Times, Guardian Weekend magazine, and organisations such as the Arts Council, Royal Academy and Sotheby’s.
Passionate about short stories, Sophie also works for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award and is associate director of the Word Factory literary organisation. Her Instagram account @egonschieleswomen is dedicated to the women who posed for Egon Schiele.
If Sophie’s quest to commemorate Adele Harms interests you, you may enjoy Clare Mulley’s interview with Carolyn Kirby, in which Clare talks about her successful campaign to secure a Blue Plaque as a memorial to the wartime SOE agent Krystyna Skarbek.
- Reclining Woman with Green Stockings (Adele Harms) by Egon Schiele, 1917: WikiArt (public domain)
- Portrait photo of Egon Schiele by Anton Josef Trčka, 1914: Wikimedia (public domain)
- Sophie Haydock by Egon and Edith Schiele’s grave: author’s own
- Seated Woman with a Bent Knee by Egon Schiele, 1917: National Gallery Prague via WikiArt (public domain)
- Adele as a young woman: supplied by author (out of copyright)