Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Orr, Alexandra Sutherland

ORR, Mrs. ALEXANDRA SUTHERLAND (1828–1903), biographer of Browning, born on 23 Dec. 1828 at St. Petersburg, where her grandfather, (Sir) James Boniface Leighton, was court physician, was second daughter of Frederic Septimus Leighton (1800–1892), a doctor of medicine, by his wife Augusta Susan, daughter of George Augustus Nash of Edmonton. Frederic Leighton, Lord Leighton [q. v. Suppl. I], was her only brother. She was named Alexandra after her godmother the Empress of Russia. The family travelled much in Europe, and Alexandra was educated mostly abroad. Her health was always delicate. On account of her defective sight, most of her very considerable knowledge was acquired by listening to books read aloud to her. She married on 7 March 1857 Sutherland George Gordon Orr, commandant of the 3rd regiment of cavalry, Hyderabad contingent, and accompanied him to India. They were there during the Mutiny, and Mrs. Orr had a narrow escape from Aurungabad, her ultimate safety being due to the fidelity of Sheikh Baran Bukh. Orr died on 19 June 1858, worn out by the sufferings and privations endured in the Mutiny. He was gazetted captain and brevet major and C.B. on the day of his death. Mrs. Orr then rejoined her father, who, after sojourns in Bath and Scarborough, finally settled in London in 1869.

Mrs. Orr's main interests lay in art and literature, and in social intercourse with artists and men of letters. Already in the winter of 1855-6 she had met, in Paris, the poet Robert Browning, with whom her brother was on intimate terms from early manhood. The poet's acquaintance with Mrs. Orr was renewed at intervals until 1869, when, both having fixed their residence in London, they became close friends. For many years he read books to her twice a week. Shortly after its formation in 1881, Mrs. Orr joined the Browning Society, became a member of the committee, wrote notes on various difficult points in Browning's poems, and was generous in money donations. The most important fruit of the connection was her illuminating 'Handbook to the Works of Robert Browning' (1885; 3rd edit. 1887); written at the request of some members of the society, and with the encouragement and help of the poet, the book is a kind of descriptive index, based partly on the historical order and partly on the natural classification of the various poems' (cf. Pref. 1885). The scheme of classification owed something to the suggestion of John Trivett Nettleship [q. v. Suppl. II]. The sixth edition (1892, often reprinted) embodied Mrs. Orr's final corrections.

In 1891 Mrs. Orr published her well-planned 'Life and Letters of Robert Browning,' largely based on material supplied by Browning's sister. Since 1891 new letters of the poet have come to light, but Mrs. Orr's biography retains the value due to personal knowledge and judgment. A new edition, revised and in part rewritten by (Sir) Frederic G. Kenyon, was published in 1908. Mrs. Orr's estimate of Browning's religious opinions gave rise to discussion, and she answered her critics in an article in the 'Contemporary Review' (Dec. 1891). To that and other periodicals Mrs. Orr contributed occasional articles on art and literature, as well as on 'Women's Suffrage,' of which she was a strong opponent.

After her father's death in 1892 Mrs. Orr continued to live in the house which he had occupied, 11 Kensington Park Gardens, until her death on 23 Aug. 1903. She was buried in Locksbrook cemetery, Bath, beside her parents. Her portrait as a young widow was painted by her brother Frederic (Lord) Leighton in 1860. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1861. Leighton wrote that it was more admired than anything else. It is now at Leighton House, Kensington. There is a reproduction in Mrs. Russell Barrington's 'Life and Letters of Frederic Leighton,' 1906, vol. ii. Another portrait, painted by Leighton about 1889, is in the possession of Mrs. Orr's sister, Mrs. Augusta Matthews. They are both fine pictures of a beautiful woman.

[The Times, 26 and 31 Aug. 1903; Mrs. Russell Barrington, Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton, 2 vols. 1906; private information.]

E. L.