Roses, Roses, Roses!

She had na pu’d a double rose,
A rose but only twa,
Till up then started young Tam Lin,
‘Lady, thou’s pu’ nae mae!

The Ballad of Tam Lin

Today my mind is consumed by the thought of roses, I spied a beautiful late bloom in the garden this morning and my thoughts have been turned towards them ever since. In the ballad of Tam Lin Janet gets herself into trouble by picking Tam Lin’s roses; her actions summon Tam Lin to her and lead to her seduction. Janet then finds herself pregnant and in love with Tam Lin so she determines to save him (she faces a moral dilemma after all as a single pregnant woman) from his captor the Fairy Queen. Janet is forced to face a trial of faith and courage but I won’t spoil the ending for you…

Culturally a red rose is a symbol of love yet a yellow rose, according to the Language of Flowers is a declaration of decreased love – so be careful of the colour you choose to present to a loved one, particularly if your beloved is a 19th century scholar you might just get a slap!

Roses feature very prominently in many of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s paintings; the last roses of the season are often shown being presented as votive offerings like in the autumnally hued The Last Roses or the above shown A Votive Offering (The last roses) painted in 1872 and 73 respectively.

But then as this snippet from a mediaeval ballad shows that roses are really all about temptation

All night by the rose
the rose I lay
Darf ich nought the rose stele
And yet ich bar the flour away

Now let’s think about other works by Alma-Tadema, the lush and decadent Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) – if there was ever a picture about pure excess this is surely it! Heliogabalus fills his dining room with flowers as an extravagant gesture and succeeds in killing some of his guests by suffocating them. Or the very sexy young things depicted in A Summer Offering (1911) who seductively clutch deliciously abundant blooms to denote their fecundity.

I love the dreamy quality of George Eliot’s poem Roses, it is such an appealing poem in terms of sensory experience, it’s all about sight, touch, smell and sound. And it is with Eliot I will end my excursion into roses, letting her have the last word on the subject.

You love the roses – so do I. I wish
The sky would rain down roses, as they rain
From off the shaken bush. Why will it not?
Then all the valley would be pink and white
And soft to tread on. They would fall as light
As feathers, smelling sweet; and it would be
Like sleeping and like waking, all at once!

Pennyloaf Candy

I was introduced to George Gissing’s novel The Nether World during my M.A. I had never read Gissing before so wasn’t sure what to expect and was completely charmed by the unexpected heroine of the piece Pennyloaf (Penelope) Candy.

Pennyloaf is a poor needle woman who lives in Shooters’Gardens,( one of the worst slums in the novel) with her violent father and alcoholic mother. Our first encounter with the novel’s heroine is inauspicious as she is described in less than flattering terms:

She was a meagre, hollow-eyed bloodless girl of seventeen, yet her features had a certain charm-that dolorous kind of prettiness which is often enough seen in the London needle-slave. Her habitual look was one of meaningless surprise

The fawn-like Pennyloaf seems at the mercy of those around her, she stumbles wide eyed and innocent into a marriage with Bob Hewett which leads to complete misery. This marriage although starting off well, later resembles that of Pennyloaf’s parents. Bob succumbs to alcohol (much like Pennyloaf’s mother Maria) he embarks on a fling with the malign Clem Peckover, falls into criminal activity and then puts Pennyloaf and their children through period of neglect and severe privation. In the final mirroring of the Candy marriage he beats Pennyloaf.

It would be easy for Pennyloaf to fall into the same pattern of alcohol addiction as her mother, yet she does not. However it is apparent that the conditioning exists within Pennyloaf for addictive behaviour as can be seen in her indulgent eating of treacle:

Treacle she purchased now and then, but only as a treat when her dinner had cost less than usual; she did not venture to buy more than a couple of ounces at a time, knowing by experience that she could not resist this form of temptation, and must eat and eat till all was finished.

That Pennyloaf is cognisant of her addictive tendency gives her restraint all the more pathos, her love of treacle would not damage (except perhaps dentally) her or her family yet she shows such willpower and determination not to follow in her mother’s footsteps. However, when she is profoundly miserable she uses her mother’s addiction (illustrating her cognisance that to follow her mother’s path would viewed as a fall) as leverage to elicit sympathy and support by declaring to Jane Snowdon:

I’ll go an’ do like mother does-I will! I will! I’ll put my ring away, an’ i’ll go an’ sit all night in the public ‘ouse! It’s what all the others does, an’ I’ll do the same. I often feel i’m a fool to go on like this. I don’t know what I live for, p’r’aps he’ll be sorry when I get run in like mother.

It is clear that this is an idle threat because when Jane Snowdon in turn threatens the removal of her friendship from Pennyloaf, as she could not be friends with a person know to frequent the public house, Pennyloaf laughs and the moment is broken, the bombast melts like snow. What this episode reveals is that Pennyloaf is dependent upon Jane and her ‘words of strength’ and that her declaration was no more than attempt to extract the succour she needed. In short Pennyloaf, as would anyone in her circumstances, sometimes needs reassurance and support from another human being. Her threat is not evidence of a weakening of her will but a desperate need to be shown humanity.

At the end of the novel, after Bob’s death, Pennyloaf rises phoenix like from the ashes of her former misery and want. With an acquaintance she starts a business recycling old clothes to sell and manages to provide for herself and her remaining child. Pennyloaf’s trajectory through life is astonishing. Despite her life circumstances conspiring to drag her into the mire of slum life Pennyloaf emerges untainted and ends the novel as an industrious and contented character:

And she talked, she talked-where was there such a talker as Pennyloaf nowadays when she once began?

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.

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.”

Wightwick Manor – The art of small detail

Wightwick Manor is a gorgeous place and one that I have been meaning to visit for a long time. It was worth the wait!

The interior is a feast for the eyes: William Morris furniture, De Morgan ceramics, plasterwork -the ceilings are amazing and during a visitor lull one of the very kind room attendants let me lie down on the drawing room floor so I could get a better look- and Pre-Raphaelite paintings. The latter was the reason for my visit to the house, the quality of the art collection is well renowned and I was particularly thrilled to see the portrait of Effie Ruskin (by Millais) where her hair is adorned with foxgloves. Also, seeing Watts portrait of Janey Nassau Senior was particularly moving, having only ever seen it reproduction, seeing it in the flesh was a bit like meeting an old friend. This list barely touches on the variety of objects in the house, but too be honest I was quite overwhelmed once I got inside.

The exterior of the house is also really something, particularly some of the architectural and decorative elements. Here are some of my favourites….





More info

‘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.

Possession at a decadent pace

The world moves at such an incredible pace that it is easy to forget how joyful taking your time over something can be, whether its eating, walking or simply just being.

About a month ago I started reading possession by A.S Byatt and rather than read it voraciously over a couple of days I decided to take my time and luxuriate in its beautiful prose. Just the act of reading it slowly and carefully has left me feeling refreshed, inspired and creative. I have only read about two hundred pages so far, so I’m not even half way through yet and am very excited to see what happens next…

So far Possession has inspired me to revisit the beautiful fairy-like poetry of Mary Coleridge and to read’ Christabel’ by her great great Uncle Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Both these poets have a lovely enchanted and uncanny quality to their writing but since ‘The Deserted House ‘ by Mary Coleridge is a current favourite here it is:

The Deserted House

There’s no smoke in the chimney,
And the rain beats on the floor;
There’s no glass in the window,
There’s no wood in the door;
The heather grows behind the house,
And the sand lies before.

No hand hath trained the ivy,
The walls are grey and bare;
The boats upon the sea sail by,
Nor ever tarry there.
No beast of the field comes nigh,
Nor any bird of the air

Bewitching Sculpture: Icons of Marble, Bronze and Stone

Sculpture seems to be having a well deserved moment in the sun within the media at the moment, I hope the interest will be sustained. We seem to give less attention to Sculpture than to paintings, just visiting any art gallery confirms this. I am interested in how people conduct themselves within the gallery space and I have noticed that Sculpture galleries are often treated as corridors, simply walked through en route to reach the picture galleries.

I do not profess to know a great deal about sculpture, that I love it, is enough for me.

I find the details of sculpture bewitching, particularly, hands and feet. A well sculpted pair of hands can be incredibly articulate as with the hands of John Gibson’s 1860 Marble, Pandora ( V & A ). Gibson successfully articulates through Pandora’s hands her indecision. Pandora is on the cusp of action then pulls back from it for a brief moment, her hands revealing a feverish desire to open the box and a tension that she should not. This paradoxical sense of action and inaction could be said to be an intrinsic trait of many Pandora sculptures, however, I feel that hands of Gibson’s Pandora are more successful than most at conveying this inner conflict.

‘A roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace’.

I love the bombastic quality of the Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, but on the topic of the Victory of Samothrace, we are diametrically opposed. The first sighting of the Winged Victory of Samothrace at the top of a beautiful staircase in the Louvre is really something to behold. She rises above everything around her elevated by her beauty and physical presence. As one of my favourite sculptures I am constantly amazed at her scale and the simple fluidity of her lines. The floating gossamer robe, the sense of motion and a complete sense of awe at the capability of the hands that released her from the block of marble in around 190 bc, for me makes the Victory absolutely breathtaking. Moreover, despite the Futurist’s manifesto declaration regarding the Victory, a comparison of Umberto Boccioni’s bronze, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, to the Victory reveals a parity of line and motion – the Victory is perhaps more of an influence than they would care to admit!

Cemeteries have some of the most exquisite examples sculpture. Jules Dalou’s life size bronze of the journalist Victor Noir is perhaps one of the most extraordinary grave memorials I have seen. Extraordinary, not because it has any radical qualities, it is a bronze in the tradition of bronzes. Its quality is derived from its heightened sense of corporeality. Approaching the grave is like arriving immediately upon the scene of Noir’s death, it is easy to imagine the duel in which he died as you stand next to the memorial. The beautifully crisp top hat is a bewitching detail, looking as if it had toppled to the ground as he fell.

Noir’s monument has also become something of a fertility symbol owing to the infamous sculpted protuberance. I love that as a memorial to a deceased 19th century man in Paris’s Pere La Chaise, a veritable city of the dead, Victor Noir has become a symbol of life and hope.

I love so many pieces of sculpture that it would be impossible to list and describe them here, so instead I have created in addition to the pieces already described a short list of favourites.

  1. Apollo and Daphne by Gian Lorenzo Bernini at the Borghese Gallery, Rome
  2. The Tinted Venus by John Gibson, The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
  3. The Pieta by Michelangelo, St Peters Basilica, Rome
  4. Clytie by G.F Watts, a bronze version can be seen at the V & A London and a marble at the Harris Museum, Preston.
  5. Oscar Wilde’s Funerary monument by Jacob Epstein, Pere La Chaise Cemetery, Paris.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – The Card-Dealer


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

Martin Greenland – ‘New Fiction’

‘New Fiction’ is the current exhibition of Martin Greenland’s work at the Cornerstone Gallery at Liverpool Hope University. Consisting of approximately 20 works the exhibition marks a triumphant return to Liverpool for Greenland following his success in 2006 when he won the John Moores painting prize for his work Before Vermeer’s Clouds.

A statement for ‘New Fiction’ asserts that the works in the exhibition represent ‘ the balance between the believable, based upon what is seen, and the unbelievable, the unseen’; and without a doubt there is something of the uncanny within Greenland’s paintings.  juxtaposing the familiar with the strange Greenland creates a truly ‘das unheimlech’ sensation; the viewer is disquieted, yet seduced. A wonderful articulation of this sensation can be found in works such as End of Empire and Northumberland, Before and After (No3). Both canvasses are texturally rich and suffused with velveteen darkness, that in the Edmund Burke use of the word are sublime. They have an eerie gothic quality in the best tradition of Ann Radcliffe’s 1791 novel The Romance of the Forest.

End of Empire, with its decaying building surrounded by dark and claustrophobic trees with a beach just visible is a haunting image. The dilapidated building could be anything from a public Art Gallery to an asylum, its classical architecture at odds with the wild woods that surround and threaten to engulf it. Each of the components, the building, the woods and the beach are familiar in isolation yet combined as they are in this work they are as elusive and dreamlike – it is a place on unreality, a place to escape to and from.

Similarly, Northumberland, Before and After (No3) utilizes a brooding palette of colours again to the effect of creating an ambiguous space that is both beauty and terror combined. However The Flood and Playground could be considered the polar opposites to the works already discussed. Both these works are bright daylight scapes with open breathable compositions but are no less sinister for it. If anything I found these paintings infinitely more disquieting than the dark canvasses. They have a different sense of dereliction, where End of Empire has the sense of gentility in decay, Playground feels like an abrupt abandonment, largely due to the palpability of humanity, there is a trace of what was and what could be again.

Although the landscape is dominant within Martin Greenland’s paintings, for me they are not Landscape paintings, they are more charged and more personal than that. There is nothing twee about the subject matter or the emotions they evoke and are definitely worth spending a couple of hours with so as to fully absorb and appreciate the nuanced atmosphere of each work.

Martin Greenland – New Fiction is at the Cornerstone Gallery, Liverpool Hope University from 18th September to 12th November 2010

Cornerstone Gallery

Martin Greenland