The 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,
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 her 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’.
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.
Registration for the Reading Art conference, 27th-28th May, is now open – click here to book your ticket! Tickets are available for one day or both days, and I’ll post the programme as soon as possible. The event is open to anyone so if you’re interested then do come along!
As part of the Reading Art project, five public talks have been scheduled for April. They all take place at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. No need to book – just turn up. Each talk will last up to an hour including time for questions.
Saturday 9th April, 12 noon ‘Fairy, Weaver, Seër’: Incarnations of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ in the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and Their Followers Maria Cohut, University of Warwick
Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’ was the source of inspiration for numerous artists throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and beyond, and it was an especial favourite with the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers. William Holman Hunt’s take on the subject is perhaps the most famous, closely followed by John William Waterhouse’s later depictions. The lecture will explore these, as well as some of the less-known Pre-Raphaelite and Neo-Pre-Raphaelite pictorial representations of the Lady of Shalott. Tennyson’s Lady opened the way for newer, more challenging and complex explorations of femininity. AV Room (Meet in Round Room).
Tuesday 12th April, 12 noon Pre-Raphaelitism and Poetry: looking back in time Dr Serena Trowbridge, Birmingham City University
This gallery talk will explore how the Pre-Raphaelites engage with literature and literary history to create a medieval aesthetic which fitted in with their artistic and literary ethos. We will look particularly at reworkings of Dante, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s interest in Arthurian literature, focusing on the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alexander Munro and Ford Madox Brown, among others. Meet in Pre-Raphaelite galleries
Saturday 16th April, 12 noon Performing Aestheticism: Aesthetic Dress as Performance Louise Chapman, Birmingham City University
This talk will be considering the changing gender roles of women within the Aesthetic movement, and discussing the manner in which dress within the movement was part of an Aesthetic ‘lifestyle choice,’ and how dress as an art form was ‘performed’ within these elite artistic circles. Aesthetic dress could be considered as being oppositional, anti-fashion and sub-cultural in its representation within these artistic social circles and within the fashion cycle. Meet in Pre-Raphaelite galleries
Tuesday 19th April, 12 noon ‘Poetry is painting that speaks’ – Birthing the female gaze Bethany Rivers, Poet
Bethany Rivers will be reading from her forthcoming collection of ekphrastic poetry, called Off the Wall, (due out later this year from Indigo Dreams Publishing) and describing her process of transposing a visual representation into a verbal representation. This will include poems written on the iconic female figures of Ophelia, Lizzie Siddal and Persephone (Proserpine), with references to the act of rebellion against the assumed gender of male being assigned to the viewer, and explorations of the various possibilities of a ‘female gaze’. AV Room (Meet in Round Room)
Tuesday 26th April, 12 noon Asleep or Hallucinating? Dr Richard Schofield, Birmingham City University
Richard Schofield will describe the process that a visual artist/illustrator goes through when interpreting the written word and transposing it into a different medium. He will refer to a recent project in which he responded to the novel Pincher Martin, by William Golding (1956), producing a compact visual ‘equivalent’. This creative journey required a good degree of immersion, that undoubtedly surpasses a literal analysis of the written word. This is an illustrated talk which will also relate other experiences, references and research which contributed to this process. AV Room (Meet in Round Room)
I spend a lot of time looking at Pre-Raphaelite paintings, in galleries, in exhibitions, online and in books. And every exhibition, like every book, has its own individual approach and shows me something new. It goes without saying, then, that the Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion exhibition at the Walker Gallery, Liverpool, curated by Christopher Newall, with its own take on the subject and its own juxtaposition of works, got me thinking. The premise of the exhibition is to situate Liverpool as a centre of Pre-Raphaelite patronage, and as a city which, in the second half of the nineteenth century, was receptive to such ‘rebellious’ art. Much is made of the wealthy Liverpool patrons who bought Pre-Raphaelite paintings, developed collections, and encouraged new painters to be open to the influences of this new school of thought in art. This led to a ‘Liverpool School’ of artists influenced by the PRB, interested in their style, form and narrative approach. This much is demonstrated convincingly, and I encountered some interested works by Liverpool artists whose work I hadn’t seen before. However, having been based in Birmingham for many years, I tend to feel that some of the claims for Liverpool are slightly overstated:
No other provincial town or city was so receptive to this rebellious yet reforming artistic movement. It is a testament to the independence of taste and intellectual freedom in the North West in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The relationship of Birmingham and the Birmingham School to Pre-Raphaelitism aside, the exhibition makes a good case for Liverpool’s claims; from collectors and patrons to indigenous painters, now enshrined in the collections of the Walker and the Lady Lever galleries, Liverpool embraced the movement, even awarding the Liverpool Academy annual prize to Pre-Raphaelite works on several occasions (including Holman Hunt’s Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1857) and Millais’s The Blind Girl (1856) – both of which are now in Birmingham’s collection).
Every painting on display was exhibited in Liverpool at some point during the nineteenth century, which is telling about the Liverpudlian appetite for Pre-Raphaelitism (something which quotations on the wall remind us of at every turn). The first thing you see as you enter is Millais’s striking Isabella (1848-9), which is one of those works that has come to symbolise the early stages of Pre-Raphaelitism. A narrative painting, engaged with literary sources (Keats’s poem, ‘Isabella, or The Pot of Basil‘), full of symbolism, it brings a story to life: the uncomfortable dinner scene, with the lovers in the foreground and, in the background, oblivious to the drama about to unfold, a man is draining his drink, looking so prosaically real one can almost hear the resulting belch. Does this realism, I wonder, bringing a narrative to life, do what films do now, making stories appear before us, embodied by the Pre-Raphaelite lens?
I was interested by the paintings of Liverpool artist William Lindsay Windus, such as Burd Helen (1856), based on a Scottish border ballad. The notice tells me that Windus was encouraged by collector John Miller to visit London and see the Pre-Raphaelite works on display; this was the result. Certainly in its narrative origin and its detailed background you can see the influence, though I don’t much like it as a painting, personally. Equally interesting is The Rainbow (1858) by William Davis. Though the PRB liked Davis’s work, Ruskin described this one as ‘an offensive daub’, causing Davis to roll up the edge with the rainbow on, which would probably improve it, as the rest of the painting is much better; I wonder if he retitled it, though. What is particularly interesting about this painting is the effect of the light, though: that effect of bright sunshine through dark clouds following a thunderstorm. In this was it is reminiscent of Holman Hunt’s The Pretty Baa Lambs, with a similarly striking depiction of light. It also recalled for me The Blind Girl, with a rainbow and a similar light effect. James Campbell’s Twilight, Trudging Homeward (1857) with a small, sightless girl being walked home, was apparently likely to be directly inspired by The Blind Girl, which was exhibited in Liverpool the same year.
Laura Freeman, in her scathing and slightly hysterical review of the exhibition in The Spectator(I suspect the exhibition confirmed her existing views of the Pre-Raphaelites) particularly took exception to Holman Hunt’s Little Nell and her Grandfather (1845). In that instance, I’m inclined to agree with her: it seems ‘sloshy’, to use the PRB’s own term, in both form and subject. Of course Little Nell herself is an example of high Victorian sentimentality, and it strikes me that Hunt took an overly-sentimental narrative and overlaid it with even more of the stuff. Apparently he accidentally used salad oil in painting the sky; perhaps that’s the problem. This isn’t the only work here inspired by The Old Curiosity Shop; Robert Braithwaite Martineau’s Kit’s Writing Lesson (1852), despite criticism from W. M. Rossetti that his realism led to too many mistakes, seems less cloying and more appealing.
I’m also inclined to agree with Freeman concerning May Morning on Magdalen Tower (Holman Hunt, 1890): there are many things to like here, including the lovely touch of the boy in the middle shading his eyes with his hand from the glare of the rising sun, the feeling of Spring and celebration, and the multi-faceted imagery of faith, but somehow the colours seem garish and wrong to me, the style outworn. There is a smaller, elaborately framed version at BMAG, and I think I prefer it smaller; it’s less…obvious.
Every Pre-Raphaelite show will have its standout pieces, usually very famous ones: here, one of those is Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat, which is one of those paintings people often love to hate. I have to say, it’s growing on me. Its narrative is biblical, and not particularly appealing; it’s an uncompromising painting which doesn’t try to seduce the viewer – unlike some of the other blockbusters here, particularly Rossetti’s later works, this isn’t a seductive people-pleaser. The purple hills are so unexpected – in fact all the use of colour here is unexpected – yet effective. The poor goat, faced with the bones of his predecessors, facing death despite his own blamelessness, works on a literal and a metaphorical level.
There are many biblical topics in the paintings here, but some of the most striking, to me, are Dyce’s deceptively simple paintings David in the Wilderness, Man of Sorrows and Garden of Gethsemane. Full of rocks and geological details as Dyce’s paintings always are, these beautiful small paintings are entirely dependent on a knowledge of the source for understanding and appreciation: the wild landscapes in which these men wander reflect the spiritual and emotional turbulence which also makes them widely relevant, reflecting human suffering as well as the situations of particular biblical figures. The paintings also suggest the peace that is to be found in nature, even if they lack drama.
This exhibition does a good job of covering a proportion of the PRB’s literary sources; a Shakespearean painting here is Arthur Hughes’s As You Like It. Actually, I’m disappointed by this: it seems overly complex and contrived, as if the artist simply couldn’t decide what he wanted to depict from the play, so tried to put too much in. Hughes’s other paintings here are less narrative and perhaps more sentimental (such as The Woodsman’s Child) but have a more direct appeal. As You Like It seems to beat around the bush too much.
As an alternative to more traditional hanging, there are a couple of sections here entitled Paintings in a Victorian House, with a range of smaller paintings hung on Morris wallpaper as, presumably, they might have been in the house of a collector such as the banker George Rae. There are no labels here, so one is reliant on a handlist, but it works well in its implication of the intimacy in which these paintings might once have been hung, side by side in a less formal setting. One of these paintings, Study of an Ash Trunk by Albert Joseph Moore, particularly appealed: it’s small and unassuming, but with the green, fresh detail the Pre-Raphaelites loved.
I said that every show has its standout pieces: for me, it was Millais’s The Eve of St Agnes (1863). Voyeuristic as this painting is, the stillness and hushed reverence of Madeline’s room, the beauty of the dim light and the whole aura of Pre-Raphaeliteness about it draws me in, a feeling which is enhanced by my fondness for the source text, too, the eponymous poem by Keats. Holman Hunt’s The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro (1847-57) is also here, smaller and less dramatic, but with a very different depiction of the tension of the poem; Hunt’s painting dramatises the fear of the couple as they try to leave, in a moment of action, while Millais offers us a tableau, a moment which is very like the scene that Porphyro sees himself: here, we are invited to be voyeurs along with him, seeing what he sees.
For many, the blockbusters here will be the later Rossettis: The Blessed Damozel (1875-9) (a painting which accompanies one of Rossetti’s poems, a topic for another post), the lush Venus Verticordia (1863-8) and Monna Vanna (1866) in particular. Rossetti’s lush, voluptuous over-ripeness dominates this end of the room; however, my preference is for The Salutation of Beatrice (1881-2). I think I prefer Rossetti’s paintings when they are less decorative, more medieval, more narrative-based. This is equally true, in my view, of Burne-Jones: the exhibition concludes with two large and impressive paintings. One is The Beguiling of Merlin (1873-7), in which Burne-Jones draws on the Arthurian narratives so loved by the PRB, creating an intimacy between Nimue and Merlin as she weaves a spell to bind him in sleep, a concept reflected in the framing branches in the painting. The other is Venus Discordia (1873), a large unfinished painting from a planned triptych of the fall of Troy. This is a strange painting, with a power that I find rather inexplicable. Venus weeps as she sees the destruction around her, and the story and the historical context of the work are carefully woven into it, and yet there is something about it which reminds me of Albert Moore’s langorous aestheticism, in which a scene is simply a scene, with no deeper meaning; there is something almost Symbolist about this.
Beauty and Rebellion is about a great deal more than Liverpool, then; it offers different painters and in some unexpected juxtapositions it inspires new views of the Pre-Raphaelites. It’s a pleasure to see old friends and discover works new to me, too; and it seems that every place has its own version of, or approach to, Pre-Raphaelitism; Liverpool’s is very satisfying. It’s also a reminder that art and business can go hand in hand; these intellectual, art-loving leaders of industry who supported Pre-Raphaelite painters are too often unsung, and without them art history might have taken a very different turn.
Frederick Sandys’ painting Medea (1866-8) is a divisive one: now as when it was first exhibited, opinions are very divided as to its beauty and power. Sandys was drawn to mythical, dangerous femme fatales (as were most of the Pre-Raphaelites), and Medea is certainly one of the most frightening. Her story – most famously delineated in Euripides’ play – is one of tragedy, and Euripides depicts her as a tragic victim who brings about more tragedy. A sorceress whose ancestry includes gods, she marries Jason (he of the golden fleece). In Euripides’ version, which begins after the couple marry, Jason has deserted Medea for another woman, and Medea, driven mad with jealousy and despair, murders the other woman, and her own two sons, to revenge herself upon Jason. Much is made of the tragedy and pathos of Medea’s love of her children and sorrow at their death in Euripides’ play, as the tragic mother says her last farewell to her sons:
I wish you happiness, but not here in this world.
What is here your father took. O how good to hold you!
How delicate the skin, how sweet the breath of children!
Go, go! I am no longer able, no longer
To look upon you. I am overcome by sorrow.
I know indeed what evil I intend to do,
But stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury,
Fury that brings upon mortals the greatest evils.
Medea is a strong woman, who addresses the women of Corinth on the wrongs men do to women, lamenting the restricted lives they must lead, and their fate when abandoned. In Sandys’ picture, she is enchanting a cloak which will destroy Jason’s new wife, Glauce, by bursting into flames. The expression on Medea’s face is what gives the picture its power: she looks not at what she is doing, but away out of the picture, as if frantically picturing the damage she can do. There is pathos and sadness as well as fury and even madness in her look, which may account for its rejection from the Royal Academy and the view of many that it verged on indecency.
It is a picture that engages with a very specific moment in the drama, then, depicting Medea as Sandys imagined her from his reading of the story. Yet his work also inspired: Alfred Bate Richards, after seeing the painting during its completion and afterwards, wrote Medea: A Poem (London: Chapman & Hall, 1869). Richards was a writer and journalist, previously a lawyer, who knew Thackeray and Dickens as well as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Richards says that ‘If enthusiasm could always command ability, my part would not be unworthily executed, for I certainly began to write con amore‘.His interest is in somehow describing and providing another dimension to Sandys’ work:
How far the story of Medea is a fable is immaterial to my treatment of Medea as a human being … I have dealt with a great artist’s conception of a flesh-and-blood Medea…
He admits that he can offer ‘but a suggestion of the beauties of the picture’ – but it is a very long suggestion (62 pages), and while it has some merit as poetry, and interest too, as ekphrasis, it is often rather old-fashioned even for its time, given to florid excesses of description, archaisms, cliches, and calling on various Muses. Yet the remarkably vivid descriptive passages do conjure shades of Medea, both woman and picture, particularly in describing the horror of her life and its tragic events.There is much digression considering the transience of life and love, treachery, fickleness and the evil hand of fate; these are often reminiscent of graveyard poetry, with lurid and bloody spectacles interspersed. (‘When o’er the treetops suddenly doth fall/Night’s mantle like black cyprus funeral pall’). The tale is not really outlined; it is a lyrical outpouring imagining the state of being Medea, whom he describes as ‘The stately form of Queenlike Tragedy’, and it is this ‘form’ and its soul with which he is concerned, alongside a contrasting of pagan and Christian, in terms of civilisation and morality.
Unsexed, unholy and abhorred
Men still shall shudder at thy name
Who blench not ‘neath the headsman’s sword
Mother of foul infanticide,
Curst parricidal daughter, bride
And toy of gilded shame.
Repeatedly Richards returns to the picture itself, sometimes addressing it and sometimes Medea, sometimes (possibly) a watching Chorus, in an ekphrastic performance of immediacy. There is a clear fascination with the horror of her act: he dwells on the fear of the children, the unnatural act of killing them, and implies he would never have considered writing such a ghastly tale if it weren’t for Sandys’ painting. He concludes with a moral, that God can still forgive and humanity should not condemn (which is rather hypocritical after what he has already said). The concluding couplet states: ‘It is our faithless frenzy to confess/Which Heaven might not forgive, if Heaven were less.’
Richards is interested in art and poetry, then, and this is exemplified in a footnote in which he explains that he has at certain points tried to conjure up the feeling of some of Turner’s paintings, in words: not any particular painting, just an impression of Turner. Here, however, he is much more specific, calling on aspects of Sandys’ picture in detail, ‘reading’ into the painting and putting it into words. Richards shows none of Sandys’ specificity; the particular moment Sandys chose is diffused in the poem, the clarity obscured, yet, somehow, the focus sharpened by the concentration on the woman herself. The art of Euripides, of Sandys and of Richards, though not all equal (in my view) illuminate each other and speak to each other.
Note: If you’re interested, I found Richards’ poem at The Hive in Worcester. There aren’t many copies around (one source I read said only 8 extant).
A beautiful example of art inspired by poetry is Alexander Munro’s ‘Paolo and Francesca’ (1851-2), a marble sculpture which sits in the middle of the Pre-Raphaelite galleries at BMAG. Sculpture is a sadly overlooked aspect of Pre-Raphaelite art, but in many ways it bears the hallmarks of Pre-Raphaelitism (attention to detail, literary inspiration, and so on) as much as any Rossetti canvas.
Alexander Munro (1825-1871) was a friend of Rossetti’s, and was much influenced by him, which perhaps is indicated by his Dantean choice of subject in this work. Apart from ‘Paolo and Francesca’, he is probably most famous for his statues of scientists in the Oxford Museum of Natural History. Those, like this work, are formal, spare, with plenty of attention to detail and a beautiful life-likeness, but nevertheless simple. This sculpture seems to capture a moment in marble, the purity of the white and the beautiful simplicity of the lines of the work contrasting with the subject matter; this isn’t a happy story.
The work is based on Dante’s Inferno. In Canto V, Dante meets those who are being punished for sins of the flesh, and hears the story of Francesca da Rimini, who, married to a man she doesn’t love, falls in love with his younger brother, Paolo. Their love is inspired by reading of the adulterous love of Lancelot and Guinevere in the tales of King Arthur, and this is the moment which Munro depicts, as, with the book open in front of them, Paolo ventures a kiss. There is something very poignant about this moment: they haven’t yet kissed, and they don’t know their eventual fate (death at the hand of Francesca’s wronged husband), so the purity of this moment frozen forever in marble is particularly sad and beautiful.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painting the same subject (above), begins with a kiss, and shows the plotters who killed the couple and their eventual fate; this circle of hell tosses its inhabitants about with a violent wind representative of the passions which brought them there. Rossetti also translated Dante’s original, and this section is explained by Francesca:
One day we read, for pastime and sweet cheer,
Of Lancelot, how he found Love tyrannous:
We were alone and without any fear.
Our eyes were drawn together, reading thus,
Full oft, and still our cheeks would pale and glow;
But one sole point it was that conquered us.
For when we read of that great lover, how
He kissed the smile which he had longed to win,—
Then he whom nought can sever from me now
For ever, kissed my mouth, all quivering.
The moral dilemma, of love which will bring harm to all concerned but cannot be resisted, is a familiar one from Arthurian myth, being played out throughout the myths, and this moral dilemma, of social convention and morality challenged by great passion, is one which clearly held a great appeal for the Pre-Raphaelites. Christina Rossetti also indicates this story in her poem ‘The Hour and the Ghost’, where a woman who committed adultery is cast into hell:
O fair frail sin, O poor harvest gathered in!
Thou shalt visit him again
To watch his heart grow cold;
To know the gnawing pain I knew of old;
To see one much more fair
Fill up the vacant chair,
Fill his heart, his children bear:—
While thou and I together
In the outcast weather
Toss and howl and spin.
Munro’s sculpture reflects the last moment of genuine purity, then, rather than focusing on the punishment to follow, unlike others. The life-like figures are enticing; if it weren’t for the glass case one would be tempted to reach out and touch them, because this is a very tactile image – and in that it contains something different to the painted image – the three-dimensional, simple lines somehow make it both more and less ‘real’. It’s worth comparing Munro’s ‘Paolo and Francesca’ with Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ (1888), originally entitled ‘Francesca da Rimini’, which clearly owes a great deal to Munro is conception and form, though here the book is omitted and the eroticism more explicit.