Friday, 25 October 2013

The Darkening Focus of a Consuming Muse

When considering an artist’s life, sometimes the volume of their creative output can be overwhelming.  Even for a painter like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who notoriously had difficulty in finishing works and died at a relatively early age, seeing everything spread out before you can be dazzling.  I adore the Rossetti Archive site because it enables you to flick around his works:  one moment you by his side as he sketches in 1850, the next moment viewing a work from the last months of his life.  It also offers hints of interpretation as to a development of ‘muse’, a possible hidden trail to the secrets of the painter/poet’s mind. That is what this post is about.

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin
Astarte Syriaca
No-one would argue that the vision of a young man and one of an older man are necessarily different.  The young man may be filled with bravado, optimism, untried confidence, the older man may have experienced loss, had dreams shattered, had time wear him down.  Conversely, the older self may have had confidence built on experience, wisdom built on years of success, and the younger one may be a scatter-shot idiot.  Placing a piece like The Girlhood of Mary Virgin from 1848 next to Astarte Syriaica of almost 30 years later I think you can tell it’s by the same painter but the difference in feeling is marked, painfully so.  Rossetti is just beginning in one image and drawing to a close in the other and I would like to propose that you can read the most about his state of mind not in the figures, but in the backgrounds.

The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice

Taking something like Mary Virgin or The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice, it is possible to see both inside and outside the room.  The moments exist within a framework of a world, a greater context.  The reality of them will be part of the whole picture of life.  Their actions may impact on people in the street outside, in the world in which our protagonists dwell. 

The young Rossetti’s muse is a scatter-shot affair.  All seems colourful, even where the muse of the piece is the shade of white.  All is instilled with sunshine and light that naturally speak of a world outside that contains his vision.  Elizabeth Siddal, his muse, is firmly within that vision, sometimes dominates it, but she exists for him within the world, she is part of his everything.

Elizabeth Siddal

Algernon Swinburne

The only time during this early period where the focus is very exact is in portraits.  His green-backgrounded, single figure works of the 1850s are about that person and need no other decoration.  I would even suggest this suited his rather ‘lazy’, for want of a better word, work ethic of these years.  Rossetti was to busy hurling himself into the world (and the beds of other people’s girlfriends) to spend a lot of time living in separation of it, focusing on one muse, one detail.

Fair Rosamund

A change came with Bocca Baciata.  The boxed-in female portraits of the second phase of his life don’t tend to reference an outside world exactly but do have a rich interior.  It’s as if his focus has drawn in a little, to the beauty of woman, of place, of home. Fair Rosamund is a good example of the boxed-in woman.  She is leaning on the outer side of her box, separating her from the viewer and the interior of her room is rich and decorative.  It would be easy to argue that the women are just another object d’art in the room.  Possibly all that hurling around and blissful uncertainty of youth had shown Rossetti that things when not held tightly can be lost.  He had relieved at least one of his friends of a potential wife and had almost lost Elizabeth.  It could be argued that the second phase of muses were kept safely in a beautiful cage where they could not be released, could not be stolen and could come to no harm.  While there are windows for us to view them, there are no doors for them to leave.  What Rossetti missed was that he was still out in the world and his actions, his neglect, would rob him of his pretty caged pets.

Sibylla Palmifera

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the focus changed again after Elizabeth’s death in 1862.  For all intents and purposes he continued to paint pretty meaningless women, but the wall had dropped away.  We draw back and see more of them in such pieces as Sibylla Palmifera  and Lady Lilith.  Alexa Wilding personifies this shift, portraying a richly decorated woman in a richly decorated room, viewing us passively.  Her passive, unfocused gaze is typical and negates any threat we may feel from inhabiting the same space as her.  Is she vacuous?  Does Rossetti intend us to suspect that she has no more brains than the vases or the furniture?  Is she merely a decorative piece, or is the silence companionable, comforting?  He may be entering a prison but look at the decoration, the security of the walls.  We are no longer outside looking at the bird in the cage, we are safely inside with her.

The Blue Dress

It would be tempting to say that is all the shifts he made, but I feel there is a final one.  Jane Morris dominates the role of muse from around 1868, and it could be said that in the first works, such as The Blue Dress, she is just a beautiful woman in a beautiful room.  Subtly however, I feel there is a shift towards a focus solely on her. 
Looking at Reverie in 1868, the background begins not to matter.  It could be argued that it is a portrait so the person is the whole matter, but very few, if any of Rossetti’s major works involving Jane are straight portraits, so in theory there should be a ‘setting’.  His focus however narrows in, the rooms becoming devoid of interest, the only thing that matters is her.


A Vision of Fiammetta

Is it his overwhelming passion that makes him blind to all but her?  Was it his eyesight that stripped his vision down to the essentials?  Looking at the work he did around Alexa in these later years there is still the old staging, but in many if not most images of Jane she dominates to the point of entirety.  Comparing something like A Vision of Fiammetta to Pandora or Mnemosyne you can see how the woman is just part of the scenery in one but the whole of his universe in the other.  I often feel with his images involving Jane that there is no compromise which may be why people either love or hate them.  It is perhaps a more honest representation of his artistic spark at the moment to have the woman as his whole, his reason to paint, his all-encompassing reason to be.  If you don’t feel the same, the images can alienate, but if you can glimpse, even in a small way how this woman can captivate, the images make sense.

The Bower Meadow
Obviously my arguments aren’t foolproof.  Rossetti pulled his muses to and fro artistically speaking.  Elizabeth was locked in the box in Regina Cordium and Fanny was the focus in Woman with a Fan but it is during the transition phases where he tries to bring the old love through to his next vision and often the images jar a little or at least are obvious in their shift.  The Bower Meadow of 1872 gives you all the open air that his contemporary works lacked, but a pandering to commercial tastes could explain that, or even moments of reflection on what used to excite, what used to inspire.  Who doesn’t like to indulge in pleasures from times past: a book you liked as a child, a food that reminds you of a past love, a past place?  There is a comfort in the old safe places and increasingly as that dark, silent focus fixed on Jane, Alexa appears in images of decorative damsels.  Are they a grasp at a less confined scope or simply a commercial play?  We see Rossetti’s fixation on Jane after the initial flurry of passion as unhealthy, morbid and consuming (in all senses of the word), was he aware of that too?

So many questions, and no answers that explain him.  Maybe that is why Rossetti continues to fascinate as an artist and as a man.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The White Fairy Sees All! Magic and Mind-Reading Part 2

Not to be too sensational about things but there is a mind-reading fairy living in my house.  Not a Cottingley Fairy (t'uh, big fakers) but a real, proper, actual fairy.  Who can read your mind.  Honest. Look...

Okay, so she doesn't look that impressive in a pack-a-mac but if this was 1850 we'd make a fortune.  What a horrible thought.  For those of you who don't know, the above fairy is my daughter Lily-Rose and she has ocular-cutaneous albinism, or put simply she is a girl with a lack of pigment in her skin, hair and eyes.  For the Victorians that would be enough to condemn and revere her.  What's that all about?

Ettie Reynolds the Madagascar Lady
I've wanted to do this post for a while as the subject is obviously very dear to my heart.  Here comes the science bit to start with:  as a genetic condition, each parent has to pass on half of an albinism-related gene so you have a one in four chance of inheriting both parts from your parents.  Even if you get both bits, albinism itself is quite a wide spectrum.  Lily-Rose is somewhere in the middle: she has very little pigment in her skin and hair, her eyes are blue and her eyesight is atrocious.  However, she is in a mainstream school, in a 'normal' class and she is doing very well.  When she was diagnosed at 10 weeks the various prognosis we were given for her ranged from 'she'll be just like everyone else, just blonder' to 'she's blind, possibly deaf, won't talk, might not walk, possibly retarded (actual word used, many thanks to that specialist)'.  If you think that's bad we were also told one other thing: She's unlucky.

Ponder that, my friends.  The person who said that didn't mean that Lily was unlucky to have inherited albinism, they meant she was the bringer of misfortune.  Because Albinos and Dwarves are unlucky.  You heard me right.

Now I had never heard that particular belief before and so would be fascinated to hear if anyone else had come across it as I believe it stems from a particular area of the country.  After picking myself off the floor and checking the calendar to make sure we were still in the twenty-first century I decided I wanted to find out more about the cultural beliefs surrounding albinism.  Enter Miss Millie Lamar...

Oh Miss Millie Lamar, you genius.  In a time when being different was definitely hazardous to your health, many men, women and children with albinism found relative safety and employment in circuses and freak shows.  Millie established herself as a mind reader and found great success and I'm guessing an aid in fooling people was working on their prejudice. And she wasn't the only one...

Little Ida, the Fairy Queen of Peerless Beauty.  Well, that's quite a mouthful and quite a claim.  Mind you, an adjective that has been applied to Lily on more occasions than she's had hot dinners is 'fairy'.  It's not only her appearance that causes this but also the tendency for children with albinism to play on their own due to difficulties in recognising their friends in a busy playground.  She also has difficulty with judging personal space as she often doesn't realise how close she is to people she is talking to and often doesn't look at people's faces when they talk to her or she replies. She cannot see them clearly so turns her head to hear them better.  None of that is 'normal' apparently.  It's 'quirky', which is currently our favourite euphemism for 'your child is weird, do something about that please'.  To her kinder teachers, it was something fascinating, something charming, something magical.  As a parent, I much preferred to hear my daughter was magic, but neither speak of any great understanding of Lily's 'disability' (I don't think albinism is a disability in itself, but her eyesight definitely is and has a knock on effect in her behaviour and habits).  To Victorian audience, that 'magic' was worth an entrance fee.  Best not tell Lily's school that.

Little Ida and Millie made the best of the hand genetics gave them, at least for a while, but what of other Victorians with albinism?  What did texts of the day say about the fairest among them?

We're going to need a bigger boat...
I knew that Moby Dick was 'the white whale' but I hadn't realised the connection with albinism and the amount of symbolism and prejudice in the novel.  Based partly on the killing of an albino sperm whale in the 1830s named 'Mocha Dick', the whale in Moby Dick is described as actively malevolent and this is linked to his albinism, a common theme which I'll come to in a bit.  Many passages talk about the horror of his appearance in such ways as this: 'What is it that in the Albino man so peculiarly repels and often shocks the eye..?'  The 'wrongness' of albinism is alluded to repeatedly, how albinos must be as different inside as they are outside.  Possibly Moby Dick is the birth of the 'evil albino' myth, so prevalent in books and movies today.  The Da Vinci Code, Cold Mountain, The Matrix, even the damn peacock in Kung Fu Panda 2, it is lazy shorthand for evil.

Mind you, in nineteenth century society, evil wasn't the prevalent prejudice.  Summed up by Karl Pearson in his early twentieth century works on heredity and eugenics, 'albinism is very often associated with lowered physique and lessened mentality.'  Charming.  While one rare strain of albinism does have a health implication, ocular and ocular cutaneous albinism has no impact on physical development or health at all.  More puzzling was the claim that albinism was a strictly men-only club.  European albinos were always male as the female siblings of albinos were 'destitute of the Albino degeneracy...' Again, charming.

A chap with albinism who doesn't look very degenerate.  Nice braiding.
I wonder if the apparent belief that albinism was a male condition is why women with it were fetishized and the mythology grew up around them.  If you consider that the average response to the physical appearance of those with albinism is reflected in The Art of Preserving the Hair on Philosophical Principles (1825) : 'The whiteness of the skin is not the clear and glossy tint of the uncoloured parts of the European frame in the healthy state, but of a dead or pallid cast, something like that of leprous scales.' Once more, charming.  It's astonishing how that contrasts with the fascination with the appearance of women with albinism, possibly because in general belief they shouldn't exist.  Maybe that's where the magical element comes in...

Little Ida is described here as 'the beautiful Albino', completely at odds with the apparent revulsion felt about the condition.  In many of the images of women with albinism their hair is loose and a feature of the portrait, like our lady on the right.  Mind you, Lily-Rose has a fairly spectacular head of hair and causes a stir when she is out and about.  I have had women accuse me of dying her hair (that was a very aggresive encounter) and as neither me or Mr Walker have blonde hair, a kind old lady in a supermaket informed Mr Walker that his daughter obviously wasn't his.  People randomly stroke her hair, mostly in lifts, and the only place where we passed unnoticed was Stockholm where everyone is blonde and so no-one felt the need to comment on how blonde Lily was.

Rudolph Lacasie and family

Unknown Ladies

The Lacasie family was 'acquired' by P T Barnum during a visit to Amsterdam in 1857 and became a feature of his travelling circus.  While it can assumed that Rudolph Lacasie actually did something entertaining (judging by the costume) I suspect people just came to see them and their genetic difference.  If that sounds weird to us with our modern sensibilities then bare in mind while looking for the historical images for this blog I found many webpages devoted to the 'wonderful weirdness of albinos'.  They were very nice sites, saying how beautiful people with albinism are, but all the same they are concentrating on how different they are.  Do you think that is a good thing?  I really don't know.

Thank you Aardman Animation for making the Albino Pirate
just as daft and funny as the other pirates.  
I think the point of this post is to question if our manner of seeing things has really changed since Victorian times.  We are now more aware of the offense idiotic notions of 'difference' can cause and hopefully we have made progress in accepting and ignoring difference where it just doesn't matter, but there remains something primal in our fear and fascination with 'Other'.  Like with the witch, when we celebrate and embrace the cunning woman is it the innocent victim of hysteria we celebrate or the fictional stereotype of a misogynistic society?  Neither seems worth splashing out on stripey tights for.  Likewise, a lack of pigment in eyes, skin and hair seemed enough to make you magic in the olden days.  How ridiculous.  Still in certain areas of the world it is enough to get you killed for your valuable magical body parts because you are a 'ghost', not human at all.  How terrifying.

Me and Lils last winter in our matching hats.  That I made.  I know.
Lily knows she has albinism and has a vague idea of how it makes her different, physically.  Only time will tell what she will make of all the other nonsense that seems to go along with it.  Mind you, judging from the photograph above I think Lily-Rose has bigger problems than some absent pigment.  She has us as parents.  Lawks.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

A Witch in Time : Magic and Mind-Reading Part 1

This is the first part of a fun weekend of myth and magic in honour of the fact that it is the magical month of October.  Today I'm looking at possibly the most popular costume worn at Halloween...

Now, as most of you will be aware, we're just over a week away from 31st October or Halloween, All Hallow's Eve and 'Turn the lights out and pretend we're not home!' night.  In Britain there have been some fairly awful controversies over bad taste halloween costumes available in supermarkets and on-line, for example this one, Lord save us all...

Nice.  Most worrying is that I actually dress a bit like that normally, so we better move on.  Yes, you can buy all manner of 'mental patient' outfits and my personal favourite 'Anna Rexia' the skeleton girl.  For goodness sake.  Best stick with something nice and traditional.  Something inoffensive.  Like a witch...

Me on my way to the Harry Potter Studio Tour.
Yes, I loved my cheeky witch outfit, but giving it more thought, should we be dressing up as witches?  I mean, what does it all mean?

The Magic Circle (1886) John William Waterhouse
It's unsurprising to learn that the Victorian's loved the image of a witch.  One of the most archaic of archetype, the witch, wise woman, cunning woman or whatever else you want to call her, found a safe place among the supernatural elements of Victorian culture.  I find it incredible that the last 'witch' tried in England was Helen Duncan during the Second World War, but reading Agatha Christie tells you that even well into the twentieth century, witches were acknowledged members of society.  Waterhouse, above, shows the more glamorous side of witchery.  Possibly drawn from magic women of antiquity, his witch is a beautiful sorceress, much in the style of Medea...

Medea Frederick Sandys
Would you class these women as witches?  Or are they merely women who do magic?  Is there a difference?  Well there is definitely a difference in costume, no black and pointy hats for these glam girls.  Maybe because they seem to exist in a split-second where their magic is respected, is attractive to the viewer.  What they are doing is as potent and fascinating as their beautiful faces and our admiration of them means we will not be harmed.  Possibly some attraction was in the fact that you wouldn't mind getting harmed by these girls.  Maybe your average Victorian gentleman would have fancied getting hexed-up by these wicked women.

It seems almost rude to call these girls 'witches', maybe 'sorceress' is a more elegant word for their graceful conjuring?  It maybe semantics but we are in the domain of words and images and what they mean.  A sorceress will charm you, conjure with your feelings and you will be helpless to resist but something tells me you'll quite enjoy it.  Witches however are another matter...

Visit to the Witch (1882) Edward Brewtnall
This lady is probably a little more like what most people would think of when you say the word 'witch'- a  wizened, black-clothed crone with a cauldron, a cat and a broomstick with no doubt a bit of spirited cackling thrown in for good measure.  I find it interesting that although your average, traditional, Home-Counties witch is quite a solitary figure, she doesn't have any trouble in bringing other women to her as customers...

Girl and a Witch Beatrice Offor
Young women seem to be drawn irresistibly to the company of the witch, possibly for something they lack.  They come for love potions, spells to make themselves more beautiful, possibly conceive a baby, but really what they seek is knowledge.  The witch has the benefit of experience, that is where the magic comes from.  The irony that this old, often ugly, woman has the secret to turn men's hearts, win their love them over a possibly more 'worthy' subject is not lost and is possibly where the danger lies.  If a man's desire is caught by a beautiful young woman, that's one thing.  If the one who makes you fall in love against your will is a wrinkled old crone, well, that's entirely another matter.

An Arrest for Witchcraft in Olden Times (1886) John Pettie
It's no wonder that people lynched witches.  No hang on, let me get one thing straight.  I would bet money that no witch has ever been arrested, tried, hung, drowned, burnt or any of the other things.  Not one.  I shall tell you why and my answer is two-fold.  Firstly, I don't actually think witches exist, but I like to keep an open mind so I shall go on to my perfectly reasonable second argument.  If witches exist and have the power of magic behind them why on earth would they allow themselves to be caught, let alone killed by the frightened mob?  Not a chance.  Okay, I'll allow that possibly a couple got caught unawares, maybe while asleep or drunk or knitting.  On the whole I think you'll find that the women burnt, hung or dunked in a pond until they were dead could be summed up in two words: Inconvenient women.  Has some old woman got property you want?  Witch!  Want someone to blame for your failure and know an old woman?  Witch!  Want to get rid of your wife or the wife of a chap you quite fancy?  Witch!  Gain, hatred, fear, ergot poisoning, any number of religions looking for a bit of affirmation, all jolly fine reasons for shouting witch!

The Witches (1897) Lovis Corinth
I love this picture as it has a lovely ambiguity which I think the subject requires.  Who are the witches?  Are they all witches?  The young woman has taken off her sumptuous ball gown and mask and is apparently washing.  Why are the older women laughing?  I think there is a hint that the young woman is an old woman in disguise, hence the mask, and the bath at the front of the picture stands for a cauldron and magic.  The old women are gleeful as their turn may come to be young again and find a young man to have jolly fun with.  Saucy baggages...

The Witches in Macbeth (1842) Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps
When witches come in plurals then more often than not they come in threes.  Thank you Shakespeare for that.  The Virgin, the Mother and the Crone (or Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat as discussed in the last post, turning the order around) are the three stages of womanhood, and are reflected in number of witches.  It's always struck me that the witches stand for Lady Macbeth in the play - they are a supernatural manifestation of her evil, an excuse to soften the blow that she is the powerhouse of ruthless and relentless ambition.  They are her very bad qualities made flesh.  They are like the dark mirror images of Faith, Hope and Charity.  Lady Macbeth rang true to the Victorians in a very dangerous way.  A woman in charge was familiar but the lesson in Macbeth was worrying:  let women control and subversion results.  The witches and the wife make a murderous traitor of Macbeth.  Sure, it is an acknowledgement, possibly realistic, that evil lurks in every man's heart, but let a woman in there and you lose control.

The Witch (1913) John Currie
Maybe a little subversion of the world of men is not a bad thing.  We should embrace the witch if she shakes up the status quo, right?  What if you consider that the 'world of men' seemingly consists of science, reason, learning, knowledge?  Still want to rebel?  It seems to me that the world of women is pigeonholed as being that of nature, feeling, intuition as opposed to those qualities of the 'man's world'.  Our embrace of the witch therefore is just further reinforcing the misogynistic equilibrium.  Damn.

As a side note, actually the most terrifying image of witches in my humble opinion is not of female witches, but of men...

Witches in Flight (Witches' Sabbath) (1798) Goya
I think it is the silence in this picture that unnerves me.  Horrible.  Anyway back to women and covens.  Although three is a magic number, when the girls get together then anything is possible.  And by anything, I obviously mean nudity...

The Witches Luis Falero
I'm not sure where to start.  Well, there is all sorts going on here, starting with an old crone grabbing some luscious lovelies fleshy bits as she rides her broomstick.  The more you look, the dodgier it becomes.  There's a goat, a lizard, a cat, a bat and any amount of bottoms you care to mention.  Heavens, witchcraft seems to be awfully energetic.

The Witch Luis Falero
I couldn't resist giving you this one too.  God, I love Falero.  It is macaroon-pastel filth and I want more.  The fire in this witch's hair against that midnight blue is delicious.  Moving on.

Walpurgis Sabbath Adolf Munzer
The role of witches in what amounts to arty soft porn is fairly extablished.  They famously get their kit off on a regular basis and must have been young at some point and so it's perfectly legitimate to show these nubile, broom-riding lasses.  Am I allowed to question the wisdom of naked broom-riding?  Moving on...

Maybe my point is this:  Seemingly we never question the role of the witch as woman, in fact we embrace her as a positive female archetype.  She is disruption, destabilising in a world when men rule.  The least powerful women in society have a secret source of power that is unavailable to those in charge and that is a thing of terror to those who rain terror down on us.  So far so good, the witch is an icon of subversion.

Before you clutch her to you too tightly, bare in mind that she is also a poster-girl for why women were held back, she is the excuse used to put so many innocent, inconvenient women to death, she is the embodiment for all those attributes that mark us as less intelligent, less rational, less reasonable, heavens, less clothed.  The witch who provides charms to women is just one fool peddling mischief to others while men sit back and mock.  A witch can give you spells to make something you are not entitled to yours, probably at the expense of another woman.  Right on, Sisters.

In the end, it's only fun, only costume on a dark autumn night.  Which of us ladies hasn't donned a pointy hat and longed to fly on a broom?  Plus, there is that promise of eternal youth by magical means.  I already wear a lot of black, I think I feel a future career calling.  See you tomorrow for the mind reader in my own home...

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Angels, Faeries and Femmes Fatales: Exhibition Review

Many of you will know by now that I am married to the Collections Officer at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth (not the reason I married him but it doesn't hinder).  Their current exhibition will be of interest to the readers of this fair blog and so I sallied forth to have a butchers...

The Victorians loved their supernatural, and the female element of it featured heavily in popular art of the time.  Mermaids, fairies, witches, nymphs and angels all carry the female characteristics telling the viewer how much that society saw the Other World to be a girls-only club. I mean, have a look at this...

Nudey Star Ladies by Luis Falero
Tee hee!  Looking at an awful lot of the works on display in this exhibition, there is a great amount of giggly fun to be had with the images.  They are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face while also being incredibly beautiful.  This is probably why they make such perfect bedfellows with the work of Paul Kidby who you will know from the front covers of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels.

Cupid meets Rob Anybody
Kidby works in more than one media, with some of the most charming three-dimensional pieces I've ever seen, including little Rob Anybody and a stunning mermaid...

Subtitled 'From Dadd to Discworld', this exhibition shows how the same things interest us, tickle us and strike us as beautiful.  There is a chance to see Richard Dadd's insane micro-world of The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke in a massive modern work which fills a wall with its warped and gilded glory and it seems inspired to link the complexity of the Victorian fairy subculture to the modern world of Pratchett's imagination.

Miss Tick and Tiffany Aching with Feegles by Paul Kidby

Mr Walker is a fan of Pratchett and so was familiar with Kidby's work before meeting the man himself. I have read all the Witches' novels and so was delighted to see Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat in front of me.

Do I suspect I will turn into Nanny Ogg at some point in the not too distant future?  No comment.

At the very least this exhibition gives you the chance to see some beautiful pieces from the Russell-Cotes glorious collection together with Kidby's work, not to mention some rather saucy ladies like this...

An Incantation John Collier
Hello Mrs Saucy Pants!  It is easy to overlook the soft-porn prettiness of the Victorian obsession with wicked nude-y ladies when addressing the serious questions of art, but when they are packed into a small space you begin to see that there was a thread running through the iconography of Other that was shared by the nineteenth century subconscious.  The women, the demons, water nymphs and angels are fair of face but uncertain of morals.  The angels are above all but if you think about what they do it doesn't always make sense in human terms.  Take this image for example...

The Annunciation Simeon Solomon
 One of the most famous angel moments in history has to be Gabriel dropping in on Mary.  Mr Jesus is obviously a very good thing for humankind (well, from the Christian end of things) but look at the moment in isolation.  A young, unmarried woman is made pregnant by the visitation of an angel and the will of God it doesn't really fit into our human moral code.  You could argue it's rather a cruel thing to do to her, leaving her open to ridicule at the very least and all manner of punishment and ostracization.  The angel doesn't consider that, its vision is far wider than the immediate fate of one woman.  Likewise a lot of Victorian supernatural art shows conflict between types of creature, concepts, and destinies.

Love Betrayed John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

The Habit Does Not Make The Monk 1888-1889 G F Watts
Love, the most positive of human emotions is revealed as a tricksy little git, hiding or else tumbling through some machination of our own against the greatest joy in the world.  We seemingly are at war with the one thing that should enhance our lives.  What's that all about?

The bust of Granny Weatherwax.
Both lovely and terrifying in equal measure, as good grannies should be.
Likewise in Kidby's work there is the play of uncertainty, unreality, things beyond our control and beyond our modern world of rational and science.  You will fall in love because of a potion, an arrow, a spell.  You will be visited by Death, an actual figure in black with whom you have a pre-arranged date.  There are dragons, mermaids, fairies all challenging our modern consciousness in their clarity and perfection.  That's the point, as much now as in the nineteenth century.  We are a species at war with itself.  Half the human race faces the future with science as the answer to all, the other half keeps an eye on the old ways creeping up on us, tripping us, making us fall in love, killing us, saving us.  Maybe we still worry that science does not answer everything, or at least does not provide the most entertaining answers, and so why not believe that mermaids plunge throw the waves or that naked ladies flutter on the petals of flowers with the wings of butterflies?

Upstairs there is a section selling Paul Kidby's works and prints and so you get the chance to take one home with you.  There is a dragon that has to be seen to be believed, he is adorable.

The exhibition runs until 9th March next year and is free entry (as is the museum during the off-season months).  Enjoy - I guarantee it will put a smile on your face.