I have a confession to make. Sometimes when I’m looking at a picture by Rossetti, I’m thinking about George Price Boyce. I admit it, I am an art cheat.
OK, well maybe the picture I’m talking about is this…
|Fanny Cornforth and G P Boyce in Rossetti's Studio (1858) D G Rossetti|
|George Price Boyce|
If you are a Rossetti fan, you will no doubt have heard of George Price Boyce. He was Rossetti’s neighbour for many years in the 1850s and had a relationship with Fanny Cornforth during this time, which is why I read his diary and sought out his pictures. He was the first owner of Bocca Baciata, and he and Rossetti shared many other models including Annie Miller, Ellen Smith and Alexa Wilding.
Boyce’s diaries are available in an abridged form, the originals having been lost in an air raid in the 1940s, and give the impression of a likeable artist, who seemed to delight in women and life. His treatment of his maid especially is very funny, as he seems to spend a lot of time trying to get into her good favours, giving her presents and continuously fretting over her happiness. Boyce seemed to avoid complicated relationships with women, unlike Rossetti’s overly tangled lovelife, yet never seems to be short of female companionship. I think it’s a shame that we do not remember his work now, especially his portraits, despite their presence in some of the major galleries, such as the Tate. You are more likely to see his landscapes, lovely as they are, rather than his pictures of the women of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, and I suspect that a lot of them are still in private hands.
|The Mill on the Thames at Mapledurham (1860) G P Boyce|
|Alexa Wilding (1867-8) G P Boyce|
I recently bought a copy of the only monograph/catalogue to have been published on Boyce, from a Tate exhibition from 1987, and so finally got to see one of his pictures of Alexa Wilding. You can see a fair amount of Rossetti’s influence in Boyce’s portraits, and it seems that in the past the portraits have been exhibited beside Pre-Raphaelite ones, for example in a fabulous sounding exhibition called Stunners: Paintings and Drawings by Pre-Raphaelites and Others at the Maas Gallery in 1974. Two portraits of Annie Miller are illustrated and are less idealised than either Hunt or Rossetti’s pictures of her, in fact the picture of her wearing a hairnet, wrapped in a shawl reminds me of the domestic portraits of Fanny by Rossetti. I was particularly interested to see a couple of portraits of Ellen Smith, a particularly sweet-faced girl who appears as a bridesmaid in Rossetti’s The Beloved.
|Ellen Smith (1867) G P Boyce|
|Ellen Smith (1867) G P Boyce|
|Ellen Smith (1867) D G Rossetti|
I started to think about Boyce recently while considering the meaning of Bocca Baciata. The title, the Kissed Mouth, is always presumed to refer to Fanny, promiscuous and lovely in equal measure, but what if it was also about Boyce and Rossetti? Consider for a moment the unusualness of their relationship – they knowingly and openly shared a lover. Fanny was seeing both Boyce and Rossetti at the same time, they both were drawing her, giving her presents and she was dividing her time between them as best she could, sometimes being with them both for outings and meals. Fanny seemed to have a bit of trepidation about the arrangement; Boyce recorded in his diary how Fanny worried that she would see Rossetti while out with Boyce, and he seems to have found it funny, which implies that neither man had a problem with their ménage a trois. It’s not unusual for Rossetti to pursue another man’s wife or girlfriend, most if not all of his other lovers ‘belonged’ to someone else when he started his courtship, but it tended to be to the exclusion of the other man, forcing him out, in William Morris’ case, to Iceland. Fanny might be the only woman he shared, willingly and openly, and that is not only a rarity for Rossetti, but also can you imagine the situation now, let alone in Victorian times? It is a very odd arrangement for all involved.
|Annie Miller (1860) G P Boyce|
|Fanny Cornforth (1860s) D G Rossetti|
This brings me back to Bocca Baciata. While we’re discussing odd concepts for Victorian England, the idea that a woman can express love in a physical manner and remain unsullied by it is equally as puzzling, so how about this for a thought: Bocca Baciata not only refers to Fanny and her freely given embraces, but to Boyce and Rossetti too. Just as ‘the kissed mouth’ does not spoil for the kissing, then the men’s relationship isn’t destroyed by the sharing of a lover, which, according to society, should preclude the idea of friendship for the men. Rather, by sharing Fanny’s bed, it somehow keeps the men close to each other, and by reading Boyce’s diary, Rossetti and Boyce were constantly in each other’s lives without any detriment to their affection for each other or Fanny. You have to wonder if the difference was Fanny or whether it was Rossetti, but for some reason in this three-way relationship, Rossetti managed something he was never able to again – a lack of possession, a sense of freedom and an affection for another man not based on how much he fancied his wife.
|Annie Miller (1854) G P Boyce|
Contrast that with the rivalry over Annie Miller, whom Rossetti ‘stole’ away from Boyce in what would become a familiar pattern of bullying another man back from the relationship. In his monopoly of Annie, Rossetti seems to foreshadow his monopoly of Jane Morris, excluding her husband. At the pinnacle of this are his exclusive rights to Alexa Wilding, paying so that she did not sit for anyone else. It did make me smile to see an image of Alexa by Boyce, because I like to think, in a small way, Boyce was able to settle a score with Rossetti. It’s a shame that the same wasn’t achieved by Walter Deverell, William Holman Hunt, William Morris….