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.’


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