This week, in between decorating and being ill, I milked a cow. You heard me and don’t act surprised, it was only a matter of time. I really wanted to learn how to do it after I read The Observations by Jane Harris, where the determined young heroine lies about being able to milk a cow and gets caught out. I panicked. What if I travel back in time and my only hope of food and lodging is to be able to milk a cow? Well, now I can rest easy as apparently I am a natural milkmaid. I’m not sure how to take that, but as I tend to think of them as buxom wenches looking a bit saucy, I’m quite down with it.
A Peasant Girl, Brittany (1887) Emile Bayard
Yes, that’s what I think of. Oh, and I tickled some piglets on the same farm excursion. I love this picture as it is just so damn rural. At this point if I was talking to you, I would adapt my west country accent and proclaim how much ‘I loves my pigs’ but it doesn’t really translate in type. But I does, 'cos they are gert lush.
Poll, The Milkmaid (1872) Arthur Hughes
Oh, and I bottle-fed a calf who had giant brown eyes and I wanted to take her home. Really, I’m just a floral dress and shawl off of living in a Hardy novel at times. Knowing my luck, I’d be the one to be ruined by a soldier and then starve in the snow before I’d managed to milk any cows at all. Not like Poll, who is so honest and rural she only needs a name of one syllable. This is all very picturesque, the trees in blossom, the bubbling stream, the lush green grass. Ah, the countryside…
The Young Milkmaid Helen Allingham
Hang on, this doesn’t look so jolly. I don’t think she’s wearing shoes and she looks a little grubby. Surely there are some cows that need milking somewhere? No, this young lady is leaning against a grey stone wall and seems to be dreaming of being somewhere else. The only thing that gives her away as a milkmaid is her bucket, which seems to serve as an international shorthand for ‘milkmaid’. For example…
The Milkmaid John Simmons
Oh, I wonder what she does for a living? It’s iconic, I suppose, and immediately sums up certain aspects of rural life that people find attractive. There is something in the persona of a milkmaid that makes you think of wholesome, hardworking, little bit saucy, healthy, strong and other qualities which makes them a bit sexy. You don’t tend to see unattractive milkmaids, strangely enough. They seem somehow more glamorous than the girl who shovels dung for a living.
The Milkmaid William Edward Millner
Look at the pose she is striking – she is like a classical goddess, possibly modelled on a statue that Millner saw. Change her clothes for classical drapes and hide the milk can and she could be Venus. She is certainly lit in a way that suggests she has inner significance beyond the lass who squeezes udders for a living.
The Milkmaid Henry John Yeend King
Yet another milkmaid with the longing expression of one who wishes to escape. She has no bucket, so how do we know she is a milkmaid? She is reasonably clean, emphasised by her white apron. I wonder if that is why they are often depicted as silently gazing, dewy-eyed towards a future of possible release. It’s as if the painter alone has realised that this apple-cheeked daughter of the soil is actually a goddess awaiting release from her disguise.
The Young Milkmaid Julien Dupre
I think there may be a rule about certain farm animals. Horses obviously are the most dignified of rural beasts, but cows seem to be up there with a sort of sensible beauty. Being associated with them seems to give the maids the same dignified, useful attraction. Don’t be caught hanging around with pigs, they lend nothing to your dignity at all, apparently.
The Milkmaid (1860) Myles Birket Foster
To sum up, the white-aproned maidens of spring that populate many a canvas are more than just farm workers. They are beautiful women filled with natural power, yet imprisoned like fairy-tale princesses, manually labouring, while dreaming of another life. They often appear in spring-like scenes, as if they are the personification of all things fecund and fertile, the burgeoning rural bounty in human form. And they come with their own gold top. No wonder they were so damn attractive.
To milk a cow, form a ring around the top of the teat with your thumb and forefinger, then close the other three in a squeeze which shoot milk out. Where’s my bucket and apron…?