I haven’t been great at blogging over the last couple of years, with the number of times I post dwindling to about once or twice a year. I assumed it was due to waning interest and a lack of things to say on my part, but it transpires that my apathy was medical and not indifference or laziness. In March I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, not exactly life threatning I know, but debilitaing when left untreated. Which it had been for over 12 months. Given that both my Mother and late Grandmother also had the condition you would think I would have recognised the signs. But I didn’t. What I saw was weight gain and assumed my diet was to blame, so went on ever stricter diets to counteract it. I was sleeping poorly so embarked on a mission to eliminate all stimulants such as caffeine. I was fatigued all the time; just walking upstairs would leave me so exhausted I would have to lie down for a while. My mestrual cycle became erratic, so I assumed I was going through early menopause and spent a fortune on supplements to help ease the transition. I ached and assumed it was my age.
It came as a relief when I discovered what was actually wrong. It took about 8 weeks for ther thyroid medication to enter my system fully, but I did notice changes after 2 weeks. I have been slowly building up my activity from about then, and have adopted a proactive approach to my health and wellbeing in the months following diagnosis. I think the activity that has most impacted on my wellbeing both mentally and physically is my Yoga practise. Having practised at home for years on and off, I decided it was finally time to seek out proper instruction so that I could get the most out of my practise. Fortunately for me our local Health Centre has just moved into a beautiful new purpose built building and offers an array of activities including Tai Chi, Pilates and of course Yoga.
Twice a week I do a Kundalini Yoga class and the once a week a Yin Yoga class. Both present enormous challenges for me and are helping me with both my physical limitations – years of HIIT training and weight training has left me with short tightened muscles, likewise an injury sustained in dance as a teen has resulted in a very sore and tight left hamstring- but also my emotional and mental wellbeing. Kundalini is very breath focussed and is cleansing and uplifting, whereas the Yin is concerned with holding each Asana for anything up to 5 mins, so isn’t the most comfortable experience but is incredibly rewarding. Interestingly both practises have stirred up emotions concerned with my past that I thought long forgotten, but as the tension in my hips, back and chest is released so are the negative emotions. Slowly with the help of my practise I am able to let them go and feel for the first time in a long time I am starting to find my equilibrium.
Being in my forties has been amazing. I’m happy in my own skin. I say pfft things that used to really bother me, I’m braver with my clothes and generally much more confident. That being said, I’ve noticed that my health and wellbeing – things I took for granted before- need a little more TLC than they used too.
I’ve always struggled with poor sleep and just accepted it as part of my lot. However over the last year I’ve been more proactive about improving it, not least because I’m not as resilient I was in my twenties and thirties. A bad night’s sleep these days = a really crappy day. The road to better sleep for me has been a combination of inclusion and elimination.
First on the elimination list was caffeine. I’m not exaggerating when I say I used to drink an obscene amount of caffeine loaded drinks everyday….coffee, cola, tea…I did them all in ridiculous quantities and had the jitters to prove it. I read so many horrendous accounts of caffeine withdrawal that I expected mine would be a living hell, but you know what….It wasn’t too bad. I had a terrible headache for a day or two and then felt a bit tired for about a week but that was it and the improvement to my sleep was almost immediate. Having replaced caffeinated drinks with decaff and herbal teas I drop off to sleep these days without too much trouble. My sleep is by no means perfect but at least I don’t spend most of the night staring at the ceiling like I used too.
In my twenties and thirties I was a total stress head. I worried if I was doing the right thing, what other people thought of me, what other people were doing and constantly compared my life and achievements with other peoples and found my own wanting. Much of my insecurity stemmed from one toxic friendship. This person made me feel like all my achievements were insignificant and my tastes, hobbies etc. inferior. I removed the person from my life and learned to celebrate all I had achieved and love. I really appreciate the small group of good friends I have for their honesty, caring and support. They taught me to play with wild abandon and I love that we do some slightly bonkers stuff together.
The sight of me in my exercise gear is not always a pretty sight but I don’t let that stop me. Every day I hit the sitting room floor for either, cardio, strength or flexibility work. It’s not always easy but I stick at it because I know the difference daily exercise makes to my mood. I’m brighter, more optimistic and the aches and pains I get in my hip if I’m too sedentary, disappear. Plus I have the joy of finding ever brighter, ever crazier exercise wear. It’s a win, win.
Last Sunday while out on our walk through the forest my partner and I decided to visit one of our favourite foraging spots. In addition to being incredibly pretty it is also replete with Elder, Blackthorn and most importantly at this time of year, a sizeable crab apple tree.
To our delight the crab apple tree has an abundance of ripe fruit this year. We collected about a kilo of fruit, leaving behind a feast on the tree for wildlife and other foragers to enjoy.
Usually I use crab apples to make blackberry and apple jam. The high level of pectin in them ensures a good set without the need for adding a specialist jam sugar. This year however I decided to give making crab apple jelly a go instead. I could see in my minds eye as we gathered the fruit, jars filled with gorgeous clear jewel toned luciousness.
Unfortunately it hasn’t been a resounding successs. The amount of jelly is far less than I would have hoped and is very cloudy. In my haste to get going I didn’t pay enough attention to the recipe and suspect that I cooked the apples in too little water and for far too long.Â After leaving the mixture to strain through a jelly bag there was so little liquid that squeezing the mixture to get every last little bit liquid out was my only option. As a result the liquid was very cloudy and not the jewel like clarity I was dreaming of.
Being cloudy already I decided to throw caution to the wind and add a teaspoon of ground ginger, added sugar and heated the mix up until it was at setting point. There being such a small quantity it didn’t seem worth sterilising a jar, so i’ve decanted the jelly into a small bowl and plan to use it up over the next couple of days.
I’m hoping that it will make a nice accompaniment to bread and cheese (or to some ‘Gary’ for my vegan days) or maybe giving my breakfast porridge an extra zing by adding a spoonful.It seems I’m big on options but alas low on jelly. That being said, nothing is wasted. I’ve learnt a new skill and with some tweaks it will be better next time. But for now, i’m going to savour every mouthful of the little I have and enjoy it.
If anyone out there has more experience of jelly making and could give me few pointers it would be great to hear from you!
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.
Autumn 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.
Winter is a difficult season for me. Although there is much I love about it; cool crisp air, woolly jumpers and the majesty of bare branches, to name but a few; what’s not so much fun is the winter blues. In September their arrival merely hinted at, are in full occupation by October in all their teary, anxiety making, energy sapping glory. Over the years I’ve developed various strategies for dealing with them; a daylight lamp and regular exercise being the chief methods for keeping them at bay, or at least partly at bay. Hygge does the rest.
Hygge is the Danish attitude to life that doesn’t have a direct translation in English, but has been loosely defined as cosiness, or as the blogger Anna Lea West more descriptively terms it as ‘cosiness of the soul’. Hygge is a feeling, arising out of nights shared in the company of good friends and good food, or by curling up with a beloved besides a warm fire drinking hot chocolate and eating homemade spiced cake. In addition to all of these, hygge for me is the long forest walks I take with my beloved, both of us wrapped up in cosy woollens and armed with a flask of coffee; or the homey evenings we spend in front of the wood burning stove in our garden hideaway. It is also afternoons writing at my kitchen table while a scented candle flickers away giving everything a warm yellowy aura.
Hygge has transformed my winters into a time to be cherished rather than feared, and while I can’t claim to be wholly depression free, I’m certainly not the amorphous mass wrapped in a duvet refusing to move from the sofa that I once was either. I can count on one hand the ‘bad’ days I’ve had so far this winter and that is definitely something to celebrate, perhaps, with a little cake, hot chocolate and a candle or two.
When I started this blog over six years it had a very particular purpose: a means of documenting a specific research project. When the project was completed my interest in the blog waned, my posts became sporadic and inevitably ceased. The blog was abandoned and alone, left to languish in cyberspace with only the occasional bit of tumbleweed for company.
The trouble was my blog became a place where I only really talked about art, mainly Pre-Raphaelite art. Now don’t get me wrong, I love, live and breathe the Pre-Raphaelite movement, but therein lies the problem. My PhD research is on the Pre-Raphaelites, so I’m constantly thinking and writing about them and often ‘the other stuff ‘I enjoy doing, thinking and writing about gets pushed to one side because it doesn’t fit the parameters I imposed on the blog.
I thought about starting a new blog for ‘the other stuff’ but soon realised that it was a silly idea, not least because there is a perfectly good blog sitting there. All that’s needed is a rethink, revamp and reboot.
As of today I’m reclaiming this space, taking a brush to the tumbleweed and building myself a cabin. Much of the content will still be fuelled by the titular terms of art and aesthetics; but in their broadest sense. The below painting by Pieter Claesz pretty much sums up the direction I want to take, i.e the embracing of all the senses and not limit myself to just the visual.
This gives me the freedom to explore my many passions, which, I will no doubt manage to somehow link to the Pre-Raphaelites, because let’s face it, that’s how I roll.
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) 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 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.
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…'
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’.
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:
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?
In folklore, a discipline that was of keen interest to the Victorians, the stag is a symbol of male virility.
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.