Monday, 2 September 2013

The Meaning in Feathers

If I didn't spend so much time thinking up new double entendre or perfecting my 'twerk' then I suspect I could write an entire book on today's subject.  Indeed, there may well be one but I haven't come across one yet.  Plenty has been written on the meaning of flowers, the delicate art of sending secret messages through floral agencies.  Paintings in the Victorian period are strewn with blossoms adding to the meaning of the work - ivy for patience, clinging steadfastness, lilies for purity, passion flowers for religion and sauciness (interesting combo).  The smallest daisy can instill a subtle meaning to a picture if you know what you're looking for, but is there anything else that can do this?  What about birds?

Girl with Lovebirds (1876) Henry Guillaume Schlesinger
It's easy to read meaning into Lovebirds.  The clue is in the title; they represent the ripeness and willingness of the lady with them.  She loves her birds and will love you too, given half a chance.

The Courtship Fred Hall
Similarly, turtle doves (or posh pigeons) are known to bill and coo like lovers.  Or is it the other way round?  I wonder if pigeons are used to represent people on a regular basis as they are ordinary, common-place, like us.  Among the fancy and exotic, the strange and magical, the pigeon is just like us, getting on with its life.  It finds food, finds a mate, finds a nest, makes a nice pie.  Just like people.  Except the last one.  Moving on.

Robins of Modern Times John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
As regular readers will know, I have a weakness for this very disturbing picture.  The little robin in the corner plays a deeply allegorical part, signifying death, if not of the child then of her innocence, of her childhood.  The robin is a fascinating bird, in most gardens in Britain and on the front of countless Christmas cards but they have an association with sacrifice and death that is not overly cosy.  Legend has it that its red breast came from singing in the ear of Jesus as he died on the cross and being dipped in his blood.  The Babes in the Wood are covered by robins when they die.  A little robin appears in possibly the best known Pre-Raphaelite picture about death...

Ophelia, obviously...
Do you see the little robin?  Look towards the upper left-hand corner...

There he is!
How many times have I looked at that picture in books?  It was when I was seeing the Pre-Raphaelite Avant-Garde exhibition with Miss Holman that she pointed him out as we were squashed against the left-hand side.  Remarkable.  Darling little bird, a tiny glimmer of red among the green of the overhanging foliage, looking down as Ophelia drifts to her death.

All Pass Away as the Glimmer of Day While Others as Fleet are Born
(1888) Lance Calkin

The snappily titled All Pass Away... shows a very obvious little robin looking down at an old man and a little girl.  The title refers to passing of lives, of people, of eras.  They are looking at what is left of a tree, the giant old trunk being hauled away.  The robin sings from a sapling which in time will also be cut down.  The old man may well die at any moment, but don't worry, his granddaughter will snuff it too.  Cheery thoughts, everyone.

Arguably, the robin isn't the only bird that speaks of demise.  The swallow appears regularly in images of death, like this rather well-known example.

The Lady of Shalott, again, obviously
The swallow seems to be a common symbol of 'ending', especially of something beautiful.  Maybe it's the connection between swallows and summer that makes it a bird of pathos, something glorious that will inevitably end.

O Swallow, Swallow John Melhuish Strudwick
Swallow Swallow John Everett Millais
The Swallow also seems to symbolise love.  In the two paintings above the young woman awaits a love letter from the poet (illustrating a passage of Tennyson's The Princess). The bittersweetness of the poem speaks of how 'brief is life but love is long' and death is alluded to.  No matter how the poet assures the bird that he will follow, I don't think she should hold her breath.

Since Last We Met (1902) Arthur Langley Vernon

Darting under the bridge goes what may well be a swift or swallow in this painting which reminds me of Jane Austen for some reason.  I think it's because the couple are considering their changed circumstances since they last saw each other - maybe they couldn't marry because her father forbade it?  Maybe the young man wasn't rich enough?  From the way they are eyeing each other up, there is some unfinished business.  The bird in rapid flight may speak of the passing of time, the fact that their time may be running out so they really should get on with it.

The Twa Corbies (1901) Campbell Lindsay Smith
If the coyness of swallows isn't enough for you, how about the certainty of crows?  In the Scottish ballad, 'Twa Corbies' or two crows/ravens are heard to discuss where they will dine that night.  They decide upon the fallen knight behind the old turf wall who has no-one to miss him.  His dog has gone hunting, his hawk has flown home and his lady-love has gone off with someone else.  The man is beautiful, golden of hair and blue of eye but his only use now is food and bedding for the crows.  Cheery.

The Guarded Bower Arthur Hughes
If you want another bittersweet love bird, then you can't do much better than a dove.  Doves speak of the fragility of life but the longevity of love.  In Hughes' painting, the young lady seems to be much beloved but her lover holds a ruddy big sword and a jealous glint in his eye.  His problem is displayed in bird form - he is the peacock, all pride and show, while his lady-love is the innocent white dove.  Oh, I don't fancy her chances...

Return of the Dove to the Ark John Everett Millais
Everyone's favourite dove must be the one that came back with good news to the ark.  To be fair, his gig was a pretty easy win.  Everyone loves the 'Best News Ever Dove' and so it's all kisses and hugs for him.

Beata Beatrix D G Rossetti
The pusher-dove, Rossetti's bird of deliverance, signifies Dante's love and the passing of Beatrice into spirit.  The opium poppy in its beak is a sly nod to Noah's ark, as this dove is not exactly delivering hope, but a message of finality.  Beatrice is sailing away from Dante and he cannot follow.  Sometimes it's hard to remember that doves are just pigeons with a make-over, they border regularly on the celestial edge, God's messenger, the holy ghost in flight.

Roses of Youth Henrietta Rae
It's not all serious business of course.  Saucy Nudey Doves get a look in too.  They are a bit of an odd choice here.  We get collared doves in our garden and I've never thought 'Gosh, wouldn't it be lovely to sit out there starkers and feel all decadent?'  Surely something snazzier, like a peacock or a parrot would have looked more luxurious than some second-cousin pigeons?

Jezebel John Byam Liston Shaw
Peacocks say pride, luxury, decadence and a faint whiff of immorality or certainly amorality.  If you visit a lady with a peacock do not expect to leave her company with your clothing or morals intact.  Gentlemen, pray take that as a warning.  Or a recommendation.

Lady with a Parrot Valentine Prinsep
Yes, there you go.  A parrot doesn't get you nudey, but does get a flash of boob.  There is something marvellously rich and exotic about parrots, yet familiar, as there are plenty in this country, in parlors of the eccentric aesthete and lovers of the foreign.

The Tempest Lucy Madox Brown
Parrots are the bird to have if you want to have a bit of mystery.  I should have a parrot instead of chickens.  Chickens lend you no mystery whatever.

Princess Leia and Hen Solo
I rest my case.  Anyway, parrots are owned by sorceresses, concubines, women with mystic knowledge and naughty knowledge.  That woman knows your future, she knows your past, she knows what it is you seek.  She doesn't have free access to eggs, though.  I'm winning on that score.

Il Barbagianni Val Prinsep
Now, if you want to look like a smart lady, go with an owl.  An owl beats everything.  You know she is smart, well-read, keeps her own counsel and her wisdom is equal to her beauty.  I've held an owl before and it is a spectacularly beautiful bird and there is something about the moon-face and smooth curve of the beak that is magical.

After Marriage (1881) Arthur Howes Weigall
Bird-ownership is a vexed matter though.  As soon as a bird is caught in a cage it seems to be an ever-present metaphor for a beautiful woman in a rich but loveless marriage.  However golden that cage is, it still has bars and the woman above seems bored with her creepy man.  At least the bird gets a view out the window, the poor woman has to face her ill-favoured panto-husband.  Deary me.

The Caged Bird John Byam Liston Shaw
I like this image as it is rather rebellious.  That woman does not look sure about her actions at all, but the fact that she has freed the bird makes you think that she has freed herself too.  The garden behind her is a maze of hedging, each making a small space.  I wonder is Byam Shaw is saying that those sorts of marriages are each a little self-contained world, a tiny hedged bed from which there was no escape.  They are neat, they are well tended, and they are so very very limited.

Woman with Pigeons Ernst Phillipe Zacharie
I love layers of meaning in paintings, and the language of flowers is a romantic way of sending a secret message to the viewer.  Likewise, using birds to hint at further story, nuance of feeling and unspoken emotion forms a bond with the audience. We can see outcomes as yet hidden from the players in the picture, we are involved and yet removed.

Each feather is a door for us to open, a bridge for us to cross, a story for us to read.


  1. Great post Kirsty. I read your posts to my wife during breakfast. We're still laughing at 'Hen Solo'.

  2. Ah, my work here is done. What I lack in mystery I make up for in comedy sci-fi outfits and poultry.

  3. Personally I would have included 'The Festival of St. Swithin'; full of symbolism. Great outfit, loved it.

  4. Lovely post, as ever. I must find an excuse to bring up Princess Leia and Hen Solo in everyday conversation soon. Pigeons indeed!

  5. I got your book on Franny. ^_^ I am looking forward to reading it.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx