Love’s Baubles: A homage to the poet D.G.R by John Byam Shaw

The sonnet Love’s Baubles by Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the inspiration for the below image painted by John Byam Liston Shaw in 1897. The sonnet is an excerpt from Rossetti’s House of Life sequence published in the First Trial Book in 1869 and then as a single volume in 1870.

Byam Shaw was multi-talented and prolific as an artist, theatre designer, illustrator, printmaker, teacher and muralist. Reviewing the Royal Academy exhibition in 1897 The Magazine of Art declared that ‘No work from a young hand is more remarkable’ heaping especial praise on Byam Shaw’s draughtsmanship and composition.

Love’s Baubles was not Byam Shaw’s first homage to the poetic talents of Dante Rossetti, two years prior he produced a painting based on Rossetti’s poem ‘The Blessed Damozel’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sonnet XXIII Love’s Baubles by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I stood where Love in brimming armfuls bore
Slight wanton flowers and foolish toys of fruit:
And round him ladies thronged in warm pursuit,
Fingered and lipped and proffered the strange store.
And from one hand the petal and the core
Savoured of sleep; and cluster and curled shoot
Seemed from another hand like shame’s salute,—
Gifts that I felt my cheek was blushing for.

At last Love bade my Lady give the same:
And as I looked, the dew was light thereon;
And as I took them, at her touch they shone
With inmost heaven-hue of the heart of flame.
And then Love said: “Lo! when the hand is hers,
Follies of love are love’s true ministers.”

‘The Birthday’ by William Holman Hunt

 

 

I have to be honest, I have never been a huge fan of William Holman Hunt’s work. I admire his technical ability and marvel at his use of colours, but for me there is something missing. A couple of months ago in a seminar discussion of Hunt’s work one of my fellow students remarked that Hunt’s work lacked interiority. With this short statement she succinctly summed up how I feel about Hunt’s work, It lacks soul. That said, there are a couple of exceptions, for example the portrait of his sister -in- law, Edith Waugh entitled ‘The Birthday’, painted to mark the advent of her 21st birthday. I love this painting with its rich dark colours which seem inappropriate given the title but appropriate in the context of the family’s recent loss.

Painted in 1868, The Birthday is both physically and metaphorically laden. Edith stands with her face averted from the direct gaze of the artist and viewer. She is heaped with luxurious (presumably) gifts; coral beads, amber beads, a highly decorated fan, gold, a sumptuous cloak, and quite significantly the cameo that had belonged to her sister Fanny, who died giving birth in 1866. Edith has a contemplative expression and is dressed in black clothes, denoting that she was still in mourning. The gifts in this context seem hollow trinkets and a day which should be joyous is not. The addition of the colourful and expensive gifts imbues the image a very strange and eerie quality. Edith’s expression and stance seem detached, her expensive baubles held in an indifferent display of them. I find it interesting that the new gifts are held and ‘presented’ but the coral necklace -coral being associated with protection- and the cameo are both worn. The cameo at her breast serving as both a sharp reminder of her loss and arguably significant of other hopes. In both ‘My Grandmothers and I’ and ‘My Grandfather, his wives and loves’ the author Diana Holman Hunt states that her Grandmother Edith had on a number of occasions openly said that she had always been in love with Hunt. For me, this painting is suffused with sadness, hope and expectation.

I love the detailed rendering of the beads, cloak and flowers compared to the brevity of the door and curtain behind her. I think it very poignant that the care given to the beauteous objects she holds has also been given to the rendering of her face. Edith is luminous and otherworldly. Her sad soulful eyes give the impression that, if she looked directly at the viewer she could consume their soul. But the question remains is her beauty another bauble to be presented and displayed as a possession?

In 1873 flouting convention and the law Holman Hunt married Edith much to the upset of the Waugh family.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – The Card-Dealer

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From the soporific cadence of its opening line, ‘The Card-Dealer’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), unfolds its narrative in languid seduction. With masterly skill, the poem transports the reader to a heady non-corporeal plane; the space between the gossamer veil of life and death.

The poem was inspired by a painting by the symbolist artist Theodore Von Holst1 entitled The Wish (also known as The Fortune Teller (1840). Dominating the centre of the canvas the figure of a woman stares out; her face is heavily shadowed contrasting with the bright illumination of her hands and the cards she deals. Her dark penetrating eyes hold the viewer whilst her hands and cards seal their fate. Rossetti’s poem serves as a commentary on the painting and successfully articulates the paintings rhythms with the use of a slow metronomic meter that hypnotizes the reader.

‘Could you not drink her gaze like wine
Yet, through its splendour swoon
Into the silence languidly
As a tune into a tune
Those eyes unravel the coil’d night
And know the stars at noon.’

If we view the opening line as an intoxicant contrived by Rossetti to lull the reader into a heady drunkenness, then we have to consider the lines that follow as a means to reduce the reader to a malleable stupor. Within this dream-space the lines ‘into the silence languidly, as a tune into a tune’ evokes the notion that the reader is falling into the card-dealer’s rhythm, she is pre-ordained to ensnare those she encounters just as the reader is pre-destined to be caught. Powerless the reader is fast within the card-dealer’s grip, too mesmerised to attempt extrication.

As the poem progresses the card-dealer develops the mythical aura of the femme fatale, with a decadent beauty described in terms of precious metals– her hair is described as woven gold and she is decadently bejeweled:

‘Blood-red and purple, green and blue,
The great eyes of her rings’

The Card-Dealer has a magical ‘stillness’ that electrifies the air around her, she is otherworldly and in essence she is at the centre of humanity around who all other life must orbit.

Each verse is a card in her hand to be played and is an extension of her will. The final three verses make clear what her role is to the reader and allude to the true role of the cards: ‘The heart that doth crave…the diamond skill’d to make the base seem brave’ and chillingly ‘the spade, to dig a grave’. The final verse brings the denouement:

‘Her game in thy tongue is call’d life
As ebbs thy daily breath
When she shall speak, thou’lt learn her tongue
And know she calls it death’.

Rossetti greatly admired the painting by Von Holst and to some extent it illustrates Rossetti’s predilection towards the narrative and figurative power of the femme fatale, indeed this motif surfaces with rhythmic regularity throughout Rossetti’s career from Beatrice to Lilith the seductress.

1. The Rossetti archive

The card dealer http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-card-dealer/