Fanny Eaton: The Forgotten Pre-Raphaelite Stunner

The Head of Mrs Eaton (1861) Joanna Wells

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

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

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

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














The Mother of Moses (1860) Simeon Solomon








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










The Beloved (1865-6) Dante Gabriel Rossetti








Jepthah (1867) John Everett Millais

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

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

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

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

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

Women From Nowhere: The Pre-Raphaelite other

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti The Beloved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Sandy’s Profile Study and Morgan le Fay

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

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

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

Image, Joanna Wells, The Head of Mrs Eaton

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

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

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


Curiouser and Curiouser

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

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

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

Brother and Sister

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What meat is in that stew to go?”
“My sister’ll be the contents!”
“You’ll lend the pan to me, Cook?”

Moral: Never stew your sister.

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

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

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

Eerie transformations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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….





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