Thursday, 18 September 2014

Scotland Forever!

You may not know, because very little of it has appeared on the news, but today Scotland decides if it wants to remain part of the United Kingdom.  While this has been on the cards for quite a while now, things have got really rather emotional and heated over the last few weeks of the campaigns, where the polls have swung back and forth like A&E department doors on a Saturday night.  I have no idea who will win, but tomorrow will bring many, many changes for everyone in this lovely little collection of islands.  In the meantime, I thought I'd take a gratuitous wander through some Victorian paintings about Scotland...

Scotland Forever! Lady Elizabeth Butler
Obviously I couldn't do a post about Victorian Scottishness without dragging in this whopper by Lady Butler.  I remember seeing it in the flesh and thinking 'Bloody Hell!' because it has a vivid fury and passion that is reflected in the recent events north and south of the border.  The Victorian period shaped much of how we see and feel about Scotland today, both better and worse, but I love the barking mad bravery of this image.  I don't care that the Royal Scots Greys didn't gallop into Waterloo, but I do feel the sacrifices made by the regiment, so many of them dying, is reflected in this death-or-glory plunge.

Monarch of the Glen (1851) Edwin Landseer
Queen Victoria's love of Scotland and her vision of it still remains with us today.  Take this almost cliched image, the Monarch of the Glen, possibly one of the country's best known pictures.  You could almost extrapolate Victoria's attitude to her subjects north of the border from this painting.  The Scots were proud, wonderful and picturesque, and slightly unruly, but no more than a stag.  Compared with the Scotland of previous centuries, this is an intellectual domestication beyond compare.  Tudor Scotland for example was easily England's equal in intrigue and knowledge, a place of thought and reason, in the end taking over the throne of its rival, its sibling country.  Victorian Scotland is seen as a different place, a safer place.  Well, at least for the English.

The Trial of William Wallace William Bell Scott
Not that there weren't reminders of the past, but the Victorians loved a melodrama from history, and this heroic depiction of Wallace is in keeping with the images of other anti-English figures such as Mary Queen of Scots or Joan of Arc.  They become polished to the point of fiction, and the Victorian's seemingly felt no conflict with worshiping and sanctifying the enemy from the past once they had been made-over to become beautiful, tragic figures.  Again, the 'enemy' becomes a beautiful, majestic, strong creature that gains the audience's respect.  I suppose in some ways there would be little glory in inevitable English defeat of them otherwise.

Catechising in a Scottish School (1832) George Harvey
Ah, religion.  Well, Victorians took obvious comfort in the fact that religion played as big a part in their neighbour's life as it did in their own.  Look how the central group of good children glow with the goodness of what they have learnt!  They won't be causing anyone any trouble.  It's unlikely that much of the audience of this picture read in to it the rich religious history of Scotland being narrowed to a view of small children reciting the Lord's Prayer.  Probably most people thought 'Ahhh, how sweet...'

Collecting the Offering at a Scottish Kirk (1855) John Phillip
The gentleman wrapped in tartan carrying the box on a stick is there to mark this painting out from all the other 'slice of life in church' scenes that were popular at this time.  You have the usual suspects on display: widow giving her meagre pennies, mother with her cute but naughty children, wealthy man  checking out a bustle  while getting his money out.  It's all jolly, and the little boy who looks like he's barely awake is marvellous.  He's in despair as his sister appears to be a ventriloquists dummy.  The shame.

Two Bairns John Everett Millais
Lawks.  Nothing renders the proud history of a country completely benign as using children to conjure a nation.  These two, gorgeously attired and wonderfully groomed, are difficult to explain fully.  Both dressed in clothes that scream national pride, yet consists of a tamed and invented version of national dress.  I am reminded, probably unfairly, of the Civil War portraits of younger sons of Cavaliers, dressed up as emblems of their parents beliefs.  Mind you, there is a lack of explanation, a lack of compromise even within an adopted costume that I like, especially in the figure of the boy.  Look at all that hair!  I think there is more communicated by this image than I feel able to read into it.  The girl seems like another Millais cutie-pie, the boy looks more intense.

Breakfast in the Highlands (1865) John Phillip
Let me guess, it's porridge.  Quick, put the brioche away!  The artists are coming!  This is probably what your average Victorian wanted to see - nice, cheery Scottish children, with lots of porridge and a nice scarf.  I'm sure this is what my forebears were like. Goodness, if I had a quid for every time a non-Scottish person had prefaced an opinion about Independence with 'Of course, I'm from Scottish descent...' I'd be able to buy the Shetlands.  I have ancestors who lived in Peru, can I weigh into the debate on Paddington Bear's voice, please?

Evening in the Highlands Charles Leslie
Actually I do have a Scottish ancestor, the improbably named Euphemia Virtue, but that was a long time ago and doesn't count, so if Scotland vote 'Yes' I have to give my name back in 2016.  True story.

Sheep in the Highlands (1857) Rosa Bonheur
Lovely landscape is what I tend to think of when I think of Scotland.  I would love to see the mountains and all that glorious expanse.  I've only been to Edinburgh, where the jolly chap who ran the B&B told us all the places nearby that English people had been slaughtered in history while Scottish people had invented golf.  We had a lovely time and I got to drink whisky at the whisky museum at about 9.30 in the morning.  Lawks.

The Missing Boat (1877) Erskine Nicol
As Scotland faces the future this evening, I'm sure most people in England are wondering what life apart would be like.  Lily is worried about the flag and what happens to it, we're worried about pensions, elections and all of the things that don't seem to have been explained properly by either side of the debate, just depending on sentiment and fear to swing votes one way or another.

 I wish Scotland the very best of luck if it goes, but if it stays I'd be grateful.  Come on, you can't leave the rest of us alone with Westminster, we're not allowed to leave.

Well, not until we get independence for the Kingdom of Wessex...

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Coming Soon to a Cinema Near You...

You know how it is - you're minding your own business on a Friday afternoon, posting a picture of a wombat, making plans for the weekend, and then this happens...


Yes, finally a release date, a poster and a trailer for the much-anticipated, long-awaited film about Effie Gray and her ill-fated relationship with John Ruskin. Having waited what seems like forever for the film to be released, suffering many delays and deferrals and watching as Emma Thompson, writer and star, fought valiantly through the courts, finally it will be here in October.  So why aren't I delighted?

Effie Gray Thomas Richmond
For starters, of course I am looking forward to seeing the film.  It's about the Pre-Raphaelites, for goodness sake, and so it would be churlish and counterproductive of me to not want to see a film about the thing I love.  It is also jam-packed with splendid acting talent and comes to us from the hands of Emma Thompson who is marvellous in everything she does.  I'm sure I will enjoy it because on that score I enjoyed Desperate Romantics.  Nice costumes, everyone acting their socks off, all splendid.  I'm also sure the story will be gripping.  Mind you, that might be the problem...

Dakota Fanning as Effie, and I want her gloves.

Sometimes the problem with a really good story is that it tells you more about the audience than the people involved in the story.  What we know for sure, for absolute certain, is that John Ruskin married Euphemia Gray and then five years later their marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation.  They both agree (separately) that the reason that the relationship was not consummated was because Ruskin found her 'person' disgusting.  Nothing to do with public hair, menstruation, little girls, little boys, big boys or anything.  Therefore I trust that Emma Thompson has not got a scene in the film where Effie disrobes on her wedding night only for Ruskin to start screaming 'LADY PARTS! LADY PARTS! THE HORROR!' (much in the same way that I trusted that Fanny Cornforth wouldn't be cracking walnuts with her teeth in Desperate Romantics)...

Dakota Fanning and Greg Wise as Mr and Mrs Ruskin
Another universally acknowledged 'fact' is that she was around 9 years old and he was 107.  Well, again, does make a lot of sense because he liked little girls didn't he?  And all Victorian men preferred infant wives who were merely decorative or playthings for their disgusting lusts etc etc.  Actually at the time of the marriage Effie was 20 (or nearly so) and Ruskin was nine years older.  Greg Wise, a marvellous, talented actor, is around twenty years older than the part he is playing.  He is basically playing the older, more familiar Ruskin: beardy old Victorian who looks grumpy all the time.  Even lovely Tom Hollander was over 40 when he played Ruskin in Desperate Romantics.  Why are we unable to see a younger actor take the role?  Would it make it too complicated for audiences to see, for example, Rupert Friend, rather handsome and age-appropriate as Ruskin?  It certainly isn't as punchy a story - two adults marry without knowing each other properly and find out they drastically don't get along.  The husband refuses to have sex with a woman who wasn't what he believed she was.  Woman is left alone with nothing to do trapped in unhappy marriage.  They get marriage annulled.  I'm not sure I'd go and see a film about that.  However, is it okay to always assume the woman is always the victim?  Does there need to be a clear-cut 'victim' and 'culprit' in every situation?

The Victorians, much like us, love to apportion blame and back in the good old days all the blame would obviously be heaped on the woman.  That is rubbish for all involved and so I don't blame Team Effie to want some payback, after all in order to get the marriage annulled she had to go through some god-awful tests and risk utter ruin for something that wasn't her fault really.  But then I'm not convinced it was Ruskin's fault either.  However, for ever more it has become his fault, eternally the fault of the old, weird, gay pedophile who could not bare his wife's pubic hair.  That is some hatchet job.

Tom Sturridge as Millais
Also, what seemed to enrage others on Friday (I was too busy wailing over the age of Ruskin) was that Millais looks exactly like an identi-kit Rossetti, all Byronic and moody.  On a side note, the actor Tom Sturridge is exactly the right age to play Ruskin.  Oh, the irony!

Look, you don't need me to tell you to go and see it, it will be wonderful entertainment and no doubt a feast for the eyes.  I'd love to see more Pre-Raphaelite films, so let's make this one a success as I'm sure it will be.  However, you are all smart people who read and question accepted biography, don't forget to remind people that the film is just entertainment.  After all, the last time I saw Fanny Cornforth on screen, she was a nut spitting, illiterate cockney prostitute...

Oh yes, Ophelia on the poster?  Really?

Effie Gray is out in the UK in October and you can have a look at the trailer here.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Knit One, Purl One

This post is dedicated to one of my oldest friends, Helen, who is by far the finest knitter I know.  I love to knit almost as much as I love to write and have been at it almost as long.  It keeps my fingers and mind busy when they need to be, relieving stress and providing hats.  Every year I knit a Christmas hat, last year's being this one...


Yes, we have matching hats.  I regret nothing.  Well, yesterday I started a new hat (both cables and lacework, get me) and it got me thinking about Victorian images of knitting...

A Girl in Costume Knitting (1893) Ralph Hedley
Last week I was told I was 'old-fashioned' for knitting, yet hip people knit apparently.  Search for 'celebrity knitters' and all manner of fancy types are clicking sticks, look!

Christina Hendricks!
Keifer!  Okay, this one might be made up...
While it is hip to handicraft, there is still a lingering suspicion that only old ladies knit and it certainly isn't something worthy of capturing in art.  Mercifully the Victorians did not feel the same way.

A Girl Knitting Giovanni Segantini
In nineteenth century art, knitting has meaning.  Knitting is industry, keeping girls who tend sheep even busier than they already are.  Knitting is supplementary work, a useful womanly craft that serves a purpose.  This young lady in the meadow can make socks or a hat while she tends the flock that provides the wool.

Girl Knitting (1874) William Harris Weatherhead
There are a peathora of young, working class women, fitting in this extra task among their other everyday routine.  Sometimes the girl is outside, sometimes she is in a domestic scene, turning a heel of a sock.  Often the hour is late and possibly knitting is the only task that can be managed in such poor light.

Interior, Woman Knitting (1880) Alfred Provis
Here is a woman in a darkened room, needles in hand, knitting while her child creeps in to the room.  Everyone should be asleep, the cat, the child, and the woman still works.

There are also images of not-so-poor women, needles in hands, wool in pretty colours.

Sunbeam Gustav Wentzel
Many of these women are older, knitting in their leisure hours.  This is not supplemental work, this is frivolous, deer-hat knitting for women who buy their wool rather than spin it from their own sheep.

Portrait of my Mother (1902) Jean Pierre Laurens
This is a gorgeous image and not the only 'mother' image I found.  Older women, comfortable and middle class, knit to pass hours and remain useful.  Painted by her son, this woman creates something, possibly for him.  What use has she now?  She has raised her children, successfully, so what will she do now?  Not a widow by the look of that vivid red, but knitting in black like a foreshadow of her future.  I like to think of this as a counterpoint to Whistler's mother, vibrant and busy even though she does not need to be either.

Artist's Mother Knitting in a Flat in Paris Albert Ranny Chewett
This is probably what most people would think of when they hear the title 'Mother, knitting', a rather more polite version of Giles' Granny, seated by a window with some pink wool, probably knitting something for a grandchild.  This one reminds me of my granny, the one who taught me to knit.  She was about four feet eleven, always wore a pinny and could do something to your little finger that could make a grown man cry in seconds.  Jolly good role model all round.

Family Group (1919) Robert Sivell
Knitting also has another meaning in art, possibly linked to the first.  Looking at the paintings of younger women knitting, I think knitting is linked to virtue.  I suppose if your hands are busy with needles they aren't busy with anything else.  Look at the family group above, and you'll notice we have a spare woman.  While two of the younger women are on their feet, the third sits and knits, the only one who has a focus.  The fractured gaze of the group, disconnected and alone, is not present in the 'spare' girl.  It's as if she's wandered in from another picture, looking for somewhere to have a sit down and a quick knit.  Industry will save her in the bleak, post-war world.  While the others wonder what they will do, how they will recover, who they will marry, the third girl is getting on with her sock.

The Purple Stocking J J Shannon
My favourite picture of knitting has to be this one.  So gorgeous, and reminiscent of Gotch's enthroned mini-princesses, knitting in the round with her royal-purple wool.  Delightful.

The Knitting Lesson Pierre Jacques Dierckx
Little girls knitting is conversely about being a wife and a virgin,or at least virtuous.  This old lady preps the little girls in a good wifely craft so that in the future they can knit for their husbands and children, but in the meantime it will give their idle hands something to do so that the devil doesn't.  It's true that I commit far less sins when I'm turning a heel of a sock, mind you my language is often appalling.

Gentle Persuasion Edward Portielje
For a very graphic example of this, we have Portielje's would-be seducer trying to get past five needles.  She's let her knitting drop a little, that ball of wool is now rolling around on the floor and so I'm worried that she's going to follow it.  She'll be sorry if she drops any stitches but not half as sorry as she'll be with a baby out of wedlock.

The Dreamer (1887) Anna Louisa Swynnerton
Mostly knitting is a solitary pleasure, something women do on their own and I think it's no coincidence that a female artist understood the link between knitting and thinking.  I knit to control my galloping mind but rather than filling my head with knit-one-purl-one, I get room to dream, comfortable in the knowledge that my hands are making something useful.  This woman is dreaming of something or someone (note no wedding ring), but her hands keep busy, masking her thoughts.  Knitting gives women the space to think unnoticed, a mask of domesticity behind which to shelter a tumble-mind of wonder and decision.

Hortus Inclusus (1898) Joseph Southall
In conclusion, a woman who is knitting is thinking and making.  Past and present, knitting is a pleasure that pays back with warm and comforting things.  When I knit I like the connection to my handcrafting ancestors, but I also like the continuation of something low-tech in a hi-tech present.  Yes I can buy a hat, probably even a hat with little felted antlers, but I like creating something beautiful, in beautiful colours and in wonderful yarns, that is mine and mine alone and a little work of art.



If you are a knitter, then you need Ravelry in your life (go here).  It's amazing, like Facebook for crafters, with thousands of patterns and wonderful advice.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

A Pick and a Pasty

Here is part two of my holiday, and it was one of the unexpected highlights.  A shocking fact is that Mr Walker doesn't want to spend every waking hour at Victorian art museums.  I know, and I married him.  In fact, there are times when he wants to visit somewhere else.  That's how we ended up at Geevor Tin Mine...


Actually, I was happy to visit a tin mine museum due to a family history of Cornish miners, plus Mr Walker's Grandpa was a coal miner in the Midlands, so it seemed appropriate to be heading underground.  Having spent the day before in the Eden Project with probably every single person in Cornwall (to say it was jam packed seems an understatement), the large, airy space and peace of the mining museum was a blessed relief, and the collections were amazing.  My favourite object had to be this picture...


This lovely lady was 17 year old Elizabeth Hill Chappel, who was married to Henry Chappel.  Shortly after their marriage, Henry went to work in the gold mines in Bolivia.  He wrote regularly, enclosing small amounts of gold, but then all of a sudden the letters stopped.  I would assume Elizabeth feared the worst until Henry returned two years later to discover that someone had been stealing his letters and the gold he had been sending.

Anyway, this got me thinking about Victorian images of mining.  I suppose it would be easy to have a romanticised image of the profession, such as this handsome chap on our left: big strapping men, with big strapping mustaches, swinging all manner of heavy instruments underground, probably bare chested.  Goodness.

However, these days it's hard to get away from the truth, especially here in the Walker household. Grandpa Paddy Walker, the miner, was involved in the 1956 accident at his West Mindland's pit which cost many men their lives.  Paddy was trapped by some lengths of timber which created a 'teepee' over him and saved his life.  Unsurprisingly he was a hard father, but by all accounts a great Grandpa and I'll never forget him crawling on the floor, aged almost 90, after Lily-Rose, his great granddaughter.

The Miner (c.1900) French School
On the whole, there are not as many images of Victorian miners and mining as I expected, although what there is strikes me as interesting.  I wonder if it was because it was underground, unknown unless you ventured down yourself, therefore not easily observed from a safe distance.

The Miners (1878) George Henry Boughton
Maybe the art buying public didn't go for images of men doing a grubby, necessary job underground, so the images are like this one, in the open air, with healthy, ruddy cheeked men swinging their enormous picks and hammers at rock.  These pair have a young lady watching, with a toddler.  I'm going to guess that the baby is her sister and she is deciding which of the fine young mining men she is going to marry.  I hope she has brought enough pasties for everyone.

Going Home (1889) Ralph Headley
From pictures like this you would be forgiven for thinking that mining was a reasonably clean and healthy occupation.  I especially like the blue socks and blue hat.  I tend to think of blue when I think of Cornwall, all that sky and sea, and the shade used in this picture is beautiful.  I wonder if they are meant to be father and son?  The wonderful assistant we spoke to at Geevor said that there was a proud tradition among the mining families in Cornwall that sons followed fathers in to the pit.  This contrasted with coal mining where, like the Walkers, you didn't really want to have your son follow you underground.  Maybe that was a sentiment from the twentieth century where there were finally felt to be choices.  It certainly wasn't because the job was safer in Cornwall - we read in awe of how they mined right out beneath the sea, following a seam.


If I can just wander off the point for a moment, a famous Victorian miner has to be M'darling Clementine's father, who was involved in the 1849 Californian gold rush (hence 'a 49er').  I hadn't really thought about how odd the lyrics of this song from the c.1860s are, but they are rather funny.  Poor old Clem has enormous feet, falls over a splinter of wood and drowns because her beloved can't swim.  He can, however, get over her loss by kissing her sister.  Hmmm, all very Victorian I'm sure.

Fossickers (1893) Walter Withers
There are images of nineteenth century miners all over the world, for example this picture of Fossicker, or gold miners, from Australia.  Possibly the term 'Fossicker' gives another hint of another reason why images of mining were not prevalent. One 1850s definition of 'fossicker' is a troublesome person, and so perhaps the side of mining and panning that could result in riches was seen as morally problematic.  Maybe that's why Clementine was drowned, as a punishment to her get-rich-quick dad.

In a way, painted images of Victorian mining are almost unnecessary as J C Burrows was commissioned to take photographs underground in 1890.  These were published in the book Mongst Mines and Miners: Underground Scenes by Flashlight which was used as a guidebook to the industry towards the end of the century.  The stark images are unblinking in their honesty, and the scenes seem precarious, dirty, cramped and hard.  There is nothing easy here and none of them will get rich from their hard work.

Miners at rest, with pasty lunch
Next time you are enjoying a Cornish pasty, think of the miners.  The pasty was made with its rolled edge so the miners could hold that bit with their grubby hands and eat the rest.  And they are delicious.  I bought a lovely book about Cornish food and festivals just so I can bake marvellous pasties at home. I'm grateful that we don't have to go down a mine to eat them.

To visit the wonderful Geevor Tin Mine, see their website (here) for details.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Wish You Were Here...

Hello Chums! I typed this for you from holiday down in Cornwall but couldn't post it as the wifi was useless. It’s been a long, hard summer of much working and not much relaxing and finally I got to be away from it all with Mr Walker, Little Miss Walker and Mrs Walker Senior (my mother in law)...

As I type, I am sat in the conservatory of a rather nifty bungalow in St Agnes, a small village on the north coast of Cornwall…

A Bay of the North Cornish Coast (1889-92) Arthur Hughes
Yes, it’s a bit like that around here.  Yesterday was splendid weather but today it’s rather more overcast.  However, as some of you will remember, Miss Walker has albinism, so bright sunshine is not necessarily our best weather.  Overcast rather suits us better.  Today we have been to Newquay Zoo and Jamaica Inn.  I did not fall for the charms of a reckless wrecker with brooding charm and swarthy looks.  I did however have a nice pasty which is probably a better choice for a woman of my age.

A Cornish Fishwife (1904) Flora Macdonald Reid
Yes, something like that.  Okay, maybe not that old, but I have a really nasty cold so I feel about 108.  Bad things happen to my sinuses when I have colds because I spent so many years working in close contact with office equipment.  Revolting.  I need a holiday.  Which is handy…

A Cornish Holiday Dorothea Sharp
Smashing!  No doubt in the next couple of days I will be gambling along the beach, fishing in rock pools, herding ducks with a stick… Okay, scrap the last one unless it’s compulsory.  I will also be eating more pasties.  And fudge.  And cream teas.  Oh heavens, this holiday may kill me…

A Cornish Idyll (1902) Walter Langley
I will be visiting a bit of art while I’m here.  We have St Ives and Penlee House on our ‘to do’ list.  I’m especially looking forward to Penlee House because it is stuffed full of miserable images of Cornish Fishermen’s widows, sobbing as the dawn breaks on another morning of drowned husbands and no fish.  Lovely.  This Walter Langley is rather more jolly though.  Give it time and he’ll be drowned too.  Something to look forward to, artistically speaking.

Cornish Miner (1885) Frederick Thomas Penson
My Cornish forebears weren’t fishermen actually, they were tin miners.  They cleared off to Peru in Georgian times after one member of the ‘Cocking’ family married Mr Champion and became Mrs Cocking Champion.  Dear me, the shame.

A Fish Sale on A Cornish Beach (1885) Stanhope Alexander Forbes
I also want to eat fish pie while I’m here.  I love fish pie.  I need to find the recipe for Ford Madox Brown’s favourite Cornish food, something called Thunder and Lightning. This was a dish made with garlic, treacle and pilchards.  Another reason to move to Peru, possible. 

Cornish Girl with a Basket of Primroses (1888) Frederick Millar
I haven’t been to Cornwall in years, possibly not since I was around Miss Walker’s age.  Tomorrow we’re off to visit a rather newer addition to Cornwall’s Tourist offer, the Eden Project.  For those who have never heard of this marvellous place, it is a 35-acre plant laboratory under great domes that show you global gardens and different ecosystems.  It looks amazing.

Cornish Solitude James H C Millar
Most of all, I’m looking forward to getting away from work and stress, if only for a week and having a bit of a sit down and sleep in away from everything.    Mind you, I have brought my computer with me, hence why I am able to write this, so technically I’ve brought all of you on holiday with me.  That’s okay, there is plenty of room and plenty of pasties.  If you will excuse me, I’m off to have a nap before I embark on some more relaxing.  This holiday lark is hard work you know….

On the Cornish Coast (1880) John Brett
Don't eat all my pasties while I'm asleep...