Saturday, 29 September 2012

Ripeness to the Core

Good evening, dearest readers.  I have had a particularly Autumnal day, blessed with a long walk and sloe and rosehip picking.  Tomorrow I shall purchase enough gin to ruin all the women in Whitechapel, and plunge those little black berries into the crystal liquid, then wait for Christmas.  As for the rosehips, I shall boil them into syrup and evade the dreaded cough and consumption for another season.  Or that's the plan.  Anyhow, here is my personal tribute to this marvellous, russet-stained season, filled with enough mist and mellow-fruitfulness to keep anyone happy.

An English Autumn Afternoon (1854) Ford Madox Brown
Well, I was either going to start with this or Autumn Leaves by Millais.  One of the things I love about Autumn is that it is often sunny enough to lounge about on a rug of an afternoon, but I do not feel the pressure to remove any layers of clothing.  What jolly fine quality of sunshine is on show here, with the sun low enough in the sky to cast a long shadow over the couple as they view the changing trees.

An Autumn Morning, Ancarnan (1883) Edward Trevor
Before we end up on a blanket with a likely-type in a hat, I think we have a moment to relax on a pale beach gazing out at a still ocean, mirror-fresh with its cool blue.  Again, it looks unnecessary for me to even consider the horror of any swimsuit (even though I've always fancied one of those Victorian numbers to emerge from my bathing machine in) or even the need to remove my coat.  I often go to the beach in the Autumn, I much prefer it and this year's pilgrimage to the Isle of Wight will occur in late October, all huddled in a soft scarf and velvet coat.

An Autumn Morning Henry Herbert La Thangue
I was surprised by the amount of art available under the tag of 'Autumn' as painters seem to love not only literal images of people in the autumn but also mood pieces and symbolic wonders.  It's hard to see how literal this one is, although she looks quite meaningful in her dedication to gathering firewood.  There is determination on her face, and a little resignation, as she knows her job from here on in will only get harder as the season slips into Winter.

Autumn (1904) Edward Atkinson Hornel
Again, at first glance this seems a straight forward image of the artist's daughters posing in the Autumnal sunshine on a riverbank, but see how the girls white smocks are reflected in the plumage of the swans, as if the artist is aware that his little girls will grow into women soon and this is the autumn of his role of protector, the sole authority to these children.  Bring on the metaphor!

Autumn (1860) Frederick Sandys
I've never really had a handle on this picture, is the old soldier Autumn?  What of the other figures, are they his daughter and granddaughter, or wife and child?  I'm not judging if it is his wife and child, I've always had a weakness for older chaps.  What is the significance of him being a soldier?  The red of his jacket contrasts with the green of his lady companion's dress.  What of the things in the foreground?  Oh heavens, this is far too complex for a Saturday night, especially after I've opened a bottle of wine.  Let's just say that the older man is the dignity of Autumn, the figure which still has the trappings of the earlier time (Summer, the military jacket) but is losing them (the leaves will fall, the jacket is unbuttoned) and my wine is delicious.

Autumn Flowers (1873) Carl Gussow
This is an interesting image, because for a moment I was confused.  The flower seems fresh and young, why would it be autumn?  Oh, I see, it's not the flower but the people who are autumnal.  I wondered if the black ribbon securing the hat of the lady denoted her state as a widow, and possibly the dark clothes of the man denoted his similar state.  The couple are embarking on a romance in the autumn of their lives, yet both seem delighted and involved in their love.  Good luck to them.

Autumnal Sorrows (1878) Frank O'Meara
Oh dear.  The problem with autumn is that it does rather seem to be the season of regret, the time to look back and sigh 'My word, that went badly, I made a total fool of myself, didn't I?' while I friend looks on stoically and secretly thinks that you did indeed make an utter fool of yourself, and now you're sat on a stone bench and will probably end up with piles.  Or possibly someone has died.  Not sure why that is linked with autumn?  I wonder what the remarriage rate was?  If you were a young widow, especially with money I guess your chances were good, but a woman of say around 40 (she says, taking a hearty swig of wine), past her prime (another swig of wine), you know you'll end up with a mop cap and a cold behind.

Autumn Frederick Walker
It's alright, I'm feeling better now, possibly due to the wine.  This is a very thoughtful young woman, with a meaningful apple, awaiting either her Adam or snake.  I get the impression she might have a bit of a wait, because that orchard looks particularly empty...

Autumn (1898) William Stott
It's only one step on from hanging around in an orchard from going completely mad and lounging around in a corn store with a load of apples, pretending you're Ceres.  At that point someone needs to perform some sort of intervention and get some shoes on you.  It's rather a lovely look though, I could quite happily hang around in a corn cave, artistically swathed in my own hair, but that might be the wine talking...

Autumn Leaves J E Millais
So my friends, go out and scuff your feet through the leaves and gather fruit ready for the approaching Winter.  I find fruit keeps much better if stored in gin.  Notice I say 'better' not 'longer'....

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Fat is a Pre-Raphaelite Issue

Funny how some weeks go.  I was planning to do a light-hearted post on images of Autumn (which I'll do at the weekend now), then I got a lovely email from Mark Samuels Lasner, who very kindly allowed me to see this image from his collection....

With kind permission of  Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, on loan to the University of Delaware Library 
This changed my mind, so I was going to do a piece on this lovely picture of Fanny.  This image comes from 1862-65, after Lizzie Siddal's death and the subsequent move to Cheyne Walk.  This was Fanny's heyday, she was Queen of Tudor House, assured of Rossetti's love, the centre of his art, before Jane's reappearance, before Alexa Wilding.  Fanny had completed her transformation from blacksmith's daughter and housemaid, to one of the most admired faces of the bohemian art scene, hostess at  the table of one of the most famous artists of his generation.

Doesn't she look fat?

This week I have also had my attention drawn to Lady Gaga, that multi-talented musical artist who has redefined the notion of femininity in pop music...

Doesn't she look fat?

It's not often that I get to mention Lady Gaga and Fanny Cornforth in the same breath, but this week I began to get them mixed up due to the very similar media coverage both have received.  Thanks to the increased publicity that Pre-Raphaelite art has received, due to the Tate exhibition, Fanny has been mentioned in Press, Blogs and the such like, and time and time again she has been described as 'fat', 'plump', 'portly' and all manner of other words meaning the same thing.  Did the writers of these pieces call Jane or Lizzie 'skinny'?  Possibly once or twice, but on the whole their names could be mentioned without prefixing them with an adjective.  What is wrong with us?

This is somewhat of a sticky issue for me because obviously I'm a big girl (built for comfort, not for speed) so it's easy to assume that I have a sensitivity to the name-calling.  You'd be right because heaven knows I have heard it all, and none of it is relevant.  Just as some people are calling Gaga 'Lardy Gaga' or 'Porker Face' (oh, how amusing), so William Bell Scott called Fanny 'the creature with three waists'.  Why?  Well, this was the height of perfection for women in the nineteenth century...

This young lady is Catherine Walters or 'Skittles' as she was known to her friends and clients.  She was a courtesan (that's a nice word for prostitute, isn't it?) (maybe that's when they buy you pudding as well as your stew before you sleep with them) for some very important types and became a trendsetter when she rode around in this rather neat get-up.  In order to achieve that astonishingly small waist she was corseted in, then sewn into her 'Princess' riding habit.  I think we know who Fanny stole her two extra waists from...

I'll breath out when you've all left...
If your images of women are figure-eights, two perfect little spheres balanced on top of each other with the teeniest waist in between, then Fanny does look as out of place as the woman above would look to us today.  By abandoning her corset, Fanny adhered to aesthetic dress with the barest waistband holding in all the fabric.

She wasn't the only one.  Jane Morris, Elizabeth Siddal, Alexa Wilding all assumed a more rational way of dressing, and all of Rossetti's muses dress in long flowing gowns, not tight corsets.  Take this image of Jane from the middle of the 1860s...

I dread to imagine how much fabric is in that frock, it is endless and would cost a fortune.  Rather splendid though.  Equally lacking in the waist department as Fanny, but Jane is never referred to as plump or waistless, so what is the difference?  Firstly, historically it was never said of Jane that she was fat or in fact any comment on her weight.  Jane was shown respect during Rossetti's life and after it.  Fanny most certainly was not. Mind you, not that many contemporary sources referred to Fanny as fat.  They were too busy calling her a thieving illiterate whore.

But not fat, so that's alright.

The Battersbys: She weighed 631 pound more than him, apparently
Fanny's greed for possessions has often been transferred into a notion that she was greedy and therefore fat. Her acquisition of items, rightly or wrongly, from Rossetti had somehow translated into 'fat' as if she was eating the paintings she 'stole'.  Isn't it odd how we often think of people who get rich through no effort of their own as 'fat', as in 'fat cats'?

I've always thought that the permanent labeling of Fanny as fat started with the rebirth in interest in Pre-Raphaelite art in the 1960s.  I wonder if it has any connection at all with the utter crisis that seems to occurred in female body image, springing from the decade that gave us supermodels with figures that rejected any notion of traditional feminine curves.  Fanny, through her nickname 'Elephant', became the fat muse.  We never for a moment consider that Rossetti called her Elephant because she never forgot.  No, it's because she's fat.

Gaga made a very bold statement when she appeared in her meat corset this week, or at least she seems to have made others make many bold statements.  Is she a good role model now she's fat?  Is she going through a crisis because she's fat?  I suspect that Gaga is astonishingly shrewd and she just proved her point as the media descended to pick her over like a piece of meat, while she was wearing a piece of meat.

How many meals did Lizzie and Jane consume in that excellent documentary Desperate Romantics?  How often was Fanny seen with something in her mouth?  Okay, I'm being basic because we know a few things for certain about Fanny and food.  Firstly, she loved to eat.  This sounds stupid at first because who doesn't love food?  In a landscape of women who were unwell and missing meals, Fanny's love of eating out is documented in George Boyce's diary, and her love of cooking is apparent in Rossetti's letters, where he bemoans that a pudding made at his friend's house where he was staying was not a patch on hers.  While I have been writing my Pre-Raphaelite novel, I have Fanny eating quite a lot of the time.  Mind you, everyone eats quite a lot of the time in my book, it's that kind of book.

Is there a male equivalent to calling a woman 'fat'?  I was trying to think of one because Rossetti, who undoubtedly got fat during the 1860s and 1870s, is rarely called it, or if he is it doesn't seem to carry the same weight, if you excuse the pun.  I'm going to stick my broad neck out at this point and suggest that I don't think men care as much about a woman's weight as women do.  For a woman, being called 'fat' is one of the most awful things you can call them because it carries with it such value-judgements.  When we call Fanny or Gaga 'fat', that isn't what we mean.  We mean uncontrolled, lack of care, greedy, consuming, selfish, incapable, possibly also stupid, ugly, useless and so on, down and down.  It rarely seems to mean that you are larger in mass that an officially agreed amount.
For the Victorians, the notion of 'fat' had moral connotations, so do we really want to play that simplistic game?  Going back to my original train of thought, Mark Samuels Lasner generously showed me his beautiful sketch of Fanny, and to my mind (and Rossetti's) Fanny was a Stunner, a gorgeous looking woman, whose mass may have been greater than that of Lizzie Siddal or Jane Morris, but what of it?  Gaga may have increased in mass, but anyone watching her perform should be grateful she's eating enough to keep the energy up.

Do we really want to draw the conclusion that a person's weight should carry any weight to how much we value them?  If so, I'm very valuable indeed.

But worth every penny, obviously.

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Long Weekend of Love: Romance! Well, Sort Of...

So, my dearest darlings, we reach the end of the long weekend of love and I had intended to do a piece on the most romantic works of Victorian art.  I mean, how hard can that be?  Pre-Raphaelite art seems to be almost defined by it's swooning romantic vibe, and the Victorians were suckers for a good love story, so it shouldn't be difficult to find some scenes of pure, sweet romance...

How wrong I was.

For starters, the image had to be not only a romantic image, but also an image about romance.  It's not good enough that I feel all warm and dizzy looking at it, Lord knows I get a bit like that on a regular basis looking at the oddest of things, but the subject of the picture should be love.  Also, I immediately crippled myself by stipulating that the scene should be all sweet and no bitter.  I didn't want some pretty image of a kissing couple if immediately afterwards they would die or be plunged in hell or go mad.  You know, the usual stuff.

Oh, and it had to be good.

Now the field had been well and truly narrowed I realised that most, if not all of my favourite romantic pictures come a cropper by being tragic in some way.  For example, take this beauty...

La Belle Dame Sans Merci Frank Dicksee
I have a terrible weakness for this picture, but we all know how it will end.  He'll wake up with a hangover in an elfin grot, which kind of ruins the effect and sounds revolting.  It has such promise of beauty, utter infatuated adoration and a good looking chap with shiny thighs, but goes so badly wrong.  What about this then...?

Paolo and Francesca da Rimini (1855) D G Rossetti
Ah, look, it's so sweet and lovely and...oops, they're burning for eternity in the second circle of Hell.  Rats.  But you see my problem, the embracing couples just keep spoiling my romantic notions with their miserable back-stories...

The Black Brunswicker (1860) J E Millais
I love you!  The dog loves you! Oh, you're dead in battle.  What a swizz.

A Huguenot on St Bartholomew's Day (1852) J E Millais
I love you!  Wear this armband!  What do you mean, no?  Oh, you're dead.  Rats.

Romeo and Juliet (1867) Ford Madox Brown
I love you!  I love you!  I'm sure our families will understand!  Oh, we're both dead.

Will everyone just stop dying!  I'm trying to get romantic!  This is ridiculous.  I even began to worry about what certain choices of 'romantic' art said about me.  Should I be concerned that all of the pictures I thought of as being romantic involved people being murdered or dying miserably?  I think the worst moment was when I tried to recall a particularly romantic picture I had seen and when I looked it up, it turned out to be this...

Ajax and Cassandra (1886) Solomon J Solomon
Well, it didn't look that dodgy in my memory, for some reason I thought he was carrying her to safety and I think we should move on swiftly.

There must be something, surely one good romantic picture came out of the nineteenth century, without anyone dying or being carried off by an extremely muscly man or become a victim of a religious purge?

Hesperus, the Evening Star, Sacred to Lovers (1857) Joseph Noel Paton
That's better.  These two look quite healthy and there is no alarming back-story apparent, so I'm cautiously optimistic.  This might actually be my sweet romance that I have been looking for....

Wedded (1882) Frederic Leighton
Look at these two, all married and happy, how lovely.  However, I am left a little underwhelmed by them, jolly nice though they are.  Could it be that I need a bit of tragedy to get me in the mood.  That's a worrying thought.  Why can't I feel warm and fuzzy about an image where no-one dies?

Portrait of Effie Ruskin J E Millais
It then occurred to me that possibly my problem was that the 'nice' pictures of romance just didn't convey the strength of emotion behind them to really move you.  Romance shouldn't be a diluted, pretty thing, not if it contains real passion, real intent, not if it's going to withstand life and all it has to throw at you.  Take Millais picture of Effie, above.  You know that he loves that woman.  You know that he and she are willing and able to think the unthinkable, that she would declare something painful and private in order to leave her important husband and possibly ruin the career of her lover.  Yet he will risk ruination, she will risk shame.  But the romance is in the eye of the painter, it is not actually a 'scene' of romance...

Meeting on the Turret Stair Frederick William Burton
Ah, I like this one, you actually feel the strength of emotion present between these two lovers.  So finally, here we are, a scene of passion, of romance, of unbridled love where you can't even pass each other without stealing a kiss.  Theirs is a love of passion and innocence, totally without any sadness and tragedy.  I'm sure they will live a long and happy life together...

What do you mean he kills most of her family then dies and she snuffs it from a broken heart?!  Oh rats...

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Long Weekend of Love: Bad Romance

Welcome back, Beloveds.  To continue our long weekend of romance and merriment I bring you today's offering: Bad Romance.

This was a result of investigating pictures for tomorrow's post on the most romantic pictures in Victorian art.  While looking at the beautiful images connected with swoony romance I kept finding some of the most strange and decidely unromantic pictures which were apparently scenes of great love.  Stuff like this...

The Potter's Courtship (1886) Arthur Hughes
Yes, it's all very lovely, but you do wonder if the lucky lady is thinking 'I can't afford shoes and he gives me a statue, thanks for that...'  There are moments where a box of chocolates might not be a bad option.  Honestly, it's all very nice of him but she looks like she could do with a decent meal, not object d'art.

The Proposal Robert Gordon
Now there are loads of pictures of deeply moving, heart-warming declarations of love, but this couple look deeply uncomfortable.  There is not much in the way of narrative to tell you why he looks like he's realised he's put his knee in something unpleasant.  She just looks embarrassed for him.  Gosh, it doesn't bode well, just ask her already, get up and we can all move on (and talk about you behind our fans).  I admit that the awkwardness may be the point, unlike this...

In Love Marcus Stone
Rather than 'Oh look, something shiny...', this is meant to be two people 'everso' in love.  Well, he might be, she looks like she's thinking about her shopping list.

Windy Day Jane Bowkett
I do feel a bit sorry for this chap because it must be difficult to declare your love in a force nine gale when your brolly's gone inside out and your hat's blown off.  He should just give up and go inside for a cup of tea, unless of course he's hoping her skirt will blow up above her head.

Love's Interuptions Frederick Morgan

Similarly, it's hard to be romantic with a stone in your shoe, although it does give you a good excuse to lean against the gentleman of your choice (she says, taking note).  Mind you, you would have to pause whatever romantic conversation you were having to yank off your shoe and give it a good shake.  I'm sure it is possible to achieve that elegantly, but I suspect not by me.

Ten Minutes to Decide (1866) George Dunlop Leslie
Ten Minutes?!  I'm sorry, but if a gentleman asks you to decide, you either say 'Yes!' immediately or you don't want to marry him.  In fact there are very few things I can think of that if your immediate response isn't a passionate 'yes' then it probably isn't a wise idea.  Mind you, that might be me.  I wonder what her friend is saying?  Hopefully it's something like 'Run! Run like you're not wearing a corset!'

Paying for Peeping (1872) John Calcott Horsley
Nothing says romance like the sound of your brother being smacked round the head.  The idea that some pre-teen boy in knee breeches is spying on you is enough to put the mockers on any romantic moment, so I'm not surprised she looks a bit distracted on the other side of the holey curtain.  There is a hint that in a matter of moments he will find himself propelled through the curtain by the power of his mother's hand.  Is that his mother?  She's dropping her flowers in order to whack her son, which can't be a good idea.

A Tender Moment William Henry Gore
Tomorrow I promise to bring you a bit of lovely romance, of chaste yearning and sighing, of blushing and swooning and all that sort of thing.  There will be no peeping snotty boys, no stones in your shoe, no skirt above your head.  A Tender Moment is more our sort of thing for tomorrow, even if being taken in your lover's arms may mean losing a limb.  Really, if your beloved is a fine country gentleman remember to ask him nicely to put his scythe down before he embraces you.  Safety first.

And if you get a stone in your shoe, be careful which bit of him you lean on.  It may shorten the romance somewhat if you impale yourself...

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Long Weekend of Love: Make Your Mind Up!

Welcome, gentle reader, to The Long Weekend of Love!

Now, before any of you think this some sort of 'vests off' sordid affair, remember that it's September and getting a bit cold, so there will be less of that sort of thing, thank you very much.  A wise man once said to me 'Kirsty, keep your vest on if you want them to marry you' and never a truer word was ever said.  Anyhow, I'm more in the mood to examine three different aspects of Victorian romance in paintings.  Today we'll start with paintings with one gentleman and two ladies, or scenes of jealousy and thwarted love, or why you should never jilt the brunette (even if you prefer the blonde)...

Jealousy and Flirtation Haynes King
Away we go then - here we have two ladies and one gentleman; one lady flashes off her charming smile and red petticoat while the other one broods on how gentlemen like charming smiles and red petticoats.  There seems to be a lot of objects discarded around the room in a metaphorical manner:  our gentleman is a carpenter and his bag of tools is behind his chair.  Miss Popular appears to have been working on her needlecraft, in the basket on the table, but some knitting lies discarded on the floor.  Possibly it's our silent, brooding girl who is doing all the work while her sister chats up gentlemen callers?  Personally, I think he's eyeing up the exposed leg of the table, peeping seductively out from under the cloth.... he is a carpenter, after all.

Just as the Twig is Bent (1861) William Maw Egley
Again, one popular sister hogs all the men while her quiet sister looks on.  The complete phrase is 'Just as the Twig is Bent, the Tree's Inclined' meaning things that affect and influence you in childhood shape the adult you will become.  Well, in the first picture, blonde sister is very impressed by her boy-soldier playmate, as he swaggers around with his toy sword.  Her sister watches from the background, busy at her work.  Roll on ten years and Blondie is still admiring the length of a gentleman's sword, while Spinsterchops, reflected in the mirror mutters something unlady-like while completing her sampler which reads 'I hate my sister' over and over again...

Detail of Just as the Twigis Bent showing disgruntled sister...
The notion of two women competing for the affection of one lucky gent seems actually quite common in Victorian art, possibly a flattering notion for the art buying man.  It does rather say that men are worth fighting your sister for in a Darwinian show of strength, and that idly sitting waiting for your handsome prince will not work.  Come on girls, put a bit of effort into it!

The Two Roses Heywood Hardy
This one almost needs subtitling 'Oi!  I'm sitting right here!'  At first I thought it was his sister on the horse, but by the title, I'm judging her to be the girl who's really in love with our horsey chap, forced to look on as he offers a rose to the girl he's in love with.  Gosh, isn't romance complicated?  I wonder who the dog prefers?

Between Two Fires David Francis Millet

Well these two sisters aren't going quietly, it'll end in tears.  I almost feel sorry for the man in the middle, although despite his quite somber expression I reckon he's loving it.  By the look of that room there is very little on offer by way of entertainment, but that tablecloth will be a devil to get stains out of.  Mind you, who can resist a man in a collar that starched?  Not to mention that hat.  No wonder he's such a hit with the ladies...

Showing a Preference (1860) John Callcott Horsley
Well, this seems to be the story of my teenage years.  I'm the one of the right, in case you didn't detect my embittered tone.  Oh, is the path only wide enough for two? No, it's fine, I don't mind walking behind, seeing as you have already shoved me there, grumble, grumble, I shall have my revenge, grumble, grumble... Anyway, he only fancies her because he wants to share her parasol and not get freckly.

The Merciless Lady (1865) D G Rossetti
The dark haired one is thinking 'If he doesn't stop staring at her I'll break his chuffing fingers...'  Ahhh, Rossetti, this is an interesting picture if you consider the amount of time he spent unwittingly pitting one woman against another - Lizzie against Annie, Lizzie against Fanny, Fanny against Jane.  Ironically by 1865 it was the brunette he was paying attention to at the expense of the blonde, but maybe what he was thinking about with this picture was a certain 'murder ballad' called 'The Cruel Sister'...

The Cruel Sister (1851) John Faed
You know how I feel about a man in tights.  Anyhow, I digress.  The story goes that there was once two sisters and a handsome man.  Although the dark haired sister loved the man with all her heart, he actually fancied her blonde sister.  So dark haired sister drowned Blondie, thereby cancelling out the competition.  Blondie's body floated away and washed up on a river bank where it was found by some peasants who turned it into a musical instrument, with her hair as the strings.  Yes, I know, but go with it.  The musicians showed up at Brunette Sisters wedding to the handsome man and played a tune on the funny looking violin which just sounded like 'sister-killer!' over and over again and all was revealed.  You have to question the intelligence or morals of a man who is willing to marry the other sister with quite obvious murderous tendencies just because the one you liked 'went away'.  Mind you, look at those tights.  Where was I?  Anyway, the lesson today is don't cross a brunette, don't marry the sister, men look great in tights and big hats, and never underestimate what a woman will do to get hold of a man in tights and a big hat.

And if your sister suggests going swimming, politely decline...

Tomorrow's subject is Awkward Love!

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde

I'm just off the train from London and I've been to see Tate Britain's latest exhibition...

Without much more ado, here is my review.  Firstly, may I preface this with this disclaimer:  Whatever comments I have about this exhibition must be set in the context that I am beyond delighted that the Tate have done an exhibition on Pre-Raphaelite art, there is nothing but good coming from that.  I get the chance to see some of my favourite artworks up close and personal.  Everyone is a winner.  The following points are questions as much as criticism, but this all springs from a basis of 'thank you for allowing me to see all this splendid art!'

Away we go then...

Right, what do you get for your money then?  Well, you get 7 rooms filled with astonishing works of art, not only 2D but also sculpture, tapestry, a bed, a rug, books... you get the idea, this is an attempt to show how Pre-Raphaelitism influenced a good many things more than just painting.  In fact, seeing the sculpture was a bit of a highlight for us...

Paolo and Francesca Alexander Munroe
By 'we' I mean Miss Holman (Lady Adventuress and Character Assassin) and I, and we loved Paolo and Francesca.  The thing about sculpture is you just don't get how damn lovely it is when it's just flat on a page, so for example you can't see the exquisite crown pin in the back of Francesca's hair, the soft frill on the neckline of her dress at the nape of her neck, the intensity on his face.  Mind you, that hat is pretty knock out.

The next thing that is amazing is the chance to get right up (within reason) to some old friends and learn something new, like....

How many times have I seen this picture?  In print it must be thousands of times by now, and even in person, I've seen it dozens of times and yet never, I repeat, never had I noticed the little robin watching Ophelia drown.  Yet, there he sits, bold as brass on the left hand side near the top.  And he is lovely.  In fact there are a lot of the little details that can be seen clear as clear when you're in the same room, like the butterfly on the sword of The Wounded Cavalier or the woman selling oranges being hassled by the police in Work.

Now on to the questions.  Starting with the premise of the exhibition: that this is an attempt to place the Pre-Raphaelites within the structure of the history of modern art.  This has been discussed at great length, not least by us after the exhibition, but yes, I think it can be credibly and easily argued that the Brotherhood were  part of one of the first (if not the first) modern art movements.  They had a manifesto, they engaged in politics, they engaged with modern life, contemporary concerns and the thrust of the modern world, and they did it across a number of mediums.  They were also a part of a 'modern' world, so possibly the question should be how were all the other contemporary artists not modern? However, I had a couple of problems with the title.  Firstly, it confused the journos no end, as was obviously from an awful lot of awful reviews I read this week.  You say Avant-Garde and people think of twentieth century abstract art, sorry but it's true.  The result was that reviewers seem to get sniffy and superior because it is most patently not abstract.  Not only that, I did feel that by couching the title in such a loaded modern art term, there is a suspicion that the Tate are trying to make the Pre-Raphaelite movement palatable, 'it's okay, it's secretly modern!  It's clever to like modern art so you're safe to like this!' Alright, it's a bit shallow, but I have a terrible feeling that some people think like that.  Lord knows I've met a few...

I would have felt more commitment to the title if two things had been in evidence.  Firstly, let me use one of the most famous early Pre-Raphaelite pictures...

So here we have Christ in the Carpenter's Shop from back in 1849, and we all know Millais got slaughtered for its outrageous, modern, daring style.  I don't get it.  I'm stood in front of it in 2012 and it just looks like a picture of Jesus having hurt his hand in a jolly fine metaphoric manner.  What I needed was an example of what this was a reaction against, right next to it.  I wanted some treacle-coated, English-speaking Madonna and child next to Millais' sideshow freaks, then I would get it.  If this is 'avant-garde', show me how.  Shock me.  Go on, I dare you.

Connected to that, if these pictures are the birth of modern art, the avant-garde, show me what they influenced.  According to the catalogue, a drawing connected to Rienzi influenced Picasso during his Rose period.  How?  What?  You can't say that and leave it if the thrust of your exhibition is that the Pre-Raphaelites are in the foundation of modern art.  Show me how, don't tell me, I'm at a visual experience, I need to see it.

Talking about seeing things to understand them, bravo Tate for hanging the following together...

Oh joy!  Ding Dong, Jesus Calling!  It is the first time I've seen them hung together and it was a pleasure, even though the meaning has been changed by Hunt's changing of his picture.  Now she's rising to accept Christ happily into her house and heart, a good little convert, a modern day Magdalene, which is possibly a fairer narrative than the original.  As we know, the face was scraped and painted back for being too horrific, so our girl isn't rising in enlightened surprise, she is really jumping in guilt and horror because Judgement Day just came a-knocking.

It is a shame that The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini! weren't hung together though.  Mind you they were parted by the hanging scheme, which started out as chronological (sort of) and then became thematic.  I would have preferred a chronological approach throughout if the point of the exhibition is how we get from 1849 to modern art, or at the very least a final room showing how the art (which didn't stop with the death of the Brotherhood)  affected/embraced/annoyed modern art and artists.  Yes, I missed Waterhouse, the last perpetrator of Pre-Raphaelite style and he was there painting damsels during the First World War...

'I am half-sick of shadows,' said the Lady of Shalott (1917)
This chunk of deliciousness was painted the same year as this...

The Card Players Fernand Leger
I think my question is if Pre-Raphaelite art is the germ of modernism (see what I did there?),  tell me why we've never seen it before?  Why does it look so different, at what point (if any) did it stray from this path?  What does Waterhouse have in common with Leger because the one thing missing from this attempt to align Pre-Raphaelitism with the story of modern art was, well, modern art.  I actually think it's a valid argument, but I don't think it was visually argued at all.

But I did get to see this...

Not to mention the twin giant goddesses that are Astarte Syriaca (Rossetti) and Isabella and the Pot of Basil (Hunt) which have to be seen to be believed because they are enormous and splendid.  Thank you, they were amazing.

On a personal note, thank you Tate, from the very bottom of my heart, for saying the words 'Fanny Cornforth' without saying 'nuts', 'slinging' and 'spitting'.  You even challenge the notion that she was a prostitute.  Well done.  She didn't come from a farm in Sussex, but you did far more than anyone else has ever managed in treating her well.  When I saw the photograph of her and the mirror I could have cried.  You treated her proper and I thank you.

I'm almost done, but I have a question about the shop.  We had our Avant-Garde, so where was my Kitsch?  I wanted more fun things in the shop!  I wanted an Ophelia pen where she floats about in the top half, like my beloved Lady of Shalott pen I had years ago.  That was brilliant.  Plus, you didn't stock my book in your shop, but I'm not holding that against you.  Well, maybe a bit.  We missed the more accessible things, the fun things, the cardboard William Morris who dances when you pull a string (yes, it exists).  There was a claim in the pre-publicity that the merchandise would be special, but it wasn't specific enough, it wasn't something that would make me shout 'Pre-Raphaelite!' when I saw it.  I liked the satchels and the beads, but really the only specific item was the scarf from The Beloved and it was £50.  Where was my t-shirt?  Yes, I am that shallow, but I still get happy from slipping on my William Morris tshirt from the V&A exhibition in the mid-90s.

I'll leave you with the keynote to my blog which is thank you, thank you Tate, thank you for taking the time and effort to arrange the exhibition, and I know how long it took you because I heard about it a goodly while ago.  You took a risk, you made it interesting and gave us plenty to talk about.  I don't agree with everything but you made me talk and think about it which is what I want people to do when it comes to my beloved Pre-Raphaelite art.

The exhibition runs until 13th January 2013 and I thoroughly recommend a visit.