Friday, 23 December 2016

Friday 23rd December - The Angels of Arthur Hughes

Almost there now, m'dears. Today and tomorrow and then it's Christmas.  The three wise men have been knitted, and sewn up ready for my father's knitted nativity. I have one more pressie left to finish, but on the whole presents are done.  I have cooking to do today, but before I do that I best get on with some angel business...

The Nativity (1858) Arthur Hughes
This has always been one of my favourite images of the nativity.  It lacks the beauty of Burne-Jones' epic canvases, or the realistic glory of Marianne Stokes, but for plain straight-out weirdness, you can't beat the girl-only, smallest-stable-in-the-world wonder of Arthur Hughes masterpiece.  No-one has any room, it is the epitome of too many people round for Christmas.  There are wings and knees and halos all jostling for space.  Mary is trying to wrap up her ever-so-small baby but there are people outside and it's impossible. For mid-nineteenth century, this is an amazing use of space on a canvas, and such a powerful image. The body proportions are weird (exactly how long is Mary's thigh?), Jesus is absolutely tiny but it has an intensity that others lack.

The Annunciation (1858)
The Nativity above wasn't Hughes only brush with an angel.  Hughes did both the Annunciation and the Nativity, which is only right and proper, so we have the Angel of the Annunciation with some very impressive wings indeed.  Unlike some of the more pushy angels who point at Mary's womb (which is a bit personal, if you ask me) or up at heaven, as if Mary is a half-wit (again, a bit rude), Hughes angel takes the standard primary school nativity pose of cross-your-heart arms. That's proper angel posing there.  I love how the gap in the foliage gives Gabriel a mock-halo, and how the fluffiness around the bottom of the wings morphs into lilies.  That typical Hughes palate of mauve and gold is all light in the Annunciation, then shadow in the Nativity, but is echoed beautiful between canvases.

He is Risen, The First Easter (1893-6)
Never one to leave a story alone, Hughes went as far as doing the Easter bit of the story too with yet another angel.  This time, the angel at the tomb is a shaft of light, greeting the women who have come to have a vigil outside the tomb.  There is also a nice little glowing dove in the tree behind them. It is a much later work and lacks the precision of the 1850s, which is a shame because The First Easter doesn't feel as individual as his earlier works.

Galahad Armed by an Angel (1857-8)
It's not just Biblical stories that inspired Hughes' angel art.  The quest for the Grail becomes all angel-y and the lovely Galahad gets his own heavenly host to help him on his way.  Here we have the bob-haired knight of the Round Table having his sword tied on by a very helpful angel.  His shoes are almost as big as her wings...

Sir Galahad on the Quest for the Holy Grail (1870)
Not hampered by his medieval clown shoes, our intrepid knight goes off to find the sacred cup with a trio of glowing ladies.  This is a beautifully composed work with the white angels reflecting the white horse, their heavenly light reflected in his armour.  I also really like the curving, jutting stones of the bridge which hint at his perilous journey. The angels are everything they should be: otherworldly, flying and glorious.

Little One who straight has come Down the Heavenly Stair (1888)
Oh deary me. When I first saw this particular painting, I had to ask if the baby was coming or going because forgive me, but that is a weird looking infant who has apparently just walked down those stairs accompanied by five angels. There is also a bit of oddness going on between the baby and the mother's face.  Believe me, it's no clearer in the flesh as I get the dubious pleasure of seeing this one quite often at the Russell-Cotes.  Don't get me wrong - the angel ladies are lovely, the figures of the parents are solidly done (although I have misgivings about what the father is doing with that shovel), but the baby is just peculiar looking.  I know, you are not meant to say that about babies.  You are meant to say euphemistic things about Winston Churchill and how they all look cutely funny when they are born. When I had Lily I was in a hospital bed opposite a baby that made the nurses yelp in surprise when they saw it.  The little girl had hair all over and sharp little teeth. And she howled for food in an unnerving manner. Bless her.

Sweep the Floor (1873)
As I conclude my exploration of angels in art I am pleased to bring you an angel who is being less than wonderful for a change.  I'm sure this was all very inspirational back in the day but to me it looks like the angel is saying 'Sweep harder child, the Big Man wants to be able to eat his dinner off this floor.'  The Victorians are typical of people who feel attacked in their own little world order, they repressed and made it sound like a good idea.  You better sweep the floor or Jesus will find out and will be cross.  You better not have impure thoughts, have ideas about bettering yourself or question authority because Jesus will see. Keep sweeping the floor, young 'un, and you'll get your place in heaven.  It's all very well if an angel turns up to tell you that you're going to have a holy baby, or that a holy baby has been born or that you have to go and find the holy grail.  How cheesed off would you feel if one turned up and told you to sweep the floor? I have a mother-in-law for that sort of thing.  I don't need the Angel Gabriel getting involved.

Okay, well that's all the angel pictures you are getting for this Angelvent as I want tomorrow to be a bit different.  I have an idea for a story for Christmas Eve but unlike last year, this is not a heartwarming tale of little robins and foxes...

It is 1865 and the week before Christmas. An artist stands before his last painting of his late wife shaking with fear and disbelief.  He writes a note to his sister-in-law that contains only two words:


See you tomorrow...


  1. Dear Kirsty
    I have really enjoyed the encounters with angels this year. Thank you.
    The story is intriguing already - I'm looking forward to reading it.
    Best wishes

  2. A clerihew

    Arthur Hughes
    Isn't often in the news.
    He ain't a
    Very famous painter.

    Happy Christmas!

  3. Hughes's Gabriel is definitely a "fear not" angel, not a "there, there" angel.


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