Thursday, 11 October 2018

In Defence of Rosa Corder

Whilst writing Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang there were a couple of ladies that I really only had a passing knowledge of before researching for the book.  One of those was Rosa Corder, included because her involvement with Pre-Raphaelite art was somewhat unique and she seemed to be rather an interesting person, so I started to do a bit of digging. You know me, I never take anyone's word for anything, especially when it comes to the word of people who didn't even know them.  As I wrote in this post, always remember - what is it that we know for sure?

Let's start with the accepted knowledge when it comes to Miss Corder. 

Mr._ and Miss._ nervously perpetuating the touch of a vanished hand (1922) Max Beerbohm
 Rosa Corder is known primarily to Pre-Raphaelite fans as a grand faker of Rossetti pictures, peddled by her erstwhile loverboy, Charles Augustus Howell (whose naughtiness is talked about here).  She is portrayed as sneaky and wicked, the moll to Howell's criminal mastermind.  The description that bothered me the most came from Stanley Weintraub's 1974 biography of Whistler:

"She exuded sexual appeal, and knew it, and, in her mid-twenties, had no interest in marriage although considerable interest in men." (page 165)

Well, that's a little bit creepy. Thanks Stan.

Let's start at the beginning of Rosa's story. She was born in 1853, the daughter of London merchant and musician Micah Corder, one of six children.  Her siblings were by and large successful and she seems to have been especially close to her brother Frederick with whom she took music lessons.  She was also talented at languages and published a translation of Science Without God by Rev. Father Didon before she was 20 years old. Frederick went on to become a composer and a Fellow and Curator of the Royal Academy of Music but Rosa took training in painting and portraiture, studying under Felix Moscheles (painter and advocat for peace and Esperanto).  

Portrait of Rosa Corder, from an etching by Mortimer Menpes, 1880
 She continued her studies with Frederick Sandys, where she excelled as a draughtsman and copyist.  Before we all jump to conclusions here, being a copyist was all part of becoming an artist (and possibly still is).  Actually, making copies of famous works of art for buyers was a roaring trade legitimately - for example Sir Merton Russell-Cotes wanted a copy of Love Locked Out by Anna Lea Merritt but she refused, so he got Henry Justice Ford to do it for him, and it hangs in the collection of the Russell-Cotes in Bournemouth today.  To prove how good Rosa was, we have this...

The Marriage of St George (1870s) Rosa Corder
The above is a copy of Rossetti's cartoon for stained glass, by Rosa.  Rossetti was actually so impressed with her work he considered employing her as an assistant and it is through Rossetti that Rosa met Howell. There began a beautiful friendship (of forgery and adultery...)

Charles Augustus Howell (1882) Frederick Sandys
Right, just to slam on the breaks for a moment, if we take Rosa and Howell's relationship to date from the early 1870s, then Rosa was barely 20, whilst Howell was into his 30s.  It is arguable that Howell saw Rosa's potential as the producer of forgeries but quite what Rosa knew of their partnership is another matter.  I'm not arguing that Rosa was some unwitting rube in all this - Rosa was a very clever girl indeed, and some of the pictures that she copied were Henry Fuseli, referred to as 'objectionable' by subsequent biographers, which I think is fancy talk for 'boobs'...

An Incubus Leaving Two Sleeping Girls (1793) Henry Fuseli
I think we can safely say that Rosa wasn't an innocent lady painter, but making the leap from someone who was an independent spirit and broadminded to criminal is a bit harsh.  Also, it seems to me that those qualities appear to be enough to condemn her rather than the forgery.  

Arrangement in Brown and Black, Portrait of Miss Rosa Corder (1878) James McNeill Whistler
It was Howell who asked for the portrait of Rosa to be painted by Whistler.  Weintraub suggests that Rosa had received some drawing instruction from Whistler and '...spent time in Whistler's studio, if not also in his bed' (p.165). Again, thanks for that. Howell offered Whistler £100 to paint their allegedly shared mistress.  The artist got her to stand in a doorway - '...with the darkness of a shuttered room behind her, her firm body clothed in black and turned away from him, her face in profile, left hand on hip, a dark plumed hat in her right hand.' (p.165).  Whistler took his time, with 40 sittings, or in fact standings, which took hours until she passed out.  It was only when Rosa decided it was done that Whistler finally gave it up and let the poor woman go.  It is an amazing portrait, with 25 year old Rosa looking self possessed and confident.  In regards to Weintraub's above quote can I draw your attention to 'firm body' and 'hand on hip'. Seriously Stan, please dial it down.

Fred Archer (c. 1880) Rosa Corder
So, whilst being the evil temptress forger, Rosa also managed to set herself up as a painter in Newmarket.  In the 1880s Rosa took over the studio of Harry Hall, an accomplished equine painter, in a town devoted to horse racing.  There was a little resistance to this woman coming into what was undoubtedly a male-dominated world, but Rosa had a love of animals that drew her to her subjects both human and otherwise.  It wasn't long before she fitted in completely.  One firm friend was the jockey Fred Archer who Rosa painted a couple of times during his prolific career.  Rosa was very close friends with Ellen Terry, who gave an account of visiting Rosa in her studio: 

'"How wonderfully different are the expressions on terriers' faces," I said to her, looking at a painting of hers of a fox-terrier pup. "That's the only sort of pup I should like to have." "That one belonged to Fred Archer," Rosa Corder said. "I dare say he could get you one like it." We went to Archer and from him "Fussie" [Terry's dog] was obtained.' (from The Story of My Life by Ellen Terry)

Now, Ellen Terry actually knew Rosa and so I always like to hear the opinions of people who were there at the time, so let's see what she has to say...

Ellen Terry, Fussie and Drummie (her terriers)
Ellen described Rosa as 'plain-beautiful', 'so far more attractive than some of the pretty ones', she was pale with great hair and she wore 'odd clothes'.  Fellow painter W. Graham Robertson described her as 'gentle and crushed looking'.  None of which says sexy siren exactly... Back to Newmarket, and sporting newspapers spoke glowingly of Rosa's pictures of the race horses.  Her paintings became popular engravings and she became a fixture in the town.  In secret, she had given birth to Howell's daughter the same year as she had moved to Newmarket.  Her love of animals also brought her into conflict with some of her potential clients and fellow Newmarket residents.  She seems to have been fined regularly for refusing to muzzle her dogs in public and in 1890 she was a witness at a trial against animal cruelty.

Mrs Charles Augustus Howell (Kitty) (1873) Frederick Sandys
When Howell's wife Frances Kate (Kitty) died in 1888, Rosa took care of the Howell's daughter Rosalind, who grew up alongside her half-sister, Rosa's daughter Beatrice.  Howell died in 1890 and it was rumoured that he had been found with his throat cut in a gutter with a sovereign between his teeth but the truth was somewhat more mundane.  He developed pneumonia after a chill and was confined to a hospital where Rosa visited him daily.  Rosa only outlived her mentor by a couple of years, much in the same way as Alexa Wilding and Rossetti, or Dorothy Dene and Leighton.  Rosa's love of animals proved her undoing as she too developed pneumonia after taking extra time to ensure her horse was dry on a cold wet day before seeing to her own needs.  She died in 1893, aged only 40.

Right then, so what is it that we can say for sure?  Rosa was bright and talented with an independent spirit.  This we know because of her many accomplishments and the fact that she represented herself in male-dominated art and sports worlds.  She obviously loved Howell who she not only had a child with but also cared for at the end of his life.  She also cared deeply for animals, proved by her willingness to stand up in court and testify against an owner who had mistreated his horses.  She undoubtedly produced the forgeries that Howell sold but we don't know if the young woman knew what her lover was doing or that she felt comfortable within that relationship to object.  It seems to me that in reading accounts of the whole forgery business, Rosa and Howell are seen as equal partners in the villainy.  Actually, more than that, Howell is seen as a crook but Rosa is seen as a temptress, sexually promiscuous even before she meets Howell.  Weintraub's casual assertion that she had probably jumped from bed to bed before ending up with Howell is a judgement not a fact.  He's not the first to condemn her - in Murray Marks and His Friends (1919), G G Williamson says that Rosa lived on 'very intimate terms' with Whistler, Rossetti and Howell.  When Ellen Terry refers to her friend as 'plain-beautiful' somehow there is no judgement. I don't know what it is about Rosa that makes writers want to believe she was promiscuous and immoral, where as someone like Howell can get away with being 'a bit of a rogue' or even criminal. For a woman, being criminal is not enough, she also seems to have to be slutty.  I think that says far more about the biographers than it does Miss Rosa Corder.

Anyway, I think it is probably better for us to think of Rosa as an animal-loving young woman who may or may not have known what her much older lover was up to, but still stuck by him and his daughter until the end of her life.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Review: My Ladys Soul: The Poems of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall

Whilst doing the rounds to publicize my new book Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang, I was mainly asked questions about one woman. Above any other Pre-Raphaelite woman, Elizabeth or Lizzie Siddal (or Siddall) remains most people's idea of what 'Pre-Raphaelite' means.  With her long red hair and tragic legends, people definitely have an opinion about her, but as Serena Trowbridge, editor of a new collection of Siddal's poems, says in her introduction 'the woman has come to be represented purely by her face.'

Elizabeth Siddal (1850s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
From the countless images drawn by the obsessive Dante Gabriel Rossetti all through the 1850s, we feel we know Lizzie, but without knowledge of her work our impression is only ever surface-deep or what we project upon her.  It is beyond marvellous therefore that Serena has brought together all of Siddal's poems for the first time in one handy volume.


First a note about 'Siddal' vs 'Siddall'.  Elizabeth was originally 'Siddall' but it was suggested by Dante Gabriel Rossetti that one 'l' was better than two and so she dropped an 'l' professionally.  However as Serena discusses, 'Elizabeth Siddal' has come to represent all the woman-in-the-bath-tub, buried-then-dug-up-with-the-poems type nonsense, whereas 'Elizabeth Siddall' is the actual person who lived, wrote, painted, modelled and all that jazz.  One is a construct of first of all, arguably, herself, but mainly the Rossetti family, then of countless biographers, novelists, film-makers and journalists, until all that is left is a Sad Ginger (TM).

Sketch for Ophelia (1852) John Everett Millais
The book is just over 100 pages long and contains not only Siddal's poems but also Serena's helpful notation which gives not only a perfect understanding of each of the poem but also how it fits with Siddal's other work and her life. Serena draws on the work of other biographers and art historians to explain the poems in wonderful depth.  The explanation often covers more space than the poem itself showing not only how complex Siddal's writing is but also Serena's own palpable love of the subject that is infectious.

Clerk Saunders Elizabeth Siddal
It's not a wholly jolly read, unsurprisingly, but it is in the sad poems you hear a proper 3-dimensional version of  'Lizzie Siddal'.  'Thy strong arms around me love' speaks of a woman who has been worn down by her lover so much that her only hope is that he will leave, even though she knows it will break her further.  As Rossetti wrote of the lure of tendrils of hair binding men to conniving temptresses, Siddal's lover with his strong arms has her captive and weakened even though she can see the physical difference he has reduced her to, just as clearly as Beyonce in 'Crazy in Love'. Sorry, couldn't resist, but it's true.

Lady Clare (c.1854-7) Elizabeth Siddal
Reading the poems I was struck not by the resignation to death that some of the poems seem to hold, but the feeling of being a part of nature.  She speaks of woods, trees, earth, all metaphors for life and the return to dust but also as being connected to nature and the seasons.  These emotions express not only a strength but also an inevitability that she is as unpossessable as summer, and this changes my view of Siddal in a permanent way.  Through her poetry she speaks of love and its trials and tribulations but by aligning herself with nature that will welcome her home at the end, the woman who speaks is never truly owned by the man who never appreciates her. Whether you embrace one 'l' or two, Elizabeth Siddal is not merely one man's 'face' to look out from his canvas.  It's time to get to know her better.

Elizabeth Siddal (c.1860)

My Ladys Soul: The Poems of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall edited by Serena Trowbridge is available now from Amazon (UK, USA) and all good bookshops.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Stunning Cookery!

I feel I should be doing this post in high heels, trotting around my tasteful kitchen, making saucy puns about basting and the size of my copper pans, but sadly the medium of print doesn't lend itself to all those shenanigans.  Mores the pity.  Anyway, today's post is about a very special cook book...


Now, you will obviously remember from this post about Ruth Herbert (left) that in later years, she published a cook book.  I have been after a copy ever since, but thanks to Archive.org, you can download it for free!  This I joyfully did, and here are three recipes, tried and tested, for your amusement...

At the beginning of the St James' Cookery Book, there is a salutary lesson for all mistresses of houses, with regards to their servants.  I'm sure this is something you all can identify with, having large houses and a number of staff yourselves (cough, cough), so I will repeat it here.  'One hard and fast rule should be made in every house,' begins Ruth, 'that whatever comes into the house belongs to the master and mistress.'  Now, this all sounds straightforward, but it is very specifically one thing that Miss Herbert, now Mrs Rochfort, is thinking - 'I hold that a servant looking upon dripping...as her perquisites is dishonest.'  Did you realise that if you are not careful, your servants would be out there flogging your dripping on the streets? Yes!  It is indeed a problem of our times that our servants sell our dripping and pocket the money!  The horror.   I'll just let you recover from the trauma of that revelation, I'm going to get one with my first recipe...

Steamed Bread
I do love a bit of bread, which explains why I am made for distance rather than speed, shall we say.  Flicking through the bread recipes, my eye was caught by Steamed Bread, which is apparently a thing.  Ruth says that 'Bread can be steamed successfully according to the directions given for steamed puddings', and not wishing to appear rude, I thought I would give it a go.  She didn't give exact measurements for the recipe (as with many old cook books, there is an assumption that your cook would know already) and so I did a Google search.  There is a South African Bread, Isonka Samanzi, which is steamed bread so I took quantities from that.

 You will need -

Four and a half cups of bread flour
500ml of warm water
7g or one sachet of dried yeast
10g of salt
Squeeze of honey or a pinch of sugar

1. Place the yeast into a glass and add the honey/sugar in with it and a bit of the water.  Wait until it goes a bit foamy.

2. Put flour, salt, foamy yeast and rest of the water into a mixing bowl and mix, then knead as you would with normal bread.  When you have kneaded it enough (or have a machine to do it for you) then it should be stretchy and not too sticky.  If you are struggling, add a tad more flour.

3. You will need a pudding basin of some description that you will be boiling your bread in.  I use a pyrex bowl, greased with butter.  Pop your dough into the bowl and cover with a cloth for around an hour.

4. Get a pan big enough to fit your bowl in and cover it.  Half fill it with boiling water so it will be halfway up the sides of your bowl when you pop it in.

5. Put a piece of greased and pleated tin foil over the top of the bowl with the dough in it.  Tie string around to hold it in place and make a handle to help with lifting the bowl in and out of the water.  Note: Never trust just the handle to hold the bowl as there is a lot of water and oil involved, things become slippy. I lift with the handle but get a big spoon or something under the bowl as quick as possible to provide support.

6. Place the covered bowl into the pan and put the lid on the pan.  Check it in about half an hour to make sure the water level is fine.  It should take over an hour to cook through. I did mine for an hour and a half. Remember to lift with the extra support when getting it out of the pan.

7. Turn the bread out onto a plate and scoff when cool enough.

Ruth says that if you want a brown crust then the loaf can be put 'in a sharp oven for a few minutes'. Righty-o then Ruth, I shall do that.  To the sharp oven!

Ta da!
It is delicious and everso moist, but it depends if that is what you are looking for in your bread.  It has a very chewy texture and toasts well.  I recommend giving it a go because it really isn't that hard, or too much of a faff and it's not like any other bread you've had, that's for sure.  Right, on with the next recipe...

Kromeskies

As the name implies, this is a sort of Eastern Europe thing.  Ruth lists these under 'Entrees' (la de dah) and seemed the most straight-forward and didn't involve deviled brains, which is what I look for in a starter.  Anyway, here we go...

1. Mince up some cold chicken, parsley and, I quote, a 'tolerably sized' mushroom.  You heard me.

2. Fry off a small onion, also minced up finely.  Mix with the chicken and tolerable mushroom.

3. Now, Ruth says to moisten everything with some gravy 'from which you have taken all the fat'. Add salt and pepper.  I think what you are aiming for is damp but able to squeeze together for the next bit.

4. Ruth says to cut some slices of fat bacon very thin.  I just used streaky and hoped for the best.  You are looking to make parcels, so I cut a streak in half, rolled a small amount of filling one way then rolled it the other to seal.  Don't make them too big.

5.  Leave the parcels on one side and make up the batter.  We will be using French batter.  Oo la la!

6. To make the batter, say 'bonjour!' to three tablespoons of plain flour.  To that add a little 'salad oil', which I'm guessing is anything other than lard, and a little water.  Whisk the whites of two eggs and add the flour mixture to make the batter.

7. Dig the parcels into the mixture and shallow fry (or deep fry, I won't judge you), turning over until they are all crispy and golden.


These were...interesting... I think if I were to do them again I would change my herb from parsley to something a little more exciting but essentially you are eating battered bacon which is delicious but a little goes a long way.  Eat with salad and pretend that makes it okay.

On to pudding!

Our sweet course is 'Greek Pudding', a title that intrigued me so I grabbed my frying pan (because apparently if we are not boiling stuff, we have to fry it) and whipped up the following...

Greek Pudding

1. Take some slices of French roll -  for this I used those little brioche rolls, just cut in half, but I think any soft, enriched bread is good - and steep them for a short time in milk.  I did mine until they were soggy but not too soggy that they fell apart.

2. Whilst things are steeping, boil a quarter cup of sugar with enough water to cover it, so it makes a fairly thick syrup.

3. Whisk up some egg yolks - I used an egg per roll - and dip the soggy brioche in it before frying off in some butter.

4. You want your brioche to be brown on both sides, so keep turning it and don't have your heat too high.

5. When brown and a little crisp, lift on to a waiting plate, sprinkle over a little cinnamon and drizzle with syrup. 

Then scoff.

These are heaven.  You have a sort of soft, light pancake taste with a hint of cinnamon and the sugar.  I was dubious but they would make a marvellous breakfast on a very special occasion, or a pudding on a cold and miserable night.

They may not look beautiful but they taste divine!

So those are my picks from the St James' Cookery Book, but there are many more that look delicious and unusual.  Download it for free and experiment for yourselves.

Ruth turned at the familiar 'ping!' of the microwave...
Thank you Ruth for having such an interesting and varied career!

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Let's Not Go to Hanging Rock...

As I am typing this, I am aware of the irony that I am about to tell you all about picnics whilst it is raining hard.  Actual proper sky water (as my daughter used to call it) is falling rather torrentially, but up to today it has been blisteringly hot.  So hot in fact that the Walker family have been partaking of occasional picnics in the actual outside countryside type scenarios.  Not only that, BBC2 are currently showing a new version of Picnic At Hanging Rock and all that got me thinking about Victorian imagery of picnics...

Bunch of doomed lasses in white?  Sounds like a party to me...
 So, currently on the telly we are enjoying a remake of the 1975 film (itself from the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay) of Picnic at Hanging Rock, starring Natalie Dormer (who has to be in everything now, by law).  They have managed to spread it over six episodes which concerns me because the whole point of the story is that it is unknowable and mysterious, and that's a hard ask when you have to fill 6 hours of not finding a load of wandering teens who have disappeared into adulthood, or something. 

Same picnic but in 1975
I'm a great lover of the 1975 film, not least because it stars Mrs Mangle from Neighbours, but because of it's sheer vibratingly-hot-stifling-sexuality-in-constricting-frocks vibe.  It's a wonderfully understated exploration of teenage girls and the trouble with growing up.  I have high hopes for the tv series but we shall see.

At the Hanging Rock, Mount Macedon (1875) William Ford

As you probably all known, Lindsay took the title of her novel from a Victorian painting of lovely gentlefolk having a charming time in the Australian countryside around Hanging Rock, or Mount Diogenes as it is also known.  Diogenes, the Greek philosopher, is not exactly the sort of chap you'd want your teenage daughter to hang around with (and he certainly wouldn't like it himself) which is maybe the point.  If I have a criticism of the tv series so far, there has been a disturbing lack of scotch eggs and wasps, the corner stones of a decent picnic in my view.

Apple Blossoms (1859) J E Millais
Anyway, moving on to a Pre-Raphaelite picnic, this is probably the most familiar.  Our young ladies are all gathered in an orchard enjoying something from a massive bowl, possibly milk.  Our girl in gray seems to be happy to be in charge and is handing out the little bowls, which are being filled by the girl at the back.  I am left wondering what the point of the middle bowl is and how on earth it got there?  I wonder if that is bothering the girl with the white sleeves, centre back, who seems perturbed as she watches the others.  The girl in yellow who is flat out on the ground is bothering her friend next to her.  You know she's about to say 'get up Ethel or you feet are going to end up in the milk.  Again.' We all know a sort like Ethel who has to be the centre of attention by rolling around on the floor eating grass.  Who invited Ethel?!

The Derby Day (1856-8) William Powell Frith
No, hang on, that's far too massive.  Let me just get the bit we need...


That's better.  The problem with The Derby Day is that it's far too big.  That's not a criticism of the actual painting which is fine and you can walk back and forth seeing all the bits, but try and look at it in a book or on a screen and you are stuffed.  Anyway, as you will remember, there is an acrobat sort of in the middle, all dressed in white and holding out his arms to his child (presumably it's his, I'm not asking too many questions).  That acrobatic child is too busy staring longingly at the picnic being set out by a toff and what a splendid picnic it is too!  A massive pie and a lobster.  Those are some picnic goals to which we all need to aspire.  I have a theory that all the women in the coaches nearby are looking at Big Picnic Man because there is nothing that women love more is a man with a massive pie.

The Party Picnic (1875) Albert Ludovici
It seems to be that picnics are perfect places to attract the opposite sex.  This has never been my experience but then it is entirely possible that I have never picnic-ed in the correct manner with the right people.  In the above party, I count one more man than woman which could get ugly at the end of the day, especially as two of the women have the arm of a gentleman and Miss Stripey-Skirt is eying up the chap behind her.  I suspect the man in the dark blazer is going home alone, unless he has a massive pie in his bag, but frankly that bag does not look big enough.  Unless, of course, he fancies going home with the chap carrying the red thing, then stripey-skirt is out of luck.  The man in the middle has brazenly taken his hat off, so I suspect this afternoon is going to get messy.

The Picnic (1904) James Charles
The British Impressionist painter James Charles brings us a charming and far more innocent afternoon, complete with a proper blanket, a dog and even a swing rigged up in the tree.  I'm guessing they went to the spot specifically because the swing was there rather than taking the rope with them and shinning up the tree.  I'd be really impressed if those girls did set up the swing themselves but the aprons suggest rather less exciting past times.  Again, they have chosen an orchard to picnic in - what is about women and orchards?  Is it the apples?  Is it all a bit Biblical?  It has both shade and eternal damnation, with a promise of a Jaffa Cake for afters.

Fair Quiet and Sweet Rest (1872) Luke Fildes
There is always someone who brings a musical instrument to a picnic and everyone has to do singing or else, even worse, suffer the singing of someone who believes they have an aptitude for it.  Lawks, even the swans look a bit dubious and the ever-so-confident songstress here has made the cardinal error of standing up in a boat, the attention-seeking hussy.  Her friend is surreptitiously getting a life jacket ready with her feet in case it all goes horribly wrong, whilst her boyfriend, oblivious to everything, tucks into the picnic. We all know it will end in tragedy, with Algernon shouting 'Save my lute!' whilst his girlfriend goes under for the last time, probably still singing and there will probably be some sort of memorial to the dangers of going on jaunts with idiots.

Midday Rest (1878) Robert Cree Crawford
The best picnics are those impromptu ones you have with chums, possibly during the working week.  It's a nice day and you have been gleaning (or some other Victorian thing), so what pleasanter thing to do than crash out for an hour and scoff a pasty behind a haystack. There you can talk about your hopes, your dreams, the future - getting married, getting the vote, getting a pair of shoes that haven't been worn by your fifteen siblings before you.  Mind you, that sky looks like it's on the turn and I fear their relaxation will be short-lived.  That corn won't gather itself, ladies...

An Interrupted Picnic (1901) Charles Sims
Yes, this more likely sums up an English picnic.  If it's not wasps or ants that are ruining it, then it will rain.  The extremely aggressive clouds that are obscuring the sky in Sims painting above pretty much sum it up - just as the blanket hits the ground, the heavens open.  It's like some sort of rain charm.  Some sort of waterproof gazebo would have been handy and practical but no.  Now all the Mr Kipling cakes will get ruined. Oh, the humanity.

A Summer Afternoon (1948-9) Geoffrey Scowcroft Fletcher
Finally then, remember to make your picnic as deeply symbolic as possible.  This odd painting from after the Second World War seems to reference so many Victorian paintings, such as the double rainbow of The Blind Girl, or the sad girl thinking of her lost love in Byam Shaw's The Boer War, there is much that is both familiar and mysterious in this image.  Who are the other people in the field?  Why are some of our people looking at them so intently?  Why is the girl with the dog so sad? Why is everyone Victorian?  It's not a happy image and there is something that holds our group of people separate from the others.  Are they all dead? Oh look, we're back at the beginning, with strange and unexplained picnic occurrences, so I will leave you with these words of advice: Take plenty of food, take plenty of sun cream and never, ever wear white because even if you don't disappear down a hugely symbolic crack in a rock you will get absolutely filthy. 

Also, if anyone brings their lute, make your excuses and leave.  That sort of thing never ends well...

Friday, 18 May 2018

From Fun to Nun...

"It has been a wonderful life.  It passed through many dark places 
but there was always light enough to walk by 
and now, thank God, He is bringing me to the haven."

As final words go, those are rather lovely.  They are actually not the very last words, but some of the parting sentiments of a Victorian actress, star of stage and Henry Irving's first leading lady.  Of course by the end of her life, she was Mother Superior in a convent. Welcome to the amazing journey of Isabel Emilie Bateman...
Who?  I know, until doing the research for this post I had no idea beyond the fact that she had posed for Julia Margaret Cameron and was an actress.  After reading a lot, including a wonderfully pious biography, I am fascinated in what we aren't told about a woman who isn't as famous as she should be.  You've heard of Ellen Terry?  Then you should have heard of Isabel Bateman, and yet through the politics of biography, she has been overlooked, dismissed and forgotten. So, let's start remembering.

She was born in Cincinnati, just after Christmas in 1854, the youngest daughter of Hezekiah Linthicum Bateman, theatre manager and impresario, and his actress/writer wife, Sidney Frances Bateman. Mrs Bateman was the daughter of a British comedian who had settled in America, and was remembered as intellectual and energetic, with a fierce devotion to her children.  The Batemans had seven children that survived infancy including five daughters.  Isabel was close to her sister, Virginia, two years her senior, and the pair were known for their interest in religion.  In her biography, there is a odd but sweet story of how the pair wondered if they could achieve martyrdom by eating an entire bar of soap...

Isabel (seated), Sidney and Virginia Bateman
What we know of Isabel's childhood is quite rose-tinted.  She was clever, with a talent for reciting.  At two years old, her party piece was 'Mary had a little lamb', and by four years, she was absorbed in reading the history of Greece and arguing with Virginia about Achilles and Hector. Meanwhile, older sisters Kate (1842-1917) and Ellen (1844-1936) were being celebrated as child actresses.  Kate debuted in 1847 and by the time her sister was five, the girls were appearing in New York, reciting passages from Shakespeare.  Between 1850 and 1852, P T Barnum sponsored the girls in a tour of the UK, then a tour of the USA, as they performed their Shakespeare to an enraptured crowd.

Ellen as Richard III!  Kate as the Earl of Richmond!
The girls retired from being child stars in 1856, at the grand old age of 12 and 14, but graduated to adult acting, including in plays adapted by their mother.  Kate especially found popularity due to her emotional range, and in 1866, she married a doctor, George Crowe and moved to England.  Her family followed.  Isabel attended school in Clifton near Bristol, and was famous for her ability to recite Tennyson by heart, including a memorable rendition of 'The May Queen' when she was 15.  She also had a French governess and spoke and read French fluently.  Her ability to memorise and recite so beautifully inspired her mother to remove her from school and enroll her in the family business of acting.  Virginia had little interest in acting and Kate and Ellen had grown and were managing their own careers.  Isabel was her parents' new project...

Virginia and Isabel Bateman (c.1870)
In order to launch their daughter onto the unsuspecting London theatre-goers, Mr Bateman bought a West End theatre, the Lyceum, just off the Strand.  Bateman looked about for a suitable leading man to match his wonderful daughter and found an up-and-coming chap called Henry Irving...

Isabel Bateman and Henry Irving in Othello, 1876
The Lyceum had been in crisis, with a succession of failures and structural problems.  The superstitious acting profession saw the place as unlucky, but Irving, tempted from the employ of Ruth Herbert at St James' Theatre by the hope of permanent leading man status, joined the Batemans in their venture.  After a couple of false starts, Irving convinced Bateman to produce The Bells, a melodrama about a man driven mad by the guilt of a murder he has committed.  Ironically, Isabel did not have a part in The Bells, but the play was a sensation and Irving and the Lyceum became the talk of the town. On the journey home from the theatre on the opening night of The Bells, Henry Irving's wife of two years turned to him and asked 'Are you going on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?'.  Legend has it that Irving got out of the cab and walked away, never seeing his wife again.

Isabel (c.1870s)
The newly unattached (but never divorced) Irving was embraced into the Bateman family.  At weekends, he would go to Margate for seafishing with Mr Bateman while Isabel, Virginia and their mother would await the fish to cook in the evenings.  Irving acted as big brother to the girls, taking them off to dressmakers for new outfits and taking care of them.  In Charles I, Irving played opposite Isabel as his leading lady.  Irving used Van Dyke's portrait of the king to perfect his make-up and Isabel took the role of Queen Henrietta Maria, which gained praise in the newspapers for the prettiness of her French-English and the depth of her emotional portrayal.  Isabel was fascinated by Charles I, whom she regarded as a martyr.  It seems to have been a defining role for her as she was photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in the role in a number of pictures.

Queen Henrietta Maria and her daughter Princess Elizabeth (1874) Julia Margaret Cameron

Queen Henrietta Maria (May, 1874) Julia Margaret Cameron
A star, praised in the press and reviews and sought by artists for portraits, Isabel had flattery heaped upon her, but did not lose her serious, religious edge.  At a luncheon party filled with celebrities, a politician told a story in French about a party he had attended where someone had turned up dressed as God.  Disgusted, Isabel got up and left.  She was 19 and harboured a secret.  Despite being the most famous and celebrated actress in London, Isabel hated acting. She was torn between her love of religion and her love of Henry Irving.  Dilemma!

Isabel being torn between being a nun and Irving-fun
As it turned out there were a couple of minor problems with her crush on Irving.  Firstly, he was not a religious man, quite the opposite having grown up with a very religious mother who he found oppressive.  Although Isabel contemplated giving up her faith for him, he was married and likely to remain so.  This was a massive problem for Isabel, but not for Mrs Bateman who encouraged the relationship and implied she didn't mind if Isabel became Irving's mistress as long as they were great on stage.  The other problem however was that Irving didn't think of Isabel that way.  The successes kept coming with Isabel being the Ophelia to his Hamlet and the Desdemona to his Othello but the awkwardness had set in.

She Walks in Beauty (1874) Julia Margaret Cameron
For what happened next you have to read a number of biographies.  You have to wonder how long Irving had been aware of the problem and if the death of the Bateman's son, Richard in March 1874, made him delay his decision.  Richard had been travelling in the east and was lost at sea when the French steamer 'Nil' was wrecked on submerged rocks between Hong Kong and Yokohama.  The Lyceum continued to produce hits, including Hamlet in 1874.  According to Irving's grandson's biography of his grandfather, Isabel's portrayal of Ophelia was so moving that 'she quelled the restive elements in the audience, rekindled their interest, and had them once more enthralled.'  The Prince of Wales declared that the only thing worth looking at in Hamlet had been Isabel Bateman's face.

Isabel c.1872
Interestingly, one thing we know is that when Isabel needed time to think, she liked to travel.  Obviously aware of the problems surrounding her involvement with Irving, Isabel visited her friend Julia Margaret Cameron.  Having posed for her in 1874, Isabel made the long journey to Ceylon the next year.  We do not know enough about Cameron's photography in these last years of her life, but it is possible that another photo session was attempted but either lost or not completed.  In 1876, Cameron still held Isabel in high esteem and wrote to a friend that she longed to photograph her 'in these mountain heights, far from theatrical heights.'  Unfortunately for Isabel, issues were about to come to a head.

Isabel Bateman (1874) Julia Margaret Cameron 
In 1875 Mr Bateman dropped dead in March of heart disease, after an attack of angina pectoris, leaving Mrs Bateman in control of a restless Irving and three actress daughters.  Kate had returned to the stage, unable to stay away, but did not like Irving one little bit.  She also harbored jealousy against Isabel after all the publicity that the younger sister had received.  Neither Virginia or Isabel were particularly happy on the stage, and Virginia refused to appear with Kate.  Irving and Isabel had a somewhat strained relationship, due to Isabel's crush and he requested the option to bring in an alternative leading lady, Miss Ellen Terry.

Ellen Terry as Juliet (1882)
Sorry Ellen, this post is not about you
Now, depending on who's biography you read, Irving either brought in Ellen because Isabel was nothing more than a sister to him and he felt embarrassed, or he brought in an actress equal to his talents, or Isabel was rubbish and Irving wanted to be shot of her.  Ellen Terry's biographer's, definitely more recent ones, have gone with the latter version of the story, that completely writes Isabel out of the cannon of great Victorian actresses, rather unkindly in my opinion.  Irving's grandson goes with a middle ground that Isabel and Irving were both embarrassed and this hindered their performance, so Irving had no choice but to bring in a new actress.  When Irving asked, Mrs Bateman, possibly seeing the control of the Lyceum sliding from her to Irving wrote in defense of Isabel's feelings - 'It would be an endorsement signed by you - a friend of her family and me - her mother - of her entire incompetency.'  

In truth, Mrs Bateman, in order to earn more after her husband's death, had bought Sadler's Wells theatre in Clerkenwell.  At the time, Sadler's Wells had been run down and plans had been submitted to turn it into bath house and it was a roller-skating rink for a while. Finding her finances stretched Mrs Bateman gave the Lyceum over to Irving and moved her family and half the company over to Sadler's Wells.  It might also have been a mark of how much Mrs Bateman saw Irving as a surrogate son that she could not refuse him, coupled with the drop in wages Isabel would suffer in her demotion under Ellen Terry. In 1878, Irving took over the lease, moving in Ellen Terry as his leading lady and Bram Stoker as his General Manager.  The rest was history.

Charles Warner, actor
Over at the Sadler's Wells, things were somewhat less rosy.  Isabel took over the book keeping as well as leading lady duties with Charles Warner as her leading man.  The renovations cost £8,000 more than planned and took a year more than scheduled impacting on the earning potential.  Sadler's Wells was rebuilt on a lot of borrowed capital and despite some success, it was not enough to keep afloat.  Waiting for an omnibus one evening after a performance, Mrs Bateman caught a chill which turned to pneumonia and she died in 1881. When Irving visited to pay his respects, he was received very coldly by Kate.  When Mr Bateman had died, Irving was embraced in the family and attended the funeral with them.  Kate did not include him this time, and Irving did not go, which he regretted later in life, but the bonds between the Batemans and Irving had been well and truly severed.

Kate Bateman as 'Medea' (1872-3)
The three sisters agreed to shut Sadler's Wells and settle the enormous debt as best they could.  Virginia and Kate found work in provincial theatres, so it was left to Isabel to let the house, sell as much as possible and go through their mother's enormous hoard of theatre memorabilia, giving away or destroying as much as possible.  Her desire to leave the stage was as strong as ever but as long as the debt existed, she needed to act in order to pay the bills.  However, a brief trip to New York to visit elder sister Ellen helped clear her head  and she returned in 1882 with a plan.  She did recitals, for which she was famous, but the wages on the stage were better so she returned to the boards at the Adelphi Theatre.  She combined her acting with giving recitals which she actually enjoyed doing, and managed to raise money for charity with her performances.

Virginia Bateman (1870s)
In 1885, she travelled with Kate and her husband, Virginia and her husband and their children, together with Isabel's fox terriers to Great Malvern for a marvellous holiday.  Isabel was remembered fondly by her many nieces and nephews as a sweet, witty woman.  The holiday was cut short by a request for Isabel to take a part on Drury Lane.  She travelled with plays, taking care of the children involved in the performances.  When she was 30, she learnt the piano just so she could teach the child-actors to sing. She was much admired as an actress for her physical skills - in 'The Anatomy of Acting' in Longman's Magazine in 1888 she was quoted: '"I often turn pale," writes Miss Isabel Bateman, "in scenes of terror or great excitement.  I have been told this many times, and I can feel myself getting very cold and shivery and pale in thrilling situations."'.  She might not have loved her craft, but that didn't mean that she wasn't good at it.

1894 Programme for Miss Isabel Bateman at the Prince's Theatre
Irving admitted privately that he always felt uneasy about how he had treated Isabel until later in life Isabel wrote a letter to him, expressly forgiving anything he felt needed forgiving.  Finally, the death of Isabel's niece Claudia in 1897 brought an unexpected gift.  Obviously beloved by her niece, Claudia left Isabel enough money in her will that Isabel could clear her mother's debts once and for all.  With the need to act removed there was nothing more for it than to pack up her belongings and enter the community of St Mary the Virgin, Wantage, Berkshire...

The doorway to St Mary Virgin Convent
Ellen, whose daughter Claudia had left the money, had become an aetheist at the death of her daughter and so was somewhat depressed by her sister's faith but in time was happy that her sister had finally found peace.  Isabel's career as a nun was not entirely removed from the outside world. Sister Isabel Mary chose to work in the St James Home in Fulham, saving girls from immoral lives.  She appeared at a drawing-room meeting in order to appeal for funds and raised £300.  In her speech she suggested that the audience might like to donate the cost of their last hat.  It was in this public appearance, her first since taking holy orders, that her fellow nuns discovered her former profession and it was a sensation in the newspaper.  Sister Isabel Mary became well respected for her care of those that came to the home and loved by the girls who contributed their find memories to the biography From Theatre to Convent, published after Isabel's death, in 1936.

Isabel (seated right) at St Mary's Home, Bangalore (1923-4)
Nor was Isabel denied the pleasure of travel as a nun.  After being made Mother, Isabel travelled to South Africa, India and Europe, visiting religious communities and enjoying the beauty of the landscape and architecture of the places.  Obviously used to travelling all over the place as an actress, her accounts of journeys as a nun are rich and fearless.  

Portrait from 1930
Eventually old age caught up with her and on travels through South Africa, the high altitude made it impossible for her to enjoy herself in her normal manner.  She returned to Wantage and there died in 1934, remembered by all the nuns as a thoroughly lovely woman in the S.P.C.K published biography, From Theatre to Convent: Memories of Mother Isabel Mary  CSMV.  Of the rest of the Bateman family, Kate died in 1917 of a cerebral hemorrhage after a long and celebrated stage career. Ellen died in 1936 and Virginia last of all in 1940, but the Bateman legacy did not end there. Despite not being comfortable on stage, Virginia  married actor-manager Edward Compton and her daughter Fay became a celebrated actress, best known for her Shakespearean roles.  In the 1930s it became somewhat of a newspaper sensation when the niece of Isabel Bateman played Ophelia opposite John Gielgud, great-nephew of Ellen Terry, which is all rather incestuous.

John Gielgud and Fay Compton in Hamlet (1939)
In conclusion, Isabel Bateman caught my eye for more than just her talent and beauty.  Like many of the women we discuss here, Isabel is the victim of history and our seeming need to form a narrative to suit ourselves.  We rightly celebrate the wonderful Ellen Terry as an actress, but in telling Terry's story it seems we cannot help but down-play Isabel.  Irving and Mrs Bateman's relationship had some questionable moments (as does the Batemans' attitude to their daughters and acting).  A reason that excuses Irving and Terry's apparently callous discarding of Isabel was that she was not a good actress.  In Nina Auerbach's mighty tome on Terry from 1987, Isabel is referred to as 'untalented' and Irving was desperate to be rid of the 'dependent Bateman women'.  All this seems a tad harsh, especially as Terry herself wrote in admiration of Isabel's performances, and a self-depreciating reticence about following in her footsteps in roles such as Queen Henrietta Maria. Yet again, in celebrating the life of one woman we seemingly need to trash the lives of others, as if we only have room for one 'great actress'.  Did Ellen Terry kick Isabel Bateman out of the Lyceum?  Of course not.  Did Irving and Mrs Bateman handle the difficult situation of Mr Bateman's death, Irving's desire to expand as an actor and her money trouble well?  Of course not, but then it's easy for us looking back to see what a mess people get into when trying to give everyone what they want.

Mother Isabel Mary (1923)
While I fret about the injustice of female biography, it is a comfort to know that despite everything, Isabel got her dream of becoming a nun, the one role she was always meant to play and one she did with immeasurable grace.