Friday, 12 May 2017

Like Nutmeg for Rheumatism

I am irresistibly drawn to historical figures who everyone hates.  It's an odd thing to admit, but if a figure, usually a woman, gets dismissed, made fun of, or generally loathed by subsequent biographers then I cannot help but want to know more. That is how I ended up in the company of Miss Mary Francis Vivian Lobb...

Miss Lobb and dog
As Jan Marsh says in her 1986 biography of Jane and May Morris, 'Miss Lobb has received an unsympathetic press.' From the very earliest accounts of her at Kelmscott to modern retellings of May Morris' life, Miss Lobb is a figure of fun at best and a murderess at worse.  Yet amongst those lurid tales of drink, lesbianism and gardening there are gems of kindness and understanding that make me question our attitude to May's companion. It is an easy comparison for me to make between sturdy, jolly Miss Lobb and Fanny Cornforth and I definitely think it is time that Miss Lobb was given more time, so let's make a start...

Actually, before I start I need to direct you to the work already done by Simon Evans at the National Library of Wales, which can be found here.  I stumbled across Simon's work recently and cursed him verily as I had spent a year doing exactly the same research but his work is wonderful and the collection they have sounds amazing.  He's helped me fill in a couple of gaps and as it is rare that I have used someone else's work on the internet, I am delighted to thank him here. Anyway, onwards...

May Morris (1890s) Frederick Hollyer
I wrote about May Morris in 2013.  She was a young woman who seemed to spend her life overshadowed by a great father and a famous mother, who strove to continue her father's work and somehow never owned it herself and had her mother's talent for picking dodgy men. Her 'spiritual marriage' with George Bernard Shaw amounted to very little and her actual marriage to Henry Halliday Sparling lasted only 6 years, barely outlasting her father.  By the new century May had become isolated, psychologically if not physically, in the Morris household at Kelmscott.

Jolly times at Kelmscott, c.1905
I've always felt the above picture made Jane look like a spider in a web, keeping everyone with her.  I was once told that if you sit on the floor in the presence of your parents it signifies that you always see yourself as a child, so make what you will of May's position next to her mother as opposed to Jenny, sitting on the chair beside them.  I get the impression that the Kelmscott life continued through the first decade of the new century, forever celebrating the achievements of William as if to emphasise his absence.  As war approached Jane died in Bath just as May was working furiously on a collection of her father's works, published finally in 1915.  Jenny retired to a collection of caring homes that kept her at a distance for the rest of her life.  Outside Kelmscott Manor, the world was changing and it was bringing change to May's door. Off to Cornwall we go!

From The Graphic 1878

Mary Francis Vivian Lobb was born 16 years after May, in 1878.  Her father, Nicholas William Lobb, was a financial negotiator and inventor, patenting things such as dried milk, vermin traps (the 'Holdfast', in 1891) and a preparation of farinaceous (starchy) foods (1878).  Both of Miss Lobb's parents were originally from Cornwall, and though she and her older brother Nicholas were born in Surrey, by the 1881 census they were all living at Mary's maternal grandparent's farm at South Petherwin in Cornwall.  In the 1891 census, Mary Lobb was attending a small private school which had only 10 pupils, girls between the ages of 12 and 15.  This was St Thomas' College, under the headmistress Caroline Stringer, in nearby Launceston, but after her academic career she was back at home in Trewen, less than 10 miles from Launceston and South Petherwin by the 1901 census.  Whilst Nicholas Junior was keen to leave the confines of rural Cornwall, first as a apprentice railway engineer, then immigrating to Canada, second son George Leopold remained on the family farm with his mother.  Arabella, the youngest, also remained in Cornwall for the whole of her life.  By the 1911 census, George, Arabella and Mary all live with their widowed mother on their farm, 'Trenault' but all that was about to change...

Miss Lobb and her mechanical skills (c.1914)
Back to Gloucestershire for the outbreak of the First World War: After the death of Jane Morris in the January of 1914, May attempted to get help in the home by advertising for a cook.  Jane had been forced to buy Kelmscott from their neighbour Robert Hobbs after he could not guarantee that they could live their for their entire lives. There is no mention whether this was a bone of contention between the Morris family and the Hobbs family but I can't imagine the effort Jane went to to be able to secure her daughter's home was seen as an enjoyable thing.  Also in June of 1914 May wrote a letter in the Gloucestershire Echo about  local farmers' 'ruthless cutting of the hedges, which are becoming an eyesore instead of a beauty'.  May concludes that 'ruthlessness is not really required for good farming'.  You do have to wonder if she was referring to her neighbour.  During this time Robert Hobbs was making changes to his farm's working hours in order to make the hours female friendly.  These concerns were reflected in reports from Cornwall where the skills of female farm workers were becoming news-worthy.  In the West Briton newspaper, in a piece about what would happen on farms 'if men were taken wholesale', it boasted of 'highly skilled' ladies but also complained that farmers were unaware that their skills could be utilised and that some women would be tempted to leave the county.  In the Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph of March 1916 there was concern that munitions factories were tempting women off the land with good wages and promises of work, whereas farmers refused to take women from labour exchanges and complained they were short-handed.  Possibly this was what led to Miss Mary Lobb being sent out of Cornwall to Gloucestershire, more precisely to Kelmscott village.

The Hobbs family, Robert is seated, centre
On page 2 of the West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser of Monday 11 September 1916, there was a short piece entitled 'Cornish lady drives a steam roller' - 'Miss Lobb of Trenault, a lady of independent means, is to be seen every day driving a steam roller on the main roads near Launceston.'  This was such a gripping news story that they ran it again on the Thursday of the same week.  Around the same time Miss Lobb competed with other women to win £5 by binding up 12 bundles of wood in the quickest time.  When she received her posting to Gloucestershire, she was put to work immediately.  In Robert Lusty's memoir Bound to be Read (1975), he remembers going with his aunt to collect Miss Lobb from the railway station.  Lusty's mother was Winifred Hobbs, pictured seated on the far right of the above picture. His memory of his first sight of Miss Lobb is particularly vivid:
'And where', she inquired, 'is our Miss Lob [sic]? We looked around for a likely land-girl and could see none.  The platform slowly emptied, leaving only one memorable figure upon it.  It was extraordinary even to my innocent eyes: squat, mannish and a little threatening. 'That,' said my Aunt Helen, 'cannot surely be Miss Lob?' But indeed it was and with her odd baggage she heaved herself into the back of the car and we drove in silent contemplation back to Kelmscott.' (page 15)
  Lusty's memories of Miss Lobb at his grandfather's farm paint a picture of a strong-willed woman who put people's backs up.  I don't think it was long between her hiring and her firing, but the versions of events are quite different depending on who you believe.  Lusty tells of a woman who was so foul-mouthed 'that it quickly became imperative for her to work in the fields alone' driving away even the seagulls (p.15-16 of Bound to be Read).  In fact, the local blacksmith, who was well-known for 'the ferocity and ingenuity of his own vocabulary' might have had a hand in her dismissal, as Lusty reports he 'felt unable to tolerate so formidable a competitor.'  Lusty accompanied his grandfather when he went to sack Miss Lobb who was out on her tractor, ploughing:
'He looked relieved on returning to the car. 'I have sacked Lob,' he said and we proceeded on our quiet way to Bampton.' (p.16 of Bound to be Read)
 It is easy to find accounts that Miss Lobb had been asleep or drunk at her tractor and that was the cause of her dismissal, but I believe the account of the man who was present and it would seem a woman, capable but difficult and as foul-mouthed as the blacksmith would be a divisive figure.  There is an interesting account of the Hobbs' farm here and it would seem that Robert Hobbs had worked hard to make his farm commercially viable, notwithstanding the pressures of war.  The last thing he needed was a woman who offended his male farm workers and might endanger the smooth working of the farm.  So Miss Lobb left, but didn't go far...

Miss Morris and Miss Lobb, c.1920s
It's a bit of a mystery why May Morris would swoop in and immediately employ a recently sacked, difficult land-girl. One explanation might come from Marjorie Breakspear in this account of meeting Miss Lobb at Kelmscott.  Breakspear was the niece of Lily Huntley, school teacher in Kelmscott, and in her memoir she records how May Morris and Mrs Hobbs both stood as president of the Kelmscott Women's Institute - 'There seemed to be a little rivalry about the office.' (page 11 of 'My Memories of Kelmscott').  If May had intended to complain about Hobbs in her letter about hedge trimming and to actively compete with Mrs Hobbs over this aspect of local role, possibly her acquisition of Miss Lobb into the household at Kelmscott Manor was done out of mischief as much as necessity.  As May was listed as an attendee, she might have already met Miss Lobb at the demonstration of 'Women in Farm Work' on the farm in Kelmscott, as recorded in the Banbury Guardian in June of 1916.  How ever it occurred, Miss Lobb entered Kelmscott Manor in 1916 and only left it after she and May had died.

Miss Morris and Miss Lobb (c.1920s)
The most striking thing about most people's account of Miss Lobb is the physical descriptions of her.  Much like Fanny Cornforth, no account of Miss Lobb can exist without extensive and often derogatory reports of her appearance which are often contradictory.  One thing that everyone agrees with is that her hair was cropped.  In Teresa A Lock's account Miss Lobb's hair was 'cut very short', in Marjorie Breakspear's account it was 'black curly hair, cut short as a man's'.  She is also always in male attire, wearing plus-fours or 'knickerbockers' (as Lily Years recalled in this article and Sir Geoffrey Mander in a 1945 Spectator article on 'Pre-Raphaelite Links').  This is confirmed in Sir Sidney Cockerell's memories of Kelmscott (as written in Cockerell by Wilfrid Blunt) who writes that she was always dressed in man's clothes. Also, the tie in the above photograph can be presumed to be red as both Lily Years and Alan Kitching separately recall her wearing a tie of this colour)  Her height is one that varies, some recalling her as tall (from Gudrun Jonsdotir's account of May and Lobb in Iceland) and Marjorie Breakspear, but then others describing her as 'squat', such as Robert Lusty, but all accounts describe her as masculine and also fat, weighing over 20 stone (as remembered by Teresa A Lock).  All use adjectives such as 'startling' (Geoffrey Mander MP) to express just how unexpected and powerful a presence Miss Lobb was at the Manor, amongst the Arts and Crafts needlework and Rossetti oils.  Cockerell goes further and calls her 'rather violent in some of her behaviour and perhaps a little mad' (Cockerell, p.65).  Her level of education was sneered at by Lily Yeats and Marjorie Breakspear reported that Miss Lobb had 'pretended to know a great deal about William Morris', yet others such as George Bernard Shaw's biographer Margot Peters state that Miss Lobb privately considered 'Morris to have been "an awful bore"' (Bernard Shaw and the Actresses, p.398).  I don't believe the two to be incompatible, and it might have been that Miss Lobb did know a great deal about Morris but just didn't really feel the enthusiasm of May's friends. One of her few defenders, Basil Blackwell wrote two articles in The Bookseller during the early 1960s.  He denied he ever heard her speak an 'improper word'. Even though Simon Evans has an account of Miss Lobb calling William Morris a 'dreadful old bore', Miss Lobb defended and bullied Blackwell into supporting May in her work on her father.  There is a wonderful anecdote in the Garden History Society Newsletter about a tea that May and Miss Lobb attended where Miss Lobb was asked if May would like to see the garden - 'The formidable Miss Lobb peered out of the window and said firmly, 'No, it is too mauve - the Morrises don't like mauve, you know.'' (Issue 61, Spring 2001, p.22).

May Morris (left) and Miss Lobb (right) with friends at Kelmscott
Miss Lobb joined the Kelmscott household as a gardener but swiftly became May's companion and close friend who ably fought May's battles, kept away anyone who she felt was bothering May.  That included Lord Berners MP, who had allegedly planned to install a siren at his home nearby.  Lord Berners, who knew Miss Lobb in person, replied 'It would be better is Mr [sic] Lobb had ascertained the facts before writing a letter which sounded as though it had emanated from the brain of a crazy spinster.' (from Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric by Mark Amory).  Miss Lobb continued her interest in her family land in Cornwall, advertising it to be let for £2 a week (Sheffield Daily Independent, Tuesday 12 April 1932).  May and Miss Lobb lived simply at the Manor, using the kitchen as a living room, lit by lamp as there was no electricity in the Manor as yet.  It is interesting how her friends responded to the presence of Miss Lobb in her life.  In George Bernard Shaw's account, Miss Lobb is merely a guard dog who knew nothing of the deep 'mystical betrothal' that existed between himself and May.  Janis Londraville, in On Poetry, Painting & Politics: The Letters of May Morris and John Quinn states that May, by the time she met Miss Lobb, knew her dreams had all vanished into 'thin air' (p.27).  May herself had apparently grown 'masculine and moustached' (George Bernard Shaw's account) and Miss Lobb's company seems to diminish May Morris in the eyes of others, reducing them both to 'two lesbian ladies of Llangollen' (William Morris: A Life for Our Time by Fiona MacCarthy, p.679).  I have often wondered if the characters of Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd in Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced were based on Miss Morris and Miss Lobb.  If not, that stereotype of a lesbian couple, one masculine, one more fluttery and girlish, is how Miss Morris and Miss Lobb are often pigeonholed and reduced.  May Morris herself found the village interest in her relationship with Miss Lobb amusing (according to Marjorie Breakspear's account).  When the village found out that the couple shared a room and Miss Lobb kept a loaded gun by her bed to ward off intruders 'the village folk had a lot to say about it.' I bet they did...

May Morris reading in bed, allegedly taken by Miss Lobb
In truth, May Morris had found someone who actually made her happy.  The couple were devoted to each other. There was no 'mystical betrothal' nonsense or unhappy marriage and after the unease of her parents' marriage and the disaster of her own, it must have been utter joy to find a soul mate.  I love the image from Marjorie Breakspear's account, of May and Miss Lobb allowing the grasses and flowers in their field to grow long and then cutting them with scythes. May continued to work hard for her father's memory and took Miss Lobb on a trip to Iceland, wonderfully recorded by Gudrun Jonsdottir:
 'Two foreign ladies came riding up the lane leading to the manse where I lived with my parents ... one was rather small, slim and grey-haired ... the other lady was tall and rather fat with short, black hair that curled around her chubby face.  She did not change for dinner except putting on a different kind of trousers.  She talked rather loudly and laughed often. Her name was Miss Lobb.'
Rather than the rather patronising summary by Cockerell, that if May had 'married the right man' 'how much happier, more effective, and - different - she would have been.' (Margot Peters (p.398), I see May and Miss Lobb as perfectly happy and industrious and it is obvious that we are only just beginning to appreciate the scope and depth of May's work, let alone the positive implications of her relationship with Miss Lobb.  Whilst I don't really share the enthusiasm for labelling people, I don't think there is any doubt that the latter years of May Morris' life were improved beyond measure due to the equal and abiding love of Miss Lobb.

May Morris on a Pony in Iceland, presumably taken by Miss Lobb
 May wrote her will in 1929, correctly assuming that it was likely she would outlive her sister, and leaving the bulk of her estate to Miss Lobb.  Jenny too had made this assumption even before her mother's death in 1914, writing a will leaving her belongings to May (there is a wonderful piece on Jenny here).  May's serious illness of 1928 made the local papers but she was not to die until a decade later.  When she died after a short illness on Sunday 17th October 1938, the newspapers reported her exquisite needlecraft, how she was a pioneer in jewellery, her work with SPAB and her role in the founding of the Women's Guild of Arts (from the Gloucestershire Echo, 18 October 1938).  It was rumoured by some villagers that 'Miss Lobb 'has summit to do with it'' (from Bound to be Read, p.17) or, in James' Laver's Museum Piece - 'they do say as she done away with the old lady.' (p.196), but mostly the accounts are of a woman so broken-hearted that she got drunk and killed herself, possibly with the loaded gun by the side of her and May's bed.

May Morris' funeral, almost identical to her father's
The truth is of course somewhat more complicated.  It is true that Miss Lobb, and possibly May, liked her drink.  There is a jolly advert in the 29th September 1933 Western Gazette which reads 'WANTED, 60 Gallons of NEW CIDER, made from Blenheim Oranges only, casks provided - LOBB, Kelmscott, Lechlade, Glos.' Well, that's the weekend taken care of.  On her death certificate her death is due to conditions that have connection associated with her smoking, drinking and weight but according to Simon Evan's research, Miss Lobb had been ill in her last years and May Morris had paid for her to receive medical help on several occasions.  Had they been husband and wife we would not blink at the fact that they could not survive apart for long, but for some reason we wonder at the devoted pair perishing months apart.  As it was, Miss Lobb was not drunk and idle in her last months.  In an article for The Burlington Magazine (1976) Shirley Bury writes that Miss Lobb responded to the letters of condolence she received at the death of her companion, including one from the director of the V&A.  She also wrote letters to the local newspapers on subjects such as the patterned quilts she had found in the attic chest at Kelmscott (Western Morning News and Daily Gazette 2 February 1939) and the medicinal quality of nutmeg for rheumatism (same paper, the day before).  These may indicate a lonely soul at the end of her life, but also continues a family tradition as it is possible to read letters from her sister Arabella to her local papers on such matters as aquarium keeping, the 'ashen fagot' and when her father caught a white mole.  

Miss Lobb and May Morris, camping
When Miss Lobb finally joined her beloved in the hereafter, her Will caused much interest. Under the headline 'NO HEARSE OR COFFIN', the Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic (October 7 1939) reported that Miss Lobb's dying wishes were to be placed in 'just a plain, oblong box of deal, rough but strong.' and it was to be conveyed to the crematorium not by a hearse but a 'motor lorry'.  Furthermore she wanted to be cremated without a religious ceremony, no mourning or flowers and her ashes to be sprinkled back in Cornwall, preferably Bosporthennis Moor.  It is interesting that most biographies that include Miss Lobb do not know or arguably care what became of her.  The versions of the story where she dies of drink, gunshot or something equally dramatic proliferate, including a very exciting postscript in Haunted Cotswolds by Diz White which records that Miss Lobb's ghost roams the attics of Kelmscott calling for May.

The trouble with Miss Lobb is that she has thus far mostly been a humorous aside in the story of May Morris.  Much like Fanny and Rossetti, Miss Lobb is used to undermine May and by extension William Morris, showing foolishness, bad judgement, questionable taste.  For some, Miss Lobb emphasises May Morris' inability to find 'the right man'.  Miss Lobb is a polar opposite to the waiflike Pre-Raphaelite maidens, lumbering around Kelmscott secretly hating William Morris whilst driving away May's former friends with the gun that would end her own life.  Miss Lobb, like Fanny, is a misunderstood caricature, willfully misrepresented in order to pander to the prejudices and vanities of people like George Bernard Shaw.   John Betjemen and his friends travelled to see May and Miss Lobb, a couple of old lesbians, as if they were some sort of tourist attraction. Evelyn Waugh visited Kelmscott in 1927 where he found May Morris and her 'hermaphrodite' (quoted in Jan Marsh's Jane and May Morris).  Sidney Cockerell saw May as a beautiful young woman who was psychologically flawed and full of discontent (p.66 Cockerell by Wilfrid Blunt).  During the 1920s and 30s, when all that the Pre-Raphaelites had been was substantially dismantled in the wake of war, it seemed almost obligatory to poke fun at the last remnants of a previous era.  There is no excuse for us to continue doing so.

I find Miss Lobb's letter about the benefits of nutmeg to emblematic of what I want to say here.  It reads:
Sir;- Two years ago I met at a friend's house a Roman Catholic priest, who told me that some years previously he had been laid up with rheumatism for many weeks with doctors in attendance.  He was finally cured. After a while he met a friend who told him about nutmegs.  he thought he would try them.  He was free for a long time so he forgot about his nutmegs.  Soon he began to get rheumatic twinges.  He returned to nutmegs.  The twinges went.  Now he finds if he goes without nutmegs for long rheumatism returns.  I personally find they keep rheumatism at bay, but I have friends who find them no use at all.  MFV LOBB, Kelmscott Manor, Glos
  I don't know how well known Miss Lobb's love of the nutmeg was known, but I am forced to wonder if a story in a 1940s copy of Punch magazine refers to it.  In 'Working Party', Miss Lobb goes to her grocer in search of a nutmeg grater (Punch 8 April 1942) and if a generation of post war writers, like Betjeman and Waugh, went in search of the Lesbian Ladies of Lechlade, I can't imagine Miss Lobb would have any qualms about sharing her views on a great many things. But the nutmegs say something about Mary and May and their relationship.  If we believe that May was unhappy at the way her life had dissolved, then Miss Lobb might have been her nutmeg.  Miss Lobb freed May of pain and unhappiness, she gave her devotion and company and a defense against the world which can't have been easy, even for a woman of independent means, however slim. Like nutmeg for rheumatism, even if others found her disagreeable or unfathomable, Miss Lobb was May's way to find ease at last.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Happy Birthday to Me! (again) (for the sixth time)

Birthday felicitations upon each and every one of you lovely people because today is the sixth anniversary of The Kissed Mouth!  It was way back in 2011 that I started this nonsense and haven't we come a long way?  A new edition of Stunner and two novels later, I feel we have all become such good chums.  I only regret that I can't have all of you round to tea for some cake today, but as I get 50,000 hits on this blog a month, I'm not sure I have enough chairs.  Anyway, I am grateful to each and every one of you for your support because without you I'd just be some strange woman, sniggering at her own jokes.  So what have we been up to in the last year...?

May 2016

Actually, in late April I featured a story about how Jane Morris helped some seamstresses in a time of poverty, which gave me a new respect for the normally silent Mrs Morris.  Into May, and I started with various images of St. Cecilia, playing her musical instruments and dying horribly.  I followed up with a piece about photographic genius Oscar Rejlander and his connection to Julia Margaret Cameron and Freshwater. One of my favourite subjects from last year was next, the story of the Silver Domino, which has to be my image of the month...
I must try and get hold of a physical copy of the book because that cover is so beautiful, but in the post I provide a link to download it for free. I followed it up with a post about singing, a subject dear to my heart, and of course you poor souls have been witness to my singing on this blog.  I finished the month with a review of the follow up film to Alice in Wonderland, Disney's Alice through the Looking Glass, which was even more bonkers than the first one and had absolutely nothing to do with the books...

June 2016

I thoroughly enjoyed the Tate's exhibition Painting with Light last Summer, reviewed here, so much so I saw it twice.   I also had the pleasure of reading the saucy Victorian shenanigans of Abigail Jones.  We chatted about 'The Gardener's Daughter' by Tennyson and its associated paintings.  Can I just repeat the phrase 'The lime a summer home of murmurous wings'? Goodness me, I may never get over how beautiful 'murmurous wings' is.  It was in June that I ruined my browser history by Googling 'golden shower' for my piece on Danaë, from which my image of the month comes...

Danaë (c.1900) Carolus Duran
Smashing!  Last on the list for June was a piece on hammocks and the delights of swinging in a garden.  It's such a lovely day today, I wouldn't mind a bit of that right now. Snigger.

July 2016

We started July wondering why Burne-Jones' paintings had people endlessly reaching for each other.  I followed that with a review of A S Byatt's new book on Morris and Fortuny. It is possibly the strangest book I have read this year, not really a biography but more of a personal relationship with the work of the men and their relationship to each other.  Interesting and beautifully illustrated.  It is a very indulgent book, but in a nice way.  It was in July that I found I had never done a post on kissing.  How is that possible?! That was swiftly rectified and much snogging ensued.  In fact, have a bit more...

The Kiss Henry John Stock
I also reviewed a tiny book on Julia Margaret Cameron which is a concise version of Virginia Woolf's sort-of biography of her great aunt. Not only that but I reviewed a marvellous novel by William Rose, about The Strange Case of Madeleine Seguin. I also reached my 600th post in July and marked it with a piece all about images of visually impaired people in honour of my gloriously blind-as-a-bat daughter, who absolutely needs no-one's pity.

August 2016

August seemed to be the month I rambled on about my love of Tennyson illustrations, as both this post on 1920s illustration of his work and this one on a 1960s 'Lady of Shalott' occurred this month. I also talked about pubic hair far more than was necessary with a post about hiding your naughty bits in Victorian art. Come on, let's have a bit more nudity, this time with the lady covered up and the gentleman with his winkle out. Makes a nice change...

Phyllis and Demophoon (1870) Edward Burne-Jones
Finally, heading into the bank holiday, we visited the exhibition of Georgiana Houghton and her spirit drawings, which was absolutely fascinating and I hope we get more information about her incredible drawings in the future.

September 2016

In September I took up swimming and so obviously did a post about Victorian swimming images. There were a plethora of bathing machines, winsome maidens on rocks and mermaids, which is splendid stuff all round.  I also revealed how Julia Margaret Cameron's maid, Mary Hillier (my current obsession) worked for Tennyson in the place of her sister for two months, and how different those households must have been...

Mary Hillier (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
Many thanks to everyone who encourages me with my book on Mary and I can report it is coming along fine, although slowly.  Writing non-fiction rather than fiction is a difficult business but I am having enormous fun.  Hopefully I will bring you more news soon...

October 2016

In October my washing machine broke and I spent a short and miserable time being a scrubber.  I have never wanted a mangle so much in the whole of my life.  It was also the month we launch #RememberFanny, about which I hope to talk to you some more soon. Not far from where I live is a railway station in the New Forest which sports a fascinating collection of Julia Margaret Cameron prints in honour of when she used to cross from there to the Wight, so we went and had a look at them.  It was also the month that I published this piece about what should and shouldn't be talked about in biography (a subject I would return to).  It was in response to a piece I had written on Beatrice Offor, which had led to me getting some particularly nasty emails from an apparent descendant of the artist who didn't like the fact I had reported (from facts, you know me) that someone had died in an asylum and Offor herself had committed suicide.

'Dear Ms Stonell Walker, me and my mates are coming round to duff you up...'
 I removed my piece on Offor because honestly, I get enough hassle from overly-intense people about subjects I really care about, but the whole encounter would give me a taste of what was to come when I reviewed Victorians Undone.  Ho hum, we live and learn. Anyway, the last piece from this month was a review of the utterly splendid The Last Days of Leda Grey. Spoiler alert - I only ever review books I really enjoy or that fascinate me, so if you see me reviewing something it's because I have something positive to say.  I can never understand people who go out of their way to be mean and critical about someone else's work. As we say in our house, people can be terrible, I'm glad we're not people.

November 2016

I told you about my exhibition of drawings by Violet Manners this month, which was a great honour for me.  This is the first time I have ever curated an exhibition and it was a pleasure to see the utterly gorgeous drawings and get to handle things like Violet's daughter Diana Cooper's note about the collection that were given to the Russell-Cotes.  The exhibition is coming down shortly but has been an education indeed. At the same time, the Russell-Cotes ran an exhibition about modern art from their collection and as a firm Victorianist, even I feel utterly swoony when faced with pictures like this...

The Bather (c.1930) Thomas Martine Ronaldson
I rounded off the month by freaking us all out with a collection of dolls. Sorry. Dolly's secret is she will come for you in the middle of the night and the last thing you will feel is little cold, china hands.  Sorry again.

December 2016

This year's Blogvent went all classy with angels, a whole bunch of them.  What is the collective noun for angels? A flapping? A judgement? Apparently it is choir (predictable) or pinhead (oh, I like that one).  So I brought you a veritable pinhead of angels, my favourite being this one...

The Soul of the Forest (1898) Edgar Maxence
Such lovely parrot-y wings!  I also wrote a short story about murder, ghosts and avenging angels, which I enjoyed doing very much and so I think I might do that again this year, possibly around Halloween.... We rounded off the year with a collection of frankly odd New Year cards.  Happy 2017...

January 2017

We kicked off the new year in traditional fashion - with fresh fruit.  I finally got round to doing a post on pineapples in art, which is typical of how I work.  I get an idea then it might take me months to find all the images I'm after. I wrote a very personal piece about how lonely it can be to research and how it feels when the subject of your devotion becomes popular. It is hard to share, but in sharing, you find people who are like you in wonderful ways. Writing this blog has put me in touch with people who have become very special to me because although we live far apart, we share the same obsessions. Here's me and Fanny...

Anyway, I ended the month with a piece about the passing of Jane Morris, and I realised how many of the stunners died in the first couple of months of the year.  Strange but true.  Moving on...

February 2016

I started the month with a couple of reviews.  First, I visited the Lockwood Kipling exhibition at the V&A and discovered Mr Kipling and his exceedingly good art and design.  I also reviewed Victorians Undone which was an argumentative week of my life and I apologise to everyone who had to talk to me.  I still can be set off just by mentioning it.  It's both a great and disturbing book that says more about what we as readers want to know than it does about the subject of biographies. I also talked about the Keown family, subjects of Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs like this one...

The Whisper of the Muse (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
Finally this month marked the second time we could remember Fanny Cornforth on the anniversary of her death. I talked about how you should always question everything you are told, especially if it makes no sense.  Fanny's contribution to Rossetti's life and memory is now being acknowledged and so my work here is done.  Actually, it probably isn't.

March 2017

In March, I shared some massively disturbing images of Medusa because I'd seen them and I felt the need to inflict them on you lot too.  Blimey, some of them will stay with me for a while... Also, I finally wrote a piece I'd been working on for absolutely ages, on the Celtic Revival artist Meave Doggett.  She brings us the image of this month...

The Lady Shinain at the Well of Knowledge (1905-15)
Remember, if you see a Meave piece in a collection, give me a shout, as I'd love to know of others.  Her story is very typical of women artists in the past, as her art was forgotten in favour of other, mostly male, artists.  The reasons women don't continue their work are many, but maybe Meave gave up art for love.  When her husband returned from War, his injury might have been the inspiration for her change of career into physiotherapy.  Either way, Meave's work is gorgeous and it was a pleasure to find out more.

April 2017

So here we are, April, this month.  I've brought you women hacking off heads this month.  What more do you want? I didn't realise there were so many images of Judith and Holofernes and they are so gorgeous!  We also explored the new exhibition at Tate Britain all about the history of queer art, from 1861 to 1967.  That century held some gorgeous pieces and brought me together with my new best friend, Gluck...

Self Portrait (1942) Gluck
Well, that's our sixth year together all summed up, so me and Gluck will leave you to it while I go off and write up a big post for May.  It truly is a pleasure and an honour to write my posts for you to read and love hearing from you.  Some of you have been here for six years, some might have joined us for the first time today, but all are welcome.  See you again soon...

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Review: Queer British Art 1861-1967

This will be an imperfect review because I have tons of questions which I can't answer.  We can have a discussion afterwards, or over on my Facebook page, but firstly I will do my best to tell you what I think. Here we go then...

It all started when I received a review copy of the Tate's new exhibition Queer British Art 1861-1967.

For those who didn't realise, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of sex between consenting gentlemen.  Before 1861, this could be punished by death and was charmingly lumped in with bestiality (we have Henry VIII to thank for that, making his laws after splitting from Rome).  In some ways, the removal of the death penalty in 1861 can be seen as a massive step in the right direction, but what followed was witch-hunt levels of hysteria around high profile cases.  Now, this is all just involving men, mark you.  Apparently women did none of this sort of thing until after the First World War (shortage of men?) which then caused parliament to try and criminalize lesbianism.  The House of Lords very sensibly refused to pass that because they felt women didn't know what lesbianism was.  Marvellous. With perfect timing, that decision was followed by the publication of The Well of Loneliness. 

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) Simeon Solomon
Anyway, I was always going to be interested in this exhibition, not least because of the timeline, and so with eager anticipation I awaited the catalogue.  Let's start with what I liked - it's a lovely size, which sounds like a strange plus, but being smaller than a traditional catalogue makes it more portable without sacrificing the quality of the images.  It is beautifully illustrated throughout and contains some fascinating works of art from people as diverse as Simeon Solomon, Gluck and Joe Orton, not to mention a delightful photo of Danny La Rue.  

Oscar Wilde (1881) Harper Pennington
This is a collection where the art is brought together by the aesthetic proclivities of the artists which is an interesting way of juxtaposing otherwise disparate figures such as Edward Burra and Evelyn de Morgan, brought together because of the intellectual process of their art rather than the pictures themselves. In some cases this is a perfect moment to showcase the glory of their work.  Simeon Solomon was always going to be celebrated this year, and rightly so, as an artist and man who could not hide what he found beautiful.  His art keenly mirrored his sexual orientation and he was punished for it.  His work is brave and beautiful and it is wonderful to be able to see him in semi-isolation from the Pre-Raphaelites, away from artists who were not facing the same struggle.

The Critics (1927) Henry Scott Tuke
 Similarly, the beautiful boys of Henry Scott Tuke get decent exposure.  Tuke is one of those artists I regularly use here on the blog but I'm damned if I remember him being in an exhibition.  He crops up in provincial collections and on Summer-y greetings cards.  Definitely homosocial if not provably homosexual, Tuke's world is all male, all sunny, mostly naked. Like a queer Bob Ross, he did a set of elements and he did them well - water, light, young men, rocks. 

Fanny and Stella (Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton) (1869)
An interesting inclusion in the exhibition is the story of Fanny and Stella, which some of you might be aware of, and their resultant trial.  A theatrical double act, Fanny and Stella seem to have been a more scandalous Hinge and Bracket, blurring their performance with their life, and getting arrested for being men dressed as women, women dressed as men, and inciting people to perform unnatural practices.  Due to the damn near impossibility to prove a person's sexuality unless you catch them at it, Fanny and Stella walked free from any jail time, possibly in their crinolines.

Quentin Crisp (1941) Angus McBean
The catalogue seems to be on surer footing once it reaches the 1920s and the next 40 years are a catalogue of the who's who of Queer Britannia:  Virginia Woolf's dalliances with Vita Sackville West, who slept with who in Bloomsbury, the ill-fated partnership of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell and the grimy canvases of Hockney and Bacon.  My favourite has to be Gluck, and her astonishing self-portrait...

Self Portrait (1942) Gluck
I would have seen a complete exhibition of Gluck because her work is so striking and uncompromising, as is she.  She refused all prefixes to her name, threatening to resign when the Fine Art Society referred to her as 'Miss Gluck'.  Look at that face! I would have gone out of my way for Gluck.  However, that leads me to the problems with the exhibition and its catalogue...

Hope Comforting Love in Bondage (1901) Sidney Harold Meteyard
It would be simple to do an exhibition that focused on a single queer artist or group.  This year could have seen a retrospective of Simeon Solomon, of Queer Bloomsbury, of my new best friend Gluck. These artists, with their uncompromising exploration of what it meant to be them, to feel what they felt, to be who they were, would be a fitting celebration of how far we have come in accepting that people are all different and as long as everyone is consenting it is all completely fine and gorgeous.  What the Tate has attempted however is a wider ranging view of art between that 1861 piece of legislation and the decriminalization of the 1960s (with its neo-Victorian interests).  The very obvious problems come with the artists 'outed' in the pre-First World War section, for example twice-married Sidney Meteyard and his Hope Comforted Love in Bondage. This work is included because 'the sensuous and ambiguous nature of this painting allows for queer readings' (p.36).  Similarities to Solomon's figures is noted in the figure of Love, and the fact that Hope is fully dressed led to some fairly strong hints that Meteyard was gay without any compelling evidence.

Aurora Triumphans (1877-8) Evelyn de Morgan
Similarly, by including Aurora Triumphans, it is inferred that de Morgan's repeated use of Jane Hale as model (seen on the right in the above) could be read as same-sex desire.  The same is implied about Laura Knight's famous self-portrait with her female model.  With de Morgan, no evidence is given for any sexual attraction between the artist and model, nor any named art historian having made the claim but there it is, or at least it is used to prove that people could say that sort of thing about that sort of painting.  This is jarringly lazy compared to the excellent work on Solomon, for example, and I feel cheapens or at least complicates the struggle of queer artists in a judgmental world.  If you want to explore the path of queer art in Britain from 1861-1967, why include artists who were arguably not gay?  If you want to explore the sexual-fluidity of the artistic muse, then that's a different matter.

Female Figure Lying on her Back  (1912) Dora Carrington
The problem is that the earlier you go in the time period, the more likely artists are to hide their sexuality.  Imagine if Oscar Wilde hadn't gone to court over the subject, he might have been one of those people we hint about but as he was married with children his secret would have been safe.  When same-sex attraction resulted in prison, male artists were not likely to do anything other than conform, marry and paint naked ladies.  Artists like Solomon are rare because they make no effort to hide their sexuality, but then he was also operating within the framework of Aestheticism which celebrated androgyny.  I wonder why Edward Burne-Jones was not included in this exhibition, as his art was claimed by one MP of 'unmanning' him when he had to sit in Arthur Balfour's office surrounded by the Perseus cycle.  Burne-Jones makes you gay!  Surely that is good enough to include?

Lady with a Red Hat (Vita Sackville West) (1918) William Strang
However gorgeous this exhibition is, the failing is that it tries to cover too many concepts.  It spreads itself over artists who were openly gay and art that can be used to explore ideas of queer attraction and in the end does neither well enough.  It seems a disservice to lump in people who have struggled to advance and expand the bounds of what is accepted in art with women who painted other women and men who painted nice looking men but showed no particular interest in sleeping with them. If we want to have a discussion about the relationship between artistic appreciation and sexual preference then brilliant, but that is quite a discussion to have. In the meantime, let's raise the profile of artists who have unfairly suffered due to love, who have been denied their rightful place in art history just because they fancied a person with the same frontal arrangement as them.  It's the least we can do.

Queer British Art 1861-1967 is on at Tate Britain now and here is the website, where you can buy the catalogue.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

If You Want A Job Doing...

One of my favourite paintings at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery is this one...

Judith (1887) Charles Landelle
Her smoldering gaze brings to mind a silent movie star, and in fact she has a somewhat androgynous gorgeousness, well in her face anyway, bringing to mind Valentino as the Sheik.  She's as threatening as she is sexy, as she pulls back the bed curtain, her massive sword at her side.  If you fancy paying her a visit in the Russell-Cotes, she normally resides up on the balcony on the first floor.  You can't miss her.  Giving some ponderings to the subject, I thought I'd have a look for more Judiths in nineteenth century art...

Judith (1845) Franz von Rohden
For those of you not familiar with the story of Judith, let me enlighten you - The Book of Judith is one of those Biblical text that isn't in the Bible but sort of is in some versions and also sort of in the Torah, but not in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and may be a parable or one of the first pieces of literary fiction, but in any case it is a rather modern story of a woman taking matters into her own hands.  The action happens in Israel which has been invaded by Assyrians, led by their general, Holofernes. Judith, a beautiful widow, has faith that God will sort it all out but her fellow countrymen aren't quite so sure, so she decides to paradoxically prove them both right and wrong...

Judith (1863) John Rogers Herbert
Being a stunner, Judith managed to seduce Holofernes, getting him steaming drunk, and then hacked off his head.  She took the head back to her countrymen and said 'Look, I told you God would sort it out!' and the Assyrians all clear off home.  Hurrah for Judith!  I don't think it's any wonder that this powerful, beautiful woman cropped up in paintings, because it is a rather handy excuse to show a seductive woman, being all seductive, but for jolly fine Biblical reasons.  She might be flashing a bit of skin but it's perfectly okay because she's doing it for God.

Judith (1900) Paul Albert Steck
You could hang that in a vicar's bedroom and no-one would object because those bosoms are working for the Almighty.  Mr Steck's rather more curvy Judith neatly shows the difference in approach to this subject.  On the one hand, you have the more traditional (and dare I say dull) approach, shown by von Rohden's Judith, who is full dressed and dignified.  She looks very attractive but she's not what we would call 'seductive' exactly.  Landelle's Judith has got all kinds of sexiness going on, whilst her gorgeous clothes are a bit 'falling off'.  However, she remains dignified and very impressive.  Steck's Judith seems to be wearing a net curtain and a sash which is direct, I'll give her that, but there will be no hiding a sword in that outfit.  Plus, the plan was to get Holofernes absolutely smashed and so I think she could have kept her vest on for that.

Judith (1870) Andrea Franzovich Belloli
Here's another one who has left her clothes at home.  She is rather cunningly pinching Holofernes' sword to chop his head off which is resourceful and saves carrying the damn thing around.  I think there is no question about how this Judith rendered the general unconscious.  Saucy.

Judith (1840) August Riedel
My favourite Judith is possibly the earliest of the bunch I found, this rather dignified one by August Riedel.  I wonder if Landelle knew it as I feel his owes a lot to this lady, with her beautiful gown and massive sword.  She manages to look both seductive and capable of hacking a chaps head right off.  That's not an easy look to pull off.  Although the golden fabric is wonderful, I adore the white cotton blouse with its stripes of thinner fabric showing flesh but in a classy way.

Judith (1924) Franz von Stuck
At the other extreme we have this young lady, whose headdress echoes bobbed hair and has no problems getting her frontage out for the Lord.  The inclusion of Holofernes in this picture is markedly difference from those of the century before, who tended to shy away from including the man himself (other than occasionally his head, obviously).

Judith and Holofernes Lovis Corinth
Oh, Lovis Corinth, I knew we could depend on you.  Judith doesn't look particularly devout in this one.  She's having far too much fun.  Pull yourself together woman!

Judith (1848) Alfred Stevens
There we go, far more restrained.  This is rather 'Joan of Arc'-y or even reminds me of someone like Galahad in a G F Watts painting.  You have no doubt that this lovely woman is doing the hacking for a greater good and not because she likes getting her boobs out of an evening and getting a bit stabby.  Stevens gives Judith a sweetness she is often lacking.

Judith and Holofernes Frank Brangwyn
Even rarer than a sight of Holofernes with his head on is the sight of him sans tête.  You can often glance his head in the background of a Judith picture but the drippy corpse is usually out of view.  Not so with Brangwyn's take, and Judith seems to be holding the head up on a tray.  I'd be suspicious of this picture - I wonder if it is Salome instead?  They do get mixed up what with the severed head and everything.  If it's a tea tray then it's usually Salome.  If it's a sack, or sometimes by the hair (nice), it's Judith.  

Judith Gustav Dore
There is always that problem when you severe a head - what do you do with it then? The answer obviously is to wave it around in front of some startled people, with a nice headscarf on. Dore's Judith looks very purposeful indeed.  I mean, for goodness sake, how else was this war going to end?  Let's just get it over with and then we can go back to doing more sensible stuff.  That is one way of sorting stuff out, I suppose.  A bit messy though.

Judith (1878) Jean-Jules Antoine Lecomte du Nouy
There are some artists who I think probably just picked a Biblical name and applied it to a picture of a woman in Middle-Eastern dress.  Lecomte du Nouy's woman looks thoughtful but not filled with seductive purpose or brandishing a sword.  She looks like she's trying to work out how to arrange the furniture in her front room.  Compare that with possibly the most famous image of Judith...

Judith Beheading Holofernes (1614-18) Artemisia Gentileschi
Over two centuries before, an artist knew how to show the story with unmistakable power.  The night-glow lighting shows us a scene of utter horror with our heroine hacking the head off a struggling man.  There is no coyly exposed flesh, no glamour, just a woman who looks more than capable of performing the task. Gentileschi was an artist who had seen the worst of life, had been raped and then participated in the prosecution of her attacker, and that tends to sway the way we see this very realistic scene.  This is in stark contrast to the mostly male depictions of a beautiful cunning woman who will distract a man with her breasts before relieving him of his head. You sometimes get the impression that Holofernes might even enjoy it.  The male artists seem to be saying that Holofernes probably thought it was totally worth it because he got to see some amazing boobs before his head came off.

Judith and Holofernes (1901) Gustav Klimt
Arguably by the fin de siecle, Judith was no longer a Biblical heroine, but yet another murderous femme fatale.  Look at Klimt's triumphant beauty, sparkling with gold, her eyelids closed in ecstasy. Casting aside her motivations, she falls into the same category as Lilith, Salome, Delilah and countless other destructive sirens who will bring men to their knees before hacking off bits of them.  She is an extension of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, a woman who just wishes to entrap and enslave men for sexual purposes and whom it is impossible to resist.  Well, that's a handy excuse.  In a time when women attempt to gain equality, we are stuck with the same problem that faced depictions of the gorgons - powerful women become monstrous.  In the celebration of the determination of Judith, she is often presented as a sexual woman, who used sex as a weapon just as assuredly as she used the sword. She does not outwit the general by intelligence or military might, she gets her bosoms out.  It diminishes her power because the inference is that you will be safe if you can control your urges in the face of such beauty.  By the end of the century, this resistance becomes the embrace of death, no longer resisting that fatal kiss.  In most cases she is pictured without Holofernes as if she is there for the viewer, who may or may not be her intended victim.

Well, all I can say is that if she comes round to dinner, don't drink too much.
And hide the cutlery...