‘We dance among the golden sheaves’: Autumn and the Pre-Raphaelites

For the last couple of days there has been a perceptible nip in the air heralding the arrival of autumn. Autumn is a season that lends itself to the Pre-Raphaelite eye with its combination of rich jewel tones and earthy hues, delicious smells and sounds. Who can resist the sweet scent of fallen leaves as they crunch satisfyingly underfoot? Yet the sweet smell of crumbling leaves is the scent of decay, and their audible crunch a reminder of the transience of all living things.

Memento homo, quod cinis es, et in cinerem reverteris
(Remember, O Man, that thou art dust, and to dust shalt return)

We live we die, and the world turns and it all starts again. Gloomy eh

In modernity John Everett Millais’ painting Autumn Leaves (1855-66) has been described as ‘a rumination on the transience of life’ (Rosenfeld, 2007, p. 132). Without a doubt the pictorial elements of the work lend themselves to this interpretation: four exquisitely pretty young girls gathering and piling fallen leaves in the gloaming certainly shouts “you might be young now but twilight surely follows day turning to night and like the leaves you will wither and die”. The presence of a half-seen reaper definitely adds further weight to this interpretation.

John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1855-6

Blimey, I’m feeling a bit ‘Sylvia Plath’ after that. But wait…

In a letter written in the autumn in which the painting was begun Millais wrote to Charles Collins ‘The only head you could paint to be considered beautiful by EVERYBODY would be the face of a little girl about eight years old, before humanity is subject to change’. (ibid)

What Millais was aiming for then wasn’t so much ‘life is fragile’ but an allusion to the imminent loss of innocence. The inclusion of the apple – a symbol for temptation and the loss of innocence- in the hand of the smallest child certainly suggests this. Is that a bite she’s taken too or a trick of the light? Either way the ambiguity creates tension. If we contextualise the girls within the framework of the law, the age of consent being 12 at this period, then at least three of the girls are legally adults, or fast approaching it. The smaller girl, who if she is around 8 years old as Millais’ letter suggests, although not of consensual age is equidistant in years from infancy to womanhood and therefore could be dubbed a child-women. A concept that was not without appeal to the Victorian male – as is evidenced by the character Quilp from Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop(1841) and his obsession with Little Nell Dodgson’s photographs of Alice Liddell.

Similarly elegiac in tone is Christina Rossetti’s poem Autumn. Only in place of Millais lament for the loss of innocence Rossetti mourns the inexorable extent of hers:

I dwell alone - I dwell alone, alone
Whilst full my river flows down to the sea
Gilded with flashing boats
That brings no friend to me
Love Songs, gurgling from a hundred throats,
O love pangs let me be (Rossetti, 1892,p.84)

Rossetti is explicit in this opening verse, the protagonist is lonely and all her chances to be that bastion of Victorian womanhood, a wife and a mother, are passing her by. The ache she feels for what is missing in her life is acutely felt, and all the more painful for the reader if we read the poem biographically. In 1848 Rossetti became engaged to the friend of her brothers and fellow PRB member James Collinson. Alas the engagement was not to last and was broken by Rossetti when Collinson converted to Catholicism. While it may seem that Autumn, written in 1858 bears no relevance being ten years distant from the broken engagement ; it is salient to note that Autumn was written a mere two months after James Collinson married Eliza Wheeler aged 40, a woman 12 years Rossetti’s senior.

As the poem progresses the protagonist reveals the agony of being a woman who has lost out in love and whose prime is passing. The cruelty of her situation made all the more acute in her cognisance that her loss was of her own doing of it. All about her ‘the gilded boats’ with their rich cargoes of ‘gold, stone and spices’ are clearly destined for, ahem, other ports.

In the later verses Rossetti introduces autumnal imagery to her metaphorical landscape to emphasise her fading prime and diminished hope:

 One last solitary swallow flies
 Across the sea, rough autumn tost…'
 

And

Mine Avenue is all a growth of oaks,
Some rent by thunder strokes
Some rustling leaves and acorns in the breeze
fair fall my fertile trees.

The final verse is the most emotive and explicit:

My trees are not in flower I have no bower and a gusty wind creaks my tower and lonesome, very lonesome is my strand. (Rossetti, 1892, p85-86)

Here, the protagonist’s sense of loss and desolation is absolute as the last of autumn finally gives way to a barren winter.Autumn is introspective. Rossetti picks apart the loss of her relationship and all that it would have brought; a situation that closely parallels and is best summed up by the fictional character of Charlotte Vale in the 1942 film Now Voyager 1.On the breaking of her own engagement to Elliot, Charlotte’s inner self says in voiceover ‘You fool, oh you fool. Now you’ll never have a home of your own, or a man of your own, or a child of your own’.

John Everett Millais, Lingering Autumn, 1890

Phew, not all autumnal Pre-Raphaelite works carry a doom and gloom metaphor. Millais’ Lingering Autumn (1890) like Autumn Leaves juxtaposes youth and the autumnal landscape, only in the former the sentiment is more celebratory in tone. In Lingering Autumn rather than using autumn as a metaphor for decay and loss Millais presents us with two types of beauty, each exquisite in their own right.

Also, hurray for Holman- Hunt who I suspect on the quiet was a bit of a sauce pot as his painting Love at First Sight suggests. We have to rewind slightly to before the image conscious Edith Holman- Hunt left her indelible chastened mark upon her husband’s legacy. Edith was in short a bit of tinker when it came to the whitewashing of her husband’s life and works. Anything that could destroy his sainted image was done away, like the original title of his 1848 painting Blackheath Park which perhaps given the content was just a little too ambiguous for the prim Edith. As you can see below, the painting showstwo figures, one male and one female in the beautiful wilderness of Blackheath Park, and I say wilderness because during the 19th century it truly was. In the background a dense patch of trees which although redolent with leaves show some signs of the onset of autumn. 2 In the foreground there are a stag and two does watching the man and woman who have turned to look back at one another as they pass.

If we analyse the pictorial elements further we can suggest a reading of the work whose theme is far saucier than that of Edith’s later applied title. Things to note:

  1. A well dressed man and unchaperoned woman out and about in an untamed desolate spot. Not exactly the image of moral propriety cultivated by middling sort is it?
  2. In folklore, a discipline that was of keen interest to the Victorians, the stag is a symbol of male virility.
  3. With further reference to stags and virility, the onset of autumn also marks the commencement of the rut!

Mon dieu,I can hear the knicker elastic snapping from here!Lust at First Sight might be a little more apt………(sorry Edith). Of course I’m being frivolous and mine is only one of a plethora of possible narratives for the piece. Perhaps Holman-Hunt was deliberately ambiguous with his title to encourage rather than impose a meaning upon the viewer. Either way it’s a lot of fun to speculate!

Well there we have it, Pre-Raphaelite autumn in a (chest)nut shell, it might all be sex and death but at least it’s beautiful while it’s about it.

1 The title Now Voyager was taken from a line by the poet Walt Whitman, who was acquainted with, and much admired by the Pre-Raphaelites’, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

2 A note on the back of canvas indicates that the picture was produced in the autumn of 1848. Primary evidence also shows that the PRB were involved in group outings to sketch in the area at this time.

A Readymade Man Ray

The joy of a new piece of tech -in this case a phone- is discovering all the weird and wonderful things it can do in addition to its obvious function. The cameras on phones have come on leaps and bounds haven’t they! Most produce better quality images than the average small compact camera these days and in some cases out perform their SLR counterparts. What makes camera phone photography interesting is the plethora of effect options that can be applied. Some of the effects, such as ‘warm vintage’ etc can be a bit twee, but solarisation… now that’s exciting.

Solarisation is a technique in traditional film photography and is achieved through the overexposure of either the negative or print to light. Many claim to have discovered it or at least to be aware of it; everyone from Daguerre (1787-1851) to Herschel (1792-1871) acknowledged that the overexposure of the negative within the camera produced an interesting reverse negative effect on some tones when printed. It was however the St Helens, Merseyside, born John William Draper who first coined the term solarisation. It didn’t take long before photographers discovered that the same effect could be achieved in the darkroom and was duly dubbed the Pseudo-Solarisation by H. de la Blanchere in 1859 in L’Art du Photographe. Blanchere described how briefly exposing a silver halide print to white light produced the same results that overexposure in the camera had achieved. Despite their knowledge of the effect, photographers regarded a solarised image as a defective one, not seeing the artistic possibilities of the technique. That said, the academic Janet Buerger has suggested that the below photographs taken by the artist Edgar Degas in 1881 may be an early artistic experiment with the effect.

Perhaps the most famous exponent of Pseudo-Solarisation was the artist Man Ray, who produced some astoundingly beautiful images in which his assistant and muse Lee Miller was intrinsic in more ways than one. It was Miller who accidentally ‘rediscovered’ solarisation while working as an assistant in Man Ray’s studio. Ray was reputedly so intrigued by the effect that he worked to perfect the technique for producing consistent solarised images. Below are a small number of Man Ray’s solarised images, including a self-portrait and a number of images for which Miller was the model.

From an art historical perspective one has to wonder what Man Ray would have made of the immediacy of the camera phone and its solarising filter. Would he have loathed it for removing the skill and the artistry in the physical making. Or in the spirit of all his other readymades would he have seen the camera phone and its solarising filter as an extension of that practice? I suspect the latter.

From the plethora of professional and talented photographers I return to an amateur one and her camera phone. To date I have ‘solarised’ the cats, flowers in the garden and will, if I can get him to sit still long enough, solarise my beau. And just to prove that my naffness knows no bounds, I’ve embraced the spirit of Ray and Miller and solarised a miniature bronze reproduction of The Winged Victory of Samothrace – well it is a readymade after all!

For more photography by Man Ray please visit http://www.manray-photo.com/catalog/index.php

and the for the wonderful Lee Miller please visit http://www.leemiller.co.uk/

 

 

 

“Are ‘Friends’ Pre-Raphaelite?”

I admit it; I suffer from the perennial disease of 6 degrees of Pre-Raphaelite separation. I am able one way or another to link seemingly disparate things to my favourite art movement. This one however appears to be a bit of a no-brainer.

This morning I was sent a link to First time ever I saw your face by Broadcaster feat Peggy Seeger (which you should all listen to because it’s fab). I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Tubeway Army’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”. A quick tappity tap on my keyboard and up popped the cover art for the single, I was astonished.

The visual parity between the cover image of Numan and Solomon’s paintings Creation (1890) and Night (1890) is striking. Like Solomon’s paintings the record sleeve features a figure (a pouty Numan) shown against a dark and foreboding sky, replete with crescent moon. I love how the haziness of the Numan image even manages to look like it was rendered in the watercolour medium used by Solomon in the paintings cited.

Creation (1890) by Simeon Solomon
Night (1890) by Simeon Solomon

I have no idea if the parity was deliberate; interest in the Pre-Raphaelite movement was certainly high during the 70’s. Either way it is very striking!

A short biography of Simeon Solomon

Born in 1840, the youngest of 8 children Solomon was born into a prominent Jewish family. His Father, Michael, was a successful merchant and his mother Kate (nee Levy, an artist. Like his siblings Abraham and Rebecca, Simeon Solomon carved out a successful artistic career. During his early career Solomon concentrated chiefly on Hebraic imagery in a Pre-Raphaelite style. However from 1863 onwards it is clear that his style was moving away from Pre-Raphaelite ‘truth to nature’ and becoming increasingly aesthetic and symbolist. By late 1860’s he was painting figures such as Bacchus from classical mythology. This caused consternation and led to the accusation that he had abandoned his Hebrew roots.

In 1873 Solomon was arrested and charged with attempting to commit sodomy in a public toilet. His reputation did not recover from this and he found himself largely friendless and destitute. In 1884, suffering from severe alcoholism Solomon entered the workhouse where he continued to paint and draw up until his death in 1905.

During his career Solomon produced some of the most remarkably sensitive and beautiful images of the era. A selection of Solomon’s work can be found in the artwork databases at http://www.simeonsolomon.com/index.html

Dear Mr Lee, Shakespeare is a national disaster

Its Shakespeare’s birthday hurrah!

I love Shakespeare, however I’m feeling a bit mischievous and here offer the irreverent musings of the poet UA Fanthorpe. Although I don’t share the adolescent protagonist’s assertion that ‘Shakespeare… is a national disaster’, I am amused by it.

UA Fanthorpe had a distinguished career as a teacher, but chose to turn her back on it to become a receptionist and pursue her interest in writing poetry. I’m so glad she did. Her poetry is linguistically simple, but extremely witty.

More about UA Fanthorpe can be found here: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=157#

Dear Mr Lee

Dear Mr Lee (Mr Smart says
it’s rude to call you Laurie, but that’s
how I think of you, having lived with you
really all year), Dear Mr Lee
(Laurie) I just want you to know
I used to hate English, and Mr Smart
is roughly my least favourite person,
and as for Shakespeare (we’re doing him too)
I think he’s a national disaster, with all those jokes
that Mr Smart has to explain why they’re jokes,
and even then no one thinks they’re funny,
And T. Hughes and P. Larkin and that lot
in our anthology, not exactly a laugh a minute,
pretty gloomy really, so that’s why
I wanted to say Dear Laurie (sorry) your book’s
the one that made up for the others, if you
could see my copy you’d know it’s lived
with me, stained with Coke and Kitkat
and when I had a cold, and I often
take you to bed with me to cheer me up
so Dear Laurie, I want to say sorry,
I didn’t want to write a character-sketch
of your mother under headings, it seemed
wrong somehow when you’d made her so lovely,
and I didn’t much like those questions
about social welfare in the rural community
and the seasons as perceived by an adolescent,
I didn’t think you’d want your book
read that way, but bits of it I know by heart,
and I wish I had your uncles and your half-sisters
and lived in Slad, though Mr Smart says your view
of the class struggle is naive, and the examiners
won’t be impressed by me knowing so much by heart,
they’ll be looking for terse and cogent answers
to their questions, but I’m not much good at terse and cogent,
I’d just like to be like you, not mind about being poor,
see everything bright and strange, the way you do,
and I’ve got the next one out of the Public Library,
about Spain, and I asked Mum about learning
to play the fiddle, but Mr Smart says Spain isn’t
like that any more, it’s all Timeshare villas
and Torremolinos, and how old were you
when you became a poet? (Mr Smart says for anyone
with my punctuation to consider poetry as a career
is enough to make the angels weep).

PS Dear Laurie, please don’t feel guilty for
me failing the exam, it wasn’t your fault,
it was mine, and Shakespeare’s
and maybe Mr Smart’s, I still love Cider
it hasn’t made any difference.

The Erlking

Take care! Take care! Heed this warning when travelling through woods and forests, because the Erlking and his Daughter live there.

Traditionally, the Erlking is a malevolent spirit who preys upon travellers as they pass through the forest, ultimately carrying them to to their deaths. There have been numerous ballads inspired by this familiar figure from German folklore, but perhaps the most well known is Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s The Erlking. Goethe was inspired by the ballad The Erlkings’s Daughter by Johann Gottfried Von Herder, which was itself based on a Danish folk ballad, Sir Oluf he rides. In both of these earlier ballads the malevolent spirits are females, who haunt the woods and prey upon adult males. However in his poem, Goethe departs from the traditional archetype by presenting the malign figure as male and a stealer of children’s lives.

Below is a loose translation of Goethe’s poem by Sir Walter Scott, in which Scott successfully captures the eeriness of the original. It is suffused with dark and evocative imagery, reinforcing the folk tale idea of the wild wood as a marginal space. A place where the rules of society cease to exist, and where a life is easily forfeited.

The Erl-King

O! Who rides by night thro’ the woodland so wild?
It is the fond Father embracing his child;
And close the Boy nestles within his lov’d arm,
From the blast of the tempest to keep himself warm.

“O Father! see yonder, see yonder!” he says.
“My Boy, upon what dost thou fearfully gaze?”
“O! ’tis the ERL-KING with his staff and his shroud!”
“No, my Love! it is but a dark wreath of the cloud.”

[The Phantom Speaks]

“O! wilt thou go with me, thou loveliest Child!
By many gay sports shall thy hours be beguil’d;
My Mother keeps for thee many a fair toy,
And many a fine flow’r shall she pluck for my Boy.”

“O Father! my Father! and did you not hear,
The ERL-KING whisper so close in my ear?”
“Be still, my lov’d Darling, my Child be at ease!
It was but the wild blast as it howl’d thro’ the trees.”

[The Phantom]

“O wilt thou go with me, thou loveliest Boy!
My Daughter shall tend thee with care and with joy;
She shall bear thee so lightly thro’ wet and thro’ wild,
And hug thee, and kiss thee, and sing to my Child.”

“O Father! my Father! and saw you not plain
The ERL-KING’s pale daughter glide past thro’ the rain?”
“O no, my heart’s treasure! I knew it full soon,
It was the Grey Willow that danc’d to the moon.”

[The Phantom]

“Come with me, come with me, no longer delay!
Or else, silly Child, I will drag thee away.”
“O Father! O Father! now, now, keep your hold!
The ERL-KING has seiz’d me – his grasp is so cold!”

Sore trembled the Father; he spurr’d thro’ the wild,
Clasping close to his bosom his shuddering Child;
He reaches his dwelling in doubt and in dread;
But, clasp’d to his bosom, the Infant was dead!

It is difficult when reading any of the ballads mentioned not to think of how the Erlking has been reinterpreted in more contemporary literature. Parity between the life stealing Erlking and Tolkien’s Nazgul and Rowling’s dementors is so easily found.

 

 

 

Hollyhocks, Heart’s Ease and Phlox: Valentine’s Day and the Language of Flowers

If you’re going to give the object of your desire or loved one flowers this Valentine’s Day, take inspiration from The Language of Flowers.

Popularised in the Victorian era The Language of Flowers ‘constitutes a language, which may be made the medium of pleasant and amusing interchange of thought between men and women’. The sentiments attached to flower names are wonderfully diverse, and for every situation there is seemingly an appropriate flower. So be unconventional this year and give something other than a red rose. Be inventive give seeds, living plants or of course cut flowers.

A small snippet of Flowers and meanings:

Bachelor’s button (cornflower) – Hope in love
Coreopsis – Love at first sight
Forget-me-not – True love
Heart’s Ease – Think of me
Heart’s Ease, Purple – You occupy my thoughts
Pansy – Think of me
Phlox – Our souls united
Double red pink – Pure, ardent love
Rosemary – Your presence revives me
White roses – I am worthy of you
Maiden’s Blush Rose – If you love me you will find me out
Tulip – Declaration of love
Variegated Tulip – Beautiful eyes

If you have given any of the above and then receive any of the following in return, I’m afraid it’s not good news!
Acacia, rose – Friendship
Basil – Hatred
Candytuft – Indifference
Carnation, yellow – Disdain
Convululus major – Dead hope
Mourning Bride (scabious) – Unfortunate attachment
Variegated pink – Refusal
White roses (withered) – Transient impression
Yellow rose – Decrease of love
Rue – Disdain
Tansy – I declare against you
Trumpet flower – Separation

All definitions taken from The Language of Flowers, Etiquette: Rules and Usages of The Best Society, (Melbourne: PRC, 1886)

Fanny Eaton: The Forgotten Pre-Raphaelite Stunner

The Head of Mrs Eaton (1861) Joanna Wells

During her career Fanny Eaton sat for quite a number of the Pre-Raphaelite artists. Her features can be spied in a number of finished canvasses and preparatory drawings. And yet more often than not her importance as a Pre-Raphaelite model is often overlooked or forgotten.

When scouring the ‘stunner lists’ put together by art historians and fans of Pre-Raphaelite art Eaton is always omitted from the string of familiar names, Siddal, Cornforth, Wilding, Miller, Stillman, Zambaco and Morris. This begs the question why? What makes one woman a stunner and another not? So what is the reason for Eaton’s omission? Could it be……

…..The calibre of the artists for whom she sits? Well, in Eaton’s case she sat for prominent members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle including Rossetti, Millais, Sandys as well as a wide number of associated artists including Rebecca and Simeon Solomon, Albert Moore and Joanna Boyce, so that can’t be it.

Or is it the number of paintings her features appear? Eaton appears in a number of finished paintings and drawings as my previous post illustrates including:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mother of Moses (1860) Simeon Solomon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Mother of Sisera Looking out at a Window
(1861) Albert Moore

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Beloved (1865-6) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jepthah (1867) John Everett Millais

In August 1865 Rossetti writes to Madox-Brown and describes Eaton as having ‘a very fine head and figure-a good deal of Janey’ (letter 268). The last part of his statement is very telling and important as it demonstrates how Rossetti saw Eaton. He equates her beauty as being equal to that of Janey’s (and we all know how he felt about her!), therefore by extension for Rossetti at least, Eaton had stunner qualities and status.

I was once informed that the reason that Eaton was overlooked was that she didn’t appear in any important paintings unlike the other ‘stunners’. I would beg to differ. When I have shown images containing Eaton there is always an audible gasp at The Mother of Sisera and The Head of Mrs Eaton, and I am always asked which gallery these works are in. This response, the interest people show in wanting to see these pictures; that they are drawn to them tells me that these are important pictures.

Alas, Eaton’s modelling career for the Pre-Raphaelites seems to have been a short but intense one; she modelled out of necessity to augment her earnings when her employment as a ‘charwoman’ (daily cleaner) was not enough to sustain her family of seven children. By 1881 Eaton had been widowed and was working as a seamstress, and then later she is living on the Isle of Wight and working as a domestic cook. After this we lose sight of her……..

An Undergraduate Symposium Paper – Women From Nowhere: The Pre-Raphaelite Other

Once upon a time there was an undergraduate student required for assessment purposes to deliver a symposium paper. The parameters of the paper was that it must accord with the then current exhibition at Tate Liverpool, as that was were the symposium would take place. The exhibition was Afro-Modern: Journeys Through The Black Atlantic, so naturally I turned to my beloved Pre-Raphs for inspiration. I delivered this paper at the Untitled symposium on the 15th April 2010 and realise in retrospect that it is naive and flawed in places but does have (I believe) moments of merit.

Women From Nowhere: The Pre-Raphaelite other

‘Contention surrounds the representation of the black British populace in the nineteenth century and It is often argued that within this period the black population is under represented. It is certainly fair to assert that in the art of the period black figures frequently appear on the margins, paradoxically, both intrinsic to society yet apart from it.

 

Image top: Frederick Goodall, A New light in the Harem and bottom: Daniel Maclise’s The Death of Nelson

As the above images show in many instances the black figure is often an adjunct to central white figure as in the top image, serving as a reiteration of the white figures status or as in the bottom image as barely discernible faces in the sea of white western figures. If we further examine the bottom image ‘The death of Nelson’ by Daniel Maclise the inclusion of two black figures belies the muster-book of the Victory, which indicates that approximately 25 of the ships crew were black. The writer and curator Jan Marsh elucidates that a black figure was often merely introduced as quote ‘a face in the crowd’,appearing in the role of a harem attendant, servant, soldier or sailor.

The art historian Professor Charmaine Nelson has a more explicit response to the black figure within the context of the nineteenth century stating that quote ‘Black male and female subjects in art must be understood within the material, aesthetic and thematic limitations imposed upon them…..put simply, black female subjects entered western art through themes involving the representation of enslaved or freed blacks. Women were kneeling or beseeching slaves or asexual mammies rather than noble, mythological or queenly allegories’ end quote.

However this marginalisation of the black populace in art was not universal and from the middle of the nineteenth century it can be argued that within the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers that black figures, mainly women appeared compositionally centrally and significantly. In this paper I will juxtapose arguments of compositional centrality whilst exploring the idea of ethnic transience and sexual otherness within the parameters of the Pre-Raphaelite paradigm. Arguing that the otherness of the Pre-Raphaelite woman is complex and wrought with a series of shifting subtexts.

Image: Albert Moore The Mother of Sisera Looking out at a window

I would like to begin by examining the paintings for which Mrs Fanny Eaton was the model. Mrs Eaton was a popular model with both the Pre-Raphaelites and their wider circle of associates. She sat for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Rebecca and Simeon Solomon and Frederick Sandys amongst others.

The image shown here by the artist Albert Moore The Mother of Sisera looking out at a window takes its title from Judges 5:24-31 in the Hebrew bible. Unaware that her son Sisera the commander of the Canaanite army has been slain, Sisera’s mother stands at the window anxiously awaiting his return. The theme of the work runs counter to Moore’s usual style of art for arts sake where a moral message or narrative is subservient to a highly aestheticised visual. Here although the central figure is imbued with beauty it is not at the expense of the biblical narrative, the figure is central, the story is central and the decorations such as the necklace and the lattice work shutters are both authentic but pared down and peripheral.

However when exhibited at the the Royal Academy in 1861 the work was praised and described as quote a very clever and singularly characteristic study of the head of an Arab woman’. The aforementioned quote although in the guise of praise is problematic on two counts, the first being that it diminishes the biblical narrative and the mothers anguish to one of picturesqueness wholly based on the woman’s race – an arab – and serves to reduce the image to one of otherness. Sisera’s mother in essence becomes object not subject. Secondly and pertinent to the next section of this dissertation is that the sitter Mrs Eaton was in fact born in Jamaica a country that lies almost approximately seven thousand miles distant from the Canaanite land of the ancient text.

We must then ask, does the comments of the critic represent the view of the wider populace or has the black model become an additional colour to embellish the artist’s palette and canvasses? The writer and scholar Douglas Lorrimer asserts that from a societal perspective the mid Victorian period was a turning point in terms of perception in that, ‘ the sentimental caricature of the abolitionists gave way to a more derogatory stereotype of the Negro’. Therefore we can suggest that Moores rendering of Sisera’s mother runs counter to societal opinion in that it is difficult to perceive any malintent within his depiction. The motivations of the nameless critic are more difficult to decipher, he admires the painting but his comments are laced with ambiguity, his words could be interpreted as an assessment of a specimen or that it is a surprisingly fine painting in spite of its content.

 

Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti The Beloved

This painting entitled The Beloved by one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood Dante Gabriel Rossetti seemingly supports the assertion that the models of various ethnicity are both subservient in status to the central white figure and indeed that their colour is a device that acts as a foil to her paleness. Rossetti’ himself wrote, ‘ I mean the colour of my picture to be like jewels , and jet would be invaluable’. The Beloved illustrates a procession in which the Bride from the Song of Solomon advances to meet her groom surrounded by all her attendants. Jan Marsh explores the work as a celebration of female beauty but asserts that it takes a firmly Anglo-centric stance.

However it is also possible to scratch beneath the surface meaning of the painting and uncover a series of subtexts and alternative interpretations. Marsh in a biography of Rossetti elucidates that the painting of this picture coincided with the American civil war. America was tearing itself apart over the issue of slavery with the north being firmly entrenched in anti-slavery ideals. And in 1863 the abolitionist Moncure Conway came to Britain to solicit the support of ‘men of influence’. It is known that Conway met with Rossetti the following year and counts him, in his memoirs as being firmly in the anti-slavery camp. The Beloved could be interpreted as Rossetti’s allegiance to the cause.

The small boy in the foreground of the painting was modelled upon a small slave boy travelling with his unnamed American master. Originally the child in the foreground had been modelled by a young girl of mixed race, however in light of Rossetti’s affiliation to Conway’s anti-slavery campaign Rossetti’s decision to change the model can be perceived as wholly political, especially as American abolitionists focussed strongly on the cruel sale of slave children of a similar age to the child who modelled for Rossetti’s picture.

But what of Marsh’s assertion that the work is firmly Anglo centric and that the central figure represents the canon of white western beauty whilst the attendants of various ethnicity are subordinate. Marsh takes the standpoint that the painting’s central white figure is ‘The Beloved’ of the title and draws attention to the line in the biblical text spoken by the beloved that states …’I am black but comely’, indeed when the painting was loaned by Tate to the Walker art gallery for Black history month in 2003, the Walker adopted a similar interpretation strategy asserting that Rossetti couldn’t or wouldn’t break away from the traditional ideals of western beauty. The scholar Elizabeth Prettejohn however offers an interesting alternative insight into the identity of the beloved. She suggest that one of the lines of text inscribed upon the frame ‘ My beloved is mine and I am his’ suggests that the beloved is not the bride but the unseen groom who approaches the group. Therefore could we interpret Rossetti’s painting as an oblique love-song to what would have been a sexual taboo in the Victorian period – a mixed race marriage. Prettejohn argues that….’the close-knit composition encourages the spectator to catch the eyes of each of the figure’s in turn’, as a viewer we absorb the beauty of each of the women. if we interpret the unfolding scene from the perspective of the unseen groom, the image takes on a sexual frisson imbuing the ethnically ambiguous group of women with a sense of sexual otherness, something paradoxically that is intangible and palpable at the same time.

We could equally explore the coloration of the bride through the pseudo-scientific practice of race categorisation that populated ethnographic research in the Victorian era. In 1861 within the Ethnological Society of London’s publication, Transactions, appeared an article by J. Beddoe entitled On the Physical Characters of the Jews. Beddoe’s empirical research conducted across the Middle east, Africa and Europe notes the high incidence of Jews with both red hair and blue eyes, much like the bride of Rossetti’s painting. Therefore perhaps in the central figure we do not have a white western woman at all and what we have as Prettejohn further suggests is a painting by Rossetti that is in actuality a celebration multi-cultural diversity that takes its cue directly from the biblical narrative.

The Beloved offers the viewer a plurality of readings, but one thing remains constant throughout and that is the divorcing of the each of the models from a definable culture or heritage. As has discussed the bride can be viewed as racially ambiguous as can indeed the figure just visible on the rear right hand side of the work modelled by Jamaican born Fanny Eaton, the figure has been described by critics and scholars as being on some occasions Jewish and on others Asian. Standing between Mrs Eaton and the bride is a figure painted from the Italian gipsy Kiomi Gray – whose inclusion as an ethnic ‘type’ could be explored as Rossetti’s expression of his own sense of otherness within London society, Rossetti, was the son of Italian emigre in political exile after all. It can therefore be argued that Rossetti perceives of himself and the models for the beloved as socio-political nomads – both physically and cerebrally belonging nowhere. As has been illustrated we can interpret Rossetti’s motivations as being broader than initially suggested by Jan Marsh, yet her assertion that the work is a celebration of female beauty holds true, the painting although multi-faceted has at its core the depiction of the Pre-Raphaelite physical ideal. There is however something of a paradox in this statement, the pre-Raphaelite stunner seems to have been found chiefly amongst the lower class and the societally marginalised such as Char Women, prostitutes, gipsies and those born and raised in slum . Can we then argue that Pre-Raphaelite otherness relates social status and not race.

I would like to pause here for a second to consider where I began, I stated that within Victorian art and I quote ‘that black figures frequently appear on the margins’, however as asserted as my intent early in the dissertation I have shown that the black figure in Pre-Raphaelite art is both central and thematically significant – as with Sisera’s mother. and I have also shown that where a black figure is placed with a seemingly white one that all is not necessarily as it appears. In relation to professor Nelson statement I have thus far demonstrated that the black figure in Pre-Raphaelite art does not fall within the thematic limitations she outlines, there are no kneeling or beseeching slaves or asexual mammies in these paintings.

For the next section of this paper I would like to explore an element that I briefly touched upon earlier, that of sexual otherness. During the 19th Century, the western world made a series of judgements based upon the scant clothing of the Africans, their nudity became synonymous with ideas of voracious libidinal desires. With this in mind we have to consider whether or not the black figure within Pre-Raphaelite art is included solely for its sexual associations and for this I would like examine Frederick Sandy’s study and painting of Morgan -le-Fay

Image Sandy’s Profile Study and Morgan le Fay

In discussing the black figure within Pre-Raphaelite art I have chiefly focussed on paintings that include the model Fanny Eaton. I find Mrs Eaton particularly intriguing because for a time she was ubiquitous, but in the works we has thus far looked at she has always appeared within a biblical narrative. The image on the left is a study for Morgan le Fay featuring Fanny Eaton and on the right is the finished painting with the central figure now being modelled by Kiomi Gray. Both images are interesting in that they not only cast Eaton and Gray in a non-biblical role but also as a figure from western mythology. I should reiterate at this point that Kiomi Gray, as I have already stated was an Italian gipsy and not black, however her presence allows me to explore the idea of Pre-Raphaelite otherness as not necessarily being intrinsic to skin colour.

Sandy’s Morgan le Fay runs Counter to Professor Nelson’s assertion that the black female is never portrayed within a mythological context, however the casting of Eaton in the role of Morgan is problematic and supports the the idea that in Victorian art ethnicity is tantamount to diminished moral propriety and lasciviousness . If we look at the finished painting (image on the right) there are obvious symbols of sexuality, the figure of Morgan is physically active, her hair is abundant and loose, her expression is rapturous and her mouth open as if about to kiss. Additionally the the draped leopard skin suggests ‘a dangerous and bestial female sexuality’. But when we compare the painting to the study it is fairly obvious that none of the same sexual symbols are at play. If anything, Mrs Eaton looks contemplative and passive and not at all like the ‘wanton’ woman of the finished piece. The change in Sandy’s representation is curious but one which I feel that has its origins in the various Arthurian texts themselves.

In the texts of late medieval period Morgan le fay is a malign seductress, she is both dangerous and sexual. However this was not always the case, in earlier texts such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini and Chretien de Troyes’ Eric and Enide, Morgan is a beneficent healer. Could we then surmise that there is a parity between the early medieval texts and the contemplative study on the left, modelled by Fanny Eaton and between the later medieval texts and the overtly sexual image of Kiomi Gray on the right. Skin colour in this instance appears not to have connotations of sexual depravity, as it is the image of Kiomi Gray that is sexually charged and not the study. I suspect that the reason Kiomi Gray replaced Fanny Eaton in the final painting has little to do with ethnicity and more to do with relationships; Kiomi Gray was Sandy’s mistress and the subject of Morgan arguably gave him a vehicle to express their relationship.

Image, Joanna Wells, The Head of Mrs Eaton

My last image is offered by way of a conclusion . It is a painting by Joanna Wells and is once again an image of Fanny Eaton, but with a significant difference. All the images previously viewed have presented Mrs Eaton as a central and significant black figure however her presence is always anonymous. As Pamela Gerrish Nunn elucidates when using Fanny Eaton as a model her features were always embedded within a narrative or genre subject. In effect she is a black actor in a play written and cast by white western men. However Well’s painting is Mrs Eaton for her own sake, this is a portrait. Here she appears as an individual and a sitter not a model.

Across the whole oeuvre of Pre-Raphaelite art black figures although infrequent are not marginal as they are as within other forms of Victorian art, and as has been demonstrated the otherness of the Pre-Raphaelite woman lies not in race . However it also has to be stressed that although the features of Models such as Fanny Eaton for a time were ubiquitous, she is both divorced from herself by the painting’s narrative and as discussed throughout this paper from her heritage and culture, taking on a multiplicity of ethnic roles.

At the time Joanna Wells painted this portrait of Mrs Eaton she was also working on another painting for which she was the model. The painting is now sadly lost but Joanna Well’s note and sketch books supply a great many details about the work. The subject matter of Well’s lost painting is both poignant and pertinent to the content of this dissertation and illustrates that perhaps Well’s fully grasped the problems of black representation within the pre-Raphaelite paradigm. Mrs Eaton was to appear as a Sibyl, a seeress from Greek antiquity, who prophesied at holy sites under the divine influence of a deity……… but perhaps most significantly the Sibyl’s of late greek and Roman mythology were nomadic figures, travelling from land to land, with no sense of belonging and only a preordained task to undertake. In this context Well’s use of Mrs Eaton as a model for such a painting seems filled with insight. In essence Fanny Eaton like the Sibyl being wrought in her likeness was a woman from nowhere.’

 

Curiouser and Curiouser

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,Chapter 6)

I have always found the Cheshire cat’s reasoning perfectly logical. Like people are drawn to each other, its why as teenagers we either choose our friends from the mainstream or join a sub-cultural tribe. We are much the same as adults. On Friday the 18th November imagine my delight at being immersed into the world of Alice with a room full of people who share my passion for fairy tales. The venue was Tate Liverpool and the symposium was entitled The Wonder of Alice: Images, Myth and realities. Complimenting their current exhibition Alice in Wonderland, the symposium papers were diverse, examining Alice as a source of inspiration from her inception in the 19th century right through to present day.

I particularly enjoyed Dame Gilliam Beer’s paper Alice’s Curiosity which took us on an extraordinary journey through the correspondence to Dodgson from his father which was a revelation to the formers juvenilia. I particularly enjoyed this poem; it is exquisitely humorous but also reveals some of Dodgson’s childhood reading. The poem seems to simultaneously parody moralising children’s tales which were extremely popular during the Victorian era and nods to fairy tales. I couldn’t help but notice how the theme of this poem seems to be an inversion of the Brothers Grimm’s Fundevogel or the Foundling http://www.bartleby.com/17/2/23.html

Brother and Sister

“SISTER, sister, go to bed!
Go and rest your weary head.”
Thus the prudent brother said.

“Do you want a battered hide,
Or scratches to your face applied?”
Thus his sister calm replied.

“Sister, do not raise my wrath.
I’d make you into mutton broth
As easily as kill a moth”

The sister raised her beaming eye
And looked on him indignantly
And sternly answered, “Only try!”

Off to the cook he quickly ran.
“Dear Cook, please lend a frying-pan
To me as quickly as you can.”

And wherefore should I lend it you?”
“The reason, Cook, is plain to view.
I wish to make an Irish stew.”

“What meat is in that stew to go?”
“My sister’ll be the contents!”
“Oh”
“You’ll lend the pan to me, Cook?”
“No!”

Moral: Never stew your sister.

From Dodgson’s photographs of Alice Liddell through to Anna Gaskell’s contemporary interpretations of Alice the symposium was a visual delight. There was the familiar and beloved illustration by Tenniel, absolutely stunning photographs by Anna Gaskell (see below) and the hauntingly beautiful paintings and film by the Swiss artist Annelies Strba. Each speaker wove a sinuous argument around the visual works they included in their papers, catching and tying together all the threads that make Alice bewitching.


Carol Mavor delivered an astounding paper in the form of a fairy tale, in which she argued the links between visual representations of Alice and the consumption of food – primarily eggs. Taking inspiration from the passage in the book where the pigeon accuses Alice with her long neck of being a serpent who is there to steal the eggs from its nest, Mavor cleverly linked the consumption of eggs as fuel for human growth with albumen as a fixative in early photography.

Rather than being an overt telling of Alice, passages of the book were rewritten and woven into a narrative about a little girl called Nancy who lives in the American Deep South. Here, Mavor’s story telling was superlative, using her powers of description to evoke the heat and smells of the south, the story became languorous and sultry like a Tennessee Williams play. Gentle repetitions, increased the feeling of a languor acting soporifically upon the audience until we too like Alice/Nancy where falling down the rabbit hole into a wonderland of Mavor’s making

Eerie transformations

I love John Everett Millais’ work with an all consuming passion. It’s not just his technical virtuosity that moves me but the sheer poetry of of his themes. So you can imagine how delighted I was to discover that he also wrote quite a lot of poetry too. I love a particular poem which is untitled and undated but is believed to have been written very late in his career. Some have conjectured that the poem was written as an articulation of Millais’ frustration with his failing health and as such is completely heart rending.

I should also point out that the original manuscript for this poem is in New York and I have not yet seen. But have reproduced the available verses of the poem from a catalogue of Millais’ works.

I had a dream that I was walking
By moonlight down a country road
And heard a hum of voices talking
Far off from any fixed abode

And coming to an open space
I looked upon a mighty field
And saw a strange thing for the place
A curious unexpected yield

At first I took the crop for wheat
And then for poppy as the ear
Was round and larger than is meet
For any common grain to wear […]

And as I looked I clearly saw,
What filled me with sudden dread
That every individual straw
Upheld a living human head […]

Then as I turned to leave the ground
To leave the grim uncanny plot
I felt that I myself was bound
And rooted to the very spot

Surprised, I thought it was a spell,
I laughed a little laugh of scorn
But at a glance I saw too well
Below I was a stem of corn

And agonised I fell a sobbing
Alas I had no heart to break
I felt my brain as usual throbbing
But nothing downwards left to ache

Quite powerless I knew my fate
Another skull upon a stalk
Still able to communicate
Although prohibited to walk […]