Monday, 23 February 2015

Rose of the World

When I was republishing Stunner a couple of years ago, I considered having this image of Fanny Cornforth as the front cover...

Fair Rosamund (1861) D G Rossetti
Painted in the year between his marriage and the untimely death of Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti chose to paint one of history's most famous mistresses. If we believe that a main concession in the Rossetti marriage was that the artist would forgo his mistress models, then this is somewhat a slap in the face to the ailing Elizabeth.

Many people don't like this picture of Fanny due to her high colour.  It is a very strong interplay of red and green, like a rose and its foliage.  In fact roses cover the canvas, from the glass, the pin in the windowsill, the necklace, her dress and the actual bloom in her hair.  Even the bottle-bottom glass behind her echoes the round of the rose.  She is a woman in full bloom, she is a flower in a garden.  On the other end of the silken cord is the object of her desire, the king, as shown by the heart and crown motif.  However the queen also wears a crown, and the legend says that the mistress was doomed to be a cut flower, by the hand of her lover's wife.

Was that what Rossetti dreamed of: his bride rising up to kill his mistress? There are moments when you feel that Rossetti is unable to stop his innermost fears and desire from appearing on his canvas, and it isn't unusual for him to portray the women he loves in the act of dying, as in Beata Beatrix and Dante's Dream.  He wasn't the only person to find Rosamund and Queen Eleanor enticing subjects for a painting...

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor Evelyn de Morgan
Fair Rosamund, or Rosamund Clifford was the daughter of Walter de Clifford, a lord from the boarder counties between England and Wales. The family changed their name from 'Fitz Richard' (son of Richard) to that of their home, Clifford Castle, on the River Wye (lovely part of the world, for those who have had the pleasure of visiting).  She was the mistress of Henry II, and as such her life became somewhat dappled by fantasy and romance.  In truth all that is vaguely known is that she was born around 1150AD and she died c.1176AD, possibly in Godstow Nunnery, after the end of the affair.  Well, that isn't very exciting now, is it?

As you can see from de Morgan's painting above, nothing spices a story up like witchcraft, a wronged woman, a poisoned chalice and a doomed, innocent, pretty heroine. Throw in a secret love-nest in the centre of a maze and a silken cord for the lover to follow and you have a corker of a story.  I love how the tiny winged babies of love are floundering around on the floor, fleeing the serpents of black magic.  Queen Eleanor's dress resembles scales, like a serpent, and she reaches towards the window which shows Adam and Eve embracing in the garden of Eden.  Hang on, is de Morgan saying that the King and his mistress are the innocent party and the wife is the serpent?  That the love between the King and Rosamund is more pure and sacred than the love between husband and wife?

Fair Rosamund (1905-17) J W Waterhouse
So the legend of Fair Rosamund goes that King Henry loved this beautiful girl and in order to hide her from the nasty Queen, he built a maze at his home at Woodstock and placed her little house in the centre.  Only he could find it, by use of a silken thread that led through the maze.  All Rosamund did all day was wait by the window, by her silken thread and await his kingly presence.  One day however it wasn't the king that followed the thread it was nasty Queen Eleanor of Aquataine.  The Queen confronted her rival and gave her the option of a dagger or a chalice.  Rosamund chose the chalice, drank the poison and died.

First of all, the cloistering of a lover in a remote place, leaving her to just wait and wait has echoes in other romantic stories, such as Elaine of Astolat.  For the Victorians too, there were overtones of Mariana in her moated grange waiting, waiting for a man to come.  Waiting is a very feminine act, that of inaction, passivity, obedience, possibly the very virtues you might want in your mistress.  Or spaniel. Stay!

Fair Rosamund Arthur Hughes
From the straight forward story of a young royal mistress who had a couple of illegitimate kids and died reasonably young, it was spun up into a fairy tale.  It is unlikely that Rosamund was the only mistress, although by all accounts she was a favourite for whom he allegedly wished to leave his wife.  This, coupled with Rosamund's early death, seems to have led to the stories that Eleanor (a capable woman in her own right) had murdered her rival, even though we now believe that the King and Queen had been leading seperate lives since the birth of their final child.  That's not such a good story though, is it?

Queen Eleanor (1858) Frederick Sandys
In most Victorian portrayals of the story, Queen Eleanor is a bit of a crone, lurking much like the wicked stepmother in Snow White, waiting to poison/stab the fairest in the land.  Sandys image of Eleanor as a troubled, beautiful woman, preparing to sort out her rival, is unusually sympathetic. She would have been in her late forties by the time of her husband's dalliance with Rosamund, yet in Sandys vision she is young and beautiful.  In a way, siding with the Queen against her husband's adultery seems a far more natural Victorian position, but he is definitely on his own.  Love the cloak, reflecting a Book of Kells aesthetic before the Celtic Revival had taken hold in British art.

Fair Rosamund (1905) Herbert Sidney

 A similar figure is Sidney's Rosamund, delicately unwinding the silken thread so her lover can find her and ultimately allow her murderer to reach her too.  She could not look more innocent (or white) with the muted palate of white and gold, and a frock that will fall off if she sneezes.  Again, possibly a winning attribute in a mistress...

Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund Edward Burne-Jones

Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund (1862) Edward Burne-Jones
Burne-Jones did two versions of the confrontation between mistress and murderous queen.  In both, the queen is dark, powerful and in control (and looks a bit like Jane Morris), whereas Rosamund is caught, cornered, doomed.  In the second image Rosamund is literally caught in the cord that would lead her lover to her.

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1920) Frank Cadogan Cowper
Still going strong in the 20th century, Cowper gives us Eleanor, armed with a knife, reeling in the feckless Rosamund by her lover-cord. I love the contrast between the impractical, endless white of Rosamund's cloak and the rich damask of Eleanor's frock.  As in many of the images above, Eleanor seems quite practically dressed, her cloak and hood almost masculine in their functionality.  Rosamund seems hampered by her acres of cloak.  She's not escaping.

Fair Rosamund (Annie Rogers) and Queen Eleanor (Mary Jackson) (1863) Lewis Carroll
Possibly the most disturbing of the images has to be Lewis Carroll's photograph.  It's not sexual, a charge often levelled at Carroll, but just plan odd with little Mary holding a big knife with which to finish little Annie.  A curious subject to act out with little girls, especially ones wrapped in what appears to be curtains.  However I love the genuinely murderous pout on little Mary's face.  I wouldn't trust her with a sword....

Fair Rosamund William Bell Scott
It is interesting what minor characters of history get immortalised as romantic heroines.  Of all of Charles II mistresses, for example, Nell Gwynn has a mythology around her that surpasses even Barbara Villiers. These days we know far too much about the sexual exploits of the high and mighty so we don't need to conjure tales about them, or if we did they would be quickly dispelled by the avalanche of fact or publicity.  Almost a thousand years ago there were stories told word-of-mouth, people trying to make sense of the disparate facts and weaving them into a narrative.  The silken cloth used in Rosamund's burial became known as a silken cord, a trysting place in the complex garden at Woodstock became a maze with a love-nest in the centre, all building towards a fairy tale with a real twist.  For the Victorians it seems the romance of the legend was far more beguiling than the rather more mundane truth.

Fair Rosamund (sketch) (1861) D G Rossetti
And my goodness me, didn't it make better paintings?


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