The Reading Art Conference

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The final event of the project was a two-day conference, which took place at BMAG at the end of May. Over 60 people attended over the two days, and we had 27 speakers from all over the world, plus two excellent keynote speakers: Professor John Holmes (University of Birmingham) and Dr Dinah Roe (Oxford Brookes). I’m happy to say that the event was a great success: as well as a range of fascinating and varied papers which really brought out some exciting aspects of Pre-Raphaelitism, we also had a wonderful tour of the stained glass windows by Burne-Jones in St Philip’s Cathedral, and a really outstanding reading of Pre-Raphaelite inspired poetry by the Pre-Raphaelite Society’s poet in residence, Sarah Doyle, which took place, with a wine reception, at the Birmingham Midland Institute.

I am enormously grateful to all those who attended, spoke, or helped out; the event wouldn’t have been the same without such a wonderful community of Pre-Raphaelite scholars and enthusiasts.

The Autumn issue of the Pre-Raphaelite Society Review will contain a number of papers from the conference; I’ll post on here when it’s available (not until December, probably!)



Asleep or hallucinating: artistic responses to literature

The final Reading Art talk today rounded off the series nicely, with an excellent talk by Richard Schofield, Lecturer in Visual Communications at BCU. With particular reference to his work ‘I am still asleep’, a response to William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin, he discussed the ways in which an artist might respond to literature, raising some fascinating questions. This work, involving Richard’s immersion in the novel and creative responses to it, is not illustration; rather, he describes it as collaboration (with Faber & Faber’s agreement, if not Golding’s – though I’m sure the writer would have approved). Golding’s writing, often abstract in its descriptions, suggests atmosphere rather than concrete ideas, and it is these to which Richard’s work corresponds.


An ‘unfixed, or floating narrative’, characteristic of his previous projects, also appears in this work, in text which swoops around the images, virtually transparent.

I was struck by a quotation from Theodore Adorno which exemplifies Richard’s work:

The after-life of artworks […] transpires between a do-not-let-yourself-be-understood and a wanting-to-be-understood: this tension is the atmosphere inhabited by art.

After all, if you want to say something, art isn’t the quickest way to do it – but it might be the most powerful, or creative: atmosphere and ambiguity work together to create this tension. This collaboration allows the artist to use the work of literature as a filter to express his own subjectivity, bringing to it all kinds of other approaches, emotions, interests, etc. As Richard pointed out, visual and conceptual ideas are fused in writing, using a palette of words, which generates ideas. But the words are mechanical, selected from a tool-box of language, while the paint is molecular, about expressing thought in a different medium.


Richard’s latest work, ‘Slow Wet Tar‘, is on display at the Parkside Building, BCU, now.



‘Poetry is painting that speaks’

Poet Bethany Rivers, who is interested in ekphrasis and how poetry and painting are mutually inspirational, gave a reading and talk for the penultimate Reading Art lecture. She has been inspired by a number of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, which gave rise to a particularly interesting discussion about Millais’ Ophelia and the ways in which Hamlet inspired both the painting and Bethany’s poem.

Bethany talked about ekphrastic practice, quoting Plutarch: ‘Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks’. The way poetry might describe a painting represents the poet’s view, of course, not every viewer’s image, and this potential for creating new images with words is a fruitful topic for a poet. Bethany read from her forthcoming book Off the Wall, which is entirely ekphrastic, and the audience enjoyed a lively discussion ranging from feminism to Shakespeare.

Aesthetic Dress as Performance

20160416_122027_resized_1Last week we had a fascinating talk as part of the project by Louise Chapman, Lecturer in Design for Performance at Birmingham City University. Louise discussed how ‘aesthetic dress’ isn’t all that it seems: while it was ‘oppositional, anti-fashion and sub-cultural’, it was adopted slowly and often with a hidden secret (hidden internal corsets!) The muted colours, drapery and medieval styles of the dressed in paintings such as Beata BeatrixLady Windsor and Proserpine tell us a lot about the artists who painted them and about the approach they developed which suggested a loose, free approach to dress, but as Louise (and Dr Robyne Calvert from Glasgow School of Art, who spoke to the Pre-Raphaelite Society on a similar subject recently) suggested, this approach was often an artistic performance rather than one which the models and artists perpetuated in their private lives. Louise’s talk generated some great discussion, and it’s difficult to look at the clothes in the paintings in quite the same way now!

Painting and Poetry: Dante and Arthurian Myth

Paolo and FrancescaThe latest Reading Art talk, which I gave, was on particular works in the BMAG collection, focusing on works inspired by Dante and Arthurian myths. The subjects appeal to my own interest in myth, and I talked about two Dante-inspired works: Alexander Munro’s Paolo and Francesca (which I blogged about before), and the ever-popular Beata Beatrix. I read relevant extracts of poetry (from Rossetti’s translation, of course) and talked about the literary context. This is the sonnet from the Vita Nuova which I read to accompany Beata Beatrix:

To every heart which the sweet pain doth move,
And unto which these words may now be brought
For true interpretation and kind thought,Beata Beatrix (BMAG)
Be greeting in our Lord’s name, which is Love.
Of those long hours wherein the stars, above,
Wake and keep watch, the third was almost nought,
When Love was shown me with such terrors fraught
As may not carelessly be spoken of.
He seemed like one who is full of joy, and had
My heart within his hand, and on his arm
My lady, with a mantle round her, slept;
Whom (having wakened her) anon he made
To eat that heart; she ate, as fearing harm.
Then he went out; and as he went, he wept.

We also looked at Emma Sandys’ Lady Holding a Rose, and discussed Morgan le fayher representations of Arthurian women, followed by her brother Frederick’s depiction of Morgan le Fay. Finally, I talked about his Medea, which I’ve written about in more detail here.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of these talks is that people ask such interesting questions; afterwards, I spoke to a number of people who had attended, including a clergyman, a researcher and an A-level Art student, which was wonderful; it’s fascinating to hear the different approaches people have, and to enjoy stimulating conversation about mutual interests.

The next talk is this Saturday, April 16th, by Louise Chapman of Birmingham City University, talking about ‘Performing Aestheticism: Aesthetic Dress as Performance’.

Pre-Raphaelite paintings of The Lady of Shalott

On Saturday the first of the Reading Art talks took place at BMAG, given by Maria Cohut, a doctoral candidate at the University of Warwick. I can’t possibly do justice to Maria’s talk in a blog post, but she explored the poem and the paintings which it inspired in a way which really encouraged me to think about the interpretative gap between poetry and paintings – something that Tennyson himself was well aware of, in his criticisms of the illustrations for the Moxon Tennyson, which he often felt weren’t sufficiently close to the details of the poem. For Tennyson, poetry was the defining art, then (as well as the first chronologically) and thus images inspired by it should be faithful to it. But for the painters inspired by the poem, their art was inextricably linked to that of the poet, but nonetheless separate; their own interpretation was significant to them. Maria’s readings of the poem and paintings bridged this interpretative gap creatively – and made me think about the Lady’s hair in a whole new light! Below are some of the images she discussed – some more familiar than others.

Waterhouse The Lady of Shalott
John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888 (Tate Britain)
Half sick of shadows
John William Waterhouse, ‘I Am Half-Sick of Shadows’ said the Lady of Shalott, 1915 (Art Gallery of Ontario)


John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot 1894 (Leeds Art Gallery)
Holman Hunt
William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, 1905 (Wadsworth Atheneum)
Elizabeth Siddal, The Lady of Shalott at her Loom (n.d.), Jeremy Maas Gallery
Darvall, Henry, active 1848-1889; The Lady of Shalott
Henry Darvall, The Lady of Shalott, 1848-51 (Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage)
Sidney Meteyard, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, 1913 (private collection)
William Maw Egley, The Lady of Shalott, 1858 (Museums Sheffield)

Draft programme for Reading Art conference

Reading Art: Pre-Raphaelite Poetry and Painting, May 27th – 28th 2016

 Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and Birmingham City University

This conference is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Friday May 27th

10.00-10.30     Registration and coffee

10.30-10.45     Welcome

10.45-11.45     Keynote lecture: Professor John Holmes, University of Birmingham, ‘The Knowing Hand of the Anatomist: Embodied Psychology in Pre-Raphaelite Poetry and Painting’. Chair: Serena Trowbridge, Birmingham City University

11.45-1.00       Panel 1: Poetry, Painting and Pre-Raphaelite Women


‘Pre-Raphaelite Poetry and Painting: Reading the Rossettis’ Representations of Women’

Lucy Ella Rose (University of Surrey)

Lady Lilith and the Yellow Aster: Pre-Raphaelite portraiture and the literary New Woman

Naomi Hetherington (University of Sheffield)

‘A Symbolist Battle between the Ephemeral and Corporeal: John White Alexander’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil’

Erika Schneider (Framingham State University)

Panel 2: Pre-Raphaelite Science and Nature

Chair: Thomas Knowles, Birmingham City University

‘Symbolic Realism: How Science and Poetry Fused in Early Pre-Raphaelite Works’

Lea Döding (Freie Universität Berlin)

‘Edward Burne-Jones’ The Planets: An Astronomical Poem

Liana De Girolami Cheney (Independent scholar)

‘Vitality in Decay: The Unconventional Poetry of Millais’s Deserted Garden (1875)’

Lindsay Wells (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

1.00-2.00         Lunch (with opportunity to explore the BMAG galleries)

2.00-3.15         Panel 3: Pre-Raphaelitism and Myth


Images of Desire: Twenty Sketches by Simeon Solomon’

Carolyn Conroy (University of York)

‘“Her False Crafts”: Morgan Le Fay and the Wild Women of Sandys’ Imagination’

Sally-Anne Huxtable (National Museums Scotland)

‘Fairy painting and literature: Intertwined lovers of the Victorian era’

Verda Bingol (Istanbul Technical University)

3.15-4.00         Coffee, walk to cathedral

4.00-4.45         Tour of Burne-Jones stained glass at St Phillip’s Cathedral

5.30                 Drinks reception at Birmingham Midland Institute, with a poetry reading by the Pre-Raphaelite Society’s Poet-in-Residence, Sarah Doyle.

7.30                 Conference dinner

Saturday May 28th

10.00-10.30     Registration and coffee

10.30-11.30     Keynote lecture: Dr Dinah Roe, Oxford Brookes University, ‘Words About the Picture: Pre-Raphaelite Frames and the Poetics of Liminality’. Chair: Serena Trowbridge, Birmingham City University

11.30-12.45     Panel 4: Pre-Raphaelite Illustration


‘A “damned proeraphaelite”? George du Maurier’s ekphrastic drawings for Good Words, Once a Week and The Cornhill (1860-65)’

Françoise Baillet (Cergy-Pontoise University)

‘“The Heart that Must be free”: Poems illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones and Simeon Solomon in Good Words for 1862, a comparative study’

Clive Kennard (University of York)

‘The Problematic Art of Illustrating Moxon’s Tennyson’

Heather Stevenson (University of Glasgow)

Panel 5: Painting, Poetry and Music

Chair: Holly Cooper, Birmingham City University

‘James Smetham: Wesleyan Pre-Raphaelite’

Peter S. Forsaith (Oxford Brookes University)

‘Music and Memory: John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s The Gentle Music of a Bygone Day and William Morris’s The Earthly Paradise

Simon Poë (Independent scholar)

‘“Say nothing”: Sensuality and Temporality in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s and Walter Pater’s responses to Giorgione’s Concert Champêtre

Luke Uglow (Independent scholar)

12.45-1.45       Lunch (with opportunity to explore the BMAG galleries)

1.45-3.00         Panel 6: Double works


‘“I thank you so much for thinking me still worthy of making so lovely a present to”: Perlascura Twelve Coins for One Queen

Anne Anderson

‘Beyond Ut Pictura Poesis: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris’s Shared Aesthetic’

Brandiann Molby (Loyola University Chicago)

‘The Ideal and the Real in the Sculptural Body’

Jordan Kistler (University of Birmingham)

Panel 7: Pre-Raphaelite Ekphrastic Practice


‘Methods and materials of image-making in the verbal and visual arts’

Lavinia Singer (Roehamptom University)

‘Gender and Space in Pre-Raphaelite paintings of “The Eve of St Agnes”’

Serena Trowbridge (Birmingham City University)

‘Illuminating Objects: New Narratives in Pre-Raphaelite Art’

Johanna Amos (Dalhousie University)

3.00-4.15         Panel 8: Earthly and Divine Love


‘The figure of the Beloved in the poetry and painting of the Rossettis’

Hannah Comer (Independent scholar)

‘“So pure, so fallen!”: Madonna-Whore Complex in the Poetry and Paintings of D. G. Rossetti’

Yashodhara Trivedi (Independent scholar)

‘Love is Hell: Dante, Rossetti and Pre-Raphaelitism’

Robyne Calvert (Glasgow School of Art)

Panel 9: Writing about Art


‘The literary reception of John William Waterhouse’

Kilian Kohn (Universität Heidelberg)

‘“That old affair of an article which I wrote for the Burlington Magazine in 1903 remains unsettled’: William Michael Rossetti and The Burlington

Madeleine Pearce (Independent scholar)

4.15-5.00         Coffee and plenary discussion

Pre-Raphaelite Poetry and Painting