Today is about remembering. The last few days challenged us to comprehend the way the First World War affected us as nations and individuals. From poppies in buttonhole, to the Cenotaph, to people all over the whole remaining silent for 120 seconds, the act of remembering has been both unavoidable and almost insurmountable. If you stop to think about how 100 years ago people went off to war unaware of how utterly it would alter us, it seems a cruelty as vicious as the war itself. We have an image of the Edwardians, frivolous and careless, stumbling a generation of young men into a muddied hell, but were they really as innocent as all that? My post today is a harbinger of what was to come, a painting that foreshadowed so much.
The Boer War, 1900-1901 Last Summer Things were Greener (1901) John Byam Liston Shaw
True story: I got Mr Walker to watch both The Sound of Music and Gone With the Wind because I told him they were war movies. So they both are, and this painting is war art, although if you had to guess the theme of it, it is unlikely that would be high on your list. A woman gazes out over a river, lost in thought. She is a lone black mark in the lush summer foliage, and we can assume from her dress that she is bereaved. The title gives us a context, a cause for her grief.
The second part of the title comes from the poem ‘A Bird Song’ by Christina Rossetti: ‘Last Summer things were greener, / Brambles fewer, the blue sky bluer.’ The poem is about waiting, putting your life on hold while a loved one is away. The narrator of Rossetti’s poem expects the loved one to return, denoted by swallows who come and go from distant lands, but remain loyal. The narrator wishes to fly as well, be together with the one who has their heart. Until that person comes back there is no enjoyment, no pleasure to be felt or noticed. The seasons have rolled round, marking a year, but the swallows are the first thing that alerts the speaker to so much time passing. It shows the difficulty or unwillingness to mark time when the focus of your attention is absent. As it is, the past seems more sweet, more beautiful for the existence of a lover within it.
The woman in the painting is lost in thought and not aware of the riot of green, the fecundity of nature all around her. If anything has her attention it is the ravens, a sad echo of the hopeful swallows from Rossetti’s poem. The bird motif continues in a single swan feather floating in the river. Swans mate for life, the absence of the swan who left the feather echoing the absence of the woman’s lover. I am fairly sure there is no ring on the finger of the left hand clutching the loop of wool, so she has lost her potential husband, her potential place as a wife with children. I wondered at the wool in that loop hanging forlornly. It echoes the flowers in the riverbank but is like the woman, a potential rather than a flower. The wool remains unknitted, it is not and possibly shall not become anything. It is a rich and wonderful colour but its owner can only wear black now and so it shall remain unfulfilled, it cannot become anything.
The model was actually the painter’s sister, Margaret Glencair, who was at the time in mourning for their cousin who had been killed in South Africa. I think that somehow makes the pathos of the figure more real, more painful. One thing we do not seem to credit the world before The Great War with is an awareness of war grief. It seems that we believe the Victorians to be callously unaware, hurling their children into battle without any notion of what the grief of a generation who will outlive their children could possibly feel like. I think this painting shows a different side, an acknowledgement of the devastation of stolen future that would be felt so painfully by their children.
It was Victorians who fought the First World War, scraping into the Edwardian children by the bitter end. Margaret Glencair considering her lost cousin on the banks of the river became these young women, all robbed of their loves...
|Diana Manners on her wedding day|
|Katheryn Horner, widow of Raymond Asquith|
|Letty Manners, widow of Hugo 'Ego' Charteris|
These three women were the daughters of The Souls, a group of Victorian art lovers. They married the sons of other Souls and were bereaved. In the case of Diana Manners, she lost loves and ended up marrying the only one of her suitors who returned. Almost all the sons of the Souls died, an entire generation of young men taken away. As their parents had passed on a love of Pre-Raphaelite art, I cannot help but suspect the deaths of these glittering youths was connected to how unfashionable the works became. After the horror of war the world became a less wonderful place and there was no use for beauty.
Oh, last summer green things were greener,
Brambles fewer, the blue sky bluer.