Thursday, 29 December 2011

Time, Death and Many, Many Judgements

Hello again, and I hope you all had a very happy Christmas.  We are resting in the strange week between Christmas and New Year and I never know quite what to do with myself during this period as I find it a little disturbing.  I'm not sure why, but I've always found New Year a bit depressing, a bit panicking, so it's often an early night on 31st December before I become maudlin.  It's odd because I'm the sort of person who makes some fairly rational resolutions and sticks to them, but for some reason New Year makes me feel the passing of time very strongly and I don't like it one little bit.  It makes me feel a bit like this...

Time, Death and Judgement
Oh, dear me, I've come over all allegorical, it must be the gin.  This a good George Frederick Watts image, all monumental and drape-y.  Time, a handsome young man, strides ever forward with his scythe, but his constant companion is Death, who has gathered flowers in her dress.  Behind them, Judgement in a flame orange gown holds up a golden scale.  It's an interesting twist that 'Father Time' is for once a very well-placed young gentleman, not old and bearded as we are more used to seeing in 'New Year' images, and he is striding forward, unstoppable.  It's a more dizzying prospect for us mortals to think that Time isn't stopping, he is young, fit and healthy and pays us no heed at all in his never-ending motion.  Death looks more care-filled, with her lap of posies, but she has gathered buds, blossoms and fading flowers to her, cut at random.  She does have the decency to look a bit sorry about the fact that she will harvest us, no matter our age, bud or bloom.

The figure of Judgement is interesting.  I'm used to seeing Judgement blindfolded, but this time her face is hidden by her arm, so she does not see us and we do not see her, just her scales, the ever-present judgement that will apply to each of us.  There is a definite feeling of forward motion as we stand before the image, as if at any point they will reach us and we will be harvested and then judged, Watts obviously feeling that our most important judgement happening after we are dead.

This point has a special resonance with me.  The beautiful Watts painting I show you above is not by Watts.  It's a copy by Cecil Edwin Schott.  Cecil Schott worked as a studio assistant for Watts in the 1870s, due to the recommendation of Rossetti who thought the young man showed promise as an artist.  Cecil was the eldest son of John Bernard Schott, Fanny Cornforth's second husband, and it was Fanny who introduced the aspiring young artist to Rossetti.  Cecil worked for Watts for many years, his skill developed in the studio until he emigrated to South Africa and dropped from the records, sadly.  The reason I chose this picture this morning is that the notion that judgement is waiting for you after death has been on my mind as I work on Stunner.  Imagine for a moment that in a hundred years time people you have never met will confidently say of you 'Oh, yes, I know for a fact that [insert your name here] was an illiterate, sluttish monster...'.  In a way it strikes me that Judgement sometimes isn't blind due to impartiality, but also out of ignorance.  People cast judgement upon others blindly because they do not care to look for the truth.

As we approach the new year, I hope we will spend 2012 searching for truth, beauty and a fair share of sniggery giggles together.  Happy New Year and as my Grandmother used to say 'May the moon vomit gold into your goblin sack!'

That has to be a metaphor, but I'm not sure where to start...See you in 2012!

Saturday, 24 December 2011

24th December - The Last Door of Blogvent!

Hello, my dearest friends.  Well, here we are, last day of Blogvent and I have iced my cake...

Nom nom nom...

...collected my turkey...

Okay, so this one isn't ours. Ours is called Trevorley as we didn't know if it was a girl or a boy.

...and have wrapped everything that wasn't quick enough to escape.  I think we're ready for tomorrow, but I have a bit of a quandary as I can't decide between two pictures for my final Blogvent door.  It might be the brandy fumes from the cake (even the marzipan contains brandy) but sod it, I'll do both...

One of my favourite bits of Christmas is going to the Christingle or Carol Service at my Dad's church.  I will be shoving small children into badly fitting costumes this afternoon, including my own small child, while singing loudly.  For the Victorians, as for us, Christmas was a balancing act between the baby Jesus and rampant consumerism, their scales tipping slightly more towards the baby Jesus.  It's hardly surprising that they should produce such incredible, devotional works as this...

Star of Bethlehem (1885-90) Edward Burne-Jones
In 1886, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were approached to produce a tapestry for their old college in Oxford, and the Three Kings visiting Jesus was suggested as a subject.  Ned produced the design and Morris had it woven, presenting it to Exeter College in 1890.  It became their most successful work, and another ten were sold, displayed around the world.  Birmingham commissioned a watercolour of the same scene to hang in their new Art Gallery and Museum in 1887, and so Ned revisited the scene, changing the colours and altering details to produce this huge, beautiful tableau of the Adoration of the Magi.  At over two and a half metres high and almost four metres long, it is the largest watercolour of the nineteenth century and is astonishing to view, dominating the Burne-Jones room in the Museum. 

In many ways it is typical of Ned's work, being tonally peaceful, in sea blues and greens, but look at how the light catches the robes of the first king, shimmering orange.  As I have admitted before, I have a weakness for depictions of the three Kings as they give artists the chance to go mad and dress them up to their heart's content. Ned has done us proud and it is definitely worth looking at a good quality image of it, like the one on Wikipedia to see the detail up close.  Look at the circles sewn on the robe of the second King, echoed on the sleeves of the angel, and the figures dancing around the bottom of the the last King's robe. Each carries a crown, the first King's crown having being placed on the ground, and each crown is as individual as the men they belong to.  I have always thought it's a very picturesque, but ineffectual stable, not much protection there.  I love the detail of the tiny axe in the bottom left corner.  Get chopping, Joseph, a fire is definitely needed...

A final joy of the picture is that we have a picture of Ned painting it.  How small he seems in comparison to the enormous canvas, and so serious.  This is how I picture Ned, hard at work and a little haunted by the beauty he created.

This is a double-bill, so what is my final picture?  I must admit this is my favourite Christmas image because it is so unusual...

The Nativity (1857-58) Arthur Hughes
Good old Birmingham, they do own some amazing pictures.  This has the most mad perspective, all squashed and narrow, the figure of Mary at once both really young and really big.  Look how tiny the figure of Jesus is, he is like a little doll.  Mary binds up the swaddling bands, assisted and watched by five angels, their wings barely fitting into the tight fit of the frame.  The colours are amazing, gold and lilac, with the wings in a reddish pink.  I love how the gold chases up the canvas, from the straw, to the halo on Jesus and up to the angels.  I think Hughes may well have been influenced by Rossetti's depiction of Mary in Ecce Ancilla Domini! from 1849-50 (right), and the rather unusual use of a young girl as Mary rather than a grown woman.

In many ways, despite being both Pre-Raphaelite, Burne-Jones and Hughes see the birth of Jesus in entirely different ways, and these two demonstrate how diverse the movement was.  Burne-Jones brings us a huge tableau in gentle tones, his figures are individuals and richly detailed. The blades of straw on the floor of Hughes' stable are so realistic that I feel prickly just looking at them, but he brings the focus intensely tight to show Mary and the child, boxed in by angels.  Unlike Burne-Jones receding landscape from which the Wise Men have appeared, Hughes' Mary has no escape from her task and her child.  She doesn't look peaceful or accepting, she looks terrified but holding it together, and that is what makes this picture special.  While most teenagers want a DS game for Christmas, this one got the Son of God and her expression says 'Okay, I'll wrap him up because I have to have something to do to stop me freaking out.'  I remember being a new mother and feeling like that, and that is what connects me emotionally to this image.  The gift of painting should be to find a piece of you in a picture that speaks to you directly no matter how old the work or the subject. 

The edge that Arthur Hughes has over Burne-Jones with this subject is that he doesn't view the holy event from a respectful distance but brings you up to Mary's side, next to the angels that flank her.  That slightly claustrophobic feeling draws your attention not to the beauty of the birth of Christ, but on the pressure on Mary, and on all of us, to live up to God's expectation of us.  For the Victorians, that pressure weighed heavy in many complex ways and I think that Hughes was bold to show that tension through such a traditional subject.

Well, my darlings, may you all have a gorgeous Christmas, eat, drink and be merry, and I will catch up with you all in about a week, when I sober up and get the mistletoe out of my hair...

Friday, 23 December 2011

23rd December - Hanging the Mistletoe

Ahh, penultimate blogvent entry...well, I always knew what today and tomorrow's pictures were going to be (not that the rest of the month hasn't been perfectly orchestrated well in advance, obviously *cough*) and so, without anymore faffing, here is today's picture...

Hanging the Mistletoe (Christmas 1860) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Also known as The Farmer's Daughter or Tying the Mistletoe, this is the picture that made me think of doing Blogvent.  I make no secret of how much I love the work of Rossetti and this picture, painted just a year after his radical style alteration with Bocca Baciata is a prime example of why he gets my love.  Tonally, it's a riot of reds and greens, holly berries, hair, ribbons contrasting beautifully with leaves and dress. This is a picture of an archetypal Rossetti girl in a sage green dress, red of hair and big of pout, looking winsome with her arms raised. I'm sure that sounds familiar...

Marigolds (1873) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
 Fair enough, her dress is sea-blue, but her apron is sage-y.  Woman and plants were an obsession for Rossetti.  I know that in the near future I will definitely have to do a Rossetti and his plant-obsession blog, but our lass with the mistletoe is fairly obvious.  She is hoping for love and luck, backed up by the holly that surrounds her too.  My favourite story to do with holly is that it used to be tied to young girls' bedposts on Christmas Eve to keep away goblins.  Genius!  That's where I've been going wrong...

Elizabeth Siddal (1860)

Regina Cordium (1860)
This painting comes from the first Christmas of Rossetti's married life and it took me a moment to recognise the fact that it might possibly be Elizabeth Siddal as the model.  When you look at the sketches he made of her that year, she appears striking and perversely strong, despite her illness. In fact I wonder if she is wearing the same necklace in the oil as she is in the sketch?  Not only that, but the more familiar oil, Regina Cordium, shows her large, pale-lashed eyes and flame red hair to perfection.  Anyway, Rossetti is declaring his love for his wife in Hanging the Mistletoe and a wish that she be protected from evil spirits.

He made a chalk copy of Hanging the Mistletoe  for his old friend, George Boyce in 1868, again for Christmas...

I would like to think that, if only for a moment, the Rossettis, at Christmas 1860, were happy as young married couples are meant to be, and that Rossetti's public and artistic declaration of his love and protection of Elizabeth was fact rather than aspiration. 

May you all be as happy and content as you aspire to be, and I will see you tomorrow for the last door in the blogvent calendar.  Oh, before I go, here is my last mistletoe picture of the season, I promise....

Lucky Christmas indeed....

Thursday, 22 December 2011

22nd December - A Carol

Good morning, my Christmas Chums!  Ever closer we shuffle to the big day, which is handy as I'm running out of images that I want to use, and I have my top two saved for tomorrow and Saturday. Mind you, I'm rather partial to this little gem...
A Carol Edward Frampton
Oh, Edward Frampton, you genius.  This is so utterly delightful and the aspect is so intimate.  You feel like you are stood next to these little angels as they hold open their inordinately large carol book.  Really, it's a bit big, it seems to take three of them to hold it.  I'm guessing photocopied sheets wouldn't have looked so effective.  I wonder if you can get entire carol books on your Kindle, then all you'd need to do is carry round the little machine, rather than the gianty book of Christmas.  Less effective again, I admit.  Gianty book it is.

I love the way their halos block each of the faces, so we don't get a clear view of anyone, just a general sense of pale, serious expressions and golden glints.  Their clothes are so pretty, I particularly fancy wearing the green dress in the centre.  Now, I'm off to a Christingle Service on Saturday, in the middle of Wiltshire, so I may well wear my halo and green dress to that, the only snag being I don't have either, plus I will be gleefully inserting children into costumes (there will be a fair bit of 'shepherds in teatowels' action, trust me) and I don't think the dresses, pretty as they are, allow for the amount of crawling, bending and dashing about that is often needed when controlling kids, even my own.

There is something essentially calming about Medievalism and Christmas, an austerity that says 'You can have Christmas, but you're going to have to bloody well calm down and be serious', and I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing at times.  The Victorian Christmas of raucous family eating until you explode, drinking to excess, and singing loudly is marvellous, but looking at these three lovely girls you have a sense that you can also enjoy yourself quietly, introspectively, without a turkey leg in one hand and a pint of sherry in the other.  May each of your Christmases be a little bit of both: a bit orgy and a bit Frampton.

Think of me as I am out today doing the food shopping, I may not survive, which is a shame because my last two pictures are gorgeous...

See you tomorrow (hopefully)...

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

21st December - Friends in Adversity

My advice to you is never try and explain 'the shortest day' to a six year old, no good comes from it and it takes a very long time, achieving very little.  Today is the aforementioned 'shortest day' and so I hope you are doing as we are, and are keeping warm and cosy near some twinkling Christmas lights that seem to defy the gloom somehow.  This is aided by the fact that we can't go out today as we have to wait for the parcel delivery chaps who will deliver between 8am and 5.30pm.  I see a lot of cleaning and tidying in my future to while away the hours...

Anyway, my lovely readers, here we are, almost at the end of Blogvent, and today's picture is a marvellous, heartwarming picture of brotherly love, very suitable for this time of year...

Friends in Adversity (1880) John Charles Dollman
The full title for this is Friends in Adversity: Christmas Day at the Dreadnaught Hospital, Greenwich (Coming Down to Dinner), and you know how I love a snappy title.  Next year, I think I will do a blog on my favourite insanely long picture titles.  Anyway, here we have a lot of gentlemen of the sea, of all different nations, joining together to eat a meal as they are all in the same boat (if you excuse the pun).  Actually, the Dreadnaught Hospital was original called after the ship it was based in, so they literally would have been all in the same boat.  You could have said they were all in the same boat, all in the same boat, but I digress.

Mr Dollman has obviously gone to town in painting fellows of all nations and ages: old, young, black, white, all shades in between and a blind chap with a big ginger beard, everyone is accounted for.  Now, far be it from me to say I wouldn't mind being led down stairs by the rather handsome gentleman in Turkish or Arabian get-up, he has a fine pair of harem pants.  The clothes of the sailors are gorgeously realised, and there is a repeated tone of green-blue, sea-blue, from the Turkish gentleman's hose and top, via the man with his arm in a sling and up the stairs, picked out in the plaque showing a cross and anchor above a heart.  The united themes of 'Faith, Hope and Charity', as symbolised by the plaque, bind the sailors to each other, and they all are together under the banner which reads 'After so many ship wrecks we find a port!'  So many of the men are injured, blind, lame and uncommonly handsome, that the only place they can find the certainty of help and comfort is with their own kind.  For a Victorian message, it's a paradox to explain.  The nineteenth century was hardly the well-spring of brotherhood for all nations, and to me it seems a sizable chunk of time was spent in pinching bits of land and being somewhat bossy in other people's country.  This painting, which isn't altogether overtly metaphoric, seems to show that it is possible to forget the concerns of nation for a moment and find a common cause among people who have served a similar life to you.  Most of these people would not have spoken the same language but they understand that their situation is the same, so there is no conflict.  It would be interesting to know how many sailors of different countries did use the Dreadnaught Hospital, how realistic this depiction is, because although it is an inspiring symbol of brotherhood, it also may have had a grain of truth behind it.

Far be it from me to be suggestive, but am I the only one who noticed that the boy with the fiddle is holding mistletoe?  I'm sure it's a symbol of the love between nations, the aspiration that one day we all may realise the truth that we are all 'in the same boat', so we should put our petty differences behind us and join arms to go down to metaphoric Christmas dinner.  I certainly would never be so tacky as to suggest that my first thought was 'Father Christmas obviously go the old chap with the stick's letter, then...'

Shame on me, I'll make the Baby Jesus cry with my sauciness.

See you tomorrow.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

20th December - The Snowball

When I was little, I spent a goodly part of winter ingesting snow.  This wasn't by choice, it was because I grew up amongst a gang of boys and when it came to snowballing season I was somewhat of a soft target.  I did try and give as good as I got, but somehow I always ended up with a facefull of snow, followed in rapid succession by more snow until I couldn't feel my nose or lips.  Even to this day I have a nervousness when it comes to snow, probably backed up by the snowball fights I've had where the boys put rocks in the middle of the frosty missiles.  I'm not looking for pity, but it does bring me, bitterly, to this little offering...

The Snowball: Guilty or Not Guilty? Harold Hume Piffard
Now, in my opinion I think this should be called The Snowball: You Little B*****d! but looking at it, I don't think it is so clear cut.  Yes, the urchin does look mightily shifty, but that's because he is poor and the poor aren't to be trusted, as we all know.  However, the trees that line the street are resplendent with snow and so a more likely culprit is that evil duo of Mother Nature and Gravity.  I'm not sure the gentleman with snow trickling down his neck is going to pause in his assessment of the situation and an umbrella-related incident will no doubt ensue.

I rather like the artist who painted this picture.  Harold Hume Piffard, or 'Piff' to his chums, was a bit of an adventurer and got up to all kinds of high-jinks and scrapes including flying his boxkite biplane (which he named Hummingbird) to a local pub in 1910 to win a bet and a crate of champagne.  He was an acrobat, worked on a tea plantation and produced many fine pictures, including this one, which was featured in the Pears Annual.  Piff strikes me as a fine fellow, whom one could have a cigar with and talk about India.  Smashing.

Back to snowballing:  The Victorians loved it.  I suppose anything that taught future pioneers of Empire to defeat an enemy that was armed with what amounts to semi-solid water was a fine idea.  It seems to be a predominantly male, mostly working-class affair, but you do get the occasional girl and the odd 'public school scrap'.  On the whole it seems a blameless way for the poor to spend their time between bouts of consumption and going up chimneys.

Snowballing (1865) John Morgan
There is an echoing of the patriotic, Lady Butler-esque pictures of soldiers bravely fighting off whomever's country we're trying to pinch (or the French, obviously), but heavily clothed in the 'urchins being scamp-ish' vibe which makes it entirely suitable for Christmas cards and holiday spirit.  I find Piff's picture especially interesting as you naturally suspect the little wretch of snowballing his elders, but it is entirely possible that he didn't, he might have been innocently toasting his chestnuts at the time.  No, that isn't a euphemism.

Anyway, keep warm, and if anyone unfairly snowballs you, let me know.  I have a lot of unresolved issues on that front and will reap vengeance on your behalf.

See you tomorrow.

Monday, 19 December 2011

19th December - For Snow Comes Thick at Christmas Tide

I ought to do some sort of countdown in order of preference now we're so close to the end of Blogvent.  Oh well, I think I'm down to some of my favourites, including this little treasure...

For Snow Comes Thick at Christmas Tide Edward Frederick Brewtnall

The complete title for this little picture is For Snow Comes Thick at Christmas Tide and We Can Neither Walk Nor Ride The Hawk and Hound at Home Must Bide.  Brief and to the point then.   

Brewtnall was one of those artists whose work I knew but I didn't realise it was by him.  I especially knew his fairy-tale scenes like Sleeping Beauty...

...but thought it was possibly by someone like Arthur Hughes.  Looking at Brewtnall's work, it is very detailed and gorgeously toned. Looking at For Snow Comes Thick, our reclining gentleman looks at his hawk as both of them are housebound due to snow.  Why do you need to have your hawk in the house?  It's like that damn bird in Millais Isabella, sat on the dining room chair.  Now, call me fussy, but I'd be concerned for hygiene.  There is a reason why my chickens don't live in the house.

Anyhow, our bored chap is looking rather fine in his golden striped clothes and pale blue hose (so much more flattering than white) (unless they were white but he is now so cold he has gone blue).  There is a general feeling of opulence in the room, with the tapestry, the gorgeous plant pot and the discarded lute.  Despite living in such richness, our handsome gent is filled with sorrow due to the inclemency of the weather and his inability to kill stuff.  Oh woe, woe is me.

To start with, I couldn't work out where the hound was, but I believe he is hiding behind the plant pot, possibly keeping a low profile, or maybe he's eaten too many mince pies.  It's a very interesting image, compared with traditional images of winter inconvenience.  I'm more used to seeing pegged-out peasants in the snow, but here is a perverse yet honest picture, especially for modern times.  These days, you and I are less likely to snuff it in the snow with our bundle of sticks, but come the heavy snow, there may come a moment when you think 'I'm fed up of being inside...'  This picture isn't about the dramatic horror of Winter, it's about being trapped in the house with your equally bored hawk.  After being in the house with your relatives for a period of enforced jollity, which of us doesn't think 'Blimey, I think I need to go out and kill something...'

Mind you, the hawk is thinking 'Well, I'm nice and warm, I don't know what your moaning about, human...'

See you tomorrow.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

18th December - At the First Touch of Winter, Summer Fades Away

We seem to be in the home straight for Christmas and I'm flying.  So far this crisp and frosty Sunday morning, I have been to work and finished up some bits that needed sorting before Christmas, I have sent a draft of Stunner 2.0 to Stephanie Pina, Pre-Raphaelite Jedi and all round fabulous woman, and am writing my blog.  Blimey, that's not bad for 10.30am.  Later, I am off to my cousin's house for tea and Dalek biscuits which I iced on Thursday.  Bring it!  Plus, I found the most beautiful seasonal image...

At the First Touch of Winter, Summer Fades Away (1897) Valentine Cameron Prinsep
Oh, sigh and swoon at how gorgeous this image is.  Part Botticelli, part Scottish Widow's advert, Prinsep delivers a classical image of depth and magnificence.  The figure of Summer, scattering her blossoms, reminds me of the many gold-clad ladies destined to be mown by the man with the scythe.  True to form, a black draped buzz-killer has turned up and brought the party to an end.  The blue sky is relegated to the corner and the dark gloom surrounding Winter spreads over the canvas. 

Much like the endless paintings of old women in the snow, walking miserably back from church in clogs, this painting speaks of the harshness of life, the change not only in the season but in age.  Summer is in the prime of life, but Winter has a hint of grey in her dark hair (which is really attractive, not that I'm biased) and is an older woman.  Her gaze is a complicated mix of the inevitable and sorrow as she reaches out, her hand about to touch Summer's shoulder.  Winter, bleakness, the cold, and hardship all appear as shorthand for the last years of life in Victorian art and this personification is no different.  You could almost say that as she looks at Summer, Winter remembers herself and the memory brings sorrow.  Summer remains oblivious to the impending doom, skipping and sprinkling flowers as if her party would never end.  Sigh...yes, well, I've heard that many people feel like that and are rudely awaken when their back is cranky on wet days and they go a bit grey and maybe should invest in a stronger face cream to aid their face back into its original form in the mornings.  Apparently.

Anyway, may all of your Summers be warm and sunny, and may you dodge the hand of Winter for a little longer.

See you tomorrow.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

17th December - Train Caught in a Snowdrift

Still no snow, although it is mighty nippy out there today.  I'm rather pleased at the lack of snow to be honest as I have to journey up the country to see my lovely family in Buckinghamshire tomorrow and I'd rather not be travelling in inclement weather.  I mean, can you imagine if the Walker family had to travel in conditions like this...?

Train Caught in a Snowdrift (1881) Thomas H Heawood

That's some deep snow and they are well and truly stuck.  A guard wades up the side of the train, his legs entirely hidden by the drift, as curious and nervous passengers look out from their carriages.  I love the gentleman wrapped up in his muffler, opening his padded door to find out how bad the situation is.  Behind him shelters a young lady, not keen to expose herself to the cold. Or maybe she doesn't want to be seen, if you catch my meaning.  We all know about Charles Dickens and the Staplehurst rail crash...

Undoubtedly, this is a painting based on fact.  It has a simple style,  a kind of 'recording of events' straightforwardness that is reminiscent of newspaper photography.  This is more than likely based on a real event that happened in the painter's locality.  Mr Heawood has a 'train in peril' picture for any weather condition, for example heavy rain...

Durston, Somerset, Flooded Out (1894) 

No doubt also these paintings are fuelled by the public fascination with trains and their imposing presence in the Victorian, mainly rural, landscape.  When we think of trains, it tends to be in the context of  urban industrial expansion, bringing people from one town or city to another, but there must have also been the dimension of the mark they left across the countryside.  What I see in both of these pictures, especially the snowdrift image is the power of nature striking against human industry.  We may have built a giant beast of iron and steel but frozen water could halt it.  It's interesting that the man can wade through the snow and make progress, but the train is stuck fast.

There are some fascinating articles on the net about the Victorian fascination with the perils of train travel, but Heawood doesn't give us a rail disaster as much as a rail failure.  The train has been stopped by snow, possibly the wrong kind of snow, and as technologically advanced as it might be, that engine isn't going anywhere until someone clears the line.  Put the kettle on, it's going to be a long wait...

See you tomorrow.

Friday, 16 December 2011

16th December - Christmas Eve

My snow was a no show.  However, the drizzle, cold wind and general hideousness has descended, turning our back garden into the Somme.  There should be snow, red berries and cheery (living) robins frolicking in a jolly manner.  What I have is two disgruntled hens sitting under their pen-roof looking at me accusingly.  What I am in need of is an injection of Christmas spirit, so I turn to this image for inspiration...

Christmas Eve Sir William Allan
Originally titled 'Penny Wedding' and dating from around 1820-1830, it is a cavalcade of Christmas mayhem.  On the Aberdeen Art Gallery website, they have a lovely piece about how Scotland was a little more reticent in the 'feast and play' aspect of Christmas, but Walter Scott became an ambassador for the more fun aspects of family frivolity and fun.  William Allan was a friend of Scott and this is his contribution to the discussion.

Looking at the painting, there is a lot of movement, noise, chaos and laughter.  Centrally, we have a lovely couple, the gentleman lifting his lady up underneath some handy mistletoe.  This young lady looks a little unwilling, but look at the size of that mistletoe branch, the poor girl doesn't stand a chance.  Another couple who seem a little less than in the mood are the couple just to their right, with the girl in pale salmon more interested in the dancing than her lover.  Mind you, she might be keeping an eye out for her husband, if you know what I mean.

Fear not, there are some happy couples in the room.  The soldier and his lady at the front seem jolly, and around the fire on the left are people happily resting together.  Right at the back, in the centre are an older couple who lean in to each other.  It is as if Allan is showing us love in its many guises, both fleeting and true and everything in between.

You can see why it had its original title of 'Penny Wedding'; it would be understandable to think the couple under the mistletoe are a bride and groom, despite her reluctance.  There are notes of red and green dotted around the scene hinting at its Christmas theme, but I also find it to be sort of pantomime-esque and staged.  The roof line lends a proscenium aspect to the framing, and makes you feel like you are seeing something artificial rather than captured life.  In saying that, I don't mean it to be negative, as there is often a staged unreality of expectation in what we think Christmas will contain, and the parts that make the whole of this image can be counted among them.  We expect warmth, companionship, love, romance and family, and hopefully that is what each of you, my lovely readers, will get in your stocking this year.

I don't want the children drinking at the front.  Santa can keep those.

See you tomorrow.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

15th December – The Sisters of Charity

So, apparently it will snow tonight. Not just a bit of snow, but apocalypse levels of snow fall, enough to bury a double-decker bus. I was told this by someone who read it in the Daily Mail, so I may take it slightly with a pinch of salt, but I may also sprinkle that salt on the pathway to my door, just to be sure. It seems to me that we get over-excited in England when it snows, and rush out, buy forty loaves of bread, and hide. We should relax more, it used to snow in olden days and no-one got phased back then. Look, they had time for things like this…

The Sisters of Charity (1871) Charles Burton Barber
Ahh, it’s a touching tale of the extremely rich at Christmas. Mother and daughter stand on their doorstep and sprinkle food for the assembled cast of Bambi. The deer are exquisitely observed, the two on the right are especially beautiful, and a seemingly endless procession of them are filing up from the forest on the left. Wouldn’t that be a lovely, if disconcerting, sight on Christmas morning? I’ve opened my door on a guilty-looking hedgehog before, but I think a great herd of deer might top that, especially as I live in the middle of a city.

Turning to the two figures, the title refers not to their relationship but to their spiritual position. The mother and daughter are bestowing gifts of food upon the poor and needy, who just happen to be animals. Mind you, you don’t get much poorer than that. That poor young deer in the front has never even owned a pair of shoes. It’s shocking, there should be a charity single for him.

I noticed the woman is dressed in black. It could be that her fashionable, fur-trimmed outerwear just happens to be black, but I wonder if she is a young widow, which would make her act of kindness to others even more full of pathos. Here’s where my ‘narrative art’ gene kicks in and I wonder if there is a story behind it. Did her husband die while out hunting and so she vowed to tend the deer rather than cause them harm, ultimately the downfall of her husband? Are the pair of does on the right any reflection of the figures in the doorway? I strongly suspect that she is a widow and her role now is to bestow charity, even if it is to deer. Mind you, if the deer were to blame for her husband’s death then maybe they ought to approach with more caution, she might want revenge…

I think it was the robins in the centre front that did in her husband. No-one ever suspects the robins…

See you tomorrow.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

14th December - The Four Seasons: Winter

Today, I am melancholic.  Look at my sad face, it's pitiful.  The reason I'm all teary is that it is the 150th anniversary of Prince Albert's death.  The picture for today is therefore  The Four Seasons: Winter by Eloise Harriet Stannard.

Happy Christmas! 

I'm not sure why I didn't know before, but I didn't realise that Prince Albert died this close to Christmas, the ultimate Victorian invention.  In fact, there were a good number of 'dead in the snow' pictures to chose from for today's post.  There seems to be a special genre for 'poor and dead in the snow' and I wonder if the added pathos of Christmas, 'the happiest time of year', brings an added dimension of misery to the images.  What could be a greater contrast to the archetypal jolly Christmas feast than a miserable dead robin.  It's enough to put you off your brandy butter...

Turning to our picture above, there is an irony in the dead robin in the snow, as you'd think Winter was the robin's best season.  The other robin dips its little robin-y head in grief, before no doubt shedding little robin-y tears.  Or maybe pinching the dead robin's berries.  What?  He's not going to need them....

Winter seems to throw up a party of fears for our Nineteenth Century cousins.  The Poor could easily be freezing to death, often with bundles of sticks on their backs.  The Old are exposing themselves to harsh weather to go to church.  Everyone is risking illness and potential death to step outside in the snow. Under such conditions who is in the mood to celebrate?  Blimey, who can risk it?  It could be argued that the Victorians partied hard because life was so fragile and if the husband of the Queen, arguably the most privileged man in the country could be just snuffed out, then a dual existence of celebration and fear becomes the norm.

Unlike Queen Victoria, I won't spend the rest of my life mourning Albert and avoiding the public, I'll be cheerier tomorrow.  In the meantime, be kind to robins and keep warm.

I'll see you tomorrow.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

13th December – A Carol

Picture, if you will, a tiny car barrelling down the motorway and a woman belting out Christmas carols at the top of her voice. That, gentle readers, is me on my commute at the moment, singing along with the Annie Lennox Christmas album. I verily live up to my Native American name of ‘Sings Loud in Small Car’. I’m not sure what my favourite carol is, possibly a toss up between ‘Hark the Herald Angels’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman’, especially the latter as I like the thought of being saved from Satan’s power when I am ‘gone astray’ (which is quite often). I do like the opportunity to sing loudly and in public, so maybe carolling is a way forward for me, much like the people in today’s picture….

A Carol Laura Alma Tadema
A group of cherubic kiddiwinks belt out classics in the hallway of their home. Blimey, they’re organised, one even has a lute. It wasn’t like that in my day. Also, just because I grew up in the middle of Wiltshire, please don’t imagine it was some romantic Thomas Hardy-esque Casterbridge Christmas. We ambled through the various 1960s new-build estates, then gave up when our wellies filled with rain. To avoid the wellies-and-rain combination, these smart children are carol singing indoors. Genius! The roughest terrain they are going to tackle is the rug. Victorian kids had it easy… 

Looking at the children, their faces are together in a neat arrangement...

The two youngest sing, holding a large book of music between them, the elder boy plays his lute and the girl carries a plate with a scroll and some tulips. Ahhh, the tulips. Not especially known as a Christmas plant, but they do enable us to date the picture exactly. This painting is set in 1636, and while it wasn’t unusual for Laura Alma Tadema to use seventeenth century Dutch style in her work, this picture is easy to date because rather than being about Christmas, it’s about folly and wealth.

I’m guessing that the tulips pictured on the silver plate are Rosen, the variegated red/pink and white variety, possibly even Admiral Verijck, a specially prized specimen, pictured below…

During the Tulip Mania of 1636-37, the lovely Admiral would cost you 1045 florins. The price rose dramatically from December 1636 to February 1637, and so the children are carrying an extremely expensive bunch of flowers as they sing in the middle of the period of mania. Maybe the young lady with the plate should pay more attention as the petals have begun to fall and one has settled on the fur of the bear. The flowers won’t last much longer, and neither will their fortune if it is dependant on something as fragile and transient as the fashion for flowers.

Modern discussion of Tulip Mania began in this country in 1841 with the publication of Charles Mackay’s splendidly named Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Greed and folly were seen as herd instincts for people, all driven mad as they clamoured to buy into the thing that would make them rich. Alma Tadema seems to have contrasted the tulip on the silver plate with the carols, songs about a child born in a stable.

So, where are the children? It seems they are within their own home, singing for their parents, but why are they faced with a closed door? It might be as simple as the parents will open the door and bestow gifts upon their lovely offspring, but as images go, surely it would be less ambiguous, more straight-forward, to have the parents smiling at their carolling kids. The only thing I can think is that it hints that not all rewards are forthcoming. The children sing sweetly in the corridor but the door remains closed, just as Holland went mad for the tulip but the reward for their actions was not given when the bubble burst and the tulips fell in price. It could be that the painting is suggesting that their wealth is as fragile as the tulip that is already falling apart.

Sing up Kids, by February you’ll be busking for your supper.

See you tomorrow.

Monday, 12 December 2011

12th December - Preparing for Christmas

I really need to do my Christmas cards, it's rather shocking. I always think that I'll be all prepared, then all of a sudden we're hurtling through December and I've not achieved a damn thing.  Well, I took some sparkly pictures of Lily to stick in the cards of relatives and close friends and I think I may have bought some cards a while ago...oh heavens, so much to fit in.  Do you think it has always been this way?  Did the Victorians feel this stressed?  Did young ladies have to secrete small bottles of gin in their muffs to cope with the pressure?  Looking at this beautiful image, I wonder...

Preparing for Christmas George Goodwin Kilburne
In her gorgeous pink pin-striped dress, a young woman hangs some holly on a mirror.  Something or someone has caught her attention and she is distracted from her task.  At first I wondered if someone was saying 'up a bit, left a bit...' to her, but looking at her face, she appears to be gazing dreamily at someone.  She is definitely dewy-eyed in her distraction, and I'm surprised it isn't mistletoe she's hanging.  Maybe she's spotted someone under the mistletoe she fancies kissing.  Quick, shove the holly on the mirror and get over there!

Yuletide George Goodwin Kilburne
Kilburne was a bit of a Christmas powerhouse, and he illustrated many Christmas cards.  His pastel-pretty images made sweetly sentimental cards, exactly in tune with the Victorian sensibility.  I find his images share themes and imagery with Pre-Raphaelite art:  Look at the young woman hanging her holly.  I find many similarities between her and Rossetti lovelies.  Her palette is paler but the feeling is the same.  The two women decorating the suit of armour make me think of Millais maidens and Keats poetry.  Although Kilburne's art seems a little cliched, I suspect it is because his imagery and style are often copied in the archetypal Christmas cards we all know today.

So, possibly I should start hanging the holly and my worries will drift away as I spy my handsome husband under the mistletoe.  Hmmm, well, I can't say Kilburne's young lady looks without care, she looks a little distracted.  Maybe she is also worrying about posting dates and whether or not she's remembered to buy for all the cousins' children, has she forgotten anyone?  Does she have enough chestnuts?  Oh, heavens, do I have enough chestnuts?  I better check...

See you tomorrow.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

11th December - Dressing the Christmas Tree

We put our Christmas tree up right at the beginning of December this year.  We usually put it up quite early, in order for it to be all pretty for people who come for Lily's birthday on 6th, but this year it went up on 1st.  Looking at it now, it does add a lovely nostalgic twinkle in the corner of the room and makes me feel all warm and cheery, especially as I am typing this in a fairly chilly, dark room.  Hung on our tree are decoration gathered on our travels: Mr Walker and I tend to go on holiday in the Autumn and buy something to hang on the tree from places we have been.  There is the most gaudy Eiffel Tower being clutched by a fairy, a shiny red Empire State Building, a glass heart from the Lake District, and a cat holding a present from the Isle of Man.  When we hang our decorations we can remember the places we have been together and we continue to add to them, with a painted York scene bauble from our trip up north in October.  All this rambling on has a point, and that is today's picture: Dressing the Christmas Tree by Bessie Maud Christian Fagan...

See, it's not all muff jokes and eating.  I think this is a beautiful image, not my normal thing on these posts, but in its way an evolution on from things like Cherry Ripe by Millais.  All that is clear at first view are her hands, her head and the little pink bird, emerging from the darkness.  The more you look however, the more you make out, and the tree with its candles are just about visible behind her. There is a quiet seriousness to the image which contrasts with some of the more lively scenes I've talked about so far.  For example, the frenzied food unpacking of the Christmas Hamper couldn't be further from this little girl hanging her bird on the tree.

Her expression is interesting, she looks happy but not bouncy grinning.  She has a look of thoughtful pleasure which she shares with us as she pauses in her task.  I like quiet images of Christmas, I value the moments that are about reflection and pleasure, rather than battling through crowds and dealing with difficult people.  Isn't it telling how stressed everyone gets this time of year?  Driving through the city I have been carved up viciously many times and I've begun to fear for my well-being on the motorway I commute down.  Possibly the next person who endangers me in a car will be pulled over and presented with this picture.  Hey chaps, relax, go hang a bird!

I wish you all a peaceful, bird-hanging Christmas.  I'm off to feed my Christmas cake.  Again.

See you tomorrow.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

10th December - Grandmama's Christmas Visitors

We're off visiting relatives today, armed with mince pies and ninjabread men.  This visit is in honour of my daughter's sixth birthday, and the next time we'll see them all will be Christmas Eve (not long now).  It was always a major component of Christmas when I was growing up, to visit my Grandma on Christmas Eve, a bit of a ritual, and so it seems right and proper to take Lily up to see her Grandparents and her cousins on Christmas Eve before we entrench ourselves at home.  It seems that we're not the only ones and for many people the visit to relatives was a precious part of the Christmas period.  Take this picture, for example...

Grandmama's Christmas Visitors George Adolphus Storey
Ahh, look at their little smiling faces.  Every Grandma's heart would swell with happiness at the sight of such a jolly party.  I'm not sure if the dog came out of the coach or belongs to Grandma, but I'm guessing the latter, and I suppose he represents the faithfulness of the children in their visit.  Or Grandma has just set the dog on her grandchildren.  Lordy, how many of them are there packed into that coach?  God, one of them has a trumpet, there will be no peace this afternoon.  The coachmen are smiling in a particularly evil way as if to say 'Yes, happy Christmas Grandma, you don't know it yet but the one at the back has a tin drum...'

The first time I saw the picture I thought the girl at the front had one enormous sleeve, but of course it's just her huge muff.  Ahh, December is indeed Muff Month and hers is very impressive. It's almost up to her armpit!  In my extensive muff research I have come across this very special item...

This, my friends, is a muff pistol.  Should you be set upon by rascals and vagabonds, you can whip this out of your muff and shoot them.  Now, that does seem a little harsh, but December can be a rough month with all that carolling and eating and endless shopping, so possibly it wouldn't hurt to be packing heat in your muff.  The young lady descending from the coach does look like she would be kind of handy with a piece, if only to keep her siblings in line, especially the one with the trumpet.

Who allows a child to take a trumpet to a relative's house?  The parents obviously hold a grudge.  Mind you, nothing says Christmas like developing a nervous twitch because of a child's toy.  We get to spend Christmas this year with Cookie the Animatronic Dog, the present that Lily so desperately wished for.

And remember, an animatronic dog is not just for Christmas, it's for life.  Oh joy.

See you tomorrow.

Friday, 9 December 2011

9th December – Christmas Presents

Have you done your Christmas shopping yet? Sorry, no pressure, and don’t worry, I’m woefully behind on mine. For the first time, Lily-Rose wrote a letter to Father Christmas as she is desperate to get a certain toy in her stocking, so she grasped the pen in her little five-year old hand and then started crying as she had writer’s block. Oh, the drama. How much simpler things were in years gone by….

Christmas Presents (1882) Hugo Oehmichen
Those were the days, when you were happy with an apple and a wooden windmill. These children appear to be leaving a church or convent school, with gifts from the benevolent nun, just seen in the doorway. This is a fascinating picture as the more you look, the more you see. For example…

Here is a nice poor family, and the children have had some great gifts. Who wouldn’t want a jaunty windmill on Christmas day, although in his excitement, Windmill-Boy has dropped his apples. The other boy offers what looks like a cross to his baby sister, but doesn’t appear to be wearing any boots. He carries some, so maybe he has been given a new pair. The mother doesn’t look overjoyed, just tired and poor and her facial expression is echoed in that of the girl in the centre.

It strikes me that they both look sad and thoughtful, possibly because charity provides their Christmas for them, rather than providing it themselves like nice Victorians are meant to. She may be the oldest child there, and so unlike her delighted companions, she knows that life is unrelentingly hard, despite moments of bestowed joy.

I love the little blonde girl, who rather stands out with her pale blue pinafore and fair curls. She represents the simple, childlike pleasure of Christmas, filled with glee over her new doll and whatever else she has stashed in her apron. The reason she is so happy might be that she swiped the church silver on the way out and that’s what is bundled in her pinafore. Bloody orphans.

Balancing the image, on the other side to the poor mother and her family, is the wealthy family.

Now, did the little girl say ‘Mama, all I want for Christmas is to point at some poor people’? Well, Santa obviously got her letter, and Grandma is having a good point too. I wonder if the little girl is gesturing at the orphan who has a new ABC book?

‘Quick, Grandmama! They’re learning to read! No good will come of it!’

Now, in my opinion, even worse than allowing poor people to read is arming them with a whip like this little boy…

Come the class war and he’s already armed. Little did the Nun suspect that the boy already knew what he was going to do with his new whip. At home was Rex the dog and Flora the pig, and together they would take the world by storm….

 See you tomorrow!

Thursday, 8 December 2011

8th December – Under the Mistletoe

Yes, my mistletoe obsession continues. I now have some hung above my doorway at home, so I have promised not to force Lily-Rose into the tree outside with a sickle (actually the bacon scissors, we don’t own a sickle). Today’s picture is extra Christmas-y: I bring you Under the Mistletoe by John Callcott Horsley…

Under the Mistletoe John Callcott Horsley
I can’t decide about this picture. At first glance it appears to be a brother and sister sat by a fire playing on a chilly Christmas-y day. They appear to be in quite sombre seventeenth century dress (I’m a little doubtful of that too, but the shoes look decidedly cavalier). However, the way the little boy is viewing the little girl is a bit odd. I think he has been drawing her in chalk on the slate, but he is decidedly lost in thought now as he watches his companion kiss her doll under the mistletoe.

...aspiring model
Budding artist, gazing at...

Red, red, red...
Right, let’s rescue it from the pit of weirdness I have just dug. My narration for the picture is as follows. I think they are both Civil War orphans, hence the black, but are not related (just clear that particular weirdness up now). There seems to be a number of highlights of red in the picture: the bows on his shoes, the cradle, her cap and the tiny red pin-pricks of the holly berries behind the boy. I think these speak of the blood shed of the Civil War, but I might be carried away with it all. Anyway, I think it is a prefigure of their later life, that the boy will marry his companion, hinted at the romance of the mistletoe. 

Now, isn’t that lovely?

What makes today’s Blogvent door extra Christmas-y is that John Callcott Horsley designed the first Christmas Card in 1843.

Linking back to yesterday’s picture, we have the very Victorian concerns of helping the poor and needy and getting bladdered on sherry. I particularly like the child in the middle. Apparently, you can’t start them too young…

Oh, and I did promise to tell you about The Holly and the Ivy. The story goes (probably apocryphal, but fun none the less) that Henry VIII wrote the song and it is entirely filthy. I didn’t believe it until I started to sing it and by the time I reached ‘the playing on the merry organ’ I was giggling like a school girl.

See you tomorrow!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

7th December - The Christmas Hamper

Possibly one of the most satisfying things I am doing at present is feeding my Christmas cake. I made it a couple of weeks ago, and so between now and Christmas Eve, I am feeding it every week, by which I mean I am teaspoon-ing brandy over the surface, top and bottom. I may be a little heavy-handed in my feeding, so I suspect that by Christmas we will be pouring the cake into glasses. This is the first year that I have made so much Christmas food from scratch and in advance. I made my own mincemeat, my own mince pies and cake, and more is to come, because for me, Christmas is about food. In this vein, I bring you The Christmas Hamper by Robert Braithwaite Martineau.

The Christmas Hamper Robert Braithwaite Martineau
When I say that Christmas is about food, I don’t mean that I intend to eat myself into a coma for the entire holiday (although I’m not ruling that out), rather that everything that my family eats should convey my love and care for them. Wow, that sounded a lot less weird in my head.

When I think of a proper Victorian Christmas, I do think about food. Think of Scrooge turning up with his giant goose to Kermit the Frog’s house in The Muppet Christmas Carol (That Dickens, he knew how to write). There is an appreciation, even a delight, in good food in Victorian society, which reminds me of how little we seem to delight in it now. Look at the expression on the face of the father as he pulls that mammoth bird from the hamper…

I wonder how heavy it is… I’m cooking a turkey for the first time this year and I have no concept of how big this damn thing is going to be as I have never actually seen a cooked turkey in real life. I know, it’s odd, but we didn’t have it at home and I’ve never gone anywhere where someone has produced one. I’ve cooked a goose, I’ve cooked a duck and countless chickens, but never a turkey. The man of the house holds his turkey up in the centre of the picture and its wings spread out in a beautiful shape. It’s almost cruciform, but I wonder if it’s too far to suggest that the shape of the turkey references the presence of Christ in Christmas, in the meal and the gathering of the family? Maybe it’s just a lovely shape, highlighted by those snowy white feathers.

I’m trying to think if I’ve ever cooked a hare, and I think not, but I noticed that the son is heaving one out of the basket…

Is it just me or does he look like he is either greeting it or dancing with it? Either way, this family isn’t starving over the festivities. In case you were worried that it is all meat, they also have a goodly tray of apples. Well, that’s one of their five-a-day…

Apples are a bit Biblical, aren’t they? Let's not get carried away - maybe the artist included them because they look nice. Well, a damn sight prettier than a tray of sprouts. Hang about, look at the little girl with her doll next to the lady with the apples…

Three choruses of ‘Away in a Manger’ later and I suspect Mr Martineau may be sneaking a bit of Christ into Christmas. She definitely looks like the lucky girl in class who got to play Mary in the school play. I never got to be Mary, I was once the Angel Gabriel but that just involved me standing around with tinsel on my head. 

I'm on the far left, don't laugh.
So what Martineau has done is place a tableau of the Virgin and Child in amongst an archetypal Victorian family scene. If you took the family in the centre away, you would be left with the light coming in from the window falling upon the 'mother and child'. In fact, the turkey could stand for the star, shining brightly in the dark Victorian surroundings. The colours used for the family and the room are quite muted, reds and greens, but the little Mary-girl wears purple, setting her apart (even though her tights are red) and hinting at her elevated status. Martineau has found a way to show the nativity without taking away from the more commonplace delight of Christmas. He seems to be saying, in his Victorian Christmas, there is room for a giant turkey and the baby Jesus, but in their delight to open our giant hamper of food, the family have sidelined the reason for the feast. It must have been a difficult line to walk for an up-and-coming Victorian - you want to show and enjoy your wealth, but you want to appear ‘appropriately religious’. Who needs that kind of pressure when you have a giant turkey to pluck?

The only person who I don’t understand is the little girl in red on the far left…

What is she up to? She doesn’t look delighted and she isn’t unpacking the food. She has empty jam jars as far as I can see and she is looking back at the central family group with a touch of either disapproval or unease. As she balances the Mary-child on the other side, it could be that she symbolises the less fortunate: while the family have a full hamper, she has empty jam jars. While the family rejoice in their wealth, others starve. Being a Victorian was a guilt-laden experience, obviously.

Sorry to bring everyone down, I’m sure they are very nice people in the picture and they shared their giant turkey with their poor relations, with cries of ‘God Bless us, every one!’ and the such like. I promise I’ll be funnier tomorrow and tell more muff jokes. I’ll try and mention about how very rude ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ is.

No, it really it is. It’s utter filth.

See you tomorrow.