The Strange Saga of Isabella de Ajuria, Marchioness of Miniatures

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Twenty years ago, the Homestead received a donation of Workman and Temple family papers from Gabriela Quiroz Temple Sutter, widow of Thomas W. Temple II, whose family built La Casa Nueva in the 1920s.

Among the many items in the collection was a letter dated 30 January 1918 and sent from an address on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood to Walter P. Temple, Thomas’ father.  The sender signed the letter as “I. de Ajuria.”  The missive simply informed Temple that the sender had moved to a new address and hoped that he and his wife, Laura, could come out to visit.


Five years later, Thomas and Gabriela’s niece, Ruth Ann Temple Michaelis, donated a further set of family documents that she inherited from her uncle and aunt.  Included in the material were two Christmas cards and an Easter card from Oria de Ajuria.  One of the Christmas cards was addressed to Walter Temple and his wife Laura and dated from before 1922, when Laura passed away, while the other was addressed to Mr. Temple and was, of course, after that.  The Easter card was sent to Thomas Temple and was from March 1932.


I’d known the name “de Ajuria” for some time, because Walter Temple’s uncle, Jonathan, who was the first of the family to live in Los Angeles, settling here in 1828, had one child, Francisca (1831-1903), who married Spanish merchant Gregorio de Ajuria in Los Angeles in 1848.  It took some time before further research revealed more about this connection to the Temple family.

De Ajuria, born in 1819 in Bilbao, on the northern Spanish coast and best known for its Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, came to California on a trading ship in 1845, at the end of the Mexican period.  After he and Francisca Temple married, they remained in Los Angeles for a few years and then moved to Mexico City.  He had substantial connections there, as well as business dealings in New York and Paris.  When Ignacio Comonfort was the president of Mexico between 1855 and 1858, de Ajuria used his connections with the regime to secure for his father-in-law a ten-year lease of the Mexican national mint.

jonathan temple & wife & son in
Jonathan Temple and his wife Rafaela Cota, seated, with their son-in-law, Gregorio de Ajuria standing behind them, ca. 1858.

While Comonfort was removed by one of the many revolutions that took place in Mexico during the era and de Ajuria had to flee with his family, first to New York and then to Paris, where he died, apparently in an insane asylum, in 1864, the lease remained with Jonathan Temple until his death in 1866 and then continued under his daughter and de Ajuria’s widow, until 1893.

The de Ajurias had a large family, one of whom was Gregorio, Jr., born in Mexico City in 1855, and he is said to have married Isabella Saalfeld in 1884 in San Francisco.  The marriage evidently produced one child, Oria, and then Gregorio died within just a few years.

Isabella Saalfeld birth 1855
The record of Isabella Saalfeld’s 1855 birth in the Marylebone section of London.

Isabella was born in 1855 in the Marylebone section of London, very close to where William Workman’s parents married over six decades before.  Her mother, Henrietta Cohn, and her father, Samuel Albert Saalfeld, were Jews from Germany, who married there in the 1840s, and then migrated to England.  Isabella’s father, who went by his middle name, was a merchant who dealt in sugar and wool in Manchester and London.

In 1859, the Saalfelds migrated to New York, but only remained there a short period before heading back to England and settling in Leeds.  Saalfeld, however, declared bankruptcy in 1863 and it was revealed that he had the habit of borrowing extensively to keep his business going during some rough economic periods, while also spending lavishly on his home, furnishings and accessories.  A brief return to America was followed by Saalfeld’s death in 1866 in New York and his widow and children remained in the country.

Saalfeld 1870 census NY
Isabella, at age 15, with her family at the bottom of this 1870 census sheet.

Isabella’s marriage to Gregorio de Ajuria, Jr., brought her into some money, as evidenced by her purchase a couple years after the nuptials of a $40,000 home in New Jersey.  However, within several years after her husband’s death, whatever money she inherited appears to have run out.

Isabella, however, was a talented artist and had, it was said, studied art in Paris.  So, she reinvented herself as the “Marchioness de Ajuria” and with her only child, Oria, who had a spinal deformity and perhaps developmental disabilities, ingratiated herself with the well-to-do in New York in the latter part of the 1890s.

The “Marchioness” specialized in miniatures painted on ivory and wood and claimed to have commissions from the rich and titled in Europe and America.  She reportedly completed portraits of the Pope, the Queen of Italy, and wealthy patrons on the East Coast and liked to show a piece of jewelry she said was given to her by the Italian monarch.

Isabella Sues Sage Evening_World_Jan_15__1902_
Isabella de Ajuria’s likeness and an article about her suit against New York financier Russell Sage, 1902.

There were, however, issues that arose.  Perhaps the most notorious was a lawsuit filed by Isabella in 1902 against Russell Sage, a financier, railroad magnate, and politician worth some $70 million.  Sage was known to be very active outside his marriage and Isabella claimed that he “attacked” her in 1884, and. though the details were not made public, she averred that he promised her $150,000 to keep mum about what happened.  When that money was not paid, she charged, it was incumbent for her to sue for $70,000.
Eventually, Sage did not pay what she demanded and he died four years later and his wife established a well-known church, foundation and college in her husband’s name.

Meanwhile, the Marchioness traveled the country advertising her miniatures and was well-received in San Francisco, Chicago and locally in Pasadena and Los Angeles over the years.  In early 1901, she landed in Pasadena, where many well-heeled folks from the eastern states spent their winters.

Madame de Ajuria praised in the Los Angeles Times, 11 June 1917.

On 12 March, the Los Angeles Times published a lengthy article, which began with

Pasadena merchants mourn the departure of “Mme. Gregorio de Ajuria,” self-styled miniature painter, who came to the city several months ago with her child, and is supposed to have left . . . probably Saturday night.  The reason for the mourning is that madame failed to pay for many articles of value which she obtained during her residence here, nor in the haste of her departure did she leave any assurance that she would return and settle her accounts.

The goods totaled some $2,200 and included a stove, furniture, jewelry and a host of other items.  The Times article continued that

When madame arrived in Pasadena, she  . . . gave out to the world that, in the matter of painting miniatures, she was “the real Peruvian doughnut,” [and] that she had painted the miniatures of many select personages at home and abroad . . .

Moving several times within Pasadena, she continued to try and drum up business among the better sort in town and

it was nosed about, however, that madame never used a brush, but that she simply took the orders for the portraits, forwarding them with photographs or sketches to some out-of-town color artist, who completed the miniature.

The town’s merchants then went to the authorities for redress and items left behind were attached.  The paper concluded by noting that

Mme. De Ajuria will be remembered as a portly, well-dressed dame, who might have been seen at almost any hour of the day, promenading the downtown streets, accompanied by a partly-demented daughter of about ten years, and a governess.  With all her alleged faults the woman was evidently greatly attached to the child, and humored its every whim, sometimes standing for many minutes while the unfortunate girl gazed into windows or indulged in other amusements.

In 1907, the Marchioness and Oria were back in the East Coast and found some more clientele in the wealthy seaside town of Newport, Rhode Island.  There, Isabella had a commissioned miniature, for a high fee of $800, but Mrs. Edward J. Berwind asked for a likeness painted from a sitting.  Instead, de Ajuria took a photograph and left, returning later with a rendering not to the liking of her patron.

Isabella Oria 1910 census
The de Ajuria’s in the 1910 census.

When the parties bickered over the terms of the arrangement, Isabella filed suit in a Newport court asking for damages of $2,000, with the balance beyond the amount due being a claim of damaged reputation as an artist.  In its coverage, the Washington Post noted, that

It is likely that if the case ever comes to trial expert testimony of other miniature painters will be taken.  The Berwinds, it is said, have been advised that Mme. de Ajuria’s  original price of $800 was most extravagant.  They say that $200 or $250 would have been the proper figure for a satisfactory piece of work of the sort.

After reviewing the Sage suit, the Post observed that Isabella, in fall 1904, went to court in Paris to try and wrest money from her late husband’s estate ostensibly for the support of her daughter Oria, but the de Ajurias claimed that the marriage with Gregorio, Jr., was invalid and that Oria was born after Gregorio’s death.

Isabella and Oria passport photo 1919
Isabella and Oria de Ajuria in a passport photo, 1919.

The Marchioness was quiet, as far as public notice was concerned, for almost a decade, but she and Oria, who were in Los Angeles in the 1910 federal census, left once more and then reappeared in Los Angeles by 1916. Isabella was back hawking her miniatures with an exhibit at the Ebell Club, a women’s club, in Los Angeles.  In June 1917, the Times, seemingly forgetting the excitement of more than fifteen years prior in Pasadena, lauded de Ajuria’s return:

Mme. Gregoria de Ajuria, one of the most famous miniaturists in the world, has come to Hollywood to live . . . [she] has lived in New York, but is as well known in Paris and London and the other capitals of Europe.  For years she has been a prominent figure in the art world and there is perhaps no portrait maker of the day who has painted so many distinguished people as she.

A lengthy recounting followed of her painting the portrait of the Queen of Italy and the presentation of a “diamond-set trophy” by the monarch to de Ajuria.  The familiar listing of other eminent personages, including Pope Pius XIII, William Gladstone, the president of France and more ended the laudatory piece.

Isabella Oria 1920 census better
The de Ajuria listing in the 1920 census.

Evidently, though Isabella remained in Los Angeles for most of the rest of her life, none of the escapades that occurred before took place.  However, the painting of miniatures apparently did not provide enough for her and Oria, as, in May 1918, de Ajuria took out an ad in the Times peddling what she said was a patented lid holder, proclaiming that it was “Just the thing for the Kitchen!”  Promising that the tool “saves time and confusion arising in the search for the proper lid,” she offered the item for 65 cents postpaid.

Isabella and Oria were still in Los Angeles in the 1920 census and it was sometime during that decade that the former died, probably in her early seventies, and apparently back in New York.  Oria remained there when her 1932 Easter card was sent to Thomas Temple.  She then disappeared from the record.


These few letters and cards were acquired with no knowledge of the people and their lives, but research over the years revealed a very strange story.  That’s the interest that artifacts can have as they move from a two-dimensional environment into a three-dimensional one.


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