‘We dance among the golden sheaves’: Autumn and the Pre-Raphaelites

For the last couple of days there has been a perceptible nip in the air heralding the arrival of autumn. Autumn is a season that lends itself to the Pre-Raphaelite eye with its combination of rich jewel tones and earthy hues, delicious smells and sounds. Who can resist the sweet scent of fallen leaves as they crunch satisfyingly underfoot? Yet the sweet smell of crumbling leaves is the scent of decay, and their audible crunch a reminder of the transience of all living things.

Memento homo, quod cinis es, et in cinerem reverteris
(Remember, O Man, that thou art dust, and to dust shalt return)

We live we die, and the world turns and it all starts again. Gloomy eh

In modernity John Everett Millais’ painting Autumn Leaves (1855-66) has been described as ‘a rumination on the transience of life’ (Rosenfeld, 2007, p. 132). Without a doubt the pictorial elements of the work lend themselves to this interpretation: four exquisitely pretty young girls gathering and piling fallen leaves in the gloaming certainly shouts “you might be young now but twilight surely follows day turning to night and like the leaves you will wither and die”. The presence of a half-seen reaper definitely adds further weight to this interpretation.

John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1855-6

Blimey, I’m feeling a bit ‘Sylvia Plath’ after that. But wait…

In a letter written in the autumn in which the painting was begun Millais wrote to Charles Collins ‘The only head you could paint to be considered beautiful by EVERYBODY would be the face of a little girl about eight years old, before humanity is subject to change’. (ibid)

What Millais was aiming for then wasn’t so much ‘life is fragile’ but an allusion to the imminent loss of innocence. The inclusion of the apple – a symbol for temptation and the loss of innocence- in the hand of the smallest child certainly suggests this. Is that a bite she’s taken too or a trick of the light? Either way the ambiguity creates tension. If we contextualise the girls within the framework of the law, the age of consent being 12 at this period, then at least three of the girls are legally adults, or fast approaching it. The smaller girl, who if she is around 8 years old as Millais’ letter suggests, although not of consensual age is equidistant in years from infancy to womanhood and therefore could be dubbed a child-women. A concept that was not without appeal to the Victorian male – as is evidenced by the character Quilp from Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop(1841) and his obsession with Little Nell Dodgson’s photographs of Alice Liddell.

Similarly elegiac in tone is Christina Rossetti’s poem Autumn. Only in place of Millais lament for the loss of innocence Rossetti mourns the inexorable extent of hers:

I dwell alone - I dwell alone, alone
Whilst full my river flows down to the sea
Gilded with flashing boats
That brings no friend to me
Love Songs, gurgling from a hundred throats,
O love pangs let me be (Rossetti, 1892,p.84)

Rossetti is explicit in this opening verse, the protagonist is lonely and all her chances to be that bastion of Victorian womanhood, a wife and a mother, are passing her by. The ache she feels for what is missing in her life is acutely felt, and all the more painful for the reader if we read the poem biographically. In 1848 Rossetti became engaged to the friend of her brothers and fellow PRB member James Collinson. Alas the engagement was not to last and was broken by Rossetti when Collinson converted to Catholicism. While it may seem that Autumn, written in 1858 bears no relevance being ten years distant from the broken engagement ; it is salient to note that Autumn was written a mere two months after James Collinson married Eliza Wheeler aged 40, a woman 12 years Rossetti’s senior.

As the poem progresses the protagonist reveals the agony of being a woman who has lost out in love and whose prime is passing. The cruelty of her situation made all the more acute in her cognisance that her loss was of her own doing of it. All about her ‘the gilded boats’ with their rich cargoes of ‘gold, stone and spices’ are clearly destined for, ahem, other ports.

In the later verses Rossetti introduces autumnal imagery to her metaphorical landscape to emphasise her fading prime and diminished hope:

 One last solitary swallow flies
 Across the sea, rough autumn tost…'
 

And

Mine Avenue is all a growth of oaks,
Some rent by thunder strokes
Some rustling leaves and acorns in the breeze
fair fall my fertile trees.

The final verse is the most emotive and explicit:

My trees are not in flower I have no bower and a gusty wind creaks my tower and lonesome, very lonesome is my strand. (Rossetti, 1892, p85-86)

Here, the protagonist’s sense of loss and desolation is absolute as the last of autumn finally gives way to a barren winter.Autumn is introspective. Rossetti picks apart the loss of her relationship and all that it would have brought; a situation that closely parallels and is best summed up by the fictional character of Charlotte Vale in the 1942 film Now Voyager 1.On the breaking of her own engagement to Elliot, Charlotte’s inner self says in voiceover ‘You fool, oh you fool. Now you’ll never have a home of your own, or a man of your own, or a child of your own’.

John Everett Millais, Lingering Autumn, 1890

Phew, not all autumnal Pre-Raphaelite works carry a doom and gloom metaphor. Millais’ Lingering Autumn (1890) like Autumn Leaves juxtaposes youth and the autumnal landscape, only in the former the sentiment is more celebratory in tone. In Lingering Autumn rather than using autumn as a metaphor for decay and loss Millais presents us with two types of beauty, each exquisite in their own right.

Also, hurray for Holman- Hunt who I suspect on the quiet was a bit of a sauce pot as his painting Love at First Sight suggests. We have to rewind slightly to before the image conscious Edith Holman- Hunt left her indelible chastened mark upon her husband’s legacy. Edith was in short a bit of tinker when it came to the whitewashing of her husband’s life and works. Anything that could destroy his sainted image was done away, like the original title of his 1848 painting Blackheath Park which perhaps given the content was just a little too ambiguous for the prim Edith. As you can see below, the painting showstwo figures, one male and one female in the beautiful wilderness of Blackheath Park, and I say wilderness because during the 19th century it truly was. In the background a dense patch of trees which although redolent with leaves show some signs of the onset of autumn. 2 In the foreground there are a stag and two does watching the man and woman who have turned to look back at one another as they pass.

If we analyse the pictorial elements further we can suggest a reading of the work whose theme is far saucier than that of Edith’s later applied title. Things to note:

  1. A well dressed man and unchaperoned woman out and about in an untamed desolate spot. Not exactly the image of moral propriety cultivated by middling sort is it?
  2. In folklore, a discipline that was of keen interest to the Victorians, the stag is a symbol of male virility.
  3. With further reference to stags and virility, the onset of autumn also marks the commencement of the rut!

Mon dieu,I can hear the knicker elastic snapping from here!Lust at First Sight might be a little more apt………(sorry Edith). Of course I’m being frivolous and mine is only one of a plethora of possible narratives for the piece. Perhaps Holman-Hunt was deliberately ambiguous with his title to encourage rather than impose a meaning upon the viewer. Either way it’s a lot of fun to speculate!

Well there we have it, Pre-Raphaelite autumn in a (chest)nut shell, it might all be sex and death but at least it’s beautiful while it’s about it.

1 The title Now Voyager was taken from a line by the poet Walt Whitman, who was acquainted with, and much admired by the Pre-Raphaelites’, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

2 A note on the back of canvas indicates that the picture was produced in the autumn of 1848. Primary evidence also shows that the PRB were involved in group outings to sketch in the area at this time.

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