Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Wednesday 11th December - Dying Birds

Things ended on a rather positive note yesterday, which was nice.  Shall we crack on with today...?

Dying Birds (1874) Eloise Harriet Stannard
For goodness sake.  Where to start?  Well, if you were looking for a painting that contains not just one dead bird but five, then this is surely the image for you.  Also, it's a corking selection of expiring avians - there's a lovely starling, a recently deceased blue tit (my daughter just found out there were birds called tits and doesn't know what to do with herself), a red one, a yellow one and the one in the corner - sorry, we seem to have reached the end of my bird knowledge, which was admittedly quite near the beginning.  Anyway, there is also some nice foliage and a nest full of eggs, presumably all dead too.  Blimey, it's like the end of Reservoir Dogs only with garden birds.  That would actually have much improved the movie.

The best thing about this image is that it is subtitled 'For a poem'.  Crikey, are there may poems about a load of dead birds?  I mean, I know Emily Dickinson wrote 'Hope is a thing with feathers' but that really doesn't seem appropriate here.

Tennyson likes birds in his poems and has one called 'The Dying Swan', which is a bit more like it, but his poems tend to have nature, even in death as a positive thing, a renewal, that sort of thing.  Maybe our pile of birds in the painting is secretly a very hopeful image and Emily Dickinson wasn't far off the mark.  If you fancy reading The Birds of Tennyson, it's available here...

Christmas Still Life (1886) Eloise Harriet Stannard
Eloise Harriet Stannard came from a family of artists in Norwich, and she is one of the notable female members of the Norwich school.  She specialized in still life, including the very seasonable one above.  Still life isn't really my thing but that is a pretty decent orange.  It is far preferable to the dead bird picture, from the unspecified poem.  Look, this is ridiculous, I'll write a poem for it...

The Dying Birds by Kirsty Stonell Walker (aged 46 and three quarters)

All the birdies went and died
Upon this sobbing Christmastide
So farewell blue tit, finch and starling,
But such is birdie life, my darling.

See you tomorrow...

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Tuesday 10th December - Home from the Sea

After all the sadness of lost loves and bladder stones yesterday, I thought I'd move the scene outdoors today...

Home from Sea (1857) Arthur Hughes
This is probably one of the better known paintings in Sobvent, which depicts a brother and sister in the graveyard, presumably at a grave of one of their parents.  Or maybe both.  Why do things by half?  She's been at home, sorting out burials and the suchlike while he's been off at sea in a wide straw hat and very fetching sailor suit.  He's returned, with his hankie on a stick (which I thought only existed in Tom and Jerry cartoons when Tom got kicked out of the house for not catching Jerry).  All he said was 'I'm looking forward to seeing Mum and Dad', and this is where his sister took him.  I bet she didn't know how to break it to him otherwise.  'You won't exactly be seeing them, but you will be within six foot of them...'

When this was exhibited in 1857 it was entitled The Mother's Grave but I like to think that they are now both penniless orphans and the sister will be reduced to playing Whitesnake hits on her accordion in the high street to save from starving.  If you fancy re-enacting the scene, Hughes used the churchyard in Chingford as the background, so you could get your hankie on a stick and throw yourself down dramatically under a tree, for fun.  Everyone needs a hobby.

He added the figure of the sister in 1862 when he changed the title to Home from Sea.  The girl is his wife, the lovely Tryphena Foord, who featured in last year's Blogvent.  She looks every inch the spaniel-haired Victorian girl, who is just a heap of black fabric with a tiny lace collar.  There is no fun in her future, just a lot of heavy, black mourning clothes and an afternoon trying to get grass-stains out of white trousers.  The orange of her brother's belongings bundle are a jolly, jarring note of colour which tonally makes reference to the roof of the church.  There are tiny flowers in the grass and in the bushes, just as the girl in her deep mourning has a tiny white collar.  I think it means that even while sorrow and grief are fresh and raw, there is hope and things will move on and get better again.

Oh dear, that's an awfully optimistic note to end on.  I'll do better tomorrow...

Monday, 9 December 2019

Monday 9th December - Recalling the Past

A new week and yet more misery to be uncovered!  Such a jolly prospect, certainly enough to keep us going as we write our Christmas cards.  Who is this card from? Oh no, I had forgotten incident at last year's Christmas party!  Too much mulled wine, mistletoe and dancing...

Recalling the Past (1888) Carlton Alfred Smith
Okay, so I think this lady is depressed about more than popping out of her corset top in front of Bob from Accounts during some high-spirited dancing to Step into Christmas.  We've all been there.  She has found some letters which she has tried to throw away but ended up reading.  The misery they have inspired has been enough to knock the pillow off her chair.  Is that a pillow? It nicely matches her collar, whatever it is.

Okay, do we have to guess what has occurred by the clues in the picture?  We have a sobbing girl in pink, some letters, some beads in a basket and some horns.  So, is she thinking about a lost love?  The pink of her dress draws me to think it is a youthful love - I think if they had been married, she would have still been wearing black as is traditional in paintings of grieving widows, especially young ones.  So, a youthful dalliance that went wrong? The quality of the image is a bit fuzzy but I don't think she is wearing a wedding ring.  I wonder if she is therefore a spinster daughter, living at home having let her chance of love escape.  All she has to look forward to is becoming as dried up as those grasses in the vase on the mantelpiece. Charming.

Those coral beads in the basket give me pause too - coral has the meaning of modesty and happiness, but also in mythology coral came from Medusa's blood, which turned seaweed into coral.  Maybe our girl was too modest or had the unfortunate habit of turning her suitors into stone.  Coral also helps with bladder stones too.  None of that is going to get you a husband.

As for the horns, well what do we make of those? My Great Auntie Ev was given some horns when she left service in a big house.  I'm not entirely sure what the family thought she'd do with them.  They currently hang above my Dad's fireplace because you need somewhere to hang the tinsel at Christmas. 

The thing I am left fixating on is the poker.  While fairly innocuous, it seems to pull away from the stand.  At first I thought it was the stand's shadow but it is a slightly different shape and at a funny angle, so it is definitely a separate tool. I remember my grandma's fire tools all shiny and hanging in a neat line, whilst this is leaning towards the fire.  Does it want something destroyed?  Is that where all the letters will end up because the basket cannot hold the misery of her past failed love affair?  At times like this, wicker doesn't cut it.  Fire, and plenty of it will sort that out.

Have a good day recalling your traumatic love affairs and I will catch up with you tomorrow...

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Sunday 8th December - Her First Place

I hope everyone has a nice quiet Sunday and can re-hydrate from all the sobbing we've been doing so far this week. Talking of which...

The First Place (1860) Arthur Elwood

Ah, bless her!  It was actually my daughter's 14th birthday a couple of days ago, at which point my father joyfully announced 'Oh, I started work at 14!'  Miss Walker was less than impressed by this, especially as I asked her what job she'd be starting on Monday.  As the roles of 'kitten tickler' and Chief Taster for Cadbury are currently unavailable, I suspect she'll not be quitting school quite yet.  Not like the good old days when she would have been straight into service as soon as she was able to hold a feather duster.  The poor little moppet in this picture is having a bit of a moment in her first job.  She's probably about the age of my daughter, sent away from home and now expected to do a pretty rigorous day's work for not much reward.  Granted, she will get a roof over her head and her meals, which is not to be sniffed at as before the welfare state, there was no protection for the poor, so compared to starving in a gutter, domestic service isn't that bad, I guess.

Arthur Erwood was a bit of a mystery.  Just known as 'A Erwood' in the records of this picture, a bit of digging revealed Arthur, born in 1840 in Newington, Surrey to John and Caroline Erwood.  He was the third child after Edward (1834-1894) and Rosalind (1835-c.1910), and both John and eldest son Edward were bank clerks.  Arthur had other ideas and in the 1861 census he is listed as 'artist painter'.  Impressively, at the 92nd exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1860, Arthur was responsible for seven pictures - Writing to Mother, The Rejected Picture, The First Place, Er Kommt Nicht, Das Brod Holen, Minding the House and The Signal.  As recorded in the 1862 Art Journal, Das Brod Holen was a picture selected by the prize holders of the current year from the Royal Academy.  So far, so very promising, but then that was it.  It might have been his father's death in 1864 that prompted a very sudden change in career, as Lord knows Jonathan did not leave Caroline any money.  When next we catch up with the Elwoods in 1871, Arthur is still living at home with his mum, but he is now a clerk in the Bank of England, like his father before him.  At the death of Caroline, in 1878, Arthur goes to live with his older brother, Edward.  Arthur finally moves to his own house after Edward's death in 1894 and lives quietly on his own in North Brixton with his housekeeper Alice Ward, until his death  in 1921.

I was intrigued by the pictures which had German titles, including Er Kommt Nicht (He is not coming?).  Possibly this is connected to Arthur's sister Rosalind married Johann Carl Julius Forster (1837-1916), fresh from Prussia, in 1861.  Rosalind and Johann (or the somewhat more Anglo-cized 'Charles Julius Forster' as he became) had a decent life.  He worked as a colonial magistrate and their children did very well for themselves.  After her death before the 1911 census, Johann went to live with their son in Haywards Heath, where he was the doctor in the local asylum.  

I love to end on an asylum, and so I will see you tomorrow...

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Saturday 7th December - The Death of Albine

Well, we have staggered into the first weekend of Sobvent and that's one week done.  Hopefully no-one has sobbed up their spleen yet because we still have a couple of weeks of utter, distraught misery left to look forward to, so let's crack on with today's sombre offering...

The Death of Albine (1898) John Collier
As discussed yesterday, I think all of us fancy a bit of a sit down at this time of year, but this is ridiculous.  Here we have the lovely Albine on her extremely floral deathbed.  Her story comes from Emile Zola's The Sinful Priest (or The Sin of Father Mouret) (1875), where the titular wayward clergy has it away with the young and innocent Albine.  He then abandons her, so she gathers all the flowers from the garden where they consummated the affair in order to make her deathbed.  That's a tad dramatic, dear, why not just get some friends round and say rude things about him over a couple of bottles of Lambrini?  I gather from reading the synopsis of The Sinful Priest, our Father Mouret had been through a few things by the time he reaches the novel, which is the fifth book in Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart series, and he suffers from amnesia (always handy).  He is nursed by the whimsical Albine - is 'whimsical' a euphemism for something?  It's one of those things if she was more homely then it would be more brutal - and the couple fall in love.  Okay, I'm going to say 'love' as it seems to have involved a fair amount of rolling around in the garden with your pants off.

Le Paradou (1883) Edouard Joseph Danton
Then it all goes wrong for the pair of lovers because, much like Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when the priest knows a bit of saucy happiness then he turns all religious (rather than a bitey vampire, obvs) and abandons the poor Albine and her pseudo Garden of Eden set-up. It's all very tragic.  So our Albine goes off and gathers the garden that has brought her so much floral joy (they are not called 'flower beds' for nothing) and sets about bedecking her room before reclining back and allowing the perfume to suffocate her.  How very Roses of Heliogabalus!  I thoroughly approve.  You might snuff it but my goodness, you smell incredible.

There are of course overtones of Ophelia in Albine's plight and fate, with her lover being so self-involved that she ends up as romantic collateral damage.  The retreat to nature in her parting moment speaks of both the innocence of nature, and a rehabilitation, for want of a better word, of all the sexy shenanigans that took place there.  For Albine, in her final moments, she sees the cupids in her flower-filled room as beautiful and innocent.  The very thing that had caused the naughty priest to be all fraught with angst is the very thing that gives Albine comfort as she is smothered by the perfume of roses.  Zola arguably infers that Albine and her natural beauty seduces the priest away from his true path and when he remembers who he is, he is ashamed, but also, conversely, that there is nothing wrong with who or what Albine is.  Maybe, what Zola is saying that you are either conscious, in the form of the priest with her learning and religion, or you are unconscious, like Albine with her flowers and spirit, but you cannot be happy with both.  Paradou, which sounds awfully like 'paradise', is denied the conscious, learned man but in the end encloses the girl and welcomes her back.  Only one of them ends up smelling of roses.

On that note, I'll see you tomorrow...

Friday, 6 December 2019

Friday 6th December - End of Her Journey

When I left the house yesterday morning to go to work it was -1 degrees.  This morning it was a fairly tropical 11 degrees which is absolutely ridiculous, and it's also pouring with rain so everything is muddy and miserable and not at all crispy and bright.  T'uh, let's soldier on, shall we?

End of Her Journey (1875) Alice Havers
Look, we've all been there, especially at this time of year.  Only last week, I was half way round the big Marks and Sparks in town and I just felt like collapsing in Gentlemen's Unmentionable Apparel and telling everyone else to carry on without me. It's all so exhausting and the shops are hot and crowded, and endless, endless Mariah Carey telling me that all she wants for Christmas is me.  That's a lot of pressure.  Also, we're still about three weeks away from Christmas, when you have to pack yourselves and all the presents you have wrestled free from town into a car and go to relatives houses which will again be hot and crowded and stressful, and there are still about a quarter ton of sprouts to be peeled and I haven't even bought my crackers yet.  Are we still allowed to buy crackers?  Are they terribly frowned upon now? If I endeavour to buy ones which are recyclable and don't contain plastic things, is that okay? 

I'm guessing that is what killed the woman in today's picture.  All of that.  In fact, I think she was on the way to her relatives house for Christmas and she just thought 'Nope, can't face it' and that was it.  All the relatives rushed up from the village and bewailed that fact that Auntie Maureen has gone and died on the verge, conveniently keeping the road free, isn't that just like Auntie Maureen, always thinking of others?  Yes, all very sad, and with her dying breath Auntie Maureen will murmur 'Just go on without me...' and the family will sadly trail off to their homes to have a slightly more subdued but still hot and stressful Christmas without her.  When the coast is clear, Maureen will get up, go back to her own home, fix herself a sandwich and get stuck into all those books she stress-bought in the run up to Christmas.  And she'll have a jolly nice time too.  'Mariah Carey can have someone else for Christmas,' Maureen thinks, 'I'm busy...'

Trouble (The Sick Child) (1882) Alice Havers

Alice Havers was an artist and illustrator, born in 1850.  She spent a good portion of her childhood in the Faulkland Islands, and there is a useful biographical page about her here.  In some other places on line, there is an amount of sneering at her images of children, but to be honest they are no more saccharine than others from the same period and my Nan would have loved them.  I am impressed by the gloomy images she made, including today's image and The Sick Child which is both a bit grim and a tad Biblical, always a jolly combination.  She died suddenly at 40, shortly after getting her divorce from fellow artist Frederick Morgan.  The marriage was an appalling one filled with numerous instances of adultery on his part, one involving him catching an unfortunate disease and bringing that home, also including with the housemaid, which is not going to get the dusting done.  Also, there was quite a bit of violence, allegedly on both sides.  I wondered if she had been ill, or if the stress of the divorce had affected her health, but I note that in the Faulkland's page biography, they state that she took her own life.  Blimey, that's grim, even for Sobvent...

See you tomorrow.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Thursday 5th December - His First Grief

Well, fourteen years ago I was not having a very good time because I had been in labour for 18 hours by this point and would have about another 14 to go (but luckily I didn't know that second bit at the time).  My beloved daughter appeared during the 6th December but took her sweet time doing it and so I always remember with rather grim relish the day I spent in absolute agony (until the epidural man arrived 22 hours in) which is my daughter's birthday eve.  Anyway, on with the Sobvent post for today!

His First Grief (1910) Charles Spencelayh
Good heavens, but I do love Spencelayh.  I will endeavour to do a proper post on him in the new year but I adore his colours and clarity and his inability to let Victorianism go.  The Victorians loved a good dead pet picture. My God, I have seen any number of little poppets grizzling over birds such as this one...

The Dead Bird (1886) Paul Constant Soyer
...but the Spencelayh has a radiance about it in the red and greens of the solemn little chap and his dead canary.  I love that the little boy is so full of colour, with his red hair and flushed cheeks; he could not be more filled with life and vigour.  The washed out little bird in the palm of his hand looks pale and fragile in contrast, its white tail echoing the white of his collar.  It's part of the genre of children coping with child versions of  adult emotions - today's it's a canary but tomorrow you are burying most of your family who have been wiped out by diseases of the poor, or died in childbirth, or were lost at sea or something.  By experiencing the death of Whistles, Fat Bob or Gregory Peck (just some of my Grandmother's canaries), it can been shown as the end of innocence and the realisation that actually growing up can be a bit crap on the whole. What a swizz.

Fingerprints (1953) Charles Spencelayh
As I mentioned, I love Spencelayh, not least because in an awful lot of his 'interiors' you can spot very familiar paintings, such as Bubbles by J E Millais in this canvas from the 1950s.  It's Spencelayh's eminent Victorian-ness, that quality that Agatha Christie's Miss Marple announced was so hopelessly vieux jeu. I find the relationship of Victorians to the mid-twentieth century to be fascinating, as modern life moved upon us so quickly and people were not short of prejudice against what it meant to be 'Victorian'.  More of that to come in the new year, but as a parting thought, Spencelayh's little chap does rather remind me of visiting the baby animal handling bit of a local farm.  My favourite bit was always when they gave the children a chick to hold, because Lily always made me hold the chick while she stroked it.  We'd invariably be sat next to some little boy whose enthusiasm for the chick knew no bounds and squeezing was always the result.  I remember one particularly chilling moment when the mum next to us exclaimed delighted, 'Ah, look, it's fallen asleep in little Tommy's warm hand...' I'm sure the chick was absolutely fine but we didn't hang around to find out.

See you tomorrow...

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Wednesday 4th December - Poor Fauvette

I am up far too early this morning but there is a lot going on right now and when I wake up, then that's it, I might as well get up and get on with the day.  So here we are then, cracking on with Day 4 of Sobvent...

Poor Fauvette (1881) Jules Bastien-Lapage
Kids today, eh? In my day we would have been happily sat in front of the telly watching Swap Shop, but apparently it's cool now to hang around in a field with a sack on your head.  This is a bleak image that is also rather beautiful due to the fawn tones of everything from the rough ground to the cow and its tiny, solemn guard, 'Fauvette', the little wild child.  She's there between the teasels and the bleak little tree, upright and yet somehow fragile.  Sharing the colours of nature around her, the child seems to have also grown up in the scrubby land and seems to be faring about as well as the tree next to her.

I rather liked this blog post on the subject of Jules Bastien-Lapage.  The artist died appropriately early at 36, in the arms of Prince Bojidar Karageorgevich, which is a pretty decent way to go, and his work was given credit by Roger Fry for paving the way for Impressionism.  By far, I have to admit my favourite of his works is his portrait of Sarah Bernhardt...

Sarah Bernhardt (1879) Jules Bastien-Lepage
Mind you, that's not even vaguely miserable, so back to Poor Fauvette in her field.  The look on her face is especially interesting as she has certainly seen some stuff in her time.  The poor lass does look worried.  I'm guessing there were more cows yesterday but then she got a bit snacky in the night.  She's now attempting to act casual, wondering if anyone will notice. The little poppet now has massive indigestion, which explains that expression.  We've all been there, especially at Christmas.

See you tomorrow.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Tuesday 3rd December - One for Sorrow

Well, we are but a couple of days into Sobvent and already I am feeling miserable.  I have a latent chest infection which has the faint promise of consumption about it, so I feel a velvet chaise might be in order.  I shall cough into a hankie while a spaniel looks at me mournfully, which means I need to find a spaniel from somewhere today.  In the meantime, here is today's offering...

One for Sorrow (1887) Frederick Hall
The first thing I thought when I saw this painting was that someone really needs to close a window.  If the symbolic presence of the magpie wasn't enough, the bird is going above and beyond by gesturing to the lady's wedding ring.  My guess is that there is no hurry to wind in your husband's spare net, Love.  The word on the magpie telegraph is that he is very dead indeed.  Sorry about that.

I actually like magpies, crows and the suchlike, and don't ascribe to the unluckiness of magpies in the singular.  I do, however, go out of my way to say hello to them, because that's just basic politeness and they are very smart.  I, for one, would welcome an uprising of our corvid overlords.  They can't possibly do a worse job than we do in terms of basic human decency.  Maybe the magpie is just making general conversation with the woman - 'So, Beryl, how's the husband? Alive?' but as we humans are too thick to speak crow then they have to do it all in charade form.  Also, there is the 'fact' that magpies like shiny things and will steal jewellery, so maybe the magpie is just eyeing up her ring here.  However, that sounds awfully like crow-ist propaganda on behalf of the ducks.  I wouldn't put anything past those web-footed gits.

As you can probably gather from Frederick Hall's painting, he was a British Impressionist and Newlyn-botherer and friend of Frank Bramley, who is certain to make an appearance in Sobvent.  I like the quiet sense of impending doom in this picture which takes you a moment to comprehend.  Subtlety is to be admired in paintings of sorrow and there is no need to have people wailing and sobbing in order to show bad news being delivered, especially in paintings of fishermen's widows (whoops, spoiler alert, sorry Lady in the Painting).

Mind you, I don't mind a bit of wailing, as no doubt we shall see later in the month.  Right, I'm off to find a spaniel, see you tomorrow.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Monday 2nd December

Flipping heck, it is cold this morning!  I was scraping the ice off the windscreen of the Walker-mobile shrieking as my fingers were ice-burned by the flying frost.  It is suddenly very Christmas-y indeed.

On that note, here is today's Sobvent image...

Penance (1889) William John Hennessy
It's one thing to scrape a car windscreen without your mittens on, it's another to go padding about in the snow without your shoes on.  Ouch!  Well, no-one is happy in this little extravaganza, unless that's not a baby in her arms but a giant hot water bottle. One could only hope...

What William John Hennessy has brought us is a very good reason why you should do your sinning in the summer.  According to this rather helpful blog on the matter, for people caught having naughty married cuddles before actually being married, then the church required you to pay a bit of penance in order to atone for the sin.  You wore nothing but a white robe (symbolising the baptism robe) and carried a rod or candle (Catholics love a candle, Protestants give you a stick and you'll like it, thank you very much) and you are placed on the naughty step in church until you learn your lesson.  What got me was that this was used as punishment for couples whose babies were born rather promptly after marriage , if you know what I mean.  Blimey, look far enough back in everyone's family tree and the majority of weddings were followed at speed by the first born, hence the need to get married in the first place.  I'm surprised we didn't get the penance gown handed down in my family along with the christening gown...

Interestingly, our lass is both outside and on her own.  It is traditional to punish both the men and the women for illicit cuddling, but our lass is going solo, which either tells you something about Victorian attitudes to sin (it's all the woman's fault) or that her partner in crime has managed to get away with it (t'uh, typical).  Either way, I am rather alarmed that this poor lass has to trudge through the snow with her candle and baby.  This has overtones that she will be popping her clogs out there, and her baby, and just ending up in a snow drift, blending in with her white frock.

Personally, I hope those steps behind her are the church and she's decided she's had enough and she's off home to warm up and start a religion that doesn't require you to lose toes to frost-bite.

See you tomorrow...

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Sunday 1st December - Despair

Hello, my lovely readers and welcome to this years Blogvent or as it shall be known this time round...


I regret nothing.

For the next 24 days I will bring you the most miserable, sorrow-filled, despair-ridden images, because sod it, it's cold, stressful and uncertain right now so I think the most rational reaction is to give in to it and start sobbing.  Hankies out as I'm bringing you a corker to start with...

Despair (1903) Stanislaw Bohusz-Siestrzencewicz
Blimey, it's all gone a bit wrong for her, hasn't it?  Maybe she's spilled something unfortunate down the front  of her blindingly white shirt.  Possibly the novel she was reading had an unfortunate ending that didn't live up to the promise of the opening chapters.  We've all been there.  Maybe her lack of occasional tables has finally go to her - "Maureen has a lovely coffee table from Ikea, but all I have are...*sob*...these...*sob*...chairs! The shame!" Whatever it is, she won't be done until she's made a right old state of herself into a throw pillow, which is honestly no way to get a husband.

The creator of this marvellously miserable scene was Stanislaw Bohusz-Siestrzencewicz, Polish artist and possessor of an impressive amount of 'z's in his name.  Trained in St Petersburg, Munich and Paris, he is best known for his genre paintings of life in the Vilnius region, on the borders of Lithuania and Belarus. Although reasonably successful and happy, he developed tuberculosis, which is going above and beyond for Sobvent, and died in his 50s.  This picture, created in the middle years of his career, is dated from a couple of years before his divorce from his wife Krystyna, so might reflect her marital distress.  Mind you, she went on to marry Count Tyszkiewicz and no doubt had a merry life, which is not in the spirit of Sobvent at all.  

Anyway, I'll see you all tomorrow...

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Pre-Raphaelite Women (with an emphasis on the 'men')

That sound, my gentle readers, is the repeated bang of my head against the desk.  I should have seen it coming, yet I was still rather surprised when, at the end of a marvellous talk on Pre-Raphaelite women recently (given by someone else, hence the 'marvellous') the first question was 'why do they all look like men?' Sigh.

When the National Portrait Gallery launched the publicity for their new exhibition Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, the first comment on social media was, and I quote...


Gosh, how original, thought I, but after a quite extensive period of eye rolling I felt I should put some thought into an answer of why people keep saying this.  So, do they all look like blokes?

Let's start with this...

Detail of Ophelia, but you all knew that
I never get tired of seeing this image and the face in Ophelia may well be my favourite of all Pre-Raphaelite women, which is a bold claim, but as 'portraits that aren't actually portraits' go, it's photographic and astonishing.  I can't say that I get a strong masculine vibe from this.  How about this one...?

Portrait of a Girl (Sophia Gray) (1857) John Everett Millais
I've heard grown men come over all unnecessary while talking about this striking portrait and George Saucy-Pants Boyce had it next to Bocca Baciata, so we can guess his thoughts about it.  It's a strong portrait but it would be stretching it to argue it's a masculine portrait.

Washing Hands (1865) D G Rossetti
The lovely Ellen Terry washing her hands is not at all bloke-y.  It's absolute perfection in its delicacy. So let's cut the chase.  It's Jane Morris, isn't it?

It is, isn't it?

It massively is, I can tell.  With her broad shoulders, defined jaw line and obvious physical presence, it is usually Jane, as portrayed by Rossetti, that comes in for the flack.  It would be easy to say 'well, that is just how Rossetti chose to show her...' but actually, she did pretty much resemble his images of her.

Jane Morris (1865) John R Parsons
Coming in a close second, it's Holman Hunt's over-paints of Annie Miller with his wife Fanny/Edith (they both look very much alike) that get a bit of abuse but again, the Waugh girls did look a bit like their painted selves...

Edith Waugh (1874) Elliott & Fry
Before we start unpacking all that, I might just add that of course, conversely, Edward Burne-Jones gets criticised for making his male figures too feminine, as Willie Bridgman MP complained (read about it in this post) and Pre-Raphaelitism is not short of 'man-damsels' flopping about looking sexy...

Exhibit A Chatterton (1856) Henry Wallis

Exhibit B The Wounded Cavalier (1855) William Shakespeare Burton
While we're on the subject, from the outset Pre-Raphaelite art was definitely up for a bit of cross-dressing, but with girls dressed as boys, as in...

Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1851) William Holman Hunt

and this one of course...

Twelfth Night (c.1850) Walter Howell Deverell

But you know, it's Shakespeare, it's all good.

Venus Verticordia (1864-8) D G Rossetti
She can't be a bloke, she's got her teapot lid out...

So, if the painted images of the women look like them (as much as any picture that isn't a portrait is going to, see also this post) then what people are actually objecting to is that women who look like that feature in pictures and here we are into much murkier territory.  Who exactly gets to say what a woman looks like?  Why can't a woman have a strong jaw, big eyebrows, be tall, have broad shoulders?  If a woman has those things, who are you to say that she isn't a woman, and a damn fine looking woman at that?  

Pomona (Alice Liddell) (1872) Julia Margaret Cameron
It boils down to the commentator firstly finding that an image does not fit in their narrow category of 'woman' and secondly objecting to that woman being glorified in art.  This is partly an exclamation of 'I don't fancy you therefore you don't deserve a picture'. I have occasionally thought 'Good heavens, I would extremely saucy things to you' while looking at certain paintings, but have never thought the opposite.  I mean really, whether or not someone was a suitable subject for a painting 150 years ago is somewhat of a moot point.  Rossetti doesn't care if you fancy Jane Morris; He fancied Jane Morris, so you can shut your face. Also, he's dead, so he really doesn't care.

Fading Away (1858) Henry Peach Robinson
 Also, what are people looking for in a female image? Someone who is one cough away from an open grave?  Gosh, that woman in Fading Away is so hot, she looks like a proper woman and everything with her deathly pallor and prominent bones.

Too Late (1858) William Lindsay Windus
Look at the walking stick on this girl! I like my women to not be able to escape quickly. That's a proper woman.

Look, if you are in the business of telling women what they can and can't look like then Pre-Raphaelite art is not for you.  The Pre-Raphaelite artists purposefully set out to paint women they found attractive, not really giving a jot for what society thought.  They treasured red-hair as the rest of society found it unlucky, they sought out women in their circle to play the Virgin Mary, suffering all manner of abuse for it.  Holman Hunt went off to the Holy Land to find Jewish models to play the Holy family and was not thanked for it.  Women in Pre-Raphaelite art are, for the most part, strong, healthy, lusty looking lasses and through their challenge to the prevailing aesthetic that narrow little band of what is acceptable for womankind widened a few inches.  

No-one gets to say a damn word about the appearance of a woman, especially, and I cannot emphasize this enough, if that word is a negative matter of opinion.  The moment we start saying what a woman looks like, everything is dangerous ground.  If a person is a woman, then that is what a woman looks like.  If a woman looks strong, thoughtful, drought and famine resistant then that is what a woman looks like, as is every variation therein. I get very nervous when women are required to look thin, sickly and passive as that does not speak well of the men in our society. That is not to say that thin, sickly women are not what women look like either, because some women are that and therefore it is still what women look like and that still isn't a man.  

Proscribing what a woman should look like tends to be part and parcel in with what should come out of her mouth or what should go through her mind. A society that sneers at any woman who does not look like the narrow ideal should worry us all - if you let a damaging opinion go by just because it doesn't affect you personally then tomorrow it might be you that gets sneered at, which by the way means that nothing you think/do/feel is valid or listened to. We are better than this, and if we really aren't then we should aspire to be or learn to think before decreeing what a gender is or is not.

So when you hear 'but they all look like men!' please answer and inform, not just for those women but for all women.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

National Poetry Day 2019: On a Portrait

Happy National Poetry Day to you all.  I am in the midst of book-writing and so I bring you a poem by Julia Margaret Cameron on the beauty of a portrait...

May Prinsep (1866) Julia Margaret Cameron

On a Portrait
September 1875

Oh, mystery of Beauty! Who can tell
They mighty influence? Who can best descry
How secret, swift, and subtle is the spell
Wherein the music of thy voice doth lie?

Here we have eyes so full of fervent love,
That but for lids behind which sorrow’s touch
Doth press and linger, one could almost prove
That Earth had loved her favourite over much.

A mouth where silence seems to gather strength
From lips so gently closed, that almost say,
“Ask not my story, lest you hear at length
Of sorrows where sweet hope has lost its way.”

And yet the head is borne so proudly high,
The soft round cheek so splendidly in its bloom,
True courage rises thro’ the brilliant eye,
And great resolve comes flashing thro’ the gloom.

Oh, noble painter! More than genius goes
To search the key-note of those melodies,
To find the depths of all those tragic woes,
Tune thy song right and paint rare harmonies.

Genius and love have each fulfilled their part,
And both unite with force and equal grace,
Whilst all that we love best in classic art
Is stamped for ever on the immortal face.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Shhh! Happens

Today's post is about one of my favourite things.  I have a hypersensitivity to sound and so I retreat into silence whenever I can.  I am also rubbish at gauging sound so a common complaint I often get is that I talk too quietly or too quickly as I have difficulty working out how my noise is working for other people.  Let's pretend I'm talking at a normal level now, so read this slower and...hang on... should I talk a bit louder?  
How's this? 
No, you're right, that's too loud.  We'll stick with this.  Anyway, all this rambling got me thinking about depictions of silence in paintings...

Voice of Silence (1907) Viktor Zarubin
You'll be unsurprised that silence was seen as a virtue in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  More than that actually, it was spiritual, akin to Godliness (that that, Cleanliness!) and images like the one above reflect that.  The wise and spiritual will always find their wisdom and spirit in the soaring majesty of silent nature.  I like how the huddle of black clad figures are echoed in the grooves and cuts in the white of the cliff.  The men are just another grouping in the landscape, but I notice that they have built their own bench making it a little man-made rest-stop in the scenery.

Silence (1903) Mikhail Nesterov
Two fishermen and their boats bob on a silent lake.  Again, the humans have brought their own means to exist in the landscape, man-made crafts to carry them on the water.  I like to think the silence in this picture is because the two men are not talking to each other.  They used to share a boat, but then fell out over a particularly attractive turbot.

Winter's White Silence (1923-4) Lucy Kemp Welch
I particularly like the silence that comes with a snowfall.  All sound becomes muffled; I won't say 'deadened' even though it's technically correct because I find that glimmer of snow and the fresh 'crump' when you walk on it, to be the beautifully alive.  I think the idea of Lucy Kemp Welch (or the Notorious LKW, as I like to think of her) and her 'silence' is the effort of hard work in bitter conditions.  The two men are in no mood for conversation and the horses are getting on with their work but I find the scene singing with the hoof crunches in the snow, the ringing of the bridles, the huff of the horses.  Maybe the idea behind the painting is that the snow has silenced the normal voice of work, brought the conversations internal.  No-one is lingering in the cold as it penetrates everyone and everything.  The first horse has turned into an ice-horse and may well just blend into the landscape, becoming yet more snow for the others to wade through.

And All the Air a Solemn Silence Holds (1900) Joseph Farquharson
Farquharson goes that one step further and takes those annoying humans out of the landscape and leaves only a couple of discreet rabbits who I can't imagine are that noisy.  Again, snow is linked to silence, possibly also with the idea of sleep.  Linking with this is the mythology around the goddess Demeter, whose search for her daughter Persephone causes all of nature to stall and cease without the warmth of her love and attention.  The silence of the colder months could be seen as signs of this misery, this dying.

Silenced (1905) John Seymour Lucas
Talking of dying, a very human side of silence is death.  Heaven knows what our chap in white did to anger the retreating figures but his glowing costume alludes to the fact that he is an innocent party in all this.  I like the fact that our chap seems to have strayed in from the sunny corridor, his foot extending into the beams of light, but the shadows have claimed him.  The red and black of his attackers tell a very simple story of the evil lurking in the darkness, striking at the good, light figure but maybe it isn't as simple as that.  The black hat, now discarded on the floor, could hint that our angelic, glowing victim had another side, something more shadowy.  People don't get murdered in front of tapestries for no reason, you know.

The Silence of Pure Innocence Persuades Where Speaking Fails (1855) Thomas Brooks
Taking a quote from The Winter's Tale, we have a domestic scene where a widow points to her cute children in order to appeal to the better nature of the bloke in the top hat.  At first I wondered if it was a relative, but maybe her landlord is more likely?  The dead husband is shown above the fireplace as a noble soldier, cut down in his prime (I'm guessing recently as the baby isn't that old).  The trouble stems from the now sudden poverty that has struck the family because respectable women are unable to support themselves.  Are all the children girls?  It's hard to tell as all children seem to be dressed in dresses until the trousers kick in.  It doesn't look good, but we come across the important link between women and silence...

Silence (1870) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
This is the image that set me going on the whole subject of silence actually.  I remember writing a post on the theme of how weird it was to have a picture of people playing music because you couldn't see sound (well, you can, it's called synesthetes.  Kandinsky apparently had it which means his paintings are actually pieces of music, or something).  It is therefore equally as interesting to have a picture, which is by its very nature a silent thing, of a silent thing, as its point.  It feels like over-egging the pud, if you know what I mean.  However, what's going on with all the women..?

The Hour of Silence (1907) Henri Meunier
When you start looking for it, there are an awful lot of women being quiet in pictures.  Lots of ladies keep 'mum' in these images - there's another thing, why 'mum'? Is keeping 'dad' something different?  It's from a Middle English word, where we also get 'mumming' and 'mummers' who act without speaking.  I'm sure it's only a coincidence that 'mother' also gets shortened to a word that means to keep quiet.  The mum who lives next door to us keeps anything but.  She has an impressive range and volume and wonderful ennuciation.

Mollie: In Silence I Stood your Unkindness to Hear (1882) George Dunlop Leslie
From the poem, 'Wapping Old Stairs', poor old Mollie puts up with all manner of nonsense from Thomas, who cheats on her with Sal or the very dubious 'Susan from Deptford'.  Yet she entreats him to stop sleeping about because she washes his trousers and makes his grog.  Mollie, love, you can do better.  Also, don't stand there in silence, I know a few choice words for your precious Thomas, one of which is Gitweasel.

Wings of Silence (undated) William Shackleton (1872-1933)
Even when women are together, we keep our mouths shut, apparently.  Even little water sprites don't disturb the beauty of nature.  I love the little bird just causing tiny ripples on the surface of the pool with its wing tip.

Musicienne du Silence (1900) Arthur Hacker
Maybe, and I might be a tad suspicious here, there could be a link between the press for female suffrage and the depiction of women as silent.  A number of the images I've used today come from the early twentieth century, just as women were finding their voice of protest.  The idea that a woman would be a silent figure, taking the abuse of her unworthy husband, or a sad widow allowing her dignity to do the talking, grows more abstract with Symbolism.  They become voiceless beauty, paragons of silent perfection, examples and fantasies.  Are all women meant to aspire to this hushed perfection?  What of men, are they meant to follow the example set by these goddesses or like poor Mollie's Thomas, use their silent partner as a scapegoat for all the wrongs of life?

The Silence (1965) Carel Weight
Finally then, Carel Weight painted this family group in the 1960s, but I include it because, a bit like Stanley Spencer, I often get a feeling of purposeful antiquity or timelessness in Weight's scenes of modern life.  Of course, the woman in the middle could well be a Victorian as she sits in splendid isolation on her (possibly Morris & Co) throne.  One side is a figure that could be construed as her son, the other, possibly her grandson, but to my mind it does not seem to be a companionable silence.  Despite being penned together by the garden wall, the upright strokes of the fence and plant supports separate the figures.  Is this modern life?  Not keeping quiet out of dignity or feminine ideals, just not having anything to say, not even to our children.  I'm not sure that's progress...