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.

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