Friday, 12 August 2022

Constance Smedley's Cat

 Well, this is an ramble-y post.  It all came about because I'm in love with Irene Smedley-Aston...

The Blessed Irene, in a photograph by her husband William

This photograph is in the Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum catalogue, The Victorian Radicals and I've been besotted ever since. If I ever get round to studying formally again, I'd want to find out everything I can about the Smedley family, especially Irene, and their wide social circle, but I digress.  In my researching everything Smedley, I obviously included William's cousin Constance and her husband Maxwell Armfield...

Self Portrait (1901) Maxwell Armfield

I wrote a post on Maxwell here and so knew who Constance was, but wasn't aware that she too was an artist, not to mention a novelist, playwright, feminist and all-round firecracker. That's how I ended up buying her cat. We better start at the beginning...

Miss Anne Constance Smedley was born in Handsworth in the West Midlands in the summer of 1876. The oldest of three, she had a younger sister Ida, born in 1878 and brother William, born in 1884. Their father was a chartered accountant, so the family were very comfortably off which might explain why, despite walking with crutches and using a wheelchair all her life after possibly contracting polio as a child, Constance was able to attend the Birmingham School of Art.

It seems that Constance did extremely well at the school, winning lots of prizes and special mentions that were reported in the press.  My favourite has to be the 'highly commended' she received for her design for a fancy dress costume in 1895 which was reported in the Gentlewoman paper. If I'm ever attending a fancy dress party in the future I'll definitely go as The Yellow Book, thanks to Constance (if I'm not going as Evelyn De Morgan's tube of paint, which won the heart of William De Morgan).

Another of Constance's prize winning illustrations from 1895

In the meantime, she was getting quite a reputation for her written work. In 1895, she received great reviews for her play The Lay Figure which was performed at the School of Art, described as 'brilliant and witty in dialogue and strong in situation' by the Warwickshire Herald. In 1898, the Birmingham Mail reported that the Edgbaston Assembly rooms had hosted 'a large and fashionable audience' who had come to watch On the Road to Englefield, Constance's new play, starring her sister Ida in a leading role. The piece was declared 'delightful and cleverly written'.

Mrs Patrick Campbell reading the Kelmscott Chaucer (1904) William Smedley-Aston

It was only a matter of time before Constance got ambitious enough to head for London. She provided the frontispiece illustration the souvenir programme of the 60th performance of King John in 1899. I'm not sure if she reworked her play On the Road to Englefield or simply retitled it Mrs Jordan, but this is the play she sent to one of the best respected actresses in the country in 1900. Beatrice Campbell, better known on stage as Mrs Patrick Campbell, was a theatrical force to be reckoned with. Mr Campbell was a soldier and was away fighting in the Boer War (dying in 1900). I think it says a lot about both women that Mrs Pat (as she was known) thought the play was marvellous and it was performed at the Royalty in Soho and it was declared 'the brightest and cleverest curtain-raiser seen in London for many a long day' by the Clarion in February 1900.

As well as writing plays, Constance had a brisk trade in novels and short stories, including 'Jerisan: A Romantic Story' which was illustrated by Byam Shaw and appeared in The Graphic in 1905. Previous to this, Constance had felt there was a gap in the market for a club for literary women. The boy's clubs that existed were, well, full of boys, and that was not really what anyone wanted so she devised, with some writing chums, to set up a jolly fine place where women could meet, entertain outside of their homes and be with like-minded women. The Truth newspaper spoke to her in October of 1903 about the setting up of the 'Lyceum' club. The following was recorded in the 'Girls' Gossip' column:

'There are to be rooms where members can write in privacy and quiet. A library containing standard books of reference and a cosmopolitan collection of magazines and newspapers will be available, and it is to be furnished with every convenience for writing and dispatching MSS etc. The bedrooms are to be furnished with writing materials and tables, so that the occupants may be able to work in absolute privacy and peace. Such a boon to the hundreds of writing women in London who have to run about with their work like a dog with a bone, in search of a quiet corner wherein to dispatch it in peace.'

The piece goes on to record that the Lyceum would be open to international members, making the bold claim that London was the 'headquarters of European intellectuality' (in the opinion of London) so that members would be flocking from all over to avail themselves of the facilities because 'Women, as a rule, hate hotels' so would rather stay at the Lyceum. Anyway, despite writing to all of her literary female chums, Constance found it hard to get members, so they extended the invitation to all professional women and the wives and daughters of prominent men (I suppose because they would have all had decent educations). Constance's mother joined and became known as 'the mother of the Lyceum' (as was recorded in her obituary). Lady Frances Balfour became the first chair of the club, serving for 15 years. 

Lady Frances Balfour (1919) Bassano Ltd

Blimey, I would not mess with her, she looks handy in a scrap (as indeed she was). You probably know her from this picture...
Lady Frances Balfour (1880) Edward Burne-Jones

So in June 1904 the new Lyceum Clubhouse at 128 Piccadilly opened as the first gentleman's club for women with an initial membership of around 1000 women. Constance was also a pacifist, christian scientist and suffragist, not to mention a powerhouse of writing. I particularly like her book Woman: A Few Shrieks! from 1907...

Then something disastrous happened.  She got married...

Constance and Maxwell Armfield (unknown photographer)

I love Maxwell Armfield and it seems they had a splendid marriage (he was gay and she was busy) but the reason I call it a disaster is that she very quickly becomes Mrs Maxwell Armfield in accounts of her and their lives. It's not their fault but history does tend to tuck women in behind their husbands, even if that is the last thing anyone intends (see also Evelyn De Morgan's sister's book on Evelyn and William entitled William De Morgan and His Wife (1922) Wowser...)

Constance Smedley (1907) Maxwell Armfield

For a jolly fine account of the pair you can do no better than reading Tessa West's book A Pageant Truly Play'd and reading her piece on ArtUK. I was lucky enough to get a cheap first edition of the couple's joint work The Armfields' Animal-Book from 1922 which was written by Constance with illustrations by Maxwell...

Frontispiece by Maxwell for 'How the Turtles Learned to Differ'

Illustration by Maxwell for 'How the Eagle Made Friends'

Illustration by Maxwell for 'How the Swallows Learned the Song'

The couple wrote and illustrated other books, including The Flower Book, Sylvia's Travels and Wonder Tales of the World, proving that they were an equal and productive partnership as well as a happy marriage. In 1911, the couple organised a Pageant of Progress in Stroud, forming the Cotswold Players, a theatrical company, to produce the show. The headline in the Illustrated London News article covering the pageant was that progress was 'No Less Renown'd than War' which is telling. After a few more years in Chelsea, forming a theatre company and anti-war views, the couple moved to America in 1915.

Music in New York, Homage to Johann Sebastian Bach (1946) Maxwell Armfield

America held a lot of attraction for the dynamic duo which lasted well beyond their return in 1922. One of my favourite of Maxwell's paintings is this one from after Constance's death, when he obviously returned to visit. Maxwell became a naturalised citizen 1917 but it didn't stop the pair returning to the Cotswolds, even though Constance apparently found it a wrench. I can imagine that for a woman as driven as her, the freedom offered by 1920s America was exactly what she wanted, but it was not to be as Maxwell craved a quieter life. Constance wrote her autobiography, the magificent Crusaders, published in 1929 and described as 'spirited' in various reviews (which must be a euphemism for something) it described all the things she had done in her first 50 years, which amounted to so much. 

Constance Smedley with a violin (1900s) Maxwell Armfield

In the early 1930s she formed the Grace Darling League intended to raise awareness of the heroic young woman in the years before the centenary of her death in 1942. She raised funds for the Grace Darling museum in Bamburgh which opened in 1938, and wrote three books and a one-act play on the National Treasure. You can still visit the museum which claims that Darling was 'Victorian Britain's Greatest Heroine' which is a bold claim indeed. She certainly has the most Victorian name I have ever heard, which is an achievement indeed.

Constance 'in her favourite role - The Wild Man of Borneo'

In old age, her health suffered. She was blind for six years then received an operation in 1940 which restored it. She was recorded as saying 'It was almost unbearable exciting'.  Not letting a small thing like blindness slow her down, her first job after the operation was arranging a wedding anniversary party at the Dorchester Hotel for Queen Victoria who would have been celebrating her 100th wedding anniversary, apart from the fact she had been widowed in 1861 and she had been dead for 39 years. Constance found any excuse for a party. Unfortunately, she would not live long enough to enjoy the celebrations for Grace Darling. The Liverpool Daily Post announced her death in March of 1941 praising how 'despite disability' (a phrase that hasn't aged well) where she had to walk with crutches or use a wheelchair, she had been an artist, writer and orator, a leader of her sex.

Maxwell managed to keep going after Constance's death, continuing to work, then settling down with a nice chap, finally dying in the 1970s. I am struck how utterly dynamic Constance was, and what a smashing partnership they made. I have read accounts that brand their marriage 'lavender', both parties being gay and married for convenience, but I wonder if they hit upon a combination that worked. Goodness knows I've told you about relationships that were appalling, so finding one that was productive and positive is such a joy.

Oh, before I forget, the actual point of this post was that I own Constance's cat. It's signed 'Constance Smedley' so I'm guessing it's from her art school days and it is gorgeously hideous. I bought it for a few quid ages ago and now feel sad that it didn't fetch more. I think it is a reflection that Constance is not as well known as she should be and it's up to us to celebrate her. 

I think a massive party at the Dorchester is called for...

Friday, 5 August 2022

Who's that Lady? It's Jesus!

This is a bit of a rambling post brought about by a letter I read in an old newspaper. I love reading accounts from the early twentieth century from people who, in old age, are recalling what they know about the Pre-Raphaelites. This is particularly interesting when they are praising the work as by the First World War and the Twenties, when a lot of these accounts appear, they are talking about deeply unfashionable artists.  However, a week or so ago, a rather interesting letter caught my eye. It all started because George Moore published a right old rip-snorter of a Biblical novel called The Brook Kerith. This is 1916, so you'd think people would have other things to worry about, but George had made his Jesus a bit girly and all hell broke loose...

George Moore (1879) Edouard Manet

In a piece from the Westminster Gazette on Friday 15th September 1916, the author was forced to defend his depiction of Jesus, and he did so by invoking artistic precedents. When discussing the depiction of Jesus, he pointed out that from the 5th century onward, people had been killing each other over the correct interpretation of the scriptures, but one thing everyone could agree on was that the big JC 'must not be represented as a man.' This is an ecumenical conundrum as I'm guess depicting him as a squirrel would get you dispatched quite quickly, so what to do?  Mercifully, in the 15th century along came Fra Angelico who hit upon the idea of depicting Jesus as a pretty blonde lady and that's apparently fine. George Moore then brought everyone up to date and said Holman Hunt showed us a big girly Jesus knocking on the door, like a Holy Avon Lady. If the Pre-Raphaelites gave their Jesuses (multiple Jesus would be Jesi?) lady-faces then it's fine to have a lady-like Jesus in The Brook Kerith. Actually, having read the criticism of The Brook Kerith most of it is about the fact it's rubbish, and seeing as George had a reputation for writing saucy, scandalous books, I'm guessing the critics were already jumpy every time he published something new. So, George Moore's argument was that the Pre-Raphaelites made their Jesi look like chicks, so what's the big deal? Apparently, even the boy child Jesus in the Millais painting was a girl (according to George)...

Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50) John Everett Millais

We then enter Round Two of the Big Girly Jesus fight, and on 21st September, Canon Horsley (an actual vicar and everything) weighed in on behalf of the enlightened church and said that if we are going to bring the Pre-Raphaelites into it, only a few people hated the painting and everyone else loved it (apparently). He finishes it up with a quote in Latin, which is always the best way to finish because no-one knows what you're talking about. Finally, and most sensibly, on the 25th September there was a letter from someone who really didn't seem to care if The Brook Kerith was any good but at least everyone could get their facts straight about the Pre-Raphaelites. The author of the letter was Mr Robert Ross, art collector, intimate of Oscar Wilde and all-round excellent chap. For starters, he said that the boy child Jesus in Millais painting was Noel Humphreys, the son of an architect, so George was talking absolute rubbish there but when it came to depictions of adult Jesi, Robbie Ross could give a few examples where it was the case that it was a lady...

The Light of the World (1851-3) William Holman Hunt

As Robbie says - 'Mr Moore remarks on the effeminate concept of Christ in the Pre-Raphaelite pictures, and the circumstance that a woman (Christina Rossetti) acted as the model for Hunt's Light of the World. There are other striking examples: Miss Siddal (Mrs Dante Rossetti) sat for the Christ in Madox Brown's picture of Maundy Thursday or The Washing of the Feet; and in Spencer Stanhope's picture, I Have Trodden the Wine-Press Alone - one of the most singular works of that unequal artist - Miss Ellen Terry posed for the figure of Christ.'

Jesus Washing Peter's Feet (Maundy Thursday) (1852-6) Ford Madox Brown

The Wine Press (1864) John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
In the Illustrated London News  of 1865, it was suggested that The Wine Press was very much after the manner of The Light of the World, an opinion repeated in books since and possibly reflecting that although it was painted in 1864, it was conceived years earlier, possibly nearer the time of Hunt's painting.  Robbie Ross finishes his letter suggesting that George Moore like to consider Henri de Groux painting Christ Aux Outrages (1889) as his frontispiece as it had been on is mind while reading George's book as it features a very feminine Christ.

Christ Aux Outrages (1889) Henri de Groux

All these feminine figures for Christ left me wondering why no-one had reacted before.  I fully trust Mr Ross in his recollections, but also because we know that Holman Hunt used a few women for his Christ, and also Ellen Terry had form for posing as a chap.  Here she is as Sir Galahad, in a stained glass window from a painting by G F Watts...

...and here she is again, as a knight.  Maybe she just liked wearing the armour...?

Watchman, What of the Night? (1867) G F Watts

The stained glass window is in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, where Julia Margaret Cameron routinely got girls to dress up as men...

Head of St John (1866) Julia Margaret Cameron

May Prinsep looks rather sombre as the head of John the Baptist (although seemingly very much still attached to the neck of John the Baptist). The place the girl/boy swap happened most often was with the Holy family...

The Holy Family (1864) Julia Margaret Cameron

The Madonna, or Mary Hillier, appears repeatedly in Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs, almost always clutching children of various sizes. Here she is clutching John the Baptist and Jesus, or Kate and Alice Keown as they were better known.  There are the occasional boys, for example Percy Keown, Freddy Gould or Julia's own grandson, Archie, but by and large, it's the Keown girls who are appearing as the various sainted boy-children. Freddy Gould was a very pretty little boy indeed, and he made a popular model, but the other boys are babies and so are fine while asleep but I'm guessing not the best models while awake. 

The Little Foot Page (1905) Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale

I think therefore the answer to why the Pre-Raphaelites used women as men is less to do with artistic tradition and more to do with availability.  As Robbie Ross pointed out, Millais used a boy as Jesus, not a little girl, so there was not an adherence to any ecclesiastical artistic tradition there.  The women brought in to model were friends, wives, sisters and lovers, therefore to hand and with nothing better to do (in the opinion of the artist). The Pre-Raphaelite ideal was to draw from life so if the only life you have to hand is Christina Rossetti then she better strap on a beard because she's going to be Jesus. Also, just because Elizabeth Siddal is washing some grumpy chap's feet as Jesus, it doesn't mean that she looks anything like what appears on the canvas, especially not in the topless version. Just because Walter Crane gave his (male modelled) Venus a six-pack in The Renaissance of Venus (1877) doesn't mean the Siddal Jesus had to have boobs...
Walter Crane, giving us a Venus who is more manly than Jesus...

In conclusion, art is often a combination of opportunity and tradition.  The male figures who are drawn from women are thus because women were to hand. If you asked me to name female artist's models, I could go on for ever but ask me to list male ones and I'd get a bit stuck after the hot Italian who was Julia Margaret Cameron's Iago. Women were to hand in the studios and houses of artists and although the faces (and six packs) of figures might have been finished from male models, preparatory sketches, emergency posing and all that stuff was more than likely done by a woman can yell for. If the tradition for painting Jesus is towards the feminine, then using Christina Rossetti to hold up your lamp is not outrageous as the finished figure has a great big bushy beard.  What surprises me is that Julia Margaret Cameron got away with May Prinsep as John the Baptist, looking completely like a girl and not really different from when she is posing as Zoe of Athens, Beatrice or just a portrait. There is no theatricality to her image (which is a surprise if you consider how Amateur Dramatics some of her Arthurian work is), it is a photograph of a head who also just happens to be a pretty girl. If you consider how devotional and religious Julia Margaret Cameron's work is, I'm surprised that no-one questioned it.  

Maybe they did and people just blamed Fra Angelico...

Friday, 29 July 2022

Exhibition News: Telling Tales

This is just a quickie, but I'm absolutely delighted to bring you news of an exhibition that will appear in the Autumn of 2022.  It's all about the Victorian passion for narrative art and it is very special to me as it is my first major exhibition as guest curator! While all the planning and writing is being done, I thought I would do a quick post to give you some idea of what I'm up to...

The Captain's Daughter (The Last Evening) (1873) James Tissot

Narrative Art was popular in Victorian Britain at a time when the artistic elite of the country had official turned its back on story-telling. In 1877, the novelist Henry James reported a trip to the Royal Academy when he watched the other viewers tell each other the ‘story’ of the painting:

‘Two ladies stood near me, entranced: for a long time they were silent. At last – ‘Her mother was a widow!’ one of them gently breathed.’

The popularity of such art to the general public was due to its sensational quality but also its accessibility, allowing the viewer to put themselves into the situation and to identify with the characters. Who doesn't love a painting where you can see some drama taking place? Are there people falling in love or, even better, dying tragically? Are there handsome young men being tricksy or dogs telling us something about the human condition?

Tick-Tick (1881) Briton Riviere

In many ways, art was a visual companion to the novels of the time, and it’s no coincidence that many famous narrative pieces drew their inspiration from works of literature...  

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1866) Edwin Long
Not only that, but 19th century narrative art tells us so much about the concerns of the age, what Victorians feared, desired and what surrounded them in everyday life. I've always been drawn to the Victorian love of story-telling and it's fascinating to see the range of subjects and themes and the ways they found to tell those stories, all in a single image. 

Tea in the Conservatory (undated) Harry E J Browne

I have the absolute pleasure of working with the collections of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and the Southampton City Art Gallery to create an exhibition which will cover subjects such as love and loss, childhood, animals, Empire and war. There will be more information available soon, but at the moment I can tell you that the exhibition will initially start at the Russell Cotes in October and will appear at Southampton next year.

Always Welcome (1887) Laura Alma-Tadema

I'll keep you informed and look forward to welcoming you to the exhibition in the Autumn!

Friday, 22 July 2022

Alice Havers

 I have a rather dubious confession to make about my research - I absolutely love divorce papers. I'm not sure what that says about me, very likely nothing good, but you learn an awful lot about people from the accounts in the supporting statements submitted with the various decrees.  I know of one well-respected Pre-Raphaelite painter who punched his wife in the face with a book, something I've never read about him in any biography. Sometimes it's graphically awful and you are delighted that you are reading this in a divorce document rather than a newspaper report after their murder (sorry, Dolly Henry). Anyway, all this confession is in way of explaining how I met Alice Havers...

Rush Cutters (1887)

Alice Mary Celestine Havers was born into a very well-to-do family in May of 1850. The Havers lived at Thelton Hall in Norfolk, which had been built by Thomas Havers in around 1592 with a chapel which no doubt houses generations of Havers.  Alice's Dad, yet another Thomas (1810-1870) decided the Norfolk life was not for him and so moved to the Falkland Islands (which is a bit of an overreaction in my opinion) in 1854, with her older siblings, mother, Ellen, a nurse and governess Mary Coppinger. Alice's childhood was spent growing up in the Falklands, which is fascinating to people of my vintage who really only know a few (mainly war-related) things about the Falklands. There is a very good, Falklands-centric page on Alice here.  Sadly, Ellen died not long after they arrived in the Falklands.  Thomas then promptly married the governess.  Moving on.

They Homeward Wend Their Weary Way (1875)

When Thomas left his work with the Falkland Island Company, he took his family over to Uraguay, where he died in 1870, when Alice was 20. She was finally free to have her own life and returned with some of her siblings to England.  Her sister Dorothy became the writer Dorothy Boulger, after marrying in 1879 (presumably publishing in her maiden name from her first book in 1871 until then). Alice attended the art school in South Kensington and began painting and exhibiting her works.  She became quickly known for her small and delicate works on slightly melancholic or rural scenes. The Gentlewoman magazine commented on her work after her death as being 'graceful, delicate, almost ethereal...She never painted anything large or very ambitious in design or colouring', but this was because each painting was a treasure of beauty from her heart, according to the gushing memorial. It is easy to see what they meant when looking at pleasing images such as Blanchisseuses: What, No Soap? (1880)...

Blanchisseuses: What, No Soap? (1880)

She also illustrated many books, including her sister's, becoming known for her expressive line drawings...

'Bobby, My Boy' from Bumblebee Bogo's Budget (1887)

'Nautilus' from Bumblebee Bogo's Budget (1887)

She married fellow artist Frederick Morgan in April of 1872 at St George's in Bloomsbury, falling pregnant almost immediately.  The couple's son, Valentine, was born the following February. In most accounts, Valentine Havers (yes, he took his mother's name when he became a professional artist) was born on 13th February, rather than the assumed 14th, but in the divorce papers of Alice and Frederick (sorry, spoiler alert, but we all knew it was coming), his birthday is listed as 14th, which makes more sense, given his name. The little family lived at 5 Clyde Street in South Kensington to start with (Clyde Street has since been renamed Redcliffe Place, part of Redcliffe Gardens, by Redcliffe Road, making them neighbours of Alexa Wilding. It's a small world etc etc) and were joined in 1875 by daughter Lilian, moving round the corner into Cathcart Road. 

Frederick Morgan

Although he possessed a great big moustache, Frederick Morgan does not strike me as a happy or particularly nice man. In the divorce proceedings of 1889, Alice is very specific about how atrocious their marriage had been. Trouble is recorded as starting even before Lilian was born, with the first affair coming the year after Valentine was born. In 1876, Frederick committed adultery in Dieppe (I'm not sure if that's a comment on Dieppe as I have never been there and possibly for the good of my marriage, I shouldn't). In 1878, the Morgan's housemaid, an aptly named lass called Hetty Screwby, was found sitting on Frederick's lap in their studio, and his retort was that Alice should not have employed such an attractive maid. Frederick's affair with Rose Kerrison, in Park Walk, Chelsea, resulted in him catching an STD, but on top of these many affairs, Alice claimed that Frederick was often violent towards her. In the divorce paperwork, Frederick denied all of it, claiming that any time he struck Alice was entirely in self defence, but undermining this was the presence on more than one occasion of Dorothy, who backed up her sister's stories of mistreatment.  On one occasion, Frederick pulled Alice off a chair, on another he forced her onto the floor to make her apologise, then dragged her round the room by her arms after a disagreement over seating at that evening's dinner party.  Alice was so badly injured that Dorothy had to take her place at the event.

After all that appallingness, possibly it is unsurprising to learn that alongside all the pastoral loveliness, Alice had quite a talent for an unhappy picture, such as this one...

End of her Journey (1875)

I actually wrote a post on this painting as part of Sobvent back in 2019. It was an absolute hit when it was shown in 1877 in Liverpool with crowds gathering around it in the galleries. Newspapers rhapsodised about the wistful little child clinging to the dead mother, and the callous indifference of the onlookers.  The Yorkshire Post debates whether the woman is actually a tramp, 'unknown and uncared for' who has been found by the workers on their way to the fields. The Manchester Courier refers to the woman as a 'returning wanderer', suggesting the woman has come home to die. The various, sometimes contradictory readings of pieces of narrative art is why I love this sort of picture. 

Trouble (The Sick Child) (1882)

When this painting was exhibited with the Society of Lady Artists in 1885, it was praised in the way she 'treats the domestic sorrows of humble life with touching tenderness of sentiment.' I think there is no coincidence that the image looks like one of her well-known and loved images of another mother...

'But Mary Kept All These Things And Pondered Them In Her Heart' (1888)

Interestingly, although this was a very popular painting with the general public, there were some  criticisms, including the appearance of the Virgin Mother, which was outrageously shocking, apparently. According to the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail (Clarion of Truth, no doubt), there was a lot to be questioned about these presumptuous lady artists: 
'The girlish figure with her pretty thoughtful face, and soft brown hair falling about her shoulders, is certainly anything but the conventional Madonna, and you can enquire disapprovingly why the lady artist has thought proper to depart from the traditions of more than a thousand years. It surely, you will suggest, argues an unwise amount of presumption and besides, if the BVM is to be represented entirely according to the caprice of the painter, it leaves the field open to endless offence against good taste.  Perhaps we might eventually find her attired in the latest novelty of nineteenth century fashion, or even represented with the features of some fashionable beauty. Eccentricity, you will crushingly conclude, is not the true offspring of original genius, but only its bastard imitation.'

 Well, that's us told. Apparently it's disrespectful to show the Holy Mother with brown hair, but it's cool to refer to the Blessed Virgin Mary as BVM...

Advertising card for The Gondoliers by Gilbert and Sullivan

Alice also illustrated programmes for Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, providing the perfect blend of whimsy and playfulness that the works inspired. I particularly liked this card for The Gondoliers, which I appeared in (an amateur production) aged about 15.  My costume was nowhere as nice as the lady above, although my kimono for The Mikado was gorgeous. I digress.

Ought and Carry One (1874)

When Alice exhibited Ought and Carry One at the Royal Academy in 1874, Queen Victoria bought it during the private view, as she was so charmed with the image of the school girl puzzled by a sum. It had already been purchased by someone else but apparently if the Queen wants the picture, there really is no arguing with that. I think the sentimental nature of many of Alice's pictures made them perfect subjects for prints and engravings that appeared in magazines, perfect for the walls of your own home.  Her work, and that of many other artists including her husband, saw their narrative works become popular and loved by the sort of people who might not make it to the Royal Academy, but knew what paintings were popular. It is one of those circular discussions - are they popular because they are prints or do they become prints because they are popular?  It certainly doesn't seem to be because they are critically acclaimed, but maybe the more commercially canny watched to see where the crowds gathered during public viewings and those were the pictures that were selected. It's a fascinating process, dictating taste.

Fast Asleep (undated)

Fred's affair with his model, Mary Reardon, lasted all of 1888 and involved them going to Shanklin, that well-known sin city. That appears to have been the final straw for Alice who packed up her children and went to Paris. Whilst there, she filed for divorce and returned to her studies in art under Benjamin Constant. By this point Valentine was 15, Lilian 13 and Reginald 7 so must have been aware of what was occurring in the family home. Alice's health was suffering and the divorce was drawn out over a year with Fred contesting the claims of cruelty and adultery. However, as the newspapers gleefully reported, Dorothy had been present in the house for the violence and Fred and his mistresses had not exactly been discreet so he didn't have a leg to stand on. The divorce was finally granted on 1st July 1890 with costs awarded to Alice. Alice and the children moved back to London, to St John's Wood where she rented a house with a studio, but the new life was not to last long. She had been suffering from neuralgia and medicating with morphia, injected straight into her forehead, spending her nights on the coach in her studio. On the morning of 25th August 1890, the maid found her insensible from an overdose, with the needle still clenched in her hand. On the table was a letter to her doctor, describing her symptoms as unbearable and requesting another course of treatment.  She died the next day.  The newspapers had a field day and I wonder if this was an escalation of the mild (by comparison) interest shown in Elizabeth Siddal's death, almost 30 years previously. There were some newspapers that made much of the fact that she was newly divorced, therefore miserable not to be married anymore.  Some drew an interesting line between her status as a successful career woman and mental instability. Much of her obituaries concentrated on her (ex) husband, calling her Mrs Frederick Morgan, and her male ancestors, one of whom was Gentleman of the Horse to John, Duke of Norfolk at the Battle of Bosworth Field. In the Pall Mall Gazette, an obituary 'by One Who Knew Her' remarked how she was 'the best dressed woman in the room' at the last meeting of the Salon, 'her dress somehow always had both cachet  and courage, and her slight, girlish figure enabled her to adopt with success combinations of colour that in greater mass would have looked audacious.' They went on to praise her 'little fame'. Charming. What was enduring was the popularity of Alice's art with mentions of her talent after her death, and reprints of her popular pieces, possibly even more popular with the tragedy attached.

A Turkish Lady (undated) Val Havers

As a sad postscript, Valentine followed in his mother's footsteps and also became an artist, using her surname, which I think is very telling. He also married and divorced, with Valentine taking after his father in his many affairs, including liaisons on the Isle of Wight. I have to start asking questions about what's in the water over there... The decree nisi was granted in October 1911 but Valentine died in the January 1912, a sad echo of his mother, again in his 40th year. Both Lilian and Reginald died before 1920, both shy of their 40th birthdays. That's a very specific family legacy.

Friday, 15 July 2022


 I feel this might well be a ranty post as doing the research for this infuriated me and I'm hoping I will leave you well ticked off as well. It is about a young woman called Dolly who died at the hands of the artist who painted her, but it is also about how we write about women.  As always, it's also about Fanny Cornforth, because everything I write is about Fanny in the end. It all started when I looked again at some pictures of witches for an article I was writing for Enchanted Living.  I was reminded how much I loved this striking image...

The Witch (1913) John Currie

I liked this image because it was a bit of a change from pointy hats and broomsticks, and plays into one of my favourite subjects, the banality of evil. Really evil people never look particularly evil or else they wouldn't be able to do what they do. You'd see them coming a mile off if they were all flashing cloaks and twizzling moustaches. Anyway, who says the witch has to be evil? There was just something about John Currie's witch that was slightly unsettling, that let you know she had all the power and she knew it. Mr Currie is a bit out of my normal realms of interest, although I don't mind a bit of Gertler and Carrington, so I didn't know the story behind this image. I do now and I'm hacked off.  Not only that but I'm tagging Fanny in to back me up.  Let's start with the witch above, because this is her story.

Dorothy Eileen Henry was born in the Autumn of 1893.  Her parents, Thomas and Kate had met in Colchester, after Henry had come over from Ireland and married when Kate was barely 15. Around a dozen children swiftly followed, with Dorothy somewhere in the middle, making the Henry household somewhat packed.  Thomas worked as a travelling salesman, so the family started by living with Kate's widowed mother before moving out on their own. Not all the children survived childhood but on the whole, an impressive number of the Henry children lived until the latter end of the 20th century. By 1901, Thomas and Kate and 9 of their children lived at 20 Kendall Road, Colchester, a mid-terrace house that must have been a squeeze. Kate continued having children until 1907, so it's unsurprising that the older children made their way into the world as soon as possible. Eldest daughter Katie got married, as did next oldest John. Dorothy's brother Thomas, named after his father, only made it to his 12th birthday before he died. Dorothy decided she wanted to see a bit of life and so she took herself off to London.

When in London, Dorothy became 'Dolly' and found work both in domestic service, then as a dress model at Jay's on Regent Street.  Jay's had started out as a Mourning Warehouse, a place to get everything you needed for that full Victorian experience of death. This particularly wonderful page on it describes it as 'the Argos of grief'. It became so ubiquitous that by the turn of the century it was known simply as Jay's, rather than it's full title of 'The London General Mourning Warehouse' (magnificent) and by the look of the adverts it wasn't selling itself solely on the mourning, unlike early ads like the one above. Even a very pleasant summer tea-gown in apple green was covered in black net in 1900, so maybe those habits died hard, if you excuse the expression. Anyway, Dolly had found work as a dress model by the summer of 1911.  She had flame red hair and a beautiful face and I'm sure she looked smashing in black. She met artist John Currie who was immediately attracted to her and asked her to model.  She agreed and he produced a portrait of her, Head of a Girl.  She was 17 years old.

Head of a Girl (Dorothy Henry) (c.1911-14) John Currie

John Currie was 27 and married. Originally from Staffordshire where he had painted ceramics at the potteries, he had studied at the Royal Academy from 1904 to 1906, before becoming a teacher of art in Bristol for 18 months, then an Inspector under the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction in Ireland until 1909. Interestingly, both John and Dolly are referred to as 'Irish' in various accounts of their lives, despite neither actually being from Ireland. I wonder if it is a handy slur to explain the violence of their relationship.  After that, he decided that he needed to return to college and took himself to London and the Slade, studying part time with Mark Gertler and Augustus John.  He still had to work to afford it, and he is listed in the 1911 census as an 'Art Instructor', living on his own in Hampstead.

 John had married Jessie Brandon, a Grocer's daughter from Staffordshire in 1907, their son Mark appearing in 1908, but Jessie did not follow John to London or if she did, she had returned home by 1911 when he met Dolly. The timeline of their affair is a little uncertain, but according to later accounts, Jessie Currie asked her husband to stop his affair with Dolly, but John refused so she broke off relations with him.  John took young model Dolly to live at 1 St George's Square, Pimlico, before the couple went to Newlyn and joined the artists's colony there.

Okay, I'm pausing because what comes next is horrible.  However, does this story remind you of anyone so far? Sarah Cox came to London to find work and was discovered by an artist and she became 'Fanny'.  When I saw the above image of Dolly from 1911, I was instantly reminded of this...

Bocca Baciata (1859) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

A beautiful, desirably, red-haired girl looks out of the canvas of her lover.  Both paintings are warm and sensuous, Dolly and Fanny looking coy and knowing. Because of the title, Bocca Baciata seems to imply more about Fanny than Dolly's plain Head of a Girl but both paintings seem to add biography to their subjects rather than to their creators.  That is doubly true of Dolly's portrait The Witch and arguably Fanny's outing as Lady Lilith...

Lady Lilith (1867) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Both women, at the end of their love affairs (allegedly) with the artists, pose for paintings as witches. Fanny and Rossetti were drawing to the end of their flurry of romance after the death of Elizabeth Siddal, and he would famously paint over her in the oil of this image, never again using Fanny as his main model. For many of Rossetti's friends and subsequent biographers, this image of Fanny, drawing her fingers through her hair, engrossed in her own reflection, summed up how deeply they hated her. She was unnatural, wicked, able to possess the artist and make him weak. Never did they acknowledge the cataclysmic mental health disaster that Rossetti went through. Somehow, Fanny and her evil powers were at the root of Rossetti's problems and would eventually be the death of him. Looking at it in those terms, I am almost inclined to forgive Fanny's critics as they were trying to explain something that had happened to their friend and brother without opening the box marked 'mental health'. They didn't know what to do with his titanic self-destruction so they blamed it on Fanny, after all Fanny survived.  They make Rossetti's art about Fanny, and that is ridiculous. Back to Dolly...

There are some much fuller accounts of the years 1912-1914 (here for example) but it didn't take long for John and Dolly's relationship to become violent. This leads me to wondered why Jessie was already living with her parents in 1911, and it could be that she had left with her son before Dolly was even on the scene. While in Cornwall, Dolly fled from John who threatened her with a razor, and was found by Laura Knight hiding in her garden among sunflowers. An artist from Eastbourne, St. Clare O'Malley, reported how he had met Dolly who was sporting a black eye given to her by John in one of his jealous moods. John wrote to Dolly's parents promising to marry her, leaving out the part where he was already married until they found out and he promised to get a divorce. He didn't.  Dolly turned 18 years old.

Seamstresses  (Dolly and her cousin Mary) (1913) John Currie

Mark Gertler, tremendously in awe of John's talent, hooked up with the couple to make an odd threesome that travelled to Ostend together. Mark was closer to Dolly's age than John's and hero worshipped him. He had his own romantic problems, in love forever with Dora Carrington and arguably attracted to John, with not a little jealousy about Dolly. John Woodeson's 1972 biography of Gertler is not the place to go looking for a fair assessment of Dolly's life, but you certainly get an idea of what she was up against. Gertler became enmeshed in the couples dysfunctional, violent menage, and took John's side. He wrote to a friend "Currie is ill with most of my evenings are spent with him in his rooms. Henry makes supper. I enjoy these quiet and peaceful evenings very much." Other friends of John and Gertler visited and passed judgement on Dolly - "the fair-haired girl was evidently not highly educated" remarked one, and patron of the arts, Edward Marsh gave his own verdict "There was no great harm in her but she was extremely vain and quite empty-headed - and jealous of his work." 

Dolly, John and Mark in Ostend (1912) from John Woodeson's biography

I have a special level of anger for when grown men feel entitled to pass judgement on teenage girls but really any privileged man who feels the need to comment negatively on a working class woman is going to receive my ire. Fanny Cornforth received heaps of criticism from Rossetti's circle, the majority of which was class-based in origin - the difference between Fanny, Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris was that Elizabeth and Jane allowed themselves to be elevated out of one class into another, by training, talent and keeping their mouths shut. Fanny did not lose the accent, nor have a talent for art,and she did not remain quiet and still.  All of these things were commented on,  even by William Allingham who, arguably, did not mean to criticise how she spoke or how she ran about the garden after the 'chicking', but it comes off as an educated man commenting on an uneducated woman. Luckily for Fanny, Rossetti was a cluster-mine of personal issues so when his mental health deteriorated most of his friends primarily blamed the death of Elizabeth rather than his relationship with Fanny.  Had Elizabeth not died would Rossetti still have had the mental health he did? One thing Fanny was never blamed for was Rossetti's mental health - she was blamed for possibly enabling his addictions, but I suspect that to blame Fanny for Rossetti's depression would mean acknowledging it existed. Luckily for John Currie's friends and supporters, the blame for his mental health issues and violence could be placed squarely at the feet of a teenage girl.

I think the moment I really connected Fanny and Dolly in my mind was when I read Mark Gertler's comment - "It was bad enough when she kept quiet but now that she gives herself airs and talks, I can't stand it." This was said in response to Dolly attempting to talk about art with the men. The art that she appeared in. Others concentrated on how Dolly was destroying John with her womanly powers, as contemporary novelist Michael Sadleir wrote in his memoirs -

 "Her lure for men was irresistible, and Currie was of course utterly enslaved to her physical attraction, a fact of which she was well aware. In her way she had a genuine love for him; but no glimmer of a notion that art could be of importance to anyone. Resenting his absorption in his work, determined herself to be his dominant preoccupation, she used her power to goad him from abject desire to baffled fury, and then, suddenly complaisant, to win him back again. This dangerous cruelty led to violent quarrels, and I suspect to blows."

At this point they are describing a woman of 20 who had lived with a violent man for 2 years.  She would not live to see 21.

Dolly left John, and when her mother came looking for her, found her daughter with a razor-scrape across her throat, given to her by John of whom she was terrified. However, yet again she returned to him when he called for her. John had a new source of anger, a belief that Dolly had been spreading lies about him to his fellow artists, but I can find no reporting of what these untruths were. Dolly had told other artists that John beat her, possibly that is what he was referring to. Before the couple left for Brittany, for the good of John's health, he wrote to Edward Marsh, a patron and friend, apologising for his recent bad behaviour - "I have behaved badly lately, but I am not well...Dolly is doing all that anyone could do to help. There is peace, but much is lost for the time."

The trip to Brittany remind me very much of Rossetti and Fanny's trip to Cumbria. It is a little relief in what is a god-awful situation. Both couples were happy for a while, with letters back from Brittany from John saying how they have danced and laughed, but soon Dolly left to return to London and Cornwall. They had met another English artist in Brittany who told her to her face that she did not appreciate art as she wasn't clever enough. That is no worse than everyone seems to have been saying behind her back but it was enough to drive her back, at least in John's report. It seems to me that Dolly had put up with far worse in the previous three years, so the words of a stranger seem a bit light to have sent her packing when it had been fear of John himself that had previously driven her away.  Despite proclaiming himself content without Dolly, he followed her to Cornwall and threatened to throw her off a cliff and once more she fled.  She stayed at Alderney Manor, near Poole in Dorset, with John's old friend Augustus John who didn't like her - "She was an attractive girl or used to be when I knew her first, but seemed to have deteriorated into a deceitful little bitch." Augustus John's portrait of her, The Woman in Green hangs in the South African National Gallery in Cape Town.

Dolly Henry (1913-4) William Strang

Dolly's last home was a flat in Paultons Square in Chelsea. She found work as a nude model but once more John found her, enraged that others were seeing her naked. On the 8th October 1914, John came to the flat early in the morning. When shots rang out, neighbours rushed to find Dolly in her nightdress, bleeding profusely on the landing and John, in the bedroom, with chest wounds. The defence of Dolly and John after their death was done by friends and family. Only Dolly's mother came forward to report the violence of the previous three years. John's wife appeared at the inquest, described as 'a slightly built lady of youthful appearance', and described her husband as having a 'passionate temperament' and told how she was trying to rebuild their marriage but he was too involved in his intrigue with Dolly. Michael Sadleir, a friend of John's, stated "Dolly drove Currie mad, and deprived the world of a genuine artist and a devoted worker." At the end of the entry on Paultons Square in the marvellous Murder Houses of London by Jan Bondeson, it is noted that because the murder happened not long after the First World War started, it was not given a great amount of publicity, so John's friends were able to buy up his work and it never dipped in price.  If they had shown as much care for his behaviour as they did for his artistic reputation then maybe he would have had a longer life and Dolly might not have spent her late teenage years being attacked before being murdered.

Head of a Woman (Dolly Henry) (1912-4) George Clausen

I get very angry about the way Fanny Cornforth is written about in the biographies of her contemporaries and later, because not one iota of space is given to what she dealt with, for which she had absolutely no experience or preparation. Fanny never let go of Rossetti, but possibly that's because the moment she took her eyes off him in 1872, he attempted suicide. She provided him with his drugs along with his paint as she just wanted him to continue living. It took around 8 years for Fanny to go from 'the kissed mouth' to 'the witch'; it took Dolly Henry barely 2. Rossetti's family shaped a narrative to disguise a reclusive man's mental illness, but John Currie's friends took his existing problems and placed them on the shoulders of a 17 year old girl. John Currie is an obscure artist now, kept from entirely slipping from view by interest in Dolly's murder, which is how I found him. Still the narrative that Dolly was a temptress who drove him mad is prolonged - for example, she is referred to as 'the volatile Dolly' in Bondeson's book, and the accounts of John's friends are repeated without question in their modern biographies. We need to be quicker to question these received 'facts' from the past and look at who is telling us what and why. Hopefully these days if a 27 year old man, a married man, hooked up with a 17 year old girl, we would know which way that power dynamic was flowing. 

We need to do better because history, and life, is full of women like Fanny and Dolly and after the appalling things they had to put up with, they are overdue some respect.