Friday, 16 February 2018

Support Your Local Girl Gang!

Some of you who are on Facebook will have noticed an announcement yesterday which I am very excited about. I have another book coming out!  Huzzah!

On 13th September, the lovely people at Unicorn Publishing will be flinging my book unto the world.  It is entitled...

Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang: The Makers, Shakers and 
Heartbreakers from the Victorian Era

...and here is the story behind it.

Fanny Cornforth
It's no secret that I have always been determined to tell Fanny Cornforth's story in all its glory.  Part of my utter joy in doing this blog is telling you about how she really wasn't the nut-cracking, illiterate, thieving, lying prozzie she was made out to be, how, in fact, her story enriches our understanding of Rossetti and his art.  The beauty of women like Fanny is that they are part and parcel of the Pre-Raphaelite story and by giving them some respect we can all learn something new, something deeper about art.

Maria Zambaco
But Fanny is just the tip of the iceberg as all the women of the Pre-Raphaelite movement have interesting stories to be told.  Whether they are models, artists, sisters, wives, lovers, embroiderers, sculptors, mothers or a combination of roles, the women tell us so much about the time, the movement and the art, yet have not had the coverage and research of the men, especially if they are thought to have had a lesser role.  

Alexa Wilding
Well, you and I know that something needed to be done about that and so in September this year, Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang will set you on the path of discovery for all our wonderful Pre-Raphaelite women.  Each of them has a story to tell, filled with triumph, disaster, survival and creativity.  From the famous to the infamous, lady to laundress, their stories will inspire you.

Marie Spartali
Together with original art from contemporary sources, I have the utter delight and pleasure to be working with Kingsley Nebecki, a frankly awesome chap who is doing portraits of our 50 girls, bringing together so much of the essence and aura of each woman in a single image.  His work is beautiful and I'm very excited to see the results.

Elizabeth Siddal
From well-known women like Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris to lesser known figures such as Aglaia Coronio and Hetty Pettigrew, all of them have had an impact on Pre-Raphaelite art.  Brief lives to grandmothers, those who spent their lives in pursuit of art to those who flickered in and out of the movement in a moment, I'll tell you all their stories in my own way.  Get ready for laughs and tears and scandalized gasping as I tell you who ran off with a wife-beater, who was made a widow after only a few weeks and who was the victim of a violent stalker.  Ever fallen in love with entirely the wrong man?  Let me introduce you to Anna Blunden, who was certain Ruskin was the chap for her.  Feel underappreciated at work?  The Pettigrew sisters will tell you how to demand a decent wage and make any boss ashamed of paying you less.  These women should be your girl gang because they have all been there, done that, and you know they'll have your back.

For further information, here is Unicorn Publishing's announcement page and I'll bring you further news closer to release day...

Monday, 12 February 2018

In a Spin

I'm recovering from a weekend of fun at the Weald and Downland Museum in Sussex where I spent two days learning how to spin.  Now, this might not be quite the rock and roll lifestyle you imagined for me (let's be honest, it probably was), but as I am someone who spends a fair amount of time not being able to find exactly the knitting yarn I need, I thought I'd learn how to make it myself.  Unsurprisingly, my thoughts turned to Victorian depictions of spinning...

Still Life Interior with Spinning Wheel (early 20th century) 'Cogswell'
I do love doing things with my hands (no sniggering at the back) and so the idea of learning how to turn sheep into wool (not the whole sheep obviously) just seemed like magic and so booked the course and began to dream of sitting at my wheel singing as I span. Span?  Spun? Spinned? Well, you know what I mean...


Thank you Morris, 'span' it is.  Mind you, his depiction of drop-spindle spinning is a bit vague.  I'm guessing that's what she's doing - I can see the stretch of fleece going from hand to hand as she twists, but I can't really see a spindle.  Mind you Adam seems to be digging with an elongated heart on a stick so who knows what's going on here...

Woman Spinning Margaret Thomas
That's more like it, although she's going some in this picture.  The idea is (for those who don't drop-spindle, or indeed spin) is that the hand nearest the spindle holds the fleece as it twists as the other hand feeds out the fleece to feed the twist.  The hand nearest the spindle then moves up the unspun fleece releasing the twist into it.  You then wind that part onto the spindle and away you go again.  As I have just started, I horribly over-twist but that is normal and to do with not working quick enough and being too cautious.  It also makes your arm ache like a bugger, especially if you try and drop-spindle-spin sitting down. Anyway, enough practice, let's get on with the art...

Sleeping Beauty (1913) Leon Bakst
Let's just get something out of the way - I did not prick my finger and fall asleep for a 100 years.  This would have been damn near impossible anyway as a regular spinning wheel does not have any sharp bits at all.  Apparently 'great wheels', really massive spinning wheels, have a spike, probably used to hold the fibre to be spun (called a distaff) because you are using one hand to turn the wheel while the other feeds in the fibre for spinning, a bit like a sideways drop-spindle.

St Elizabeth of Hungary spinning for the poor Marianne Stokes
Here you can see the distaff holding up the dark fleece while Elizabeth spins and uses the treadle joined to the shaft by her knee.  Although we often think of wheels being a symbol of the industrious poor, living in little cottages and wearing headscarves, having a wheel in your house was fairly rare until Tudor times.  Until then you would drop-spindle (which can be made really easily) and so Elizabeth of Hungary is doing work for the poor with something the poor would not have had access to.

Our Saviour Subject to his Parents at Nazareth (1847) John Rogers Herbert
This therefore is a very miraculous scene, not least because the spinning wheel would not be invented for about another 500 years.  You'll remember from Blogvent that the Virgin Mary was known for her needlecraft, and so I think Herbert was trying to express this.  Actually, apart from the uninvented spinning wheel, it's not a bad effort as if Mary is going to be doing all that embroidery she'll need to get her yarn from somewhere.  It's not like she can pop over to Hobbycraft on the donkey.

The Sleeping Embroiderer Gustave Courbet
What is it with Courbet and sleeping women?  It's a bit creepy and voyeuristic but we'll just think the best that he was making the best if their rest period.  So the lady here is spinning her embroidery yarn but has dozed off with the spike of fleece on her lap.  I love that red ribbon around the silver fleece.

Fair Rosamund John William Waterhouse
It's nice to know that whilst hanging around for her lover and being done in by his jealous wife, Rosamund Clifford wasn't sat around bored.  In the corner of her room is her spinning wheel.  Well, that wool isn't going to spin itself and if you want a thread to lead your erstwhile lover to your hidden lovenest (not a euphemism) then you have to make it yourself.  The illicit-lover-threads you buy in the shops are just not the same quality.

A Romance of Bridport, Dorset (1923) Francis Henry Newberry
Whenever a monarch turns up in your town, you might as well bring out your spinning wheel to impress him.  Henry VIII was well known for his love of a woman with a wheel (according to the song often attributed to him, 'I like big wheels and I cannot lie') and so this lass is wise to turn up with her wheel, which also denotes her unmarried state.  The term 'spinster' referred to the mostly unmarried women who span wool, the idea being you would probably give that occupation up when you were married and popping out babies.

At the Crofter's Wheel (1876) William Henry Midwood
Come on now, it's obviously an open secret that men love a wheel.  Look at the confidence this woman has with hers, as if to say, 'Yes, I spin and you like it, don't you Big Boy?'  If I had only known this as a teenager it would have saved so much heartache.  Men like milkmaids and spinsters, don't try and deny it.  Damn it, I could have had a vastly different school experience...

Thomas Faed at the Easel in his Studio (1853) John Ballantyne
Mind you, I think it's a fair bet that Victorian artists loved a spinning wheel as a prop.  You could use it as short-hand for honest, lady-like labour making dainty loveliness which has a purpose.  From the flax spun for nets and rope in Bridport (hence the spinning wheel) to dainty silk spinning, it has all sorts of useful and beautiful applications in real life.  Stick some apple-cheeked voluptuous woman next to a wheel and we know what it represents.  

Waiting (1885) Clement Rollins Grant
Also, as we have covered, it's rather a neat way of showing that the woman is unmarried.  Grant's girl, above, is literally waiting to be married, but she doesn't look like she needs to spin for anything other than fun.  There does seem to be a point in time when wheels start looking slightly anachronistic and an affectation... 

Summer Morning Interior (1917) Ernest Townsend
This young lady seems to say there might be trouble on the Western Front but I have a load of merino to spin up.  However, might it be that she is unmarried and likely to stay so because all the chaps are now dead in No Man's Land?  Might this be a powerful anti-war painting disguised as something pretty and Vermeer-y?

The Spinning Wheel (1859) John Phillip
So, in conclusion, I have added another skill to my apocalypse cv, joining bee-keeping, bread-making, chicken-hypnotism and cow-milking.  As someone said this weekend, when the lights go out, I'll be ready, which is just the sort of positive thinking we all need.  Anyway, everyone can look forward to some over-twisted wool for Christmas this year...

Friday, 2 February 2018

Oh, Manchester...

Unless you have been blissfully disconnected from social media over the last few days you will have no doubt heard the outrage over the absence of a certain painting...

Hylas and the Nymphs
This week Manchester Art Gallery removed Hylas and the Nymphs from its walls and left a note in its place asking questions about what is displayed and how on the walls of our galleries.  The Museum's website held the following questions:
This gallery presents the female body as either a ‘passive decorative form’ or a ‘femme fatale’. Let’s challenge this Victorian fantasy!The gallery exists in a world full of intertwined issues of gender, race, sexuality and class which affect us all. How could artworks speak in more contemporary, relevant ways?What other stories could these artworks and their characters tell? What other themes would be interesting to explore in the gallery?
What followed was a hell-fire storm of public fury.  From censorship to the rise of out-of-control feminism, much has been said online, so I just wanted to talk about what went wrong and what they could have done differently...

Cards on the table first - I am a card carrying feminist.  I believe men and women of all races and whatnot are equal and think that life would be splendid if everyone could make it through a day without repressing anyone else.  As such I'm not blind to the fact that some Victorian art raises questions about the ideals we hold in society, for example...

Syrinx Arthur Hacker
I love a bit of Arthur Hacker but for a moment consider that someone paid to have this pubescent, hairless girl on their wall. She's really beautiful and the interplay between the reeds and the slender figure of the girl and that dark waterfall of fabric is stunning, but taken in a sober and unromantic light, it's an odd image to pop on your dining room wall. Why do we love art like this? It can't be the subject matter because I doubt any of us would rush to put a photograph of a nude teenage girl by a pond on our wall, yet the delicate magic of time and our acceptance and love of the style of art overcomes us.  It's not just a Victorian fantasy, it's our fantasy.  I don't know why, and it certainly isn't a universal thing.  My mother-in-law hates Victorian art as much as she loves telling me so.  It just isn't her taste.  Doesn't make her more feminist than me, doesn't make the art she likes more modern or 'appropriate'.  She likes the Impressionists and Chardin and abstract stuff.  Ugh. Sorry I'm rambling, but it's not about the naughty Victorians versus the modern feminist art killjoys but that is how it's come across.

Dead Hector Briton Riviere
For an awful lot of people it all smelt like censorship and censorship smells really bad.  Even though the Gallery said it was about a conversation about how we read the cultural attitudes of past generations through the presentation of women, they started the conversation by taking the artwork away.  Its absence was actually only a temporary one as it is being used in an exhibition opening in March.  It would have to be moved, it would have vanished for a few weeks during set up anyway but the Gallery have used its transit as an opportunity to have this 'conversation'.  However, that isn't on the website.  That came out in a newspaper article about it. Think about that for a moment: Manchester haven't censored anything, they have merely moved a painting for an exhibition, which happens all the time in galleries everywhere.  Nothing controversial there.  However, the curator Clare Gannaway's explanation was not clearly expressed and the newspapers launched into a howl of HOW MANCHESTER HATES LOVELY NUDEY LADY ART.  I'm going to be kind to poor Clare as I'm sure she's had a terrible week and probably in no way did she intended to massively offend the Victorian art loving public and cause feminist-loathing ranting and no doubt cannibalism. I think they just made a mistake in the way it was handled. It could have been handled better, no doubt about that, but they weren't the first to have the conversation...


In 1989, the Guerrilla Girls raised the issue of how women artists and subjects are approached in our galleries.  Their witty and honest statements drew attention to the inequality and added to conversations about the lives of models and the brilliance of women artists.  I have been working for over two decades to fight for the reputation of Fanny Cornforth which I see as part of the reassessment of how we accept or challenge Victorian art, but in no way, shape or form would I ever have images of her removed, even if they contributed to biographers seeing her as a saucy baggage.  I digress but think about Jane Morris - would we have a different view of her if Evelyn de Morgan's portrait of her was as well known and displayed as Rossetti's?  The answer seems for more display of art, not less.  More Victorian art, more glorious female artists showing us an alternative Victorian vision to compare and contrast with more famous pieces. That is a conversation.

The Rokeby Venus after a suffragette attack
Over a hundred years ago suffragette Mary Richardson slashed up Diego Velazquez's Venus in the National Gallery in response to the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst.  The imbalance of the mistreatment and imprisonment of women asking for the vote and the reverence given to the painted female form was too much and a cleaver was taken to it causing substantial damage.  More slashing followed, including to Pre-Raphaelite art, but the act wasn't so much about the art as the attitude in society that values two-dimensional women above three-dimensional.  The problem is that the moment you destroy or indeed remove items of cultural value your argument is lost.  You look like a history-rewriter, a philistine, too stupid to understand the work and therefore destroys it.  Book burning is next, mark my words etc etc.

On the Balcony John William Godward
Part of the problem with Manchester's move is that they linked it to #MeToo and #TimesUp in a rather diaphanous manner.  The image they took down was a group of nymphs in the act of tempting a hot young man to his doom. Everyone is semi-naked, mythological and hot, it's an equal opportunity picture, not in any way symbolic of male abuse of women.  There are plenty of those sort of pictures, don't worry.  How about this one?

The Embrace of Fra Filippo Lippi and Lucrezia Buti (1871) Gabriele Castagnola
This is a blantant image of a bloke attempting to snog a lady who doesn't really want to and the whole thing being framed as romantic. 

Ajax and Cassandra Solomon J Solomon
Or this one?  I love this one and it is just appalling if you think about the subject matter. Ugh.  There are many and varied abductions, rapes, slave markets and all sorts of abominations gorgeously rendered by the Victorians which would make a thought provoking exhibition about how things are acceptable in paint that we contemn in real life.  Hylas and his nipple-free temptresses just don't fit that bill, so by hanging an important cause on moving a painting smells like bandwagon-chasing and cheapens both the most important feminist moment of my adult life and what could be a thought-provoking and discomforting exploration of gender attitudes in art.

Fear not, Hylas has not gone for long, has not been destroyed or censored in the proper sense of the word.  He will return and we will all have learnt an important lesson which is don't get between the public and the art they love.  Actually, that's a really lovely lesson, however painfully learnt, and Manchester should no doubt take some consolation from the fact that no-one can touch their art, which in the climate of funding crisis and pressure to sell pieces should fortify them.  

Also, put the postcards back in the gift shop.  For heavens sake, think of your revenue streams!

Monday, 22 January 2018

Noel Laura Nisbet

It is undeniable that there are loads of very deserving Victorian artists who we just don't know enough about.  Actually, there are loads of artists who there is information about but they just aren't high in our consciousness at the mo, just waiting for their moment to come again, ready for their big rediscovery.  One of those could very well be the fabulously named Noel Ruth Laura Helen Nisbet...

Self Portrait (undated)
Noel Laura Nisbet (1887-1956) was part of an artistic family, enabled to follow her dreams by her father's generosity, and the creator of some unforgettable and original Pre-Raphaelite-influenced works.  Her father was a bit of a character, on the whole.  Born in 1849, Hume Nisbet was the son of a painter and decorator, James Herkis Nisbet.  In 1866, the family sailed for a new life to Australia, settling in Melbourne.  Hume Nisbet spent his time travelling around and trying various careers including a spot of theatre work and writing, not to mention a bit of painting too.

A Ship in a Calm Sea at Twilight (1892) Hume Nisbet
He returned to England in the early 1870s and studied art at the South Kensington art school.  After that he was appointed art master at the Watt Institute and School of Art in Edinburgh.  He married Helen Currie, daughter of the sculptor Andrew Currie, in 1875...

Robert the Bruce at Stirling Castle, by Andrew Currie
Hume resigned as a teacher and concentrated on his artistic career, producing large, fancy paintings of sea and landscape, and writing a book, The Practical in Painting in 1880.  The family moved down towards London in 1887, just around the same time as little Noel was born...

Spring (no date)
Noel was the youngest girl in the Nisbet family but not the only artist.  Her sister Margaret Henrietta studied at Clapham Art School then exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1908 and 1909.  Noel studied at Clapham as well, winning three gold medals, bronze medals and the Princess of Wales scholarship for her art. That's not all she left art school with, as she also met artist Harry Bush, fellow student there and married him in 1910...

The Tiled Kitchen (1954) Harry Bush
Harry was famous for his paintings of suburban London and his pictures are very restful and beautiful, even when they show bombed-out houses.  Anyway, in the 1911 census, just after the couple had married, Noel and Harry lived in Clapham with Noel's brother, Andrew, who is described as an 'author'.  Harry is an 'Advertisement Designer' and Noel is a 'Painter (Artist)' (I suppose as opposed to 'Painter (houses)').  

Self Portrait with Sewing Basket, Bath Cottage, Speen (c.1918)
Noel and baby daughter Hazel spent the First World War in Bath Cottage in Speen while Harry was away.  Hume bought his artist daughters two matching houses in Merton Park, now Old Merton Park, near Wimbledon.  Have a look at 19 Queensland Avenue on Google Streetmaps and you'll see why the houses were so special - both Noel and Margaret's houses had artist's studios in the attic space.  Noel, Harry and the kids spent the rest of their lives there.  

The Court of King Arthur (no date)
Noel exhibited in the 1914 Royal Academy, then another 23 times between 1914 and 1938.  She was elected to the Royal Institute of Watercolour Painters in 1926 and the British Watercolour Society in 1945.  She also provided beautiful fairy tale illustrations for books and her work can be seen as an extension of what Elenor Fortescue Brickdale had been doing earlier in the century.  Her illustrations for Cossack Fairy Tales and Folk Tales (1916) can be downloaded here. Noel Laura Nisbet's work is busy and florrid, filled with detail and colour.

The Devil Ran Away With the Gossip (no date)
Her work is fascinating in subject.  Often referred to as 'the last Pre-Raphaelite' (although there must be as many 'last Pre-Raphaelites' as pieces of the true cross), it is possible to see aspects of Burne-Jones physicality in her figures, and the wonderful medieval clothes are reminiscent of some of the earliest watercolours by Rossetti.  The colours are quite astonishing.

The True Love (no date)
Noel and Harry lived out their days in the comfortable house in Merton Park with their daughters Hazel and Janet.  Margaret, her sister, remained at the other end of the road, never married, and died only six years before her sister, in 1950.  Harry died a year after Noel, and their work was the subject of a major sale at Christies (possibly just after Janet died) in 1984.  Today, Noel's work can be seen in a few public collections, for example the Russell-Cotes in Bournemouth, which is where I first encountered her.  

Now Annie Swynnerton has got her retrospective, maybe it'll be Noel's turn next...

Thursday, 11 January 2018

William Maw Egley

Today's post is borne out of my desire to know more about a painter with whom I am familiar but I know practically nothing about.  When I did my degree, about a thousand years ago, one of my set books was on Mid-Victorian Britain and the front cover image was this...

Omnibus Life in London (1859)
Here we have the interior of an omnibus, a large horse-drawn carriage, ferrying people about in London.  People of differing backgrounds are forced to sit together, and attempt to not look at their companions.  A young mother has two ringleted moppets at various stages of 'flop', an elderly lady seems to be lost in thought while looking at them and a well-dressed young woman is attempting to get in (the best of luck to her).  This print, amusing and accurate, was very popular and became an engraving for the London Illustrated News.  However, that is going ahead of ourselves.  Let's go back to the beginning and find out more about the artist, William Maw Egley...

Georgiana Sophia, Lady Burghley William Egley
Before William Maw Egley, there was William Egley Snr, a successful miniaturist painter from Doncaster.  He had rebelled against his father's wishes and not become a bookseller, rather taking up his passion for painting and making a career for himself.  He was a jovial chap, good with children which made him much in demand for child portraits. He seems to have become a Quaker when he married his first wife, Sarah, in Norfolk in 1825.  Their only son, William Maw Egley was born and christened a Quaker in 1826, recorded by the Society of Friends in Paddington where the Egley family lived.

Lilies
William Maw Egley started painting at the age of 14 under his father's tutelage. He moved on to work for William Powell Frith, a member of a group of painters called 'The Clique'.  The Clique were a band of young artists (sound familiar) who rejected the old ways of the Academy and made new, contemporary art.  The group consisted of Richard Dadd, Augustus Egg, Alfred Elmore and other artists you probably have heard of but are just before the Pre-Raphaelites.  They loathed the Pre-Raphaelites, incidentally, in the marvellously predictable way that rebels always loath younger rebels.  Anyway, Frith, despite running two households and two families (naughty boy), employed William Maw Egley to paint his backgrounds.

Prospero and Miranda (1850)
Maw Egley's early work is on literary subjects and he had an obsession with costume, which is always exquisite in his paintings.  He made a special study of children's clothing which seemed a bit odd until I read how popular his father was as a children's portraitist so possibly he was encouraged by his father.  A very odd story I read about William Maw Egley was that he was the creator of the very first Christmas card.  Now, this is obviously not true, but for decades this story seemed to reoccur in the newspapers, almost every Christmas, until the 1970s.  


It was thought that teenage Egley designed a card for his family in 1842 (as the young tend to do in their spare time) and shows various Christmas-y activities with Columbine and Harlequin in the centre. In the right-hand corner is Egley's signature and a rather ambiguous date which was assumed to be 1842 (a year before Sir Henry Cole's Christmas card).  However, one learned art historian managed to uncover the truth by rigorous research (by which I mean they took it out of the frame and turned it over) and it was actually dated 1848.  Anyway, Maw Egley holds the slightly less exciting accomplishment of second Christmas card ever.

"Hullo Largesse!" A Harvest Scene in Norfolk (1861)
Those of you who have watched the film Akenfield will no doubt be shouting 'Largesse!' at this point as these charming villagers are calling in the harvest.  As his mother came from Norfolk, it is possible that Egley was familiar with this sort of celebration and this is possibly a recognisable place.  In the 1860s, Egley adopted an easier, romantic, more commercial subject, often touching on the eighteenth century.  Whilst he didn't become a massive success, he started to do moderately well.  However, it's in his awkward, intense earlier work that I find the most enjoyment.

The Lady of Shalott (1858)
This is a particularly apt picture to show as it is an example of how Egley is familiar but just not the person you think of first.  His 'Lady of Shalott' crops up when you start talking about Pre-Raphaelite-esque depictions of Tennyson's poem but he gets lost in the Waterhouse deluge.  It has much to recommend it - look at the window in the back of the image, with those tiny lead cells, and that mirror above the frame where she was working.  Our little blonde lady is clutching her heart as she stares at her fatal attraction both as a symbol of love and also her now progressing death.  The stonework is gorgeous.

The Talking Oak (1857)
Another Tennyson subject is The Talking Oak, with the lovely Olivia hugging the tree (who wishes he was a younger, smaller tree so she could get her arms around him).  I am oddly reminded of Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough because of the way the figure and the tree are shoved over to the left and the beautiful swell of countryside dominates our view.

Just as the Twig is Bent, the Tree's Inclined (1861)

Just as the Twig is Bent, the Tree's Inclined (1861)
These two are my favourite of Maw Egley's works as they are marvellously gossipy and show how Blondie becomes a prize flirt at the expense of her brunette sibling.  It's all very ambiguous in whether it's a good thing that Blondie neglected her studies, but we all know that girls who read don't get the boys and will remain reflected in their miserable corner.  Well, we've all learned something today.

Music Hath its Charms (Coming Events Cast Their Shadow) (Military Aspirations) (1861)
Marvellous.  I saw this one with alternative titles which mean something no doubt.  Do we assume that the girl at the front is unaware of how much the little boy wants her attention?  She is sort of the opposite of Blondie who could not be doing more to get her chap's attention.  Do we also assume that our little boy is going to grow up to be a soldier?  Please can someone tell me who the handsome chap on the wall is, but I'm guessing he is a war hero - is it Nelson or Wellington or someone?  This is what I have Mr Walker for, he knows that sort of thing.  Anyway, Egley's oddness did not endear him to the painting-buying market and he never made it as a massively successful artist.  When he died, he left only £125 and no longer lived in his own home, staying with relatives.  It would be nice to know a little more about him and to see him paintings together again in a retrospective.  

After all, he was the man who missed the posting date for the first ever Christmas card...

Friday, 29 December 2017

Review: Helen Allingham

Much delayed due to Blogvent, here is my review of the current exhibition on at the Watts Gallery, 'Helen Allingham', the first major retrospective of this much overlooked artist...

Harvest Moon
Helen Allingham is one of those artists you might not know by name but you would definitely recognise her work.  Seemingly responsible for the lid of every damn tin of biscuits my grandma ever owned in the 1980s, her work could be dismissed as chocolate-box, fake cottage chitz, but that is possibly because at the most easily palatable end of the scale, those images of rose dappled cottages all stem from her work on recording rural dwellings in her own way.  However, as this beautiful, powder-palate exhibition shows, Helen Allingham was more than just cottages, and her connections to the cultural heart of Victorian society was enviable.

William Allingham (1876)
To start with, I have to admit I did not connect William Allingham, friend of Rossetti and writer of the diary that was invaluable to me as I wrote Stunner, with Helen Allingham, and actually spent about five minutes stood in the gallery going 'what, the William Allingham?!' in a puzzled tone.  Yes, they were married and her beautiful portrait of him is a mixture of the appropriate and the intimate as the learned chap reads in his tassel-y dressing gown.

A Herbaceous Border
Another thing that surprised me was Allingham's friendship with Gertrude Jekyll, and her colourful images of flowers are a result.  These not only are gorgeous images but record the gardener's experiments in planting which were revolutionary, an exuberant explosion of colour and form.

Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
Not only are there exploding flowerbeds but also illustrations, as Allingham was the only female founding members of The Graphic and her early career is seen in the detailed black and white scenes from the serials she illustrated.  I love her Hardy illustrations, such as Far from the Madding Crowd when it appeared in the Cornhill Magazine. All novels should come with images of handsome men carking it romantically in sheds, in my opinion.

Self Portrait (1885)
Her portraits were a revelation, not only her own self portrait, but other images such as Tennyson reading, show the trust and friendship she seemed to have with her contemporaries, many of whom lived nearby her in Surrey.  However, the cottages do catch your eye and imagination mainly due to their familiarity, but what I didn't know before I went to the exhibition was the reason behind them...

Feeding the Fowls
Allingham painted the buildings in their rustic charm as a form of protest.  It was at a time when such buildings were being demolished with no thought to the history they held and so she began to record them, sometimes changing elements to show them in their original glory, undoing change where it had already, un-aesthetically, occurred.  How successful she was, and how far she perpetuated a sort of unrealistic rural idyll is a matter of opinion, but looking again at these familiar images there is much to appreciate.  Each cottage is different, each is 'lived in' in a unique way that does ring true and holds more than just attraction.  Maybe it was not just the destruction of the buildings that Allingham was protesting against but the way of life, a sort of un-industrialist perfection when man, or more often woman, and nature were as one.

Study of Flowers
There is much to see at this exhibition, which almost goes without saying as the Watts Gallery never disappoints.  Helen Allingham is a woman who needs lifting out of the cosy cottage cul-de-sac in which she has been abandoned and just this sort of retrospective does much to reignite interesting in the artist and her life.  I found her work with Jekyll to be glorious and even those cottages have an added depth I never suspected.  And she was married to William Allingham.  Yes, the William Allingham.

The exhibition is on at the Watts Gallery at Compton until 18th February and further information can be found here.