Friday, 19 August 2016

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Just so we know where we stand, there will be a lot of nudity in this post and so if you are offended by pink bits, probably best you give this one a miss.  However, if you are partial to a spot of nudity, come on in, the water's lovely...

Phryne Before the Areopagus (1861) Jean-Leon Gerome
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Victorians could not cope with pubic hair.  Possibly the first thing you will hear about John Ruskin, esteemed art critic and godfather of Pre-Raphaelitism, is that he was startled by his wife's lady-garden on their wedding night.  Even though this explanation of Effie's cryptic note that Ruskin was 'disgusted with my person' was only put forward in the 1960s by Mary Lutyen (who later withdrew it), it has lingered in such a powerful way that it was included in the recent Ruskin-bashing movie Effie Gray.  The point of this post is to look at how far that is true and more importantly, who are we to mock?

Rolla (1878) Henri Gervex
I think there is no doubt that an awful lot, the vast majority, of images of nudity, both male and female, in the nineteenth century do not show pubic hair.  That judgement seems to be applied predominantly to us up-tight English-types, but as demonstrated by the glorious Rolla above, the French were no better.  The nude on the bed has no hair, either in her armpits or lower down.  She is as smooth as a marble statue, and a neat and tidy as can be.

Venus of Urbino (1538) Titian
In a way it's rather an unfair criticism to level at the 19th century when it seems that before that point in art public hairs weren't freely sprinkled over the nudes.  Raphael, Pre-Raphael and Post-Raphael all had smooth women, perfectly molded like dolls and men with little or nothing to show for their years.  More often than not the hairiest thing on the canvas was a small dog.

Legeia Siren (1873) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
 Looking again at the swathes of hairless Victorian nudes, what seems to happen more often than I had noticed previously is the mysterious floating fabric, covering up the area in question.  As Rossetti so ably demonstrates, in olden days, floaty fabric roamed free in the wild and got caught on nudey ladies who were out for a stroll with their musical instruments.

The Tree of Forgiveness (1882) Edward Burne-Jones
Phyllis and Demophoon (1870) Edward Burne-Jones
Burne-Jones found out the perils of nudity, even hairless and tiny nudity.  Phyllis and Demophoon was seen as a little scandalous (only a little, ahem) and so the errant Demophoon found himself covered up by a whisper of fabric to hide his tiny blushes.

Female Nude (1891) James Watterson Herald
In truth, the more you look at it, the more cunning artists seem in covering the problem.  There is no problem with breasts, you can have boobs galore but when it comes to pubic hair or the lack therein, you can either have it out there like a smooth bump, like a pair of marble pants, or you can deploy a bit of posing.  James Watterson Herald above has gone for the side-knee-bend, giving a small amount of modesty for the lower regions, while simultaneously making you look like you need the loo.

Standing Female Nude (1907) Brian Hatton
More simply, the model can just stand sideways, hiding all her business from sight.  Brian Hatton's girl has some rather pointy hipbones, but there is no need to disguise anything - she might smooth as an egg, she might not be, who can tell?

The Pearl and the Wave (1862) Paul Baudry
Of course, you can always show the woman from behind as bottoms offend no-one, apparently.  If your model is willing and supple, she can twist her top half back (or twist her lower half round in what I believe is called the 'booty scooch' on America's Next Top Model) and give the double whammy of boobs and bum. When you start looking, there is actually far less visible loins than you'd think and even then, you could argue that those 19th century artists were just continuing the tradition of art where no-one sported hair that wasn't on their head. In fact, I would go further and say that the Victorians allowed us to get hairy.  Yes, you heard me...

Nude on a Couch (1880) Gustave Caillebotte
There is an explosion of pubic hair (which sounds terrible) especially on the continent but also spreading over all regions.  Start searching and French nudes become more anatomically correct around 1860 with Gustave Courbet's The Origins of the World but we can take some national pride in the fact that William Etty added a bit of hair to some of his nudes and James Mallord Turner's more risque sketches are shaded in the appropriate areas...

Reclining Female Nude (1809) James Mallord Turner
One reason for the growth of pubic hair in the 1860s (if you excuse the expression) could be the rise in photography and with it the predictable growth in pornographic imagery.  Hurrah, we've invented a way of freezing astonishing and monumental moments in history!  Let's take loads of photos of boobs and minky moo!

Masked Prostitute imitating Devil Horns with her fingers (1890s)
Photography meant that there was nowhere to hide.  Long before Photoshop, it was perfectly alright to be as God intended in photographs and in fact in Victorian porn (as in life) there is no need to crop, airbrush, or in anyway disguise anything because perfection is a subjective thing.  Plus, after all that underwear and outer wear, layers and layers of clothing, you'd be glad to see anything.  Or, in fact, everything...

Maude Easton in Folly Costume (1891) Edward Linley Sambourne
Edward Linley Sambourne was a cartoonist for Punch and a very upright member of Victorian society (if you excuse the expression).  He used photography to capture his models, including Maude Easton, in various positions which he transformed into political cartoons.  There are plenty of photographs of Maude in the buff and they are of a quite traditional 'artist's model' type but then there is this.  Fully clothed with her skirt pulled up, the rather startling centre of our focus is her pubic hair.  She is coyly wearing a mask whilst sitting, legs apart.  Similar in subject to The Origins of the World, it is unequivocally sexualised nudity, yet we see very little other than upper thigh and a lot of hair. Is it the hair that is indecent then?  Are we all secretly of (fake) Ruskin's opinion? 

What brought me along this train of thought was the viewing of a new Channel 4 series entitled Naked Attraction.  It was the subject of a lot of shouting on Facebook and so intrigued and convinced it could not be as horrific as I had heard, I downloaded a couple of episodes.  For those fortunate enough to have missed this visual treat, the premise is that an ideal way to find the love of your life is to see them stark naked to start with and so a lady (or gentleman) stands in the middle of six booths which slowly reveal the naked bodies on offer.

Yes, really...
The climax, if you will, is when our picker has whittled it down to two naked people that they fancy and then has to strip off themselves before making their final choice.  Flippin' heck.  I was so astonished and horrified I had to watch all the episodes on offer to make sure.  What caught my eye was the lack of pubic hair.  If you are single and attractive then there can be no hair down there.  All the women (and to be honest most of the men too, thanks to the back, sack and crack wax) had been groomed to within an inch of their lives and most of them had no pubic hair, revealing all manner of bits and pieces.  One woman was judged to have 'a lot of hair' over her nethers but it was only the barest sneeze of fuzz that must have required a set square and many hours of waxing.

Female Nude (1907) Brian Hatton
So, what is my point?  I think it can be argued that we have retreated from the realism and body acceptance that unwittingly grew from the 19th century and the birth of photography. We pride ourselves on being ever so liberated and relaxed about nudity but it is obvious you are only welcome to get naked (or in fact exist publicly) if you conform to a very strict set of appearance guidelines. We are hung up on what we look like and massive industries exist to make us aspire to be thin, young and hairless, and in mainstream modern pornography this trend continues because that is our pinnacle. We shy away in disgust from Victorian images of naked children yet seemingly wish to emulate their hairless, slender appearance.

For the Victorians, the novelty of having a photograph of a naked lady or gentleman was sexy enough, but we are many years down the line.  Just as the camera brought erotic images to the left-hand of any curious individual, now the internet can show you anything you desire and a great many things you don't.  If anything I would argue this has not made us more relaxed about the human form but more uptight, more punishing.  If Maude Easton is your idea of sexy then Naked Attraction is definitely not for you because there is not any mystery, nor erotic celebration of the naked form, just a lot of people without a wisp of public hair among them.

In case you were wondering, that sound is John Ruskin saying 'I told you so' and then laughing...

Sunday, 14 August 2016

The 'Sixties in Shalott

Here we are again, talking about Tennyson and illustration as an excuse for my collection of illustrated Tennysons.  Anyway, enough about my problems, this week I have another smasher to show you and one I hadn't seen before.  I bring you 'The Lady of Shalott' (1966), illustrated by Bernadette Watts...

I was immediately struck by the style of the illustration and wanted to see more, so £4 later (via Abebooks) I owned a copy.  And it is indeed a thing of beauty...

Hurrah for an exlibris copy! So, in the 1960s, Dobson Books published a richly illustrated edition of the poem 'for the child of the 1960's' (as the flyleaf states). As the introductory text says 'Its mystery and magic is still being discovered and loved around the world more than a century later. Its "message" is simple - death in the real world is preferable to life lived at second hand.'

The Lady is pictured as a slight, sad figure, beautifully dressed as she pulls on swathes of colour, as if weaving a rainbow. She is melacholic and drooping, while about her outside figures skip, dart, run amongst geese and live lives that are anything but static.

The deep blue of the sky is the perfect foil for the golden 'brazen' Sir Lancelot, as bright as the sun, striding through a sea of corn.  If you had to die for one look, what a look it is!

In complete contrast to the majority of illustrated copies of this poem, there is no depiction of the mirror and the moment it cracks.  Instead, the illustration shows us the solitary figure, precariously high in the tower staring for the first time out across the swathe of countryside she had never seen firsthand.  Not only Lancelot, but also the cornfields, the peasants, the river and the flickering flags of Camelot.

The lady, already pale like a ghost, flutters into the deep colours of the outside world to find her boat, on her first and final journey beyond the walls of her tower.  Her lack of colour seems to interrupt the washes of blue and orange that cover the page.  Her final journey has her sitting in the boat, not lying, beautiful and dignified and with a hint of a smile as she finds her final resting place.

Bernadette Watts (1966) photograph by Rosalind Pulvertaft
The back flyleaf gives details of Bernadette Watts, the illustrator, newly graduated from Maidstone College of Art where she studied under Brian Wildsmith.  As the bio says - 'Now 24, Bernadette Watts has few ambitions, other than to be a successful illustrator of children's books...'  

Bernadette Watts, from her website
Well, fifty years later, I caught up with Bernadette who is indeed a successful illustrator of children's books, to ask her a few questions...

Q. Did you know much about Tennyson before you illustrated The Lady of Shalott?

I knew nothing about Tennyson, although since my schooldays I did love poetry, such as Walter de la Mare, WH Davies, Keats, Coleridge etc. My Mother was a recluse and spent hours reading. She often recited 'The Lady of Shalott' to me and so I too learned it.

Q. How did you get the job?

I didn't "get the job", I just illustrated it because I wanted to and Dobson Books took it. I have never "got a job", only done my own thing.

Q. I see a link between your art and the work of David Gentleman, a favourite of my husband, and totally unlike the other Art Nouveau-esque 1960s Tennyson illustrations I have.  What artists influenced you?

David Gentleman's cover
for Romeo and Juliet
Brian Wildsmith's illustration for
The Oxford Book of Children's Poetry (1963)

I don’t know David Gentleman's work, but have heard of him. If you read my Website you will see that my teachers at Art College included Brian Wildsmith and David Hockney. 

Q. Is The Lady of Shalott your favourite Tennyson poem? Is there another one you would like to illustrate (or have)?

No, I haven't illustrated any other Tennyson poem. I did design and illustrate a collection of poems by

James Reeves ONES NONE. You can find that on Amazon. It won a design prize.

My very sincere thanks to Bernadette for her patience and help and for creating such gorgeous illustrations for one of my favourite poems.  Editions of her illustrated poetry books and children's books can be readily found at Abebooks, Amazon or any bookseller.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

The Flapper's Tennyson

As you will know by now by this post, this post, this post and this post (oh, and this one too), I love a bit of Tennyson illustration.  Despite having an extraordinary number of books of Tennyson, I am always willing to buy more copies of his poems if they are illustrated by someone new and exciting.  That's how I ended up with this...

It's a little bit battered, it doesn't have the spine bit anymore, but inside it's perfect and it only cost me £6.  What intrigued me most was that it was an illustrated copy from 1928.  A Jazz Age Tenyson?  What on earth must that look like...

A Dream of Fair Women is one of a series of poetry books put out in the late 1920s by The Bodley Head publishing.  Its two founders, John Lane and Elkin Matthews, had been selling books under the title since the late nineteenth century, including The Yellow Book.  Both of the founders died in the early 1920s, but the nephew of John Lane continued in control of the company until it ran into financial difficulties in the 1930s and became part of other publishing houses.  Anyway, in the middle of this period The Bodley Head offered a series of poetry titles under the banner of the 'Helicon Series', all of which were illustrated by cutting edge illustrators of the day. Constance Ethel Rowlands' The House of Life by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is definitely going on my wish list...

Anyway, back to Tennyson.  The Bodley Head Helicon Series includes a copy of The Day Dream by Tennyson, with illustrations by Elizabeth Rivers from 1928, but also from the same year came A Dream of Fair Women, this time illustrated by Agnes Pinder Davis.

It's a small book, both in size and in length, at only 46 pages. The illustrations consist of 4 full-pages and four small pictures at the end of the sections, such as the above which symbolises how men fight over and for women, represented by the apple.

Theda Bara in Cleopatra
The narrator tells us of a dream he has in which he is walking in a beautiful forest. The dream comes after he has read Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women and features women of history who are renown for their beauty.  He starts with a meeting with Cleopatra.  In Davis' illustration, she is a smoke-eyed movie goddess in the style of Theda Bara in Cleopatra (1917).  She is more than aware of how much power her beauty affords her and is frustrated that she could never seduce Caesar.  In Davis' drawing, she sits on a swirl of fabric, sphinx-like and unknowable.  The narrator finds her alluring but disconcerting, especially when she gets her boob out with the asp bite on it.

It's not just femme fatales that feature in A Dream of Fair Women.  The narrator's second encounter is with Jephthah's Daughter, a dutiful and honourable woman. Her father made an oath to God that should he return victorious he would sacrifice the first thing that greeted him on his return.  That sort of thing never goes well.  Anyway, predictably, it was his first and only child.  When Jephthah tried to find a loophole in the promise, his daughter would not have it and said he had to keep his promise.  For Goodness sake...

I find this illustration to be the one that reminds me most of both Eric Gill and Aubrey Beardsley.  The patterning on the cloak especially has a Belle Epoque feel to it, but the stylised face of Jephthah echos the Afro-Modernism of Gill, although less mask-like.  You can see both the Egyptian influence, so prevalent in the 1920s and the influence of dark-eyed movie stars in her work.  Look at Fair Rosamund, and check out those eyelashes...

In Fair Rosamund's section she sums up the peril of being born beautiful:
'Would I had been some maiden coarse and poor!
O me, that I should ever see the light!
Those dragon eyes of anger'd Eleanor
Do hunt me, day and night.' 
She poses in an 'Damsel of the Sanct Grael' manner but her cup holds poison that will end her life.  I love that Cleopatra replies that she should have stabbed Queen Eleanor while she had the chance.  It is interesting that the women complain that their beauty results in death, but the narrator falls in love with each of them, as if proving their point that they are not valued for themselves, but for their beauty.  It is almost as if a man may fight and earn his power but a woman is indiscriminately born with power that they cannot control fully.  Cleopatra seems the only one who played the game with the men and all she ends up with is a bite-mark and an afterlife devoid of men.

Now for a bit of biography: Lilian Agnes Lambert was born in Kingston upon Thames in 1895, daughter of a barrister who became a member of parliament.  In the 1901 census, the family was doing very nicely, thank you very much, and were living in Holland Park.  In 1923 she married Eric Bernard Pinder Davis, engineer for Shell-Mex and origami wizard, and the couple lived in Camden.  She seems to have been a bit of an all-rounder when it came to art and design.  She designed interiors for ocean liners such as Mauretania, where she designed a panel for the Tourist Class Smoking Room, as well as one for the children's playrooms.

Design for carpet in the Queen Mary, 1936
She also designed a carpet for the Queen Mary, launched in 1936, as well painting pictures for the dining room, using silver foil as well as paint in a floral design.  According to the Western Morning News and Daily Gazette, Davis invented the 'metal picture', 'using thin sheets of metal foil against a background of oil paint.'  As well as her book design, both inside and covers, she is probably best known for her work with Royal Doulton, Royal Worcester and Crown Staffordshire, designing tea services, dinner services and figures.

The above figure comes from the 1950s and is one of a series of cherubic oriental children riding sea creatures.  This one is called 'Joy Ride' and is available on Ebay should you fancy it.  She seems to have kept designing as long as people bought her work and finally died in 1973 on the sunny south coast at Worthing.  I especially like her work on Tennyson as she brings a modernity to a poem that was almost a century old at the time of her illustration, drawing on the fashion for Deco-fabulous glamour queens of the cinema.  The frustration of womanhood has a certain resonance after the First World War, with women inhabiting a world where a generation of men had gone to fight for them and been squandered while they could do nothing to prevent it.  Despite progress to the vote and the freedoms of the 1920s, there were some uncomfortable similarities between the bobbed-hair girl about town and the Victorian maiden, hence the popularity of Christina Rossetti's verse around the centenary of her birth.  

By reimagining a text from a previous century, Agnes Pinder Davis helped to show us that our ancestors were not so different, not so strange in their ways and we share far more with them than we care to acknowledge.  Plus I get another illustrated Tennyson for my shelf, so everyone's happy...

Friday, 29 July 2016

Review and Q&A: The Strange Case of Madeleine Seguin

I do so love to make new friends, especially writing friends with splendid books, and so was delighted to make the acquaintance of William Rose, author of the recently published The Strange Case of Madeleine Seguin

The Strange Case of Madeleine Seguin centres on 1880s Paris and the growing interesting in science and its shady sister, magic. In the Salpêtrière Hospital, a mysterious patient Madeleine Seguin attracts a fair amount of interest, not only because she is attractive but also because her hysteria provides an exciting part of Professor Charcot's lectures.  Madeleine proves a draw to everyone who meets her, from the doctors and fellow patients, to benefactors, priests and the young men from the growing Symbolist movement. One artist, Louis Martens, has a particular attachment to Madeleine and is encouraged in his companionship of the strange young woman, but there are far darker forces at work...

Images of a woman under Dr Charcott's use of hypnotism against hysteria (1878)
Written in letters and case notes, The Strange Case of Madeleine Seguin is just the sort of novel I love.  I have a weakness for epistolary novels and found myself galloping from one letter to the next, wanting to know the fate of the characters, to see if good would conquer evil.  The setting of 1880s Paris is wonderfully conjured and I ended up wanting to know more about the Salpêtrière Hospital and its work, not to mention the many real people mentioned in the novel.  I also found that it is not safe to Google 'Félicien Rops' at work...

Pornocrates (1878) Felcien Rops
I thoroughly recommend The Strange Case of Madeleine Seguin for your summer reading.  It's exciting, fascinating and a wonderful evocation of the edges of the fin de siècle. People hover between madness and sanity, monkeys lurk in darkened rooms and the devil is waiting for you.  What more do you want from a novel?

After reading The Strange Case of Madeline Seguin, I had a few questions for William...

Q. What attracted you to 1880s Paris as a subject?

All the ingredients were there in Paris in the 1880s. I wanted to write about Symbolist artists and it was a centre for them. They were painting the ideas and imagery of dreams and the imagination. And Professor Jean-Martin Charcot was the 'Napoleon' of the huge Salpêtrière Hospital with its hundreds of (mainly) women suffering from 'hysteria'; a malady which in its own strange way also evokes dreams and the imagination. And Charcot was utilising the hypnotic trance in his treatment of these patients. The beginnings of the explorations into the unconscious mind were there and even, following his destiny, a young Freud, studying under Charcot. And the third ingredient, with a connection to the first two - there was a revival of occult practices at this time, in Paris as well as elsewhere. This brought the danger element into the story.

Q. The blend of real and fictional people in your novel works so well and had me reaching for Google to find out more about people. How did you choose who to include?

Jean-Martin Charcot
Charcot was a must as I was writing about hysteria and hypnotism. His work at the Salpêtrière Hospital was where it happened. And anyway, he is a fascinating charismatic character. He had enemies among his rivals in the scientific community, but also he was adored by many of his students. Freud named one of his children after him. People flocked to his public lectures which could take in up to 400 people. And there he would describe the treatment of his patients along with 'live' demonstrations with hypnotism. And of course Madeleine is one of those. It was all grand theatre.

Felicien Rops is the main Symbolist artist in the story who actually existed. He easily lent himself to the narrative (thank you Felicien) as he was a larger than life character who increasingly utilised the occult for his subject matter. Very dark stuff. He was also a great charmer, a man who could retain masses of information and use it in conversation, and he was also known to be very effective in his erotic interactions with women.

I wanted Huysmans, Mallarmé, Jean Moréas and the Sâr Péladan in as they were important Symbolist literary figures of the time, and because they were personalities. But particularly I wanted to use them to really try to give a sense of the Symbolist culture and its origins.

The Maharajah, Jaswant Singh 11, certainly existed and in ways fitted, and the dates all match, but I had to allow my imagination much more leeway with that one.

Q. There is a lot of art in your novel, not just from the up-coming Symbolists but stretching back in time to other periods such as Rococo. For me, this reflected how the past can influence the mood of the present. How much does the art reflect the story of the book?

Bringing in art previous to the Symbolists was to allow for a greater range of imagery and not to get too exclusively focused on Symbolism. And I enjoy writing about artworks, so there is something of an indulgence in it. So they are all works described and artists that I like. I did also feel that the Parisian, ornate residence of the Countess ought to have the benefit of a beautiful and seductive Fragonard painting! And I managed to make reference to one of Rossetti's. Had to do that, because I like his work so much! But as to reflecting the story, it is art contemporary to that time in Paris, particularly the Symbolist, that does that, though the imagery of Gérôme's 'Academic' painting of 'Phryme' also has a special significance.

Phryne before the Areopagus (1861) Jean-Léon Gérôme
Q.  I am a big fan of Samuel Richardson, so I loved the fact that your novel is a collect of letters, but how did you come to choose a epistolary novel?

One of the aims of the narrative was to have a collection of documents: letters and case reports, concerning Madeleine, the central character. The fact that they exist is in itself part of the story. So in that sense it had to be epistolary. But that felt comfortable anyway and I enjoyed writing it in that style. I have had in mind Richardson, and also Bram Stoker's great novel 'Dracula', which is written in that style, and also 'The Woman in White' by Wilkie Collins, which I read for the first time quite recently and couldn't put down.

Q. What are you writing next?

Well, the next one is gradually progressing, but in early stages. I have become very interested in the nuns of the Carmelite contemplative order. It is I believe, the most closed and austere of them all. And the idea of those vows for life! So what happens when such a nun finds herself dreaming of Cupid? When the pagan mythology creeps into her night and her day dreams. And there can be a way (I think) of making reference in the narrative to the paintings that have depicted such scenes.
I can hear Pan rushing through the undergrowth!

A Clinical Lesson at the Salpetriere (1887) Pierre Andre Brouillet
The Strange Case of Madeleine Seguin is available from Amazon UK (here) and USA (here) and from all good book shops.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Pity the Blind...

So, here we are at my 600th post which is a strange milestone.  I've been at this blog-business five years now and I still really love chatting with you and have heard from so many wonderful people. I wanted to do something meaningful for post 600, and was recently looking at this picture...

The Blind Girl (1856) John Everett Millais
It's an image you are probably all aware of because it is one of Millais' most famous images (after the all-conquering Ophelia obviously). I've always loved it and will at some point get round to doing a post all about it and the two lasses in it, but just for now I want to concentrate on the subject.  The scene is of two girls, one of whom is blind. She has paused with (presumably) her sister to shelter from the rain under her shawl.  Whilst her sister peaks at the spectacular double rainbow, the wonder of nature is made even more pathos-drenched by the elder girl's gentle touch of a blade of grass.  That seems to be the extent of her awareness of the splendour of the natural world.  All around are beautiful sights but she can't see any of it, from the tiny, perfect butterfly to the broad arc of colour in the sky. Around her neck is a sign that says 'Pity the Blind', but is that what we are being asked to do?

The Blind Beggar Ralph Hedley
If we go by the art of the period, the blind were indeed to be pitied.  Repeatedly they are shown begging, destitute and dirty.  Criticism for The Blind Girl included one viewer bemoaning how dirty the girls were and there was an agreement that the girls, undoubtedly beggars were to be regarded with sorrow.  In fact, the number of images of the blind as beggars is overwhelming.  Lack of sight equated to lack of life chances, reliance on others and the assumed pose of hat outstretched awaiting the drop of a coin from an unseen benefactor.

The Blind Beggar James Burras the Elder
If such a thing existed in Victorian times, you could argue that the snowy, wild-haired old blind man with cane and hat presented was a bit of a trope.  Unkempt yet with an attempt at a dignified appearance, this is a man who has fallen on hard times and lost his sight.  How has he lost his sight?  By the reliance on charity, it may be offered that his lose of eyesight is linked to his age as it is hard to imagine a blind beggar would last long without family, friends or the welfare state to assist.

Blind Grannie James Elder Christie
There does seem to be a bevy of elderly visually-impaired subjects, left utterly vulnerable not only because of their age but also their disability.  Blind Grannie is a knuckle-biting image of a grandmother 'seeing' the face of her granddaughter through the tracing of her face.  Let's hope the young 'un's not a biter...

The Blind Beggar Walter William Ouless
The majority of the blind subjects I came across, especially the elderly, were men.  Maybe this was because women were already seen as vulnerable and helpless whereas the image of a man having brought low by age and infirmity had added impact.  Coupled with this is that an awful lot of the images include a companion for the beggar, a human version of a guide-dog, presumably a family member.  This is very often a girl who is now responsible for the well-being of the former patriarch of the clan. In Ouless' work, an impressively-bearded old beggar is led by a rather attractive young lady.  He is large, imposing yet has his head bowed meekly.  She is small, slight but looks at us in challenge.

The Blind Beggar James Flewitt Mullock
In many of the images, the seeing companion of the blind beggar is a child and it leads me to wonder if a Saint Christopher metaphor is being offered.  These children are responsible for keeping people on the safe path, they will not lead you astray (unlike that dog who looks easily distracted).  There is something about the child companions of the blind beggars that makes me suspect a Jesus-in-Disguise thing is going on here...

The Blind Beggar Josephus Dyckmans
I wonder if the fact that Dyckmans' child companion is a little girl adds to the fact that they are a very fragile pair.  He can't see and she is in danger of being kidnapped into some sort of chimney-sweeping/child prostitution ring at any moment.  The pair in Dyckmans' work have a dignity beyond their pitiable condition but they are doomed.  The woman behind them knows it, they know it, we all know it.  They are one cold night away from being found frozen to death on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral.

The Blind Girl Beatrice Offor
Images of blind women tend to be a slightly different deal.  There are a number of women on their own, like the lady above, who seem to be more self-sufficient than their male counterparts, not to mention younger.  Beatrice Offor's young woman is having a bit of a read in the street - is she reading the Bible aloud?  That is a massive book for a young woman to be heaving through the streets and as it seems to be in braille I can't imagine it is something that she has just come across. Developed from a failed military code system in the early part of the 19th century, Braille was expanded in English in 1905, possibly around the time this painting was created. What on earth is she doing?  More to the point, is she getting paid for it?

Blind Mary (1881) James Clark
Again, reading plays a big part in this image of a blind lady, who despite her age and infirmity sits upright in her seat, her eyes closed but her expression alert.  Her daughter (I presume) has paused in her reading and in between them is a child, presumably the grandchild of Blind Mary.  The inference might be that young or old, sighted or otherwise, everyone enjoys being read to.  The clock behind them indicates that they are joined by the passing of time, but basically there is no difference in them.  The old person is just the young person after time has passed.  The woman on the left looks across at her past and her future.

The Blind Fiddler John Robertson Reid
The Blind Girl above also highlights another aspect of portrayals of the blind in Victorian art.  On the blind girl's lap is a concertina, indicating that she earns a living through her talents rather than depending on the pity of others.  Likewise The Blind Fiddler shows an elderly man being led by his granddaughter to a suitable place to busk.  Is it compulsory to have a small dog with you?  It's not like the dog is any great use in terms of leading the blind chap.  Maybe he dances while the man plays his violin?

The Blind Singer (1900) Felice Castegnaro 
I used this picture recently in my post about singing.  A blind child stands behind a friend or sibling and literally sings for their supper.  I suppose the profusion of blind musicians is to show how the lose of one sense does not affect the chances of excelling in a sublime art, and in fact might make the performance of music more meaningful.  After all, music cannot be seen, it can be just as well appreciated (if not more so) with eyes closed as with eyes open.

The Blind Girl (1901) Robert Brough
So, why my personal interest?  Well, for those who follow this blog regular it will come as no surprise.  My daughter is registered partially sighted due to her oculocutaneous albinism.  She has very bad eyesight and for the first part of her life couldn't see anything at all.  We were told she was blind. I found this to be devastating as I take vision for granted and have a love for certain things that are purely visual.  My heart was broken imagining how terrible it was that my daughter would never see all the paintings I loved, she'd never see flowers, clouds, my face.  I think that was the thing that utterly killed me - my daughter would never see me smiling at her.  Until she was about two years old she didn't see, yet her enjoyment of the world was experienced through touch, smell, sound and shoving things in her mouth.  She would smile when she felt her cuddly knitted cow, Mona Moo.  She would laugh when we blew raspberries on her stomach.  She would go into ecstasies when she ate chocolate.  She finally got glasses that were strong enough so that she could just about see things but her eyesight will never be particularly good but that is just one sense.  There is no reason to pity her, she has the other four senses sussed in ways I don't.  Like the girl in Brough's painting above, my daughter Lily-Rose is a person of wonder and magnificence.  I love how the detail of room is in shadow as we see the girl's face and the flowers she is smelling.  They are luminous in the darkness but the scene is no less beautiful.

We pity the blind because we fear how we would manage if we were robbed of our most immediate sense.  We pity the blind as we would pity anyone who was unprotected in a cruel world.  The blind girl in Millais' picture is literally more in touch with her surroundings than her sighted companion. Maybe we should also pity ourselves if we cannot appreciate the beauty on offer through the four other senses...