As is often the way, I have been researching one post but it has ended up with me writing another one in the meantime. I am currently writing a piece on Victorian art novels and my favourites of this genre, and was flicking back through Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris.
I love this novel and its dizzying plot of gothic intrigue and repressed perversions. An early scene is when Effie and Mose go to the fair and meet Fanny Miller, disguised as a fortune teller. This led me on to think about the image of a fortune teller, and pictures of people telling fortunes as a fun pastime….
Tea Leaves Alma Broadbent
This is a particularly charming image of two ladies indulging in this innocent pursuit. But what if she sees something terrible in her friends cup, will she tell her? What if they are after the same man, will she warn her off? Sorry, but the tea leaves say that if you go out with Bob, it will end in apocalypse. And your pot plant will die. There is something distrustful in me that suspects that people who tell your fortune may have ulterior motives (as seen in Sleep Pale Sister).
Love’s Oracle Albert Ritzberger
So consumed are these girls with telling the young lady’s fortune that they haven’t noticed their lamp is about to set fire to one of their hair. King of Hearts, eh? Bob is definitely the man for you and your perilously tiny waist. The cards say you should marry him immediately (as none of us want him). Ah, see how much power you are giving to a third party who is telling your ‘future’ for you. Maybe that’s why so many people liked to go to an impartial third party, someone who had no vested interest in you and Hot Bob.
Fortune Telling Abraham Solomon
How revoltingly simper-y and what on earth have the cards foretold that makes the blonde one go all gooey? The brunette looks less than impressed, maybe it’s because she’s worked out that she’s in the least talented Solomon’s painting. Damn it, I could have been a Simeon pastel, but instead I get to have this dozy bint leaning on me for all eternity…
The Pre-Raphaelites and their followers like a woman holding a crystal ball very much. I won’t bore you with all the images I found of them because there are loads, and that isn’t really what this post is about. Oh, go on, here’s one that’s rather pretty…
Crystal Ball Robert Anning Bell
The lone woman and her crystal ball seems to be an image of solitary power for the disenfranchised. Prophesying women don’t seem to fare too well in stories, and so there seems to be a lot of pictures of women, in intimate settings, gazing into the shiny sphere as if they need to know, they need control over their future and surroundings when all other power is denied them. The theme of power is important though, when considering the seemingly frivolous images of fortune tellers…
Telling Her Fortune Hans Von Hayek
The lady with the shawl inspects the baby’s palm as her parents look on nervously but with optimism. I can’t quite work out who the man belongs to, or whether he has just wandered in for an adjoining picture. Will the baby’s fortune be good? What happens if it isn’t? Surely everyone’s life-line is very short when they are a year old because their hands are so tiny...
The Fortune Teller Joseph Clark
Sometimes when viewing these images I wonder what exactly the painter wants me to take away. Take these two women: one is a traveller, one is a fine lady. One has the position and money, one has neither, but where does the power lie in this image? The Fortune Teller has all the power as she has the fine lady’s belief. Again, look at the expression on the lady’s face, she looks terrified but hopeful. Blimey, that’s not good. If there is a chance that you will learn that fate has something awful in line for you, why find out? It’s just because you want to find out something fabulous, isn’t it? Hasn’t life been good enough already, you greedy so-and-so?! Go on, Fortune Teller, tell her something alarming…
The Fortune Teller Frank Cadogan Cowper
God, I love how hideous this picture is. This weird, mannerist freakshow is a mine-field of symbolism. Firstly, why are they hiding behind the magnificent wall of ivy. That is good ivy, but oddly big-leafed, or is it that the people are small? Look at the tiny blue shoe! Look at how doll-like they are, and not in a cute way, in a wooden-stick doll sort of way. I love that the Fortune Teller has a magnifying glass (to see the doom more clearly), and look at how large it is. Think of it as a companion piece to the Solomon above, as it shares the same subject matter and figures. Two women, one dark, one fair, see a Fortune Teller. The blonde one seems fairly pleased, the dark haired one less so. Look at her bonnet; maybe that is making her moody. Possibly it serves the dual function of stopping her scratching her stitches. Either way, unlike the saccharine sweet Solomon, this is unsettling, vaguely surreal and a little bit threatening.
His Fortune (1902) English School
Anyway, Fortune Telling seems a bit of a strange occupation for good Victorian girls, but it is a telling example of the contradictions in Victorian society, which for me makes Victorians so endlessly fascinating. Take this picture: can we deduce that Hot Bob (seen in the mirror) will say ‘oh, I see that the cards foretell we will fall madly in love…will you marry me?’ Did people really hold store by things prophesied by a turn of a card or the leaves in the bottom of a cup? How many lives did it affect, how many decisions were made just because someone said a piece of paper said it was so. And think of the little baby, how were children affected if their fortune was not so good? Well, to be honest if the girl above thinks she can snag Hot Bob with her cards then good luck to her. Mind you, if she leans forward any more it’ll be more than his fortune he’ll see….