Sunday, 13 August 2017

Some Thoughts on Emily Peacock

As you will have read in a previous post of mine, sometimes the job of a biographer can be awfully tricky, especially in the case of women.  If that woman is a model, it becomes nigh on impossible because if we know anything of them it tends to be via the filter of the artist's biographers, and therefore prone to bias.  Nine times out of ten, they are of little consequence to biographers of the great and good and therefore slip from history. I find rather a lot of fun in seeing if I can fish them back into view.  Say hello to Emily Peacock...

Emily Peacock (1871) Julia Margaret Cameron
 Miss Peacock and her sister appear in a large number of Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs between 1871 and 1875, but very little is known of her because she was not local.  For models such as the Keowns and all the many Marys, finding them is easy as Freshwater is not a massive place in 1861 and so tracking them down and following them through birth, marriage, census and death records is fairly easy. Not only that but they crop up in local newspapers because in a small place, everything is news.  I love tracing people in small areas with a thriving local press, it's ever so much fun.  So, where does that leave us with the lovely Miss Peacock?

And Enid Sang (1874) Julia Margaret Cameron
Books such as Tracing Echoes (2001) by Nicky Bird and Julia Margaret Cameron's Women (1998) by Sylvia Wolf made an effort to find out more about the various models, but poor Emily escaped them both. All that could be said was that she was probably a visitor to Freshwater between 1871 and 1875 as no Peacocks were resident in the 1871 census.  In order to trace her, you would have to find every Emily Peacock in the World and work out if they were likely to be in Freshwater on holiday in 1871.  Sounds like fun, eh?
Emily Peacock (1873) Julia Margaret Cameron
You know me, I love a challenge (or rather my Aspergers manifests in my inexhaustible need to find out everything about everyone), so I could not let this one go.  After all, Miss Emily Peacock is a pretty important model for at least four years of Julia Margaret Cameron's career.  She deserves to be recognised as one of the faces of Cameron's work when it comes to some icon pictures such as Ophelia and And Enid Sang.  Where to start?

Aurora (1871-5) Julia Margaret Cameron
Always start with what we know: we can be fairly sure her name is Emily Peacock as that is written against her images.  In the images of 1871-5 she looks around 20 years old, so we are looking for someone born in the early 1850s.  We also know her sister was called Mary...

The Sisters (Emily and Mary Peacock) (1873) Julia Margaret Cameron
Therefore we are looking for Emily and Mary Peacock, born in the early 1850s.  That narrows it down a bit because although there are loads of Emily Peacocks, there are only a handful that have a sister called Mary (or Maria or anything that could be shortened to Mary).  Marvellous.  We can thin out the field further by making a reasonable assumption.  If the Peacock family were not residents in Freshwater during the 1870s it is fair to say that they were on holiday at Freshwater when Mrs Cameron discovered the sisters.  As Emily appears in images over a few years, the family had to be rich enough to take an annual holiday over at least four years.  There is a sea of Agricultural Labourers (or Ag Labs, as they are often called), who cannot be expected to continually visit the Isle of Wight to pose for Mrs Cameron. Not only that, why did Emily stop? So who are we left with?  Well, my money is on Miss Emily Denman Peacock and here's why...

The Sisters (1873) Julia Margaret Cameron
First of all, I'll start with Mr Peacock, Emily and Mary's father.  He is mentioned in a couple of Cameron's biographies, but not particularly flatteringly.  Mr Peacock is described in Brian Hill's 1973 biography of Cameron as a 'neighbour' in Freshwater, but everywhere else as a 'visitor', so it can be guessed that he stayed in a house close to Dimbola for extended periods.  Anyway, to quote from Hill's book:
"His daughters were goodlooking enough to sit for Julia, but their father was an affected individual who was always stressing his devotion to 'the beautiful'. He was foolhardy enough to remark one day to Mrs Cameron that really it would be a good thing if all plain people were quietly eliminated. 'At which I said to the man, whom I hate, "Then what would become of you and me, Mr Pocock?"' She was quite aware, of course, of his proper name." (p.125-126)
He sounds smashing.  However, that does give you an idea of how Mr Peacock regarded himself and his place in the world. He doesn't sound much like an agricultural labourer to me.  Anyway, armed with that bit of delightful fascism, I went in search of a man of independent means (and over inflated ego).  Sadly, you can't search for 'cockwomble' in a census. 'Quietly eliminated', for heaven's sake.

Three King's Daughters Fair (Mary and Emily Peacock and Annie Chinery)
(1873) Julia Margaret Cameron
Out of all the Peacock families in England, I narrowed it down to just one likely lot, and actually I found them first in Brooklyn, New York.  Samuel Alexander Peacock appears in the 1855 American census, aged 25, living with his 30 year old wife Maria and his daughters Emily and little Maria, whom I would like to go out on a limb and say they probably called Mary to save her being mixed up with her mother.  Samuel worked as a 'Printer' (later 'Newspaper Proprietor' which would explain the ego) but had not been in America more than a year or so because Emily, aged 2, had been born in Herfordshire in January 1853.  Maria Jnr however, at only a couple of months old, had been born in Brooklyn.  Their brother Thomas was also born in Brooklyn three years later but no further siblings follow until the family is back in England in 1865.  Grace, Clarrisa and Charles Peacock complete the family by the end of the 1860s, and the family had settled back in Watford, where Emily had been born almost twenty years before.

I See a Hand You Cannot See (1874) Julia Margaret Cameron
In the 1871 census, Samuel Peacock is described as a 'Master Printer' and employed four men and two boys.  He was incredibly nouveau riche which possibly explains why he would say something so naff in order to impress people he felt intimidated by. Anyway, as part of 1871, the family travelled to Freshwater to stay and there Julia Margaret Cameron discovered Emily and Mary Peacock...

The Angel in the House (1873) Julia Margaret Cameron
It seems that either Emily was more willing and available to pose, or Cameron found her more inspiring because during the four years the girls were on the island, Cameron used Emily on her own as well as occasionally with Mary.  She also took portraits of Emily that had no other title other than her name.  Emily posed for The Angel in the House, from a poem by Coventry Patmore of the same name, personifying the ideal of docile, middle-class womanhood.
Ophelia (1874) Julia Margaret Cameron

Ophelia (1874) Julia Margaret Cameron
 Most famous of Cameron's images of Emily has to be her Ophelia photographs, the top one especially.  The fragility and concern of her expression and the smattering of foliage underplays her madness beautifully, so you are left with a believable, worrying young woman.  The fact you can see the grasp of her fingers in her hair in the first picture, and the furrowing of her brow, is very moving and make these some of the most artistically striking of Shakespeare's doomed heroine.

'He thought of that sharp look Mother I gave him yesterday' (1875)

New Year's Eve (1875)
'He thought of that sharp look Mother I gave him yesterday' (1875)Julia Margaret Cameron
I wonder if part of the Peacock family's attempt at middle class-ness in their stay in Freshwater was also to meet Tennyson.  Although Mr Peacock sounds a bit of a pretentious and slightly fascist ninny, I can imagine him being impressed by the presence of the poet laureate in the village, maybe even the reason the family stayed there.  Imagine how chuffed he must have been when his daughter not only posed for images inspired by the great poet's work, but also posed with the great poet's son!  'He thought of that sharp look Mother I gave him yesterday' from 1875 is from Tennyson's 'The May Queen', and Emily is posed with Lionel Tennyson, young son of the poet, portraying the young May Queen and her erstwhile beau Robin.  The middle image, Cameron ascribed to 'New Year's Eve' a different poem, but possibly she intended it to be part of the Robin and May Queen story as well.

'For I'm to be the Queen of the May, Mother' (1875)

'So now I think my time is near' (1875)
Julia Margaret Cameron
'The May Queen' was a poem that Cameron returned to repeatedly for inspiration, and Mary Ryan had already been the unlucky girl, expiring on a bed of flowers in photos from 1864.  The two images of Emily as the May Queen from a decade later, taken on 1st May 1875, show a rather more 'Ophelia' figure, saintly in her martyrdom.  I like the fake halo from the straw boater. The dress in the second photograph looks rather like the Ophelia dress too. Despite the difficulties in posing and the whole process, the photographs are clear and beautiful images the convey the emotion and pathos of the poem beautifully.

Egeria (1874) Julia Margaret Cameron
Then Emily disappears from Cameron's art.  So what became of her?  Did her family just stop holidaying on the Isle of Wight?  Did they too object to the scandalously high ferry charges? Did Cameron finally kill Mr Peacock for being an annoying wierdo?  Well, if my Emily Peacock is the right Emily Peacock there is a really good reason for why her last appearance is in 1875.  Don't worry, she didn't die.  She got married.  In Australia.  That'll do it.

Enid (1874) Julia Margaret Cameron
Miss Emily Denman Peacock, daughter of Samuel and Maria, of Herfordshire, married Professor Charles Henry Herbert Cook from Kentish Town, Middlesex on 2nd December 1876 in St Peter's, Victoria, Australia.  Charles was a graduate of Cambridge who had just been employed as Professor of Mathematics at Canterbury College, Christchurch, New Zealand.  His parents had emigrated to Australia where he had gone to school, returning to England for his degree and meeting Miss Peacock whom he whisked away to Oz.

Charles Henry Herbert Cook
There is a lovely biography of Charles here and it seems he and Emily had a pretty decent life together.  One of their five children, Charles Frederick Denman Cook died in 1918, during the First World War, of spinal meningitis.  Other son Henry studied mathematics like his father and one of their three daughters was called Mary, after Emily's sister.  

Charles and Emily's grave
Emily died in September 1925 and is buried beside her husband (who had passed in 1910) at the cemetery in Wanganui, Rangitikei in New Zealand.

Is this our Emily Peacock?  Well, as she had children who married and had children of their own, hopefully somewhere out there (possibly in New Zealand) might be an image of Emily that could be compared to Cameron's photographs.  Possibly on a wall in Christchurch hangs a Julia Margaret Cameron print, who knows?  I'm really hoping so...

Friday, 4 August 2017

Review: Albert Moore: Of Beauty and Aesthetics

Apologies for the delay in this review but things are rather hectic at Chez Walker of late.  I was fortunate enough to be able to see the following exhibition during a work trip to York and have been intending to write it up since then but life got in the way.  Anyway, now I have a moment to myself I best get on with it...


I feel a bit sorry for Albert Moore.  If you asked someone to name drape-y painters of Victorian England, Moore would come third, if he was lucky.  It often takes an exhibition for me to give more consideration to an artist who is often rather overlooked in the grand scheme of things and this is definitely the case for Moore.  If I thought it was going to be all lovely drape-y ladies, I was much mistaken...

Elijah's Sacrifice (1863)
He wasn't always all about the drape, you know.  When he started, Moore did large scale Biblical scenes, possibly with an eye to the Bible market (that was a pretty hefty market).  His early work, such as Elijah's Sacrifice bears more resemblance to TM Rooke or Edwin Longsden Long (whose paintings are very long indeed).  There's a bit of drape, certainly, but it feels wrong to appreciate the drape when there is so much Biblical misery and stuff going on.  The fire is absolutely stunning though - weird, fragile, unnatural yet terrifying.

A Garden (1869)
Okay, so there are a goodly number of drape-y ladies and they are pretty glorious.  A Garden is large and graceful, the woman almost one of the plants in the garden in both form and colouring.

Azaleas (1867-8)
Azaleas was Moore's first large-scale, subjectless piece.  Swinburne commented 'The melody of colour, the symphony of form is complete. One more beautiful thing is achieved, one more delight is born into the world; and its meaning is beauty; and its reason for being is to be.' The exhibition is undoubtedly packed to the gunnels with these women, tending plants, swaying in their sun-drenched courtyards, collapsing in the heat.  Some are large, but the ones I really loved were small, tiny gems of detail and precision...

Beads (1875)
Beads is a very beautiful little picture.  It is also a clue to why Moore might not be taken so seriously. Whilst Beads is a little gem, it's awfully similar to this...

Two Female Figures Reclining on a Sofa (1875)
...oh, and this one...

Apples (1875)
One complaint I hear about Moore is that he can be 'same-y' and when grouped together you can see how he took advantage of a nice piece of composition and tone.  I also love the idea that Moore took advantage of his models' rest time to continue sketching them.  However, if the York exhibition shows us anything, it shows that Moore was far more than floppy ladies on sofas...


Shells (1874)

Sea Gulls (1870-1)
I really loved the blow-y pictures, which reminded me of certain works by Waterhouse.  If you think about how difficult it must have been to catch a realistic flutter of fabric, the realistically awkward wrap of the shawl around the model's head seems like a real moment captured.  Equally as staged as the sofa paintings, the swathes of fabric caught in the wind refer back to those discrete wisps that covered the privates of classical types.

The Loves of the Winds and the Seasons (1893)
An absolute knock-out piece has to be The Loves of the Winds and the Seasons, huge in scale and rich in subject.  It reminded me of Agnolo Bronzino's Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time or Botticelli's Primavera, a multi-layered picture filled with drama and detail.  On the left we have Summer, and swanning in from the right we have Autumn and her best friend the South Wind (with his fan).  All is lush meadow and blooms for them, but in the background, it's a different story.  On the right, in snow, the North and East Wind are having a scrap, while Zephr chases Spring behind Summer's back.  It's both beautiful and odd all at once, and very large indeed.

Progress (1888-1904) G F Watts
To add context to Moore, the exhibition also has rooms of his contemporaries and his family.  The Moore family were resplendent with artists.  William Moore (1790-1851), an artist, moved his family to York around 1830 and of his 14 children, 5 were practising artists - Edwin, William Jnr, John Collingham, Henry and Albert.  Albert was born in York and so the art gallery is a natural setting for him and seeing so many of his works in one place makes you view him in a different way.  The context in which he created art, within the same marketplace as Watts, Burne-Jones, and Walter Crane, lifts Moore outside the box of Alma Tadema and Leighton where he has a tendency to be seen as 'the other one'.  

An Idyll (1892)
If this exhibition does anything, it lifts Moore to the front and shows that he is far more than just woman-as-still-life.  I really liked seeing his work that strayed from the aesthetic path, and although paintings like Midsummer are breath-taking in their clarity and beauty, The Loves of the Winds and the Seasons are paintings that can be gazed at for ages, seeing different things, the oddness of the snow, the figure of Zephyr who seems to hide from us.  Moore deserves to come out of the box and this is the perfect place to see him in all his glory.

Albert Moore: Of Beauty and Aesthetics is on at York Art Gallery until October and further details can be found here.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Review: Beauty in Thorns and Interview with Kate Forsyth

I have been most fortunate this month because Kate Forsyth, author of Bitter Greens, let me have a read of her new novel Beauty in Thorns.  I was very eager to read it because I have been talking to Kate for a while now about the lives and loves of Pre-Raphaelite muses and as the author of a novel about Pre-Raphaelite women I'm always delighted to find another book on the same subject. Kate has taken the familiar threads of the Pre-Raphaelite story and made a novel that spans the birth of the Brotherhood right to the end of the century, centering around the lives of the muses, wives and lovers of the artists.


This is a monumental piece of work.  Spanning fifty years and almost five hundred pages, Beauty in Thorns covers some familiar ground but in a way that will make you question everything you thought you knew about the Pre-Raphaelite women. Predominantly following the lives of Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Morris and Georgiana Burne-Jones, we trace them from childhood, through love and marriage (not necessarily with the same man), troubles, disillusionment and immortality.  

Elizabeth Siddal, Asleep (1850s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
It would be hard to see how a novelist could take scenes as ingrained in Pre-Raphaelite lore as Lizzie in the bath and make it new, but throughout her prose, Kate adds layers of character to these women, making them more than just the muses of their lovers, but as people with motivation, needs, desires and dreams.

Jane Morris (1873) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Taking the recurring theme and image of sleeping beauty, not only in Edward Burne-Jones monumental murals but also the lives of the women, Kate reveals girls awaiting princes, women having to allow men the active role in romance, and the fortunes of women who rebel against these constraints.  Not only are the women the unwilling heart of a passive fairytale, waiting in their bower for a prince, but also there is reflection on the other roles women take in such tales, cursing their own daughters to isolation through any transgressions of the mothers.

After reading Beauty in Thorns I was desperate to ask Kate about her journey from research to story, and I was lucky enough to ask her some questions...

Q. In Beauty in Thorns, both Ned Burne-Jones and Lizzie Siddal change their names on Rossetti's suggestion/demand.  Why do you think they allowed him that power and why do you think he needed it?

Elizabeth Siddal(l) (c.1860)
I think both Lizzie Siddal and Ned Burne-Jones admired Rossetti, and looked up to him. Rossetti was very aware of the importance of names in both shaping one’s sense of self-worth and in creating a persona for public consumption. He had changed his own name from Gabriel Charles Rossetti to Dante Gabriel Rossetti only a few years earlier.


Q. I think some readers will be shocked by how brutal Jane Morris' origins are portrayed - why did you give her such an unromantic back story?

Jane Morris, 1865
I think it is my job to be as truthful as possible about the lives of my characters, not to romanticise them.

Janey Burden was a slum girl. Her father worked as a groom in the stables of a busy inn in Oxford. Her mother was a laundress (when she could get work) and illiterate. Janey lived with her parents and brother and sister in a single room not much larger than one of the horses’ stalls. Her eldest sister died of tuberculosis when only a child.

It is known her father could be violent, as he was charged with assault on a neighbour. It is known they were destitute, because her father was unable to pay the parish poor rate. It is also known her mother and father’s relationship was troubled because her parents separated after Robbie Burden refused to pay for his wife’s debts.

Janey would, most probably, have gone to the local parish school till she was twelve, and then it is likely she would have worked as a laundress, seamstress, or scullery-maid. We don’t know, because she never spoke about her childhood.

La Belle Iseult (1858) William Morris
When John Mackail was writing his biography of her husband, William Morris, he wished to talk about Jane’s background. She refused to tell him anything or let him include a drawing of where she had once lived.

Mackail wrote angrily, ‘If Mrs. Morris feels ashamed of having lived in a little house among surroundings of extreme beauty before she married, all I can say is that such a feeling is to me unintelligible.’

Of course it was. He was a man, university educated, and born in a respectable middle-class family. He had no idea what it would be like to be a girl growing up in a rookery.

Victorian slums are notorious for their squalid living conditions. Janey lived in St Helen’s Passage for quite some time. In 1848, the passage was described in the following terms: ‘There are several very unwholesome dirt heaps, an exceedingly bad surface drain … a deep pit partly filled with solid matters and covered with a wooden trap door is situated close to a house, the inhabitant of which complained much of the smell arising from it.’

In the 1850s, the investigative journalist Henry Mayhew described similar slums in London as ‘wretched dens of infamy, brutality and vice’. Sexual exploitation, child labour, dirt, disease and drunkenness were all sides effects of such abject poverty, and Janey would have seen it all – and quite likely suffered it too.

One of the few things that is known about Janey’s childhood is that she gathered violets in the meadows and woods outside Oxford, most probably to sell on street corners.

Later, after she became engaged to William Morris, she was sent away to learn how to be a lady. She was taught how to enunciate properly and how to play the piano and embroider.

It is believed that Janey was the inspiration for the character of Anne Brown in Vernon Lee’s 1884 novel Miss Brown, which in its turn inspired George Bernard Shaw’s 1914 play Pygmalion, in which the flower seller Eliza Doolittle is plucked from the streets and taught how to speak and act, just as Jane Burden was by William Morris. Interestingly, Shaw was very close to the Morris family, living for some years in a ménage-a-trois with May Morris and her husband.

Rather than romanticising Jane Burden’s childhood, I felt it was important to show just what a tough and brutal life she must have had. The way that she transformed herself – teaching herself to speak Italian, reading widely, and creating beautiful pieces of textile art – is such a testament to her intelligence and strength of character.

A key source for me in imagining Janey’s childhood and adolescence was the essay, ‘Where Janey Used to Live’ by Margaret Fleming, published in The Journal of William Morris Studies (Winter 1981). Also useful was Jan Marsh’s dual biography Jane and May Morris: A Biographical Story 1839-1938 (1986), Jane Morris: The Burden of History by Wendy Parkins (2013) and London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopædia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work, by Henry Mayhew (1862).

Q. Traditional narratives have Rossetti and Lizzie's relationship as sexless but that isn't the case here.  What made you interpret them that way?

Early biographers of Dante Gabriel Rossetti did indeed argue that he and Lizzie Siddal never consummated their love before marriage, despite eleven years of close association including periods when Lizzie was essentially living with Gabriel in his lodgings. One of those biographers was his brother William Rossetti who was doing whatever he could to save Rossetti’s reputation from accusations he was a seducer and a philanderer.

Elizabeth Siddal as Delia (c.1860-2) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
These same biographers named Lizzie ‘frigid’, ‘wan’, ‘passive, ‘sluggish’, ‘inert’, ‘a melancholy doll’, ‘depressive’, ‘manipulative’ and ‘a hypochondriac.’ The best that was said of her was said she was ‘frail and sensitive’.

I utterly refute those readings of her character. You only need to look at her behaviour to see they are both untrue and unkind.

Right from the very beginning of her association with the Pre-Raphaelites, Lizzie showed her willingness to transcend rules. She agreed to model in the first place, despite the common assumption that artists’ models were all prostitutes. She posed with legs bared, in boys’ clothes, for Walter Deverell’s painting of ‘Twelfth Night’. She modelled for Rossetti in suggestive poses, her hair loose, dressed only in her chemise. She defied convention and moved out of her parents’ home, which was almost unheard of at the time. William Bell Scott caught her and Gabriel alone, reading poetry together, in the twilight, something which no good Victorian maiden would ever do. She slept at Gabriel’s apartment, and invited him into her hotel room. She wanted to be an artist herself, and drew and painted and wrote poetry in defiance of society’s strictures on such activities being unladylike.

Indeed, William Rossetti – the primary apologist of his brother - wrote: ‘He was an unconventional man, and she, if not so originally, became an unconventional woman ...’

Rossetti sitting for Elizabeth Siddal (1853) D G Rossetti
Most contemporary biographers of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal – including Lucinda Hawksley, Henrietta Garnett & Franny Moyle – agree with me. Hawksley (2004) says ‘I dispute that Lizzie continued to refuse him and believe they did have a sexual relationship before marriage.’ Moyle writes, in 2009, ‘he was undoubtedly her lover.’ Garnett, writing in 2012, says: ‘Most of their acquaintance took them to be lovers.’

Jan Marsh, one of the foremost Pre-Raphaelite scholars, is not so sure. She writes: ‘It has often been asserted, without evidence, that Gabriel and Lizzie were sexually intimate during the years of their ‘engagement’, or conversely, that Lizzie refused all physical relations until a wedding ring was on her finger. Neither seems to have been the case.’

She is absolutely right in that there is no concrete evidence one way or another. I would, however, point to Gabriel’s myriad drawings of Lizzie sleeping, reading, drawing and sewing, her hair loose on her shoulders, in déshabillé, to show the level of intimacy between them.

Not to mention his poetry. Gabriel’s sonnet ‘Known in Vain’ – written in the mid-1850s, soon after he met Lizzie – reads:

‘As two whose love, first foolish, widening scope, 
Knows suddenly, to music high and soft, 
The Holy of holies …’
         

Q. You offer a bravely visceral depiction of Lizzie's eating disorder.  Why was it important to show that side of her character so graphically?

Elizabeth Siddal (1854)
One of the difficulties of writing biographical fiction is that the author cannot sit on the sidelines, and say, ‘it is believed that …’ or ‘it is possible …’ A novelist needs to try and find the explanation that seems most likely, and then bring it to life on the page.

The possibility that Lizzie might have had an eating disorder was first suggested by Elaine Shafer in a 1985 essay, ‘The Bird in the Cage’.

However, it has never been closely examined as a probable cause for her troubling illnesses. Lucinda Hawksley, in 2004, writes: ‘Much of Lizzie’s ill health originated in her mind, stemming from her desire to receive attention and love.’

Lucinda Hawksley acknowledges that Lizzie may have had some kind of eating disorder, but then says that ‘it became common for her to emotionally blackmail (Gabriel) by refusing to eat.’
Anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders are mental illnesses with devastating physical consequences. They have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Eating disorders cannot, and must not, be dismissed as a form of emotional blackmail (even though they are commonly misunderstood in such a way).

The more I researched Lizzie’s life, the more convinced I became that she did have an eating disorder. Descriptions of her thinness and her inability to eat are constant in the letters and diaries of the PRB. A few examples:

In 1854, Ford Madox Brown writes in his diary that Lizzie was ‘thinner and more deathlike and more beautiful and more ragged than ever’.

In 1857, Gabriel wrote that she is ‘not better in health or eating anything to speak of’. This was the same year in which Lizzie refused to touch food for two weeks, resulting in her admission to the health spa in Matlock.

In 1861, he refers to her ‘unfortunate lack of appetite which keeps her mostly fasting and prevents her from gaining much strength.’

Then, at the inquest into her death in 1862, he told the court ‘she could not sleep at times nor take food’ (insomnia is a common side effect of anorexia).

Most striking is the visual evidence of Gabriel’s drawings and paintings which show her physically dwindling.

Nowadays, when we see a young woman wasting away, refusing food, or vomiting after meals, we would suspect anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. However, in the mid-19th century such pronounced emaciation was normally attributed to tuberculosis, commonly called ‘consumption’ because it seemed to consume the sufferer. 

The first medical identification of eating disorders was made in 1868 (six years after Lizzie’s death), when Sir William Gull, the Queen’s physician, delivered a paper describing a digestive disorder with no known cause, which he called ‘hysteric apepsia’ (apepsia means ‘without digestion’). In 1873 (eleven years after Lizzie’s death), Ernest-Charles Lasègue, a French physician, published a paper entitled De l’Anorexie Histerique which was the first real examination of the idea that the wasting away of these young women could be caused by self-starvation. It was not understood as a mental illness, however, but as a ‘maladie imaginaire’. Sir William Gull consequently undertook further investigation and coined the term ‘anorexia nervosa’.

If Lizzie was an anorectic, she and her family and friends would have had absolutely no idea what was wrong with her. Any ‘curious perversions of appetite’, as Lasègue named them, such as binge eating, secret eating, hoarding of food, purging, refusal of food, or food-related rituals, would have seemed, at best, a hysterical demand for attention.

It is my job, as a novelist, to bring Lizzie’s inner world to life. I have to show what it would have felt like, smelt like. I have to show the revulsion and confusion of those who loved her, and I have to show Lizzie’s own self-loathing and shame. Those scenes were difficult to write, and yet I feel passionately that they explain so much of the difficult emotional dynamic between Gabriel and Lizzie and others who knew her.

I think it utterly fascinating that Christina Rossetti wrote, on 24 December 1856 (in the midst of Gabriel and Lizzie’s early passion):

He feeds upon her face by day and night,
    And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
    Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
    Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.


Q. There is a distinct difference in the dynamic of Jane and Rossetti than has previously been portrayed (which I won't reveal here because of spoilers). How difficult is it getting to the truth of such a famous relationship?

Jane Morris (1873) D G Rossetti
Once again, I examined the psychology of the people involved and made decisions about what their background and behaviour revealed about their inner lives.

Jane Burden – like Lizzie Siddal – has been judged harshly by the male biographers of her famous husband. Wendy Parkins, in her fascinating feminist re-examination of her life, Jane Morris: The Burden of History (2013), believes she ‘has been burdened by a resilient stereotype attached to her name – the unfaithful wife, the melancholy invalid, the iconic siren – a limited characterisation.’

I agree with her. I found Janey Morris one of the most interesting women in the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood – fiercely intelligent, strong-willed, and free of conventional Victorian morality thanks to her wretched upbringing in the slums of Oxford.

I also believe that Dante Gabriel Rossetti has been unfairly cast as a libertine and a philanderer. Which is not to say that I believe him to be altogether free of sexual indiscretion; I simply do not believe he acted quite as carelessly and unkindly as many believe. He was clearly racked with guilt and remorse after Lizzie’s death, and he was, in his youth at least, idealistic and romantic.

Jan Marsh writes, in her dual biography of Janey and her daughter May, that the affair between Gabriel and the wife of one of his best friends ‘is less of a puzzle if it is admitted that Jane may herself have been ‘passionate, fascinating and determined’ rather than simply the object of another’s ardour. At the very least, she was eager and willing to develop the affair.’

Wendy Parkins also argues that the traditional view of Dante Gabriel Rossetti as seducer and Janey Morris as the seduced deprives her of any emotional agency. I believe this to be an untrue reading of the relationship between the two. Janey risked everything for her love for Gabriel, and I believe she did so joyously and determinedly.


Q. I love the way that certain situations echo the paintings, so I have to ask - do you have a favourite Pre-Raphaelite painting?


Oh, so many! It was so wonderful to spend such a long time scrutinising some of the most exquisite art ever created. My favourites include ‘Prosperina’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, where he painted Janey Morris as the goddess of spring, condemned to spend half of every year in the world of the dead; John Millais Everett’s painting of Lizzie Siddal as ‘Ophelia’; Rossetti’s painting of Lizzie as ‘Francesca da Rimini’ and ‘Beata Beatrix’; Edward Burne-Jones’s multitude of angels, and ‘Love in Ruins’ and ‘Merlin and Nimue’; and Jane Morris and her daughter May’s gorgeous embroideries. And – of course! The many ‘Sleeping Beauty’ drawings and paintings that Edward Burne-Jones painted over his lifetime, which give me the key narrative thread in Beauty in Thorns.

The Legend of Briar Rose (1885-90) Edward Burne-Jones
Many, many thanks to Kate for allowing me read an advance copy of her book and for answering my questions.  

At present, Beauty in Thorns has only been released in Australia but until it has a worldwide release, it is possible to get a copy through The Book Depository.

Friday, 14 July 2017

The Mysterious Miss Bunn

This is part blog post, part request for information, so bear with me.  Today we are looking at the career of artist and enamelist Miss Fanny Bunn...

Fairies Trinket Bowl (1921)
Some of you might remember an exhibition on women artists, held at the Russell-Cotes in 2014.  It was whilst finding objects for the show that Mr Walker (seen in red, above) found this glorious, luminous trinket bowl by an artist named Fanny Bunn. Well, that is just the best name ever.  Not a great deal of information was available on Miss Bunn at the time and so I always intended to look deeper and see what I could find...

Hill Top, West Bromwich - Bunn country...

Miss Fanny Bunn was born in the autumn of 1870 in West Bromwich, Staffordshire.  Her family was living at the time with her maternal grandfather, a grocer.  The family was young, and Levi and Emma Bunn had managed to have two daughters within two years of their marriage.  Levi's family business was coach-building, and his father Samuel had been a coachsmith before him.  However in 1850 Samuel, who lived at Hill Top, West Bromwich, had been declared bankrupt, which might explain why they were living with Emma's parents.  By later census returns it seems that Emma still served in her father's shop until her husband became comfortably off, financially speaking.

By 1881, Levi's occupation was listed as both book merchant and brass hinge maker.  They had moved to their own home in Walsall Street, West Bromwich and they were one of the few families on the street who kept a servant, 16 year old Elizabeth Campion.  Fanny and her slightly older sister Rebecca were at school, and when they left school, Fanny continued on to art school, to be specific the Birmingham Municipal School of Art.
The Legend of Sandalphon, the Angel of Prayer (1890-1900)

By 1891, the Bunn family fortunes were on a pretty even keel. They had moved to Beeches Road in West Bromwich, a very pleasant red-brick terrace of houses with gothic-arched windows.  Levi Bunn was listed as a Liberal Council candidate in the 1890s.  Fanny's work was winning awards - The Legend of Sandalphon was admitted to the National Art Competition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it was exhibited (this piece was stamped 'Examined South Kensington') from Birmingham. Sandalphon is an archangel responsible for protecting unborn children.  The weeping angels either side of the archangel do raise some questions about Fanny's experiences of pregnancy as this is not a happy picture.

The Victor (1904)
In 1904 she won the Princess of Wales scholarship of £25 for her piece entitled The Victor, now in the collections of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The enamel panel, reported in the London Daily News as 'well disposed, rich in colour' was somewhat dismissed by adding 'although the types of women looking down on the knight might have been more happily chosen.' Charming. However the Arts and Craft Magazine's coverage of the National Art Competition in 1904 praised her 'brilliant and harmonious' colouring of the scene and 'exquisite translucence of the enamels', lifting her work above the 'commonplace'.

Design for a Peacock (1901)
Seemingly aware that her name was not exactly a glamorously artistic one, Fanny Bunn briefly took on the pseudonym 'Peacock', which was also the subject of her prize winning design for an enamelled decorative panel in 1901.  She also won further awards, this time a gold medal and £25, for her enamelled panel of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, in 'rich tones of blue, violet and peacock' (as reported in East and South Devon Advertiser in 1902). This piece resides in the V&A, the very museum where it won the medal. The quality of her work and her prizes made her famous and brought her back to the Birmingham school as a teacher of enamelling in 1905.

Enamelled portrait of George Robertson Sinclair, organist at Hereford Cathedral
 Whilst most of Fanny's work is rarely on display these days, one piece is on constant show.  Her enamelled portrait of the organist and musical director at Hereford Cathedral, George Robertson Sinclair (d.1917) is on the wall of the cathedral if you fancy seeing it.  By 1911 census, Levi and his two daughters were still living at Beeches Road, Emma having died a decade before, just after the last census.  Fanny was listed as an artist but neither Rebecca or Levi worked, and they had a young maid to take care of the family.  The last that we know of Fanny's work is the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists Autumn Exhibition of 1921, where Case 2 in Gallery 3 held the trinket bowl entitled Fairies and a silver powder box Memory.

The Eve of St Agnes (no date)
That is all we know so far, although Fanny's Will from 1950 list more items which must be in someone's collection.  She left everything to her sister, who outlived her by five years, and amongst the pieces listed are an enamel plaque entitled Gloria in Excelsis, a panel in grisaille (which means shades of grey), a tripych of The Nativity, a portrait in limoges of 'Miss Simms' and a full length watercolour portrait of Rebecca. So where are all these pieces?  Over to you, my art detectives, do you know where any of these pieces are?  Do you own a Fanny Bunn original?  If so I'd love to hear from you!  Much like Meave Doggett (who you might remember from this blog post) Fanny just fades from view after the early 1920s but I'm hoping that her work continued, and her pieces are just waiting to be gathered into a marvellous retrospective.  Given how glorious the little trinket bowl is, that would be an amazing sight indeed...