Thursday, 29 September 2011

Type! Type! Type!

I have spent a naughty amount of time recently think about being a Victorian seamstress.  Why naughty? Because it is to do with the novel I should not be writing until I have finished redrafting Stunner.  Yet I find myself contemplating the fate of a young woman, apprenticed into sewing and millinery in 1860s London.  This post is my way of getting it all out of my system until after I’ve finished with the second edition of Fanny’s biography.  In theory.

Stitch! Stitch! Stitch! (1876) J E Millais
Before I started my research, I didn’t have much idea of what it was like to be a Victorian seamstress.  Fanny went straight from being a housemaid to being a good-time girl, so it was never part of my research for Stunner.  I guessed it would be miserable, as most forms of work seem to have been, so I was unsurprised by the grimness of some of the illustrations I’ll show you below.  Among the pictures I found, there were also some fairly charming ones, like Millais’ Stitch! Stitch! Stitch! which is typical of his portraits of women during this period.  The loose-handling of dark paint draws attention to the pale face, seen in profile.  The girl has paused, possibly lost in thought, but the title of the picture, taken from the poem ‘The Song of the Shirt’, pushes her on in her work.  The image has a typical sort of simplicity, the focus being on her face and expression, with her hands partially hidden as they hold her work.

Relenting Thomas Brooks
Oh, well this is a little grimmer.  Mother and daughter seem to be stitching but there is not enough to keep a roof over their head it seems.  At this point you have to fall back on your pitiful female state in order to persuade.  The main thing I didn’t realise about sewing was the difference between being a slop worker and working in a shop.  The character in my book works in a shop, possibly in hope of an apprenticeship, but many women worked from home.  There were positives and negatives to do with both arrangements.  To be an apprentice meant you were guaranteed food and lodgings (how much and what quality was another matter) but you were then tied to your place of work, your hours could be extended beyond reason as you were trapped.  To work from home kept you with your family, but your earnings could be much less and you risked losing your home and livelihood in the uncertainty.

Widowed and Fatherless (1888) Thomas Kennington
Another thing that was news to me was the sneaky growth of this employment among the struggling middle-class.  Women who found themselves poor but not working class could take in piecework or ‘slop work’ and be a seamstress with a kind of respectability.  You may be working (bad) but at least you are sewing (not so bad), so doing a genteel trade which as a nice lady you would be indulging in as a hobby.  Widows and spinsters seemed especially vulnerable to the vagaries of income and so pictures such as Kennington’s could be seen as representative of their position.

The iconic seamstress poem must be ‘The Song of the Shirt’ by Thomas Hood.  It is a powerful poem that makes me smile in recognition, as it gives a timeless expression of hard work.  I especially love the passage where the seamstress admits she works so hard ‘Till over the buttons I fall asleep, And sew them on in a dream!’ which makes me think of when I type late at night and find myself dreaming that I am still typing only to wake and find I have printed the letter ‘a’ for three pages, like a long scream.  At least I won’t starve to death or have to go on the game, which is the fate that awaits these poor women who wish for one short hour of rest in their endless task, day and night.

Weary or The Song of the Shirt (1877) Edward Radford
Here we go then, first out of the stalls is Edward Radford’s lovely picture of such a sad subject.  The girl almost seems to bathe in the light, her poor belongings around her and her child asleep in her bed.  I never like to see a cracked basin in a painting, it never bodes well.  She looks absolutely exhausted, almost unable to sit up or hold her work, dressed in what Hood refers to as ‘unwomanly rags’.

The Song of the Shirt Anna Blunden
This seamstress is a little better dressed, praying for an hour of peace and rest.  The green of her dress possibly refers to the rich grass she fantasises about wandering in.  Again, she is in the light by a window, possibly referring to how they are trapped inside, needing the light but unable to go outside.

The Song of the Shirt Charles Rossiter
The Song of the Shirt John Thomas Peele

Yet more mournful maidens, pausing in exhaustion and thought.  I especially love Peele’s woman’s expression and the detail in her room, although that mug on the cupboard is looking a bit chipped.  By contrast, Rossiter’s miserable girl doesn’t seem too bad, at least she gets a cup of tea and her jugs are very much intact.

The Song of the Shirt Richard Redgrave
That’s more like it - burnt down candle, chipped ceramics and no rug on the floor.  That’s good, old fashioned, black and white misery.  It looks like it’s about in the morning.  I think if I was still sewing at that hour I’d want an hour off to tip-toe in the grass.  There is just no time for her to relax and on she sews until she collapses in exhaustion or goes blind.  Blimey, how grim…

Relaxation (1908) Thomas Kennington
Hang about, this looks like fun!  See, if you go and work in a shop it’s all gossip and jolly ribbon with your chums…I’m surprised any dresses or hats ever got made if this was the level of work that went on.

So which was the truth?  Working to death or gossiping with the girls?  Possibly somewhere in between, although the season in the Spring and Summer, then at Christmas, seemed to bring on working weeks of dizzying length.

It is impressive that the level of awareness was as good as it was.  Much as we care about sweat-shops now, the concern for the well being of seamstresses seems to be very vocal and the images of broken-down women no doubt aided the strength of the argument.  Piece-workers especially seem to have been exploited with low wages and the work, although not obviously physically gruelling, was a challenge of endurance, long hours and poor light.  The desperation must have been intense and the knife-edge of work and ability must have shortened many a seamstress’ life.  Not the jolliest subject for a book, but I look forward to writing my heroine’s plight.  Type! Type! Type!

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Drinky, Drinky…

I don’t really drink. Really, I’m a very good girl, but I’m not averse to a tiny little drinky now and then. My problem is that as soon as I have my tiny little drinky, I fall asleep, which apparently makes me a very cheap date. Anyway, as I have a bottle of Spiced Apple and Rhubarb Cider chilling in the fridge (yes, I know, I'm not sure whether that sounds wonderful or disgusting) I got to thinking about paintings of drink and the dangers therein…

Behind the Bar (1882) John Henshall
Yes, there I am at the bar. No, not the one with the beard, the woman next to him, feeding gin to my baby. Uh-oh, I just got a flash back to my days working for the Probation Service. At first glance, this looks like a fairly straight forward picture of a bar scene, reminiscent of that Manet picture…

Bar at the Folies Bergere (1882) Edouard Manet
When you start looking a little closer at Behind the Bar, you see the gentleman on the end is being led away, his cup tipped. Next to gin-baby Mama is a small child bringing back the empties. Young and old, we are all drinking and drinking until we are led away, that is what this picture is telling us. The viewer is behind the bar, separated from the mass of drinking. Why would this be? Possibly because the drinkers are all working class and the viewer is presumably not, so we are separated by class as well as the bar. This pretty, airy picture is a sneaky reminder of something that is darkly consuming people.

The Reverend Geoffrey Shovel, Chaplain of the Fleet, and his Drinking Companions Thomas Davidson

Well, there you go. The last man standing is looking out over the others as they loll around unconscious. Deary me. Well, I’ve looked and looked and I can’t find record of who exactly the Reverend Geoffrey Shovel was, apart from being Chaplain of the Fleet, but maybe it refers to the Navy’s reputation for hard drinking, so hard that even the vicar can out drink his land-lubbing chums. Look, his wig isn’t even at a jaunty angle or anything. That’s one hard-drinking man of God.

The Pipe and the Bottle Henry Gillard Glindoni
This is a jolly fellow. I like to think of this as the Drinking Cavalier, as it has that sort of jovial Dutch-ness about it. I love the round, plumpness of the bottles and the way the light catches them as his fingers splay to hold them. The dainty pipe too is a joy: he obviously is still sober enough to multi-task his booze and his pipe. Impressive. He seems like pleasant company, but his nose is getting a little red and he looks like one of those lovely bottles will slip from him any minute. I hope it’s not the painted one…

Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast John Singer Sargent
Ah, now, this is more like me, all elegant and slightly out of focus. I think that this is rather a nice portrayal of drinking, with flowers and a pretty fluted glass and an evening gown. I need to pop out and get some pretty glasses to serve my cider in and then I’ll be sorted. This will be me at the dinner table tonight. I’m hoping that is meant to be a shawl around my shoulders, or else I just lost a sleeve. Mind you, it wouldn’t be good to start the evening this blurry, goodness knows how it will end…

The Gin-Crazed Girl Commits Suicide (1848) G Cruikshank
Oh dear, it looks like I'll end the evening hurling myself off a bridge.  If you hear of a gin-crazed blogger throwing herself into the Thames, then it's me.  However, as I tend to fall asleep after just the one, it is unlikely to end quite this tragically.  Well, let's hope not...Cheers!

Sunday, 25 September 2011

What I Want, What I Really, Really Want

To start with, apologies for the Spice Girls reference. I’m typing this in a hurry at 5.30am on Sunday morning with a head covered in curlers as I’m being a 1940s Royal Air Force lady this weekend as a favour to a friend. Anyway, that is all by-the-by, I still wanted to talk to you about Fanny Cornforth. I always want to talk to you about Fanny Cornforth. This time I want to talk to you about the one illustration I really, really wanted in the new edition of Stunner.

Choosing illustrations has been a complicated matter. I wanted not only my favourites but also ones that might not be illustrated anywhere else and ones that give you a definite sense of who Fanny Cornforth is. Further to this, I wanted to show things that might challenge a few preconceived notions of her appearance. Believe me when I say illustrations can be horribly expensive, but a few museums are being insanely generous (oh, yes, Delaware, I’m looking at you, you bunch of gorgeous people). So I have a budget of £500 and grand ambition (this won't end well, I can see that coming.  Ho hum).

I had one illustration that I felt I really needed to have. It’s a sketch that, as far as I know, has not appeared in any other publication and it is a work of beauty. Ta dah…

Fanny Cornforth (1860s) D G Rossetti
The good people of the Lyman Allyn Museum have been very generous and a joy to deal with and I look forward to using this picture in my book. The reason why I wanted it is that I think it is something a bit special...

When I think of 'non-picture' sketches of Fanny Cornforth (or in fact any of the women in his life), I think of things like this…

Fanny Cornforth (1860s) D G Rossetti
Something quiet, something domestic. One of these days, when I start my Pre-Raphaelite jewellery company, I will sell those damn earrings as she wears them all the time. That and pearl spiral brooches. Anyway, Rossetti’s sketches tend to fall into two camps: domestic or sketches for a painting. Well, the Lyman Allyn sketch isn’t very domestic, it’s a bit sexy (which is arguably the best kind of domestic, giggle). Is there anything sexy in Rossetti’s ‘homely’ pictures of Fanny?

Fanny Cornforth (1874) DGR

Fanny Cornforth (1860s) DGR

The domestic sketches of Fanny aren’t as numerous as the ones of Lizzie or Jane. I have many saucy answers for why that would be, but I will restrain myself, for once. Anyway, they tend to be much the same. She often wears a snood, she is respectably dressed and sometimes she is eating or sewing and rarely engages with the viewer. The Lyman Allen sketch doesn’t really cover any of these bases. I suppose the notable exceptions are the pastels of Fanny done in the 1870s, but these are roundly dismissed as being flattering and not realistic. So maybe it’s a sketch for a painting?

Well, the date of the Lyman Allyn picture is 1860s, Fanny’s heyday, so there is no reason to think it’s not a sketch. Maybe for Lady Lilith? Fazio’s Mistress? Monna Vanna (for which we have no sketches)? Hmmm, no, not really. Similar in ethos, but not in pose. How about this?

Woman with a Fan (1870) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Well, the pose is similar and the ethos is the same. Both are pictures of Fanny as a saucy minx, with no other purpose than that. Two explanations occur to me: Maybe Rossetti did the sketch of Fanny in the early 1860s, when they were involved and she was at her most glorious, then turned to it in 1870 to produce the flattering pastel after Fanny’s looks had gone. This is the simplest explaination, fits in with the most narratives about Fanny and is entirely plausible. Against this are the three pastels of her from 1874, where she looks older but glamorous. These pastels don’t seem to match any finished works and therefore don’t seem to have any other purpose than to be portraits of Fanny. Another explanation is that the pencil sketch is from 1870, contemporary with the pastels. The accepted story is that Rossetti lost interest in Fanny after 1865 (or as soon as he painted her out of Lady Lilith) and therefore any sketches of her after 1865 were unrealistic, hence their scarcity. Rossetti only did a few pictures of Fanny when she was ‘past her best’, in order to buy her off. It is possible that the Lyman Allyn sketch is contemporary with these pastels and therefore brings something interesting into the equation. 
I love this sketch as it raises a few difficult questions. If it is contemporary with the pastel it resembles, then why did Rossetti draw his cast-off mistress? If he was not basing the pastels on reality then there would be no need for preparatory sketches. If Fanny was no longer attractive, why does she look so damn foxy? Yes, I know I’m Fanny-centric, but I like to think that Rossetti was honest in his art, or rather he was flattering to all his women. Looking at photographs of Jane’s brooding expression or Lizzie’s rather tortured repose, I think he had a ‘vision’ of all his models which may or may not have been the absolute truth, but I don’t think he made Fanny look outrageously different than she did.
Fanny (1870s)
If you consider that the photo of Fanny from the 1870 doesn’t show her as an enormous monster, then maybe, just maybe she looked pretty much she looked in 1860, only a bit older and a bit chubbier.  Mind you, if she was a celebrity now, that would be two huge strikes against her.
The more things change, the more things stay the same….

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Willowwood Should Be Read By Everyone

I’ve been a busy bee, getting Stunner prepared for the second edition (yes, I’m spell checking and hopefully getting the grammar more better-like this time) and part of this is adding a piece on Fanny in film and fiction.  For film, God help me, I’m using Desperate Romantics because (a) I enjoy the rage seizure it brings on, (b) it is the only Pre-Raphaelite drama that shows her in any meaningful way and (c) it is the only one that people have a good chance of seeing and being conversant with.  Although the Ken Russell film Dante’s Inferno is available on Region 1 (thanks for that BBC), and Fanny is in it, she isn’t dealt with as much as in Desperate Romantics.  As for The Love School the BBC hasn’t had the common sense to release it yet, so that’s out. 

So, that’s film covered. 

As for print, I read a number of Pre-Raphaelite inspired books, and bought a copy of Willowwood by Elizabeth Savage, which promised to be ‘a novel about Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal’.

Look, there at the bottom, in capitals and everything...
In my experience, Fanny is usually a side-lined character, off-stage and barely mentioned.  In the play Clever as Paint she is literally off-stage, enraging Elizabeth just by the merest hint of her presence.  I wonder if this treatment of Fanny as ‘unseen influence’ is a direct reference to the way that Elizabeth influenced Rossetti’s life throughout the remainder of the 1860s.  Like Fanny, her image existed in Rossetti’s studio even when the woman wasn’t there.  I wonder if Fair Rosamund drove Elizabeth as crazy as Beata Beatrix drove Fanny.  Anyway, I digress.

I admit I had no great hopes of Willowwood. I had the feeling I would end up attempting to trace Nerina Shute’s novel about Rossetti, which is proving very hard indeed (if anyone has a copy they could lend me, please get in touch).  How wrong I was….

This is Elizabeth Savage, who looks very jolly.  It appears that Willowwood, published in 1978, was a bit of a departure for her.  Previously, she had written contemporary novels about American families, but she had a love of Pre-Raphaelite art and so gifted the world this random work about Rossetti and the three women who occupied his life.  The book is split into three sections, ‘Lizzie’, ‘Janey’ and ‘Fanny’.  Yes, Fanny gets her own section!  I was delighted.  Then I started reading…and it got better.

Bearing in mind that this came before books like The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Jan Marsh, you have to consider that Savage is using the stories that are known and documented in Rossetti’s biographies up to this point.  In many ways, I found it impressive that she had found out so much, or at least second guessed stories to build up a compelling narrative.  Added to this is that her story begins and ends with Fanny.  How happy was I?  Like the Cheshire Cat, my friends.

I think it speaks highly of Elizabeth Savage that I forgive the fact that there are nuts involved in the opening of her novel.  We all know how I feel about the nuts.  Add to this that some of the major clichés about Fanny are hit in the first paragraph, like so…
‘Her name was really Sarah Cox, but since she had a habit of appropriating that which she preferred, she took the name…Fanny had thought to be [an actress] because noblemen want to set you up in luxury…Now she is sixteen she knows she is too lazy for it.  For the stage, that is.’

Bam!  We have a lying, slutty thief, just like that.  And yet the red mist has not descended upon me, how could this be?  Ah, read on…

Fanny’s easy chatter with Rossetti as she attempts to get him to notice her is funny and shrewdly realised.  I love Rossetti’s dilemma of following his serious artistic concerns or doing what makes him happy, as it rings true and I suspect it was not much of a wrestle.

‘Rossetti is quite serious; the women whom he paints are spirituelle; a breath would carry them away; they have no legs. But he likes Fanny because she has no side and spills her friendliness as easily as Flora scatters flowers.’

That is one of the loveliest description of Fanny I have ever read, and how I imagine her.  I find the open meaning of Fanny having ‘no side’ to be intriguing because obviously it refers to her rounded shape, but also that nothing is hidden, nothing is kept back.  Fanny has no hidden depths that Rossetti is aware of and so she was easy company.  Savage does not imply this is because Fanny is stupid, quite the opposite. Savage refers to Fanny as ‘a big, ripe girl, and clever’ with ‘nothing of Lizzie’s exhausting self-concern’, but also that Fanny is shrewd enough to know that Rossetti needs a woman with no side, a woman who laughs at anxiety and endless inner-life.  There is a lovely conversation between them where he wants her to clean the house because he has guests coming, and Fanny suggests that if he made up his quarrel with Lizzie then maybe she would do the washing-up.  Rossetti find the idea ridiculous and tells her so, adding that Fanny is getting fat.  In comparison with the ever escalating arguments between Rossetti and Lizzie in the book, this one between him and Fanny is diffused quickly by Fanny’s laughter at his insult.

‘“Ah well,” Fanny said comfortably, “you know I love to eat. And anyway, Hughes likes a proper armful.”
Gabriel grinned. “He has good taste,” he said.’

They go from arguing to laughing affectionately in seconds.  What Savage seems to imply is that Fanny senses what Rossetti needs and complies, but it does her no good as she will never command his attention like Lizzie does, as Lizzie is what he wants in terms of artistic ambition and image.  What Lizzie will not or cannot achieve is a peaceful existence with Rossetti.  Neither of them compromise and drive each other mad, but Rossetti has Fanny to enable his bad behaviour because he knows he always has her to run to.  The night of Lizzie’s death is a prime example of this.  It’s curious that I can picture the scene so well, so clearly, yet the exchange between Lizzie and Rossetti was not witnessed, and so what we have is a piece of supposition which is now ‘fact’.  As Rossetti leaves, Lizzie shouts “it is not your night.  You are going to that slut.”
“At least,” Rossetti replies, “Fanny is pleasant company.”

Ah, there we have it.  Did he go to Fanny?  Did Lizzie really think he was going to Fanny?  Without the intervention of Jeremy Kyle and a lie detector special we’ll never know, but I think Fanny’s bad reputation is engendered by her ‘injury’ to Lizzie when she was at her most vulnerable.

In the section about Jane, Fanny doesn’t appear much, only briefly to judge that Jane Morris did very little apart from sitting around ‘being decorative, but could be excused a lot because she didn’t keep Gabriel from Fanny’s bed of nights.’  Finally then we reach Fanny’s section…

Fanny receives a scant 23 pages, but seeing as she appears throughout the book, I’m not complaining.  Add to this that in the 23 pages, Savage imagines Fanny’s thoughts and feelings unlike anyone else I’ve ever known.

By that I mean sympathetically.

Out of all the descriptions I’ve ever read of Fanny, the one I love most is that she was ‘a woman a cold man could warm his hands at.’  What a fabulous thought.  Fanny section is definitely the finale of the story, Rossetti’s decline and Fanny’s response.  Savage sums up their relationship like this:

‘Gentle reader, it is true that Fanny never understood him; she thought his pictures pretty and his verses rum, but she loved him all her life, although he was not a man much comforted by love.’

It’s hard to convey in a blog, but I am giving that passage a round of applause because it hits the nail on the head.  As Rossetti dies, William makes the decision to exclude Fanny from the funeral. The last sentence of the book is heartbreaking: ‘But Gabriel would have let the old Elephant come.’

As I stop sobbing with the pathos of it all, a few thoughts occur about the nature of Rossetti and Fanny relationship which are reflected in Willowwood.  Savage gives us a portrait of a man who is the author of his own misery and a woman who has to choose between keeping the man she loves and never truly getting what she wants.  Savages vision of Fanny is of a young woman achieving a lifestyle far beyond what would normally be available to her, but sacrificing the chance of an equal relationship, a relationship acknowledged by the world.  Further to this she gives up the fight for marriage with Rossetti as the chances of it are so very slim as to be almost impossible and she risked losing him in the fight. 

I love this book, and cannot recommend it enough.  No-one escapes the story as a hero or a villain and possibly gives a fair sense of the three women and the compromises (or not) that they made.  Fanny is not a slutty fishwife for once (hurrah!) and makes me realise possibly why I defend her so much.  Savage’s Fanny Cornforth uses humour to hold people’s attention as she feels that maybe it’s better to say something funny and saucy and risk being thought a fool, than to say something clever and risk being thought dull.  That reminds me of someone, but I can’t think who…

Monday, 19 September 2011

For the Love of God (and Nudity)

For reasons I cannot fathom, our home possesses about fifty Bibles. Okay, I may exaggerate a little, but there are a great many of them dotted around the house. Some are Lily-Rose’s, given at her christening, some come from Mr Walker and some from me. Added to this are numerous old Bibles, given to me on the death of various relatives. It seems that if anyone dies in my family, the Bible, Book of Common Prayer and so on all make their way to me. I cannot bring myself to part with any of them because that would seem wrong (and would possibly make the Baby Jesus cry, as I was once told, and with Christmas approaching I daren’t do that), so should a vampire army possess the South coast, make your way to my house, it will protect us all. Anyway, for further reasons I cannot fathom, I recently bought another Bible…

Yes, yes, I know, but in my defence I offer three pieces of information. Firstly, it was £2.50. Secondly, it comes from 1907, and thirdly, it boasted that magical word ‘illustrated’. How could I refuse?
Joyce Ethel Haycox was the proud owner of this sturdy volume, as it was given to her in 1907 by her Godmother Mary Ethel Briscoe, with the quote ‘Thou hast put gladness in my heart’ (Ps 4.8), which is a lovely sentiment. It is a little battered but who isn’t when they are 104 years old. I didn’t really examine it in depth before buying it, but when I got it home and looked at the plates I suddenly started to recognise works, for example…

Oh, well hello Ford Madox Brown, I didn’t expect to see you here…and hang about…

Now, I began to check the illustrations in earnest and suddenly realised two things; that I had been looking at religious imagery as a matter of course while studying Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian art, and secondly, I was surprised to see it in context. But why should that be? I was brought up with church and some Sunday schooling, so why was I astounded to see the religious images I am so used to in the context to which they were intended? Is it really as simple as the secularisation of society or is there more to it? Also, is anything added by looking again at our familiar images in a religious context? Blimey, this is all very serious for a Sunday morning (when I am typing this) and I’ve not yet had breakfast. Time for some toast before I continue. Talk amongst yourselves, I’ll be back in a minute, and don’t worry, there will be gratuitous nudity I promise, and not mine this time. Praise be.

Right, there are 88 illustrations in the Children’s Bible, listed by subject in the contents, with no mention of the artists. Flicking through there are works by Cabanel, Seddon, Eastlake, Millais and Ford Madox Brown, together with artists I’m not so familiar with, like Guillick and Alexander Ender. In fact, such a wide range of artists are shown, you suddenly realise that religious pictures were a natural part of people’s repertoire, the Bible providing familiar and commercial source material to artists.

The Parable of the Lost Piece of Money by J E Millais
One of the things that strikes me looking through the Bible is how great some of the pictures are, they bring stories to life and give an air of excitement that (forgive me) is sometimes lacking in Bible study. Imagine you are sat in a cold church with a less than inspiring vicar telling you in a low, endless monotone, the story of Samson and the Lion, Judges 13, of how the spirit moved him in the camp of Dan between Zorah and Eshtaol….gosh, I feel tired just typing it. Now look at the illustration in the Children’s Bible…

Samson and the Lion by Leon Bonnat
 Oh my goodness. I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary to wrestle the lion naked, but I’m not about to argue with the Bible. Good heavens. I may have answered the calling as a Sunday School Teacher if I had known about the lion-wrestling… What was I saying? Oh yes, a great picture can bring a subject to life and make it memorable. How about this…?

Esther and Haman by Ernest Normand
Blimey, it’s all going on in the Bible, look at Esther denounce that naughty Haman. Attempting to read the story of The Advancement of Mordecai, it is hard going, even in a child’s Bible, so the picture enables you to get the story instantly and also engender interest to persevere with the text.

 Other pictures are not quite so gripping…

Joseph Introducing Jacob to Pharaoh by E J Poynter
 Lovely, but not the most exciting aspect of Joseph’s story. Why illustrate it? It’s not like there is a lack of great moments in his multi-coloured coat to rags to riches story, and the Bible has four illustrations for his story alone, with his coat, his sale and his explanation of Pharoh’s dream making up the other pictures. No Potipher’s wife? Shame.

From the good to the dull to the damn right awful…

Speak, Lord, for thy Servant Heareth” by J Sant
 Oh now, come on, even Millais would have been ashamed of that one.

He Knew the Scriptures from his Youth” by J Sant
 James Sant, may you hang your head in embarrassment, however a career in Disney awaits. Look how huge their eyes are. That’s not right at all, it puts the fear of God in me. Maybe that’s the point. On to better things…

The Light of the World, obviously.
As pictures of Mr Jesus go, this has to be one of my favourites, and as engravings for a book go, this is a stunner. The lamp is so glorious and the up-light on his face is beautiful. Top work, Mr Hunt.

Christ Washing Peter’s Feet by Ford Madox Brown
I know it’s just a feeble excuse for me to show Hot Fred Stephens, but really it was that or Samson and his Lion again. When I used this picture last time, it didn’t occur to me to think of it in a Bible, even though it is obviously Mr Jesus. It’s just one of the pictures I know. Therein lies a problem for a modern art historian. I have to get the mind-set of the audience of the mid Victorian period who would not only consume this picture in their high-brow arty journal, but also in church on a Sunday, so ingrained was religion in society at that time. I’m in two minds whether people were out-and-out more religious than we are today, but what they definitely were was more straightforwardly religious, and more conversant with the text, as it were. Doesn’t mean they believed it any more or less than we do, as a society, but they just accepted it as the background noise of life, unquestioned and incorporated into everything.

I can’t imagine popular artists now including religious subjects in their work without people regarding it with some narrowing of eyes. It would be like a pop group releasing a hymn as a single. I guess there are a couple of reasons why artists produced religious works, other than being moved by the Spirit to do so. Firstly, as we saw with lovely Samson, you can get away with some very holy nudity and it’s okay because it’s Biblical. Hallelujah! Secondly, it would sell. People would know the subject and well rendered, it would be extremely commercial.  I suspect for most artists it was a little of all of those points that resulted in their artistic output, as I would guess that most artists at the time would have liked to be thought of as more moved by the Spirit than by the purse, how ever understandable the reverse would be...

Nude lion wrestling anyone? Amen to that….

Friday, 16 September 2011

Ned and Fanny


It is a word I would use to describe the beautiful creatures that populate the canvases of Edward Burne-Jones. Each pale beautiful face reflects back longing and wistful desire, yet it is occasionally only the hairstyle that reveals the gender. Not quite to the level of Simeon Solomon, where it is impossible to tell boys from girls in some paintings, but still each of Burne-Jones’ willow-stem figures radiates an ethereal, almost sexless perfection.

So how exactly did Ned Burne-Jones end up with Fanny Cornforth?

Granted, we only really have Rossetti’s vision of her as way of comparison, but there seems no more ‘fleshly’ model of the Pre-Raphaelite period. It’s not just because it’s Rossetti’s work, saucepot that he was. Even in the rather disapproving accounts of her from Rossetti’s friends, Fanny seemed to have enjoyed life, food and being a woman, and the parts she played in Rossetti’s paintings were never spiritual or ethereal. She was the mistress, the lover, awaiting your presence and you know you’ll get a damn good meal out of it.

None of Burne-Jones women look like they eat, bless them, so again I wonder how on earth Ned got mixed up with Fanny…
Well, there does need to be bad guys in paintings, and if you take Burne-Jones’ ideal woman to be the oval-faced angel in pastel drapery, then maybe Fanny is a good choice for your wicked woman.

Sidonia Von Bork (1860) Edward Burne-Jones
Oh Sidonia, you naughty girl. However, this painting ruined Sleepy Hollow for me, because as soon as I saw Miranda Richardson wearing a similar dress I knew she was a witch. Mind you, it could have just been referencing the sixteenth century source material…

Isabella d’Este (1520) Giulio Romano
Maybe this is where Fanny comes in. The dress from Romano’s painting may well have been an influence for Burne-Jones in his choice of ‘witch-garb’ and it might be that Rossetti and Burne-Jones were exploring the notion of what it meant to be ‘Venetian’, as the Romano painting does seem to hold influence for the greater part of Rossetti’s output of the 1860s, especially in such works as Monna Vanna. Also, Burne-Jones isn’t the only one to use the loopy dress motif…

Vanity (1936) Frank Cadogan Cowper
While not wishing to cast aspersions upon the character of Isabella d’Este, she does seem to have influenced the image of women who are no better than they ought to be. I always think that Vanity should be captioned ‘Due to the sudden impact with the couch, her hair-bag went off…’

So, did Burne-Jones only need Fanny for bad girls? Well, she also posed for the painting Merlin and Nimue which isn’t a ringing endorsement of her finer qualities.

Merlin and Nimue (1861) Edward Burne-Jones
The figure of Merlin seems to decrease and fade beside the sly witch, Nimue, impassively watching her magic take effect. I love the fact that the patch of dark ground she stands on seems to resemble the night sky, with the daisies becoming stars, as if to emphasise her might and power. I have often wondered if Burne-Jones identified with Merlin in his Arthurian paintings, as I have discussed with you before. Possibly any feelings of discomfort with this woman who he saw as ‘malevolent’ could manifest in his images, as if he feared her, and in particular, her size…

Susanna and the Elders Edward Burne-Jones
Caricature of a “fat lady” (1890) Edward Burne-Jones

Hmmmm, it’s too easy to say that Burne-Jones had a problem with big girls. His symbol of pomposity and vanity of society seems to be his cartoons of ‘fat ladies’, entirely occupied by themselves, and his version of Reuben’s Susanna and the Elders contains a level of mockery of the fleeing Susanna, running as fast as her plump little legs will carry her. It is true that he also caricatured himself as a thin streak of beard and limbs with little sad dots for eyes, and the rotund, jolly form of William Morris, reminiscent of Rossetti’s own cartoons, the curly topped ball of energy. The difference I feel if that they are cartoons of actual people, the fat ladies are a ‘type’, a personification of the ridiculous and self-involved element of female society, literally puffed up with foolish self importance. None of Burne-Jones’ ideal women seem to feel self-important as they appear in the pale perfection. So was it Fanny’s extra inches that caused her to be cast as female evil?

This may be an all too simple conclusion to draw, and maybe not entirely wrong, but in balance, Burne-Jones also drew Fanny in a more positive light.

Sketch for Laus Veneris (1860s) Edward Burne-Jones
Laus Veneris (1873-78) Edward Burne-Jones
The early sketch for Laus Veneris shows the reclined figure of Fanny Cornforth as Venus, awaiting her lover, who can be seen approaching through the window. I always thought that the window was actually a picture frame and the knights were a sort of meta-painting (oh, get me and my fancy terms), but Venus doesn’t seem overly bothered about much that is going on. Interestingly, Henry James thought that the figure of Venus has seen a bit more of life than Burne-Jones’ usual ‘innocent and vacant’ young women, such as her companions. It is an interesting thought that Fanny’s more worldly naughtiness may have made it through the Burne-Jones filter…

The Backgammon Players (1861) Edward Burne-Jones
Fanny Cornforth (1860s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I must admit to far preferring Burne-Jones’ sketch of The Backgammon Players to the resultant watercolour, as the crisp detail seems to be lost in colour. In pencil the details, not only of Fanny’s face, but also of the riot of flowers that surround their feet, are immediate and glorious. The portrait of Fanny reminds me very much of Rossetti’s sketches of her later in the 1860s.

The mood of the picture is relaxed and pleasant, and felt to reflect the life at The Red House at this time, with its air of medievalism and courtly love. The painting also graces an exquisite piece of furniture, the Back Gammon Players Cabinet.

Cabinet (1862) Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co
This beautiful cabinet was exhibited, and found a buyer, at the International Exhibition of 1862, where it was displayed in the Medieval Court. In this instance, Fanny seems to represent medieval notions of courtly love and a certain level of wistfulness and unattainability – I love that the lovers are doomed to be separated every time you want to go in the cupboard.

So is it possible that Ned could see Fanny as a wistful maiden in the way he saw other women?

Hope (1862) Edward Burne-Jones
In an alternative watercolour of 'Hope', the woman holds a ball inscribed with ‘If Hope were not, heart should break’, and I can think of no more fitting motto for Fanny during the 1860s. Again, the Venetian style of the portrait and the crinkled hair of the sitter identified her as Fanny, with the image possibly influenced by Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata. It is a reflective, unfinished piece and I lament that we will never see the completed painting as it would be a contrast to the traditional Burne-Jones single-female images.

On balance, I think that Edward Burne-Jones, in the 1860s used models that fitted his purpose, and Fanny fitted into his vision on a few occasions. The influence of Rossetti can not be underestimated at this point and she was his 'girl of the moment' and so it is almost inevitable that some of that would rub off on Ned. However tempting it is, I think it is a mistake to draw a line from the attitudes of ‘Old Ned’ to the opinions of ‘Young Ned’ as which of us still have the same opinions on everything that they had when they were young? If Ned found fat women ridiculous later in life, there is no sign of that in his portrayals of Fanny. If anything, some of the images of Fanny are slightly fearful of her power and size, rather than light-hearted mocking, but taken as a body of work, Fanny seems to have been used as a lush maiden of a medieval, Venetian type, as plush as the fabric she wore. There are worse impressions to leave…

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Beauty on a Hillside

Last time, we gazed in wonder at the work of George Frederic Watts.  This time it is the turn of the woman known as ‘Mrs Watts’, or Mary Seton Watts. Mary designed and co-ordinated the building of the Watts Mortuary Chapel, begun in 1895, and she maintained the Watts Gallery (1903-4) to preserve her husband’s work for the nation.

A short walk from the Watts Gallery is the tiny little mortuary chapel, set on a steep bank surrounded by a graveyard. If you approach the Gallery from the east, you will probably pass it on your way and do a double-take as you drive past, as there, in the middle of some fairly unassuming English countryside, sits a rouged-up Celtic wonder that is obscenely beautiful.

The rounded, single-roomed chapel is rich terracotta red and sits halfway up the hillside, surrounded by gravestones and yew trees. On the outside, angelic faces mingle with birds and words, swirling in Art Nouveau and Celtic symbolism that is almost too much to take in. Transepts that symbolise the cross of faith quarter the circular shape of the chapel and divide the domed roof into sections, each with a rich frieze panel beneath.

 As you can see in the first picture, the frieze has angel ‘brackets’ beneath it, with words behind the angels. The main frieze has Celtic angularity which is softened by the peaceful faces gazing down, while birds and small animals clamber around in the twist of roots and shoots that make up the patterns of the panels. The birds pictured in amongst the foliage represent Hope (Peacock), Truth (Owl), Love (Pelican) and an explosion of a circle of light and stars represents holy Light.

The angel brackets, which seem to have peacock tails, hold circles that represent the Truth, the Life, and the Way.

The Way

The Life
I’m not sure where to begin with the layers and layers of symbolism on the panels, entire books are written on them, so I would not be able to do it justice in a short piece. On the face of it, the panels are simply a gorgeous riot of swirls and benevolent women, and the complexity of the scenes are a joy to behold. For the next bit, it helps to go on a very bright day. Trust me.

Then you go inside…and look up…

 I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Oh my giddy aunt, it is just magical. Pointed arches are separated by two windows, the door and the alter, holding angels and yet more tangled vines and roots.

Here we go then…four large red angels are joined by four sets of six smaller angels, split into pairs. Each pair has one angel that faces you and one with its back to you and they hold a pair of medallions. The medallions represent contrasting ideas as if they are flip sides of a coin, viewed at once, so we have work and rest, life and death, night and day and so on.

The tree of life springs up through the golden band or ‘girdle’, spreading its branches through the scenes, offering bunches of grapes up to heaven. Tiny flowers, including primroses, lilies and a daffodil, dotted above the gold band were painted by the children from the village.

 The tiny pastel cherubs dot the ‘ribs’ of the interior and frame a central point of the ceiling. These heavy beams give the impression of riches, fortification and safety, which is quite a tradition feeling for a church, but the fact that this tiny room can impart all the above is quite an achievement.

The central point is, in theory, the alter, although it does have to compete with quite a lot of decoration to gain your attention.

The painting behind the alter (the reredos) is The All-Pervading by G F Watts, completed shortly before he died. Mary placed her husband’s ashes in a gessoed casket she had made and placed them on the central pedestal of the Chapel. They now rest in a small, plain grave further up in the graveyard.

An easy way to spot the grave is to find the wall plaque for Watts in the covered corridor at the top of the graveyard and the grave is just outside the gates, opposite. The graveyard is definitely worth a tour as some of the graves, made in the same style as the Chapel, are stunning.

When Mary died in 1938, she was placed beside her husband in the shadow of the chapel that is her finest achievement.

There are many fine pages of images on the internet of the chapel, and a dedicated site to it. Again, like the Watts Gallery, I cannot recommend a visit too much, it is astonishingly beautiful, open daily and free.