Autumn Song by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

leaves

Autumn Song

Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the heart feels a languid grief
Laid on it for a covering,
And how sleep seems a goodly thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

And how the swift beat of the brain
Falters because it is in vain,
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf
Knowest thou not? and how the chief
Of joys seems – not to suffer pain?

Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the soul feels like a dried sheaf
Bound up at length for harvesting,
And how death seems a comely thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

Musings on Milliais: ‘Autumn Leaves’

Spying the first acorn, those first chills to the air and ultimately the changing hues of leaves usher in one of the gentlest of seasons – AUTUMN. For some it is a season synonymous with decay and death, but for me it is quite the opposite. Being instead, a new view of the world and its bare bones in their naked honesty as the cycle of renewal begins again. As most gardeners know, the chopping back of faded perennials in autumn often reveals the newly formed shoots that will be next summer’s glory.

Many of my favourite paintings by Millais are autumnal in theme and by the virtuosity of his hand and romantic soul, imbued with sense of fairy-tale enchantment. Millais has a keen sense of the ethereal, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary regardless of subject and narrative.

  • millais_leavesAutumn Leaves (1856) is perhaps one of Millais’s most famous works and often discussed in terms of the symbolism therein. By Juxtaposing a heap of decaying leaves with the fresh youthful girls and the brooding sky at twilight, the composition readily lends itself to a discussion on the transience of youth and mortality. However in a letter to F.G. Stephens, Millais describes how he had “intended the picture to awaken by its solemnity the deepest religious reflection. I chose the subject of burning leaves as most calculated to produce this feeling”. Can we therefore infer from Millais comment that rather than being a melancholic dirge on the inevitably of human decline, that he was aiming for something more ethereal in sentiment; a moment of silence and a space for reflection that is outside the ordinary material world? If we consider it so, then what Millais provides the viewer with is the means of transporting themselves to a higher spiritual plane by employing the vernacular symbolism of the every day. Elements of the composition support this assertion; despite the scene being one of action there is a static quality to the figures, the directional variance in the girls’ respective gazes imbues the painting with a feeling of their disconnection from corporeality.

However the painting did not weave its magic upon its first owner Mr Eden from Lytham. Eden disliked the painting intensely when it reached him, asking that Millais take the painting back. His request was declined by Millais’s wife, Effie, who advised Eden sit opposite it at dinner for a few months. Following this advice Eden found that proximity to the work produced an even greater dislike of it and so when his friend Mr Miller of Preston offered to exchange any three of his paintings for the Millais. Eden was quick to accept.

‘Autumn Leaves’ can be seen in all its splendour at Manchester City Art Gallery, where it forms part of the permanent display of Pre-Raphaelite artworks.

Painter and Poet: A Celebration of Elizabeth Siddal’s Works

As many Pre-Raphaelite scholars and enthusiasts will be aware, today is the anniversary of Elizabeth Siddal’s death, and as such an appropriate day to celebrate her artistic and literary endeavours. Perceptions of Lizzie are somewhat at odds with her actuality. She is often portrayed as a sulky and manipulative invalid (Violet Hunt’s The Wife of Rossetti), socially awkward and difficult: “not quite easy to understand, and not at all on the surface. All her talk was of a “chaffy” kind its tone sarcastic, its substance lightsome,” (WMR in Hawksley 57-58)

Yet the few extant letters by Lizzie show her to be witty and humorous, and mentions of her in Rossetti’s letters show her to be physically and mentally engaged with her work despite health problems. Although it is never said, between the lines of many accounts of her is the suggestion that Lizzie was a little bit too pleased with herself and haughty, yet her self portrait (1854) shows no trace of such narcissism or arrogance.

There is an unerring honesty about this portrait, her dress and hair are simply presented, her expression serious and the palette muted giving weight to her artistic aspirations. Lizzie wanted to be taken seriously.

As many of her paintings demonstrate Lizzie clearly had a good eye for colour and composition, her technical ability is weaker but improvement -as the below image shows- is also evident as time passes.

 

Sir Patrick Spens 1856

Sir Patrick Spens (1856) is one of Lizzie’s most compelling works, the drama of the cliffs and sea beyond is juxtaposed with the stillness and misery of the foreground figures. Lizzie articulates the agony of watching and waiting and the numbed expression concomitant with grief. An improvement in Lizzie’s painting ability is in evidence here too. Her figures have a greater refinement and she demonstrates her growing confidence by painting hands in complex contortions with, it has to be said, some success.

Lizzie’s poetry also has great appeal, its strength being in its simplicity. Rather than the complex and sometimes inaccessible verse of Dante Rossetti, Lizzie’s poetry is readable and as such highly evocative and emotive. Critics have often commented on the morbid and maudlin nature of her verse but the same can be said of many poets of the period; male and female alike. One doesn’t have to look too far to Christina Rossetti’s poetry or Mary Coleridge or to Tennyson, Browning and Keats to see similarly themed works.

Although the number of extant poems by Lizzie are few, once again we can see her promise. The below poem A Year and A Day is redolent with both sadness, and a distinct love of nature. The leaves, grass and corn are beautiful, cruel and eternal like the loss of love.

A Year and a Day

Slow days have passed that make a year,
Slow hours that make a day,
Since I could take my first dear love
And kiss him the old way;
Yet the green leaves touch me on the cheek,
Dear Christ, this month of May.

I lie among the tall green grass
That bends above my head
And covers up my wasted face
And folds me in its bed
Tenderly and lovingly
Like grass above the dead.

Dim phantoms of an unknown ill
Float through my tired brain;
The unformed visions of my life
Pass by in ghostly train;
Some pause to touch me on the cheek,
Some scatter tears like rain.

A shadow falls along the grass
And lingers at my feet;
A new face lies between my hands –
Dear Christ, if I could weep
Tears to shut out the summer leaves
When this new face I greet.

Still it is but the memory
Of something I have seen
In the dreamy summer weather
When the green leaves came between:
The shadow of my dear love’s face –
So far and strange it seems.

The river ever running down
Between its grassy bed,
The voices of a thousand birds
That clang above my head,
Shall bring to me a sadder dream
When this sad dream is dead.

A silence falls upon my heart
And hushes all its pain.
I stretch my hands in the long grass
And fall to sleep again,
There to lie empty of all love
Like beaten corn of grain.

So today, on the 153 rd anniversary of Lizzie’s death let’s celebrate her life, achievements and promise rather than forever consigning her to the role of tragic muse.

Elizabeth Siddal 25 July 1829 – 11 February 1862: Artist and Poet.

For more on Lizzie please visit http://lizziesiddal.com

‘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.

“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

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.’

 

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 […]

The Sun Shines Fair on Carlisle Wall

An interesting and direct comparison can be made between Millais’ A Huguenot (1851-2) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s small watercolour Carlisle wall (1853) due to the similarity of theme and parity of composition. Like A Huguenot the narrative of Carlisle Wall centres around the tragic tale of ill-fated lovers who are shown embracing huddled against a wall, in this instance, on the windy battlements of ancient castle. The narrative for Carlisle Wall was taken from Albert Graeme’s song in Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel, and is a tale of love amidst conflict (like a Huguenot), between the feuding clans of a landed English Lady and a Scottish Knight. The English lady’s brother loathes the idea of English land passing (through marriage) into the hands of his Scottish enemy and so rather than let his sister marry the man she loves, he poisons her and she dies in her lover’s arms. Her lover avenges her death by killing the brother and then ultimately is killed himself out in Palestine. The scene depicted by Rossetti seems to be taken from lines early in the ballad:

Blithely they saw the rising sun
When he shone fair on Carlisle wall;
But they were sad ere day was done,
Though Love was still the lord of all. (ref)

In contrast to A Huguenot, the composition of Carlisle wall has noisier more elemental aspects to it such as the tempestuous wind that tears at their clothes, howling perhaps as a portent of the misery to come. Across the sky the red flecks mingled with the yellow of the rising sun also act as an ill omen by evoking the biblical adage ‘And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring’ (ref Matthew 16:2) suggesting that the storm the lovers face will be be both physical and metaphorical. Rossetti is a little more literal in his evocation of the aesthetic sublime than Millais, where Millais disquiets by depicting and arousing conflicting emotions in the Lovers and the viewer, Rossetti uses the terrible power of nature to induce the the sublime sensation. The rich deep colour palette adds to the brooding quality along with the blurred quality of the lovers, their faces barely discernible seem disguised by the storm that blows around them. The positioning of the lover’s heads, bent together, adds to the romance of the composition, they appear literally rapt in each other and then wrapped by the storm, creating a lovely feeling of enchantment. However I would argue that the composition is not quite as successful as Millais’ for A Huguenot; the careless positioning of the woman’s arm on the wall reduces the intensity of the moment and whilst the visibility of the sky is useful to suggest the stormy weather the openness of the composition reduces the intimacy of the space. Technically Millais is superior to Rossetti, his application of paint is finer, more detailed and there are no redundant elements within his compositions, the lover’s, the wall, the flowers and foliage of A Huguenot all work in symbiosis contributing to the tension scene. That being said what Rossetti lacks in technical rendering he more than makes up for with passion. Carlisle Wall has a fantastic sense of immediacy and fluidity. It looks like Rossetti painted it in a frenzy of passion for the narrative subject and that ultimately is what makes Rossetti a fantastic artist. His art emerges from his soul.

Silent Noon: A Visual intepretation by the Artist John Byam Shaw

Following on from yesterday’s post here is another painting by John Byam Shaw illustrating a different sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s entitled Silent Noon. I love this image by Byam Shaw and I can’t help but feel that he is one of the most intuitive interpreters of Rossetti’s poetry. He seems to feel Rossetti’s meaning so acutely and with such profound understanding. Needless to say that Silent Noon is also one of my favourite Rossetti poems.

 

 

 

 

 

Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass,-
The finger-points look through, like rosy blooms:
Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
‘Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest far, as the eye can pass
Are golden kingcup fields with silver edge
Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge
Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass.

Deep in the sun searched groves, a dragon-fly
Hangs, like a blue thread loosened from the sky:-
So this winged hour is dropt to us from above.
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.