Friday, 30 September 2022

Review: Visions of the Occult

 I'm really busy at the moment, so the research I'm doing is all taking a back seat while I finish work on the exhibition at the Russell-Cotes which opens next week, but mercifully September is resplendant with glorious book releases and so I can do my third book review of the month...

The Tate has a serious amount of spooky stuff in its collection and this glorious book is your perfect Halloween read for this year. Featuring artworks, letters, objects and euphemera, this is a guide through all things mystical and magical and is presented in beautiful illustrations and fascinating text by Victoria Jenkins.

Fantasy based on Goethe's 'Faust' (1834) Theodor Von Holst

Split into different section including Alchemy, Witchcraft, Tarot and The New Age, this book explores the relationship between the artist and the unseen world, through pieces hidden in the archives of the Tate (or, to be fair, also on display, but that's not so mysterious). There are familiar and unfamiliar works here, from the sixteenth century to modern day, all exploring the human fascination and inspiration with our other selves.

Caprice. Verso: Masked Woman with a White Mouse (c.1894) Aubrey Beardsley

I was surprised how many images of the supernatural and magical world the Tate owned and how they interacted with the modern or ancient pieces. It makes you look at a familiar piece in a new way, or possibly the way the artist intended. Unexpectedly mysterious images by artists like Aubrey Beardsley give a fresh perspective on their art.  I'm more used to his fine pen illustrations of people who have very little mystery and equally little clothes, but this masked lady and the ghostly mouse raise so many questions. The woman's reserve, her mask, makes you wonder what she's hiding and why is she not reacting to the frankly odd looking mouse? Put in the context of witchcraft, is the mouse her familiar? Masked women are not unusual in Beardsley's work but there is something unsettling about this woman, especially with her slash of red lipstick.

A Golden Thread (1885) John Melhuish Strudwick

I was intrigued by the images of seers, of people and things that predict the future and the alchemy involved.  Our need to see the future, to have the luxury of foresight is so evident in these images of yearning, to be ready for what will come in times of such uncertainty. The power of women who can see the future is a touchstone for many works, and almost an expectation for women to have supernatural powers.  The othering of people, of women especially, is a regular theme, almost to say if you are a woman and you aren't reading the future, you are not trying hard enough, especially if you are a woman with brunette hair who looks a bit dodgy. I've never felt so seen.

La Suerte (1938) Wyndham Lewis

There is a lot to this book, and it is filled with the uncanny and peculiar.  The familiar pieces of 19th century art make great counterpoints to the technicoloured oddness of 1960s trippy book covers and the starkness of henges and the British landscape. The frenetic chaos of the Tate's magic can be disconcerting but you are reminded that this is the land of questions and mystery, of the uncanny and the strange. We embrace the weird everyday it seems and one of the glories of the book is that it reminds you that there is a little bit of magic in our everyday, even if that magic is unsettling. The Tate once more reminds us that it is a place of questions and I can't think of a better book to enjoy in these uncertain, chaotic times.

A Priestess of Apollo (c.1888) Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Visions of the Occult: An Untold Story of Art and Magic by Victoria Jenkins is available now from the Tate or from all good booksellers

Friday, 23 September 2022

Review: Evelyn & William De Morgan: A Marriage of Arts & Crafts

 Here we go again with our second EDM book review - does this make September 'De Morgan Month'? Autumn does seem a rather good month for her for some reason, I suppose because it's close to her birthday and the idea of things passing, dying, sleeping, is a recurrent theme for her works, as we saw last week in her poetry. Anyway, lets crack on with this gorgeous new catalogue that will accompany the exhibition over at Delaware...


So, the exhibition at Delaware Art Museum is billed as the first every retorspective of their combined artistic output and relationship and I like the idea of putting people into context. Similar to the Tate's Rossetti family extravaganza next Spring, it is good to see  the landscape of creative people's lives, especially if they are surrounded by similarly creative souls who would invariably influence them (and vice versa, obviously).  In the case of the De Morgans, it's always been said that William pottered because Evelyn earned the money, but the depth of their creative and intellectual connection has never been explored before to this extent.  There are many reasons to love the De Morgans, not least because they had a happy marriage, but they shared so much of the external stimuli for their art, it's a treat to see them examined together.

Evelyn and William De Morgan

This is a proper whopper of a catalogue in hardback and absolutely beautiful inside.  It is a collection of essays rather than a straight catalogue of the exhibition, and as such can be enjoyed without having to see the accompanying show (especially if you are pining on the other side of the Atlantic like me). Edited by Margaretta S. Frederick, the Annette Woolard-Provine Curator of the Bancroft Collection at Delaware Art Museum, there are many essays on all aspects of the De Morgans artistic, cultural and political lives by some very well known and well respected names.

Fastastic Ducks on tile with lustre highlights, (Fulham period) William De Morgan

I must admit, I really don't know that much about WDM beyond his pottery involved fantastic beasts, chatty looking ducks and the occasional socially awkward Dodo. He's also on a pub sign in Chelsea looking a bit like a really haunted zombie, but that's it.  What I didn't realise was that he designed stained glass (which I do now thanks to the essay from William Waters and Alastair Carew-Cox). Also, I hadn't really thought about the connection between his mythical creatures and the dragons and serpents that are often wriggling around the canvases of EDM...

S.O.S. (1914-1916) Evelyn De Morgan

Symbolism and the War are both covered by excellent essays, and make you think about EDM's response to the First World War as a spiritual battle rather than purely physical. Also, one of the things that always attracted me to EDM's art was her blatant feminist stance.  Thinking about it, there are not a vast amount of men in her art compared to women and it often feels like a conversation about the position and experience of womanhood amongst women.  Possibly this is what placed her in the conversation around queer art back in 2017 and the Queer British Art exhibition at the Tate.  I'm not the biggest fan of labels (having been given a few in my time) but I rather like the idea of the conversations of women with women through art.

Alice and Winifred Spencer Stanhope  (1884) Evelyn De Morgan

Being the sort of historian I am, I really enjoyed the essay on the De Morgan's friends and family by Judy Oberhausen and Nic Peeters, because obviously the De Morgans were surrounded by talented, artistic people and drew inspiration from their own families. I also enjoyed Jan Marsh's essay on EDM's relationship with Italian art, as Italy is a vital part of not only the De Morgan's story but so many of their peers. 

The Wandering Jew: 'Whom the Gods Love Die Young' (1888) Evelyn De Morgan

I don't know enough about WDM's literary career (beyond the fact that he had one) and so Diana Maltz essay is very welcome and makes me curious to read one (God bless Archive.org for that) and I'll find out Joseph Vance.  It is the sort of book that makes you realise how much there is still to explore and investigate and how rich and varied peoples lives and careers can be. 

The Storm Spirits (1900) Evelyn De Morgan

This is a glorious book, filed with fascinating insights into a truly talented couple.  The illustrations are plentiful and beautifully reproduced, and the essays are all brilliant reads on some of the aspects that made the De Morgans such a powerhouse of thought and creativity. Whether you are just discovering the De Morgans or are familiar with their work, this is the sort of book that brings a lot of knowledge beautifully wrapped. I'm sad I won't get to see the exhibition but this is the sort of stand-alone book that will remain a set-text on the couple from now on and so treat yourself to a copy to brighten your autumnal days and warm your winter.

The exhibition travels to venues in America over the next year and information is available via the link above.  The catalogue Evelyn & William De Morgan: A Marriage of Arts & Craft is available now from Amazon and  all good book sellers.


Friday, 16 September 2022

Review: The Poems of Evelyn Pickering De Morgan

 Gosh, I've just looked up when I wrote about Evelyn De Morgan on this blog and it was 2011! Since then, I've definitely noticed that she crops up everywhere and I was delighted to include her in the Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang. This is the first in a bit of a De Morgan double-bill as next week I'll be reviewing the new exhibition catalogue.  I don't know, you wait around for ages for one Evelyn De Morgan book to come along and then two come along at the same time!  Onwards to the poetry!


What do you mean, you didn't realise that EDM wrote poetry?! Well, yes, unless you were a De Morgan specialist, you might not have realised (I hadn't a clue) but considering that Serena also brought us Elizabeth Siddal's poetry then we should have guessed that painting and poetry often went hand in hand. What really appealed to me about this collection is that it is mainly poems from her younger years and you can see the conversation between her artworks that were to follow and her childhood thoughts.

Famously, in her diary on her 17th birthday, Evelyn wrote 'art is eternal but life is short and each minute idly spent will rise to whole months and years and hound me in my grave.' That level of drive resulted in her creating at least 102 oil paintings, thousands of sketches and studies and sculpted in gesso and bronze. She is known for her spiritualist beliefs which were also in her canvases so unsurprisingly you can see them in her poems too. 

The Soul's Prison House (1880-88)

Of course, it didn't hurt that her Mother-in-Law was Sophia Frend, a famous spiritualist medium and Evelyn's husband also shared her spiritualist beliefs. Through that lens, her preoccupation with death in her poetry becomes understandable and not as maudlin as it could appear.

The Angel of Death (1880)

The poems included in this book are from her teenage years, although some of her note books are undated and some poems are copied out again in later books and may come from earlier years.  The poem 'My love lies deep' starts 'My love lies deep / Under the ground / And Autumn's gloom / Is gath'ring round'. It describes the narrator's grief as time moves on from Autumn to Winter, when the narrator dies as well. I found the narrator of the poem interesting as it is either a man mourning a woman (as the 'love' is female) or a woman mourning another woman so much they die as well. It reminded me of how parts of Tennyson's In Memoriam (1850) are from the viewpoint of both men and women. There is certainly no fear associated with death, only of separation. The Angel of Death is described in very welcoming terms - 'Soft thy kisses / Warm thy breath / Vision of love / Angel of Death'.

The Passing of a Soul at Death (1910-1919)

One particular favourite of mine has to be 'Little Gretlein', which tells the tale of a little poppet who loses 'her pretty pet lamb Snowball'. She looks everywhere but Snowball is never located and Gretein gets lost and dies. I don't think Snowball is ever located but verses 7-12 aren't included so possibly that's when Snowball is seen taking it easy at a Travelodge on a Spa Break. Somehow, I feel this makes Little Gretlein's demise in the snow to be even more tragic. T'uh, Snowball, you callous ratbag.

Love the Misleader (1889)

Interestingly, there is a poem by Alice Fleming, 'Love the Misleader', inspired by Evelyn's painting from 1889. Alice, sister of Rudyard Kipling, knew the De Morgans in 1897 and wrote vivid poems in response to Evelyn's works.  I  woulddefinitely like to know more about their relationship and the relationships between the two art forms.


Death of a Butterfly (c.1910-14)

Much like Serena's previous book on the poetry of Elizabeth Siddal, this is a compact and enlightening read. Evelyn's teenage death poems are cracking and unrelentingly morbid but realistic and weirdly positive. As she wrote in 'The flowers were budding in early spring' - "We bloom but to fade".  During this period of national mourning (which feels marvellously Victorian) it is comforting to read poems whose main message is 'we all die but it'll be okay'. It is a welcome new angle on Evelyn and her beliefs and it is a really enjoyable read.

The Poems of Evelyn Pickering De Morgan is from the publisher Victorian Secrets here and is available from all good booksellers.


Friday, 9 September 2022

Except Everything You Had And What Was Left After That Too

 Another title for today's post could be 'a painting and a dance and a silent movie' as that is where we are going with this one.  It all begins with this mysterious painting...

The Vampire (1897) Philip Burne-Jones

Please excuse the crappy black-and-white illustration but that is part of the mystery. This is arguably the best-known painting by Philip Burne-Jones, son of Edward, and after five years work, it was exhibited in 1897, coincidentally the same year that Bram Stoker published Dracula. Philip actually sent Stoker a postcard of the painting, with a cheeky quip about his lady vampire evening out the gender balance with Dracula.  In the same exhibition as The Vampire was Edward Burne-Jones' Love and the Pilgrim...

Love and the Pilgrim (1896-7) Edward Burne-Jones

Even though Edward Burne-Jones' gentle romance would have been seen as an oddity by the end of the century, it was Philip's painting that was the talking point and mostly not for good reasons. The Dundee Advertiser, on 24 April 1897 commented that 'the subject is a ghastly one, and the artist has intensified its repulsiveness.'  The Westminster Gazette called it 'both unsuccessful and unpleasing' - 'he has skill and a certain originality, but he must do something better than "The Vampire" if he is to prove worthy of a great name.' Many papers commented on the fact father and son were shown together and the staggering differences in the works. Also commented upon was the accompanying poem for The Vampire, written by Philip's cousin Rudyard Kipling. I won't reproduce it all here, but if you fancy a read, it's available here and was reproduced in the New Gallery catalogue, much to the bewilderment of the critics.  As the Truth newspaper commented, Kipling's verse didn't 'assist one to a much clearer knowledge of the meaning of "The Vampire"' but nevertheless, it might serve as a model to make future exhibitions more interesting.  The verse that was reproduced the most, and caused the most trouble was the first one...
A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair
(Even as you and I!)

So, the gist of the poem is that the poet knows a man who has had his life sucked out of him (metaphorically) by a terrible woman, 'the woman who did not care'. The woman in question is seemingly unaware of the effect she has or the amount she demands of her lovers and is slowing killing her suitor, thoughtlessly.  In that way, it doesn't seem to match the painting which has a very aware soul-sucker, however the effect is the same and both poem and painting elicited excitement due to the bitterness and also because the Vampiric lady looked anywhere between 'a bit' and 'exactly' the actress Beatrice Tanner, better known as Mrs Patrick Campbell...

Mrs Patrick Campbell reading the Kelmscott Chaucer (1904) William Smedley-Aston

Now look, I'm not one to gossip (I massively am) but it seems that Mrs Pat had been having an affair with Philip and was a very close friend of his Dad who she called 'Dearest'. Kipling knew of his cousin's infatuation and subsequent dumping (as did everyone) and so people not only assumed the woman in the picture was Mrs Pat but that it was absolutely dripping with juicy scandal. The Era on 1 May 1897 reported that the woman (who shall remain nameless) (she's an actress) was considering litigation. As it turns out, when asked later, Mrs Pat said she hadn't even seen the picture, and was away from London at the time, but in the Pall Mall Gazette of September 1897 she said she was not offended - 'Indeed I am only too glad to hear of the young artist's success'. It's worth noting that even though she calls him 'the young artist' in a very superior manner, Mrs Pat was actually four years younger that Philip.  It is true that she wrote and asked her friend to tell her about Edward Burne-Jones' picture at the New Gallery and didn't mention Philip's, which backs up her account that she was closer to the senior Burne-Joneses. However, it was common gossip that she and Philip had been an item and he had spent a lot of money on her, according to Margot Peters' 1984 biography Mrs Pat, buying her furs and diamonds. She then dumped him for Johnston Forbes-Robertson, fellow actor and the model for Love in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Dante's Dream (1870). Hang on, here's some visual reference for you...

Philip Burne-Jones (and cat)

Johnston Forbes-Robertson (1870)

I'm far too academic to comment that Phil looks like a rubbish Bond Villain and JFB is hotter than York in August, but there you go. Basically, the poem and painting came off as 'boy gets dumped by his girlfriend so he and his mate call her names' but there was something compelling about the image of the vampire woman, climbing over the lifeless body of the man who trusted her, looking triumphant.  She appears to have bitten him on the chest, over his heart possibly (a bit obvious, metaphor-wise), and her flimsy nightgown and loose hair makes it appear that she killed him during sex.  The Belfast News-Letter called it 'powerful and clever, but cannot be called an agreeable picture' and the Knaresborough Post called it a 'painful but striking allegory'. I was really reminded of this picture by Phil's Dad...

The Depths of the Sea (1887) Edward Burne-Jones

In many accounts you read about EBJ's painting, the mermaid is certainly not Maria Zambaco (wink, wink), lover of EBJ and general whirlwind of destructive passion.  I should clarify here that both father and son are expressing their feelings about their affairs and the women who were their obsessions and we, of course, know that these feelings are arguably nothing to do with the women themselves. Both the mermaid who drags the sailor to the depths of the sea, and the vampire who drains the blood of her lover are seen as wanton, selfish and psychotic. They get what they want, but what of the man?  Why won't anyone think of the man! I think the reason both paintings struck such nerves with the critics is because they reflect both the deepest fears of men, to be helpless and betrayed by the one you love, and the utter reversal of the status quo. There are loads of paintings of women being the weaker sex, being seduced and abandoned, dying of broken hearts and the such-like. If I may be presumptuous, I suspect that such images are accepted because the men who looked at them thought I have the power to do that, but I won't. But I could. But I won't. If you turn that around and show men, the critics and main audience of art to be the victims, it would make one wonder if women could be trusted to hold back their lustful, murderous ways (unlikely). Also, maybe you'd like it. We can't have people thinking stuff like that, lawks. My favourite criticism of The Vampire was in the Westminster Gazette which called it a 'disagreeable picture of Mrs Patrick Campbell' in a dirty nightgown and weird light, which was clever but not something you'd want on your wall.

The picture caused such a rumpus that it went on to tour in America, stirring up interest to the point that the customs officials questioned the value that had been put on the painting.  They stated that it was too low but not exactly for a flattering reason - 'We estimate Burne-Jones' work not artistically, but commercially' stating that since the scandal it should be worth 'a fortune' of which they wanted 20%.  By this tour, in 1902, it was generally assumed that it was a painting of Mrs Pat, even though Philip argued, not very convincingly, that the woman was a professional artists model he had employed in Brussels. Either way, the fame or notoriety of the painting led to Cadbury's producing engravings of the work, due to its 'unusual amount of power and originality' (according to The Globe in January 1902) and Mr W K Vanderbilt purchasing the painting for $18,000. Kipling's 'vampoetry' (as he called it) had become famous alongside the painting and the description of a woman as 'a rag and a bone and a hank of hair' remained in the newspapers as late as 1960. The power of the words and the image led to our second stop on the journey of The Vampire...

Alice Eis and Bert French performing The Vampire Dance 

Bert French and Alice Eis were a dancing duo who had great success in New York.  They had been performing an 'Apache Dance' when Bert started looking around for a next sensational subject, to no avail.  By magic, a friend sent him a postcard of Philip Burne-Jones' vampiric mistress together with Kipling's poem and suddenly 'The Vampire's Dance' was born.

Alice Eis and Bert French in The Vampire's Dance

The Ealing Gazette and West Middlesex Observer had an interview with Bert who said that being the Vampire had made Alice so famous she was now unable to go out without a heavy veil as crowds followed her everywhere. London was equally as excited, and Bert complained that he was called on the telephone at all hours from people desperate to meet them.  He also revealed he had received many letters praising the moral tone of the work. Let that be a lesson to you - if you dice with a saucy lady, you will come off the worse for it. Interesting, this is arguably not the lesson that Philip and Rudyard had intended people to take from it, but it is no more agreeable. Whereas the original meaning was about the dangers of heartless women, the dance was interpreted more against men who have extra marital affairs who will get their just deserts. Again, the danger is women. Possibly there is some value in claiming that the woman is powerful and is a reflection of the strength of the suffrage movement, but she is destructive and without feelings.

It was described in The London Magazine as 'the ultimate limit in the decadent dancing lately so popular in London.'  The dance, the painting and the poem in turn inspired a novel and a play, entitled A Fool There Was (1909) by Porter Emerson Brown, adapted from his novel of the same name which even had the painting on the cover of certain editions...



By the way, should you be tempted to read this pot-boiler, it's free to download from Archive.org. The play of A Fool There Was proved popular, weaving a whole story around the single image. This seems to have led to the 1913 film The Vampire, a story of a man who loved a heartless woman but sees her for what she is after witnessing Alice and Bert doing their Vampire Dance. A little over a year later, the Fox Corporation went one step bigger and better with their epic A Fool There Was (1915), which can be watched on YouTube and is notable as the debut of the incredible Theda Bara...


Sweet heavens above, what is going on there? I want to be her when I grow up so I need to buy more eyeliner. The plot of the movie (spoiler alert) centres around a happy family man and diplomat who travels from America to England by boat, meeting the mysterious vampire woman (or 'Vamp' as it became) on the way.  She seduces and ruins him, and it all ends badly for him but she doesn't give a flying fig because she's so very wicked...


I really enjoyed watching this and has led to a new description of a dead person as being 'deck noise' after the suicide of Theda's first lover on board a cruise ship being dismissed as merely 'deck noise'. The moment when the vampire temptress murmurs 'Kiss me, my fool!' to her victim became a sensation, and the contrast between Theda's vampire and the good wife who sticks by her husband and refuses to divorce him is blatent, although Theda does not get her comeuppance at the end (hurrah!).

Samson and Delilah (c.1887) Solomon J Solomon

In conclusion, taking the painting first, it seems to have had an interesting fate.  For a work that was so modern and successful around the world, it seems to have vanished. I have contacted the Vanderbilt collection to see if they can shine any light on it but if anyone knows where the painting is, please give me a shout.  There seems to be no colour images of it, only hand-coloured ones.  In many ways, it really wasn't that revolutionary, with clear predecessors in the works of Philip Burne-Jones' father and others like Solomon J Solomon.  Solomon's Delilah looks uncannily like Theda Bara almost 30 years later. I find it interesting to see how the meaning of the image shifted quite quickly from blaming the wicked lady for ruining a good man to blaming men for succumbing to temptation.  By the time of the movie, the 'Vamp' as she became known, could represent any destructive force, such as gambling or drinking, and the man is to blame for his downfall.  Obviously, Theda Bara was extremely attractive and there is a sense that she holds him with her supernatural sexiness and flimsy nightie, but there is a sense that this is a cautionary tale to be on your guard and your ruination is not inevitable, although the better the man, the more targetted for corruption he might become.

There is also a thread to all variations of the vampire tale  about the dangers of women discovering how much fun sex is. Taken literally, if a woman is a willing and enthusiastic participant in sex, then it will destroy men.  Yes, these women are seen as morally corrupt, but in every version of the tale, the woman is triumphant and moving on to her next victim, with barely a backward glance. In Burne-Jones' painting, she has killed the man and doesn't care. In the 1915 film, Theda Bara crumbles roses in her hands, scattering them over her victim, which would be very much understood as the destruction of romance.  Women like her don't want romance, they want your money and your physical ruination, sex without emotion. Forgive the generalisation, but that is traditionally the man's stance, as expressed by Mr 50 Cent in his song In Da Club - 'I'm into havin' sex, I ain't into makin' love', and so if women start encroaching into that where will it stop?  They'll be wanting the vote next...

In conclusion, if you are man, especially one on a cruise ship, and you don't want to end up as tragic 'deck noise', I'd avert your eyes from any saucy minxs who look like they want to drain your resources. The women are coming, brace yourself and keep your hand on your sixpence. 

 

Friday, 2 September 2022

Seize Thy Pencil, Child of Art!

 I've gone with a very upbeat title for this because this is a bit rough. It's about a sculptor, a model, celebrity and a Wikipedia entry that made me wince. This is the story of the exceptionally talented Mary Redmond and the appalling incident that made her a star.

Mary Redmond was born in Nenagh, County Tipperary in 1863. Her father was the overseer of a stone quarry so, as one dreamy article on her life stated, she was 'bred within sound of the stone-cutter's ringing hammer.' Pace yourself there, it gets far more flowery, I warn you now. When she was 5, Mary found clay around the quarry and wanted to make little pots for her dolls house.  She sculpted them, then filled them with water before placing them on a fire.  They obviously crumbled to bits, but she was not discouraged.  Finding better clay she tried again and again, moving on to people.  A local elderly woman fascinated her, so she sculpted her, including the frills on her strange high cap. With her little hands, she found manipulating and softening the clay difficult, so she bit and chewed it to work it. A period of illness (hopefully not connected to chewing clay) followed and when she recovered she found she had lost her best sculpting teeth and so had to wait for her adult teeth to come through before continuing with her art. 

She decided to be a sculptor at 11 but was equally talented with drawing. The New Ross Standard recorded that she was a accurate caricaturist 'Woe betide the luckless teacher who did not appeal to her sympathies! A few deft strokes of her crayon or a little figure quickly rising out of clay under her magic touch and the whole class would be in an uproar of laughter.' Mary created a whole trayful of female figures which were admired by people who came to see them. She was unable to model them with feet so none of them could stand, so it was suggested that she had a go at modelling 'the extremities'.  Mary got her little brother to take off his sock and she modelled a foot and showed it to Mrs O'Meara, the wife of a neighbouring rector. Mrs O'Meara was so impressed she enlisted the help of two sisters called Lawless, who were the sisters of Lord Clonary. It was agreed that little Mary should be sent to the big city, Dublin, where she could get a proper art education at the new Metropolitan School of Art. Aged only 9, with only a very basic education up to that point, Mary was admitted to the Kildare Street School of Art. Miss Lawless, one of the sisters, kept an interest in Mary, paying for her to live in Dublin so her artistic ambition could continue.

Robert Edwin Lyne took one look at Mary and said she was too young to attend the Metropolitan School of Art.  Mary replied she was much older than she looked, although she was very small.  She did not like drawing at all, but was allowed to bring in her own clay and sculpt.  At that time, there were no formal sculpting classes, but once settled in, she exceeded at drawing and earned scholarships that would see her all the way through her education.  She worked for local businesses, decorating ceramics and even teaching classes, despite being barely over 20. Rosa Mulholland, a well-known Irish novelist, visited her in one of her classes and was astonished to find 'a little pinafore-girl out of a nursery, in a white over-all blouse, with a cropof short curls across her forehead. I then thought the little maid in her workshop one of the prettiest sights I had ever seen.' Not only that, Miss Lawless provided the money to continue her education abroad and sent her off to Italy.

Her departure was reported in the newspapers, such as the Freeman's Journal in 1886. Miss Redmond was leaving for Rome for three years for the purpose of pursuing her further studies under the guidance of Italian masters, and she took the hopes of her community with her.  She boarded in a convent, as reported by the Dublin Daily Express in December 1889, enjoying the heat, the fountains and the pomegranate trees. When she became ill, she moved the the cooler climate of Florence, and the school of the Belli Arti under sculptor Raffaello Romanelli. While away, she had arranged for her works to continue to be exhibited and in 1888, the Corporation of Liverpool purchased her studies in terracotta for 'the local museum' which had been shown at a recent exhibition.  At this point, Mary was in Florence and here she met two important people.  The first was William Gladstone, whose bust she was commissioned to sculpt on her return in 1889.  The other was a dentist, Dr William Dunne, also from Ireland, who she fell in love with and would eventually marry in 1893.  However, despite being reasonably well-known at this point, the next few years made her famous for more than her talent.

The Martin Memorial

On her return, Mary plunged back into work, travelling to London to sculpt Gladstone in a fortnight and gaining commissions to design a memorial for the late District Inspector Martin, who had been killed while attempting to arrest a priest. She also sculpted a bust of Edmund Dwyer Gray MP, who had died in 1888, and 30 marble copies were ordered as it was so popular. Rosa Mulholland visited her again in her studio in Dublin, describing her in an article as 'quite grown-up, though still small and child-like with a pretty face, a quick glad manner of speech, a bright, brave glance, and as altogether as bonny a little person as ever travelled from Dublin to Italy and back again.' Her name also appeared on a letter in favour of female suffrage that appeared in the Fortnightly Review in July 1889, alongside fellow artists Louise Jopling and Isabel Dacre. Mary was now 26 years old and as she had done before, submitted a design to a competition to design a statue for Father Theobald Mathew, the Apostle of Temperance...

Theobald Mathew (undated) Edward Daniel Leahy

Theobald Mathew (1790-1856) had been a Catholic Priest and teetotal reformer. Born in 1790, he had founded the Catholic Total Abstinence Movement in Ireland in 1838, as the 'Knights of Father Mathew'.  For the centenary of his birth, it was proposed that a statue be raised in his memory and a competition was launched to which many entries were submitted.  The choice came down to Mary and Herbert Barnes, with Mary's design ultimately winning over the committee, for both artistic reasons and that she was charging them a lot less.  Although this shouldn't have had any influence, the committee's next job was to raise the funds for the statue, so it definitely played a role.  Donors such as John Mason Cook, the famous excursionist and son of Thomas Cook, gave money and wrote letters in praise of Father Mathew's efforts.  It was also proposed that all pubs would be shut for the day on 13th October in remembrance of his work. Mary's statue was of Father Mathew in his Capuchin Order of Friars robes posed with his right hand raised 'as if in accompaniment of words of exhortation', as the Irish Independent newspaper recorded. The Irish Times reported on a public meeting from May of 1890, how the statue of the man known as the Apostle of Temperance would be welcomed as he was gratefully remembered in Ireland for his noble works.  The statue was planned to be placed in a leading Dublin thoroughfare, O'Connell Street, where plenty would see it. The money was raised and Mary attempted to find a model suitable.  Finding a male model in Dublin was apparently a difficult task, but she was advised to try the Night Asylum, a homeless shelter.  There she met Richard Hunter, 23 years old and absolutely perfect in looks.  He had been a gentleman's valet to someone who Mary knew and who was given good references and so Mary hired him.

Richard Hunter was quiet and obedient, respectful and constantly going to mass and confession and gave the impression of a sober, well-behaved, handsome young man. Mary remembered him as a splendid model, falling into the perfect poses at only the slightest of suggestion.  As she told the reporter for the Irish Society journal of 1891, Hunter suddenly changed from being quiet and respectful to surly and threatening.  On top of this, his pose, as she said, was 'spread', a studio term for a lack of compactness.   Unable to work with him, Mary sacked him. He returned the next day, full of remorse, but as the model for the statue was almost done, Mary refused to rehire him.  At that point he threatened her work and vowed revenge.

What happened next is why I wanted to write this post.  According to Mary's brief Wikipedia entry, 'the male model for the Father Mathew statue took the concept of getting plastered a little too far, was dismissed for drunkenness and was later convicted for vandalising her work.' I can understand the contemporary accounts minimising what happened, but the details of Richard Hunter's revenge were written in detail in the newspapers and it was a little more than just vandalism. Up to this point, Mary's story has been one of her single-minded, individual rise from humble beginnings to competing at the top of her field, while still in her early twenties, without family money or a husband as a safety net.  That independence, much commented on in news reports, might have played a part in Hunter's antagonism.  Her tiny, child-like build might have also meant he thought he had the upper hand. However, things did not go exactly the way he thought.

On 26th May 1891, with the work on the statue all but complete, Mary returned to her studio on Great Charles Lane at 8pm. She lived not far from it, at Fitzgibbon Street in Dublin and it had been a week since she had dismissed Hunter.  At that point, Mary noticed that a linen coat had vanished and when asked, Hunter denied it, another reason why Mary refused to take him back as it had only been the two of them in the studio. As she put the key in the door, Mary heard someone running towards her and as she turned she found Hunter next to her, wearing the stolen coat.  He punched her in the face, then in the back of the head, shouting 'Now I have my revenge; I destroyed the statue!' Mary fled back towards Fitzgibbon Street, meeting her maid who she sent for a policeman. The maid fled and didn't return, so another friend fetched the police who caught Hunter. Hunter denied any involvement but once at the station, not only did he admit to criminal damage and assault, his chilling words were recorded and read out in court the next morning - 'I will only get twelve months for this, and I will take her life if it takes me seven years.' He also regretted that he had not strangled her in the studio or carried a knife to kill her. On entering the studio, Mary found her model smashed to atoms, all her work destroyed.

It went to court and was an absolute sensation. Mary's fame and the violence of the attack, not just on Mary but also on the effigy of such a beloved figure made headlines. Hunter pleaded guilty to the attack and the destruction but denied taking the coat, which had again vanished.  He was found guilty of everything with revelations that he had been in trouble with the law previously including three months for larceny, 4 days in prison for drunkenness and 2 weeks for 'illegal possession of a coat'.  Coats were obviously a thing for him. When he received his sentence it was 14 years imprisonment, twice the seven years he promised to take to kill Mary. 

Mary had a mammoth task, to recreate her statue and in the May of 1892 the committee came to her studio to see the 9 foot clay cast of the statue. Everyone was even more impressed than they had been before, telling the Irish Independent newspaper 'Miss Redmond has worked at her task with devotion and the result of her efforts must indicate, in the eyes of all who appreciate Irish art, the gifted lady's claim to those qualities of hand and heart.' The piece continued by quoting an anonymous poem addressed to painters about to illustrate the labours of Father Matthew - 'Seize thy pencil, child of art! Fame and fortune brighten o'er thee, Great thy hand and great thy heart, if well thou dost the work before thee.' Mary's work was done and nine months later, the finished statue had been cast and placed on the plinth. The unveiling happened on 8th February 1893, with Mary present to see her massive priest unveiled. She was celebrated not only as the creator of this landmark but also as the youngest sculptor of a piece of public art. Shortly after, Mary travelled to London to marry Dr William Dunn who she had met in Florence. The couple went back to Florence where they lived a long and happy life together, with two children; a son who survived the First World War with honours and a daughter who followed her mother into art. Apparently, there are two small marble angels in the chapel of the Order of the Little Company of Mary in Florence that were created by Mary and her home, within sight of Galileo's Tower held a warm welcome for any Irish traveller, including Joseph Plunkett the novelist, who recorded a visit to her home in 1911 and their trip to see art in Naples. She died in 1930 but received obituaries back in her native Ireland, remembered still for both her talent but also the destruction of her model. It seems that forty years later, the outrage was still felt.

When I read the mention of the attack on Wikipedia, I was astonished.  I had read the newspapers first and then went looking for her.  Honestly, as you can see by the lack of illustration, Mary does not have the presence on the internet that you would think, considering she was such a celebrity. There are a number of places where her work is ascribed to someone else - without fail, a male sculptor. However, I was concerned by the lightness over the attack.  Mary was a young woman, very young and without protection or family, working in a male dominated industry, competing and winning against her male peers. The attack on her was brutal and could well have been fatal as that was Hunter's intention. It is passed off as a moment of drunken madness in modern accounts, but no mention of alcohol is made in the majority of the accounts of Hunter, and certainly none from the night of the attack. You'd think that the newspapers would have had a field day if the model for the Apostle of Temperance had been drunk, but it is not mentioned at all.  On the contrary, Hunter's clarity of his intentions are chilling. As we see from people like Dolly or Ellen Smith, that violence can come to define a woman's life and in a way, Mary Redmond's work is still mentioned in the same breath as her attack. I'm not sure how I feel about that, and sadly it's because violence in women's lives is so common that it seems a little redundant to be excited about it. However, violence seems to exist as a shared secret, something we do not talk about and maybe we should, not just the violence towards Mary or Dolly or Ellen, but against women we know, women we are. Being a woman seems to mean experiencing violence, which is a tragedy, but it also means surviving, thriving and succeeding. 

It can't hurt to acknowledge both of those things.

Friday, 26 August 2022

Nuts!

 This is a bit of a rambling post but it's something that has always puzzled me, but I've never been able to put my finger on what the problem is.  Anyway, the point of this post is to try and unpick a very famous anecdote.  

It's a truth universally acknowledged that this is the first picture that Fanny Cornforth appears in...

Found (1854-1881) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

To be exact, she appeared in a sketch for this unfinished piece, probably something like this one...

Study for the Girl's Head in Found (c.1858) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In Fanny's account, which has never been disputed, she said that after they met, Rossetti invited her to the studio where he put her head against the wall and drew it for what she called 'the calf picture' or as we know it, Found. The story behind Found is that a country chap comes to London and discovers his former beloved, who had abandoned him for the bright lights of London. She's been living a thoroughly sinful life that seems to have turned her green and she is very ashamed of herself.  Somehow, this account of an innocent country girl who becomes a sex worker in London has also become co-opted as Fanny's story. The simplicity of Found is in stark contrast to the utterly bizarre nature of Fanny's own alleged origin story, and there is just something about the details of that fable that have always bothered me. Let's start with a famous quote...

'He met her in the Strand. She was cracking nuts with her teeth and throwing the shells about: seeing Rossetti staring at her, she threw some at him. Delighted with this brilliant naivete, he forthwith accosted her to sit to him for her portrait' (Autobiographical Notes of the Life of William Bell Scott (1892) William Bell Scott)

This is the now infamous account about how Rosetti met Fanny.  It is, of course, utter bobbins, but was sort of backed up by William Michael Rossetti in his book on his brother, where he says 'I cannot recollect ever hearing anything about the nuts, but do not contest Mr Scott's statement on that point.' It has to be noted that William Michael did not like Fanny, especially around the time he was writing.  Also, William Bell Scott was not present at the alleged meeting in the Strand. Why William Bell Scott would make up such an elaborate lie is something that really interests me. The reasoning I always go for is this entry in William Allingham's diary, Sunday 26th June 1864: 

'Enter Fanny, who says something of W. B. Scott which amuses us. Scott was a dark hairy man, but after an illness has reappeared quite bald, Fanny exclaimed, ' O my, Mr. Scott is changed ! He ain't got a hye-brow or a hye-lash — not a 'air on his 'ead ! ' Rossetti laughed immoderately at this, so that poor Fanny, good-humoured as she is, pouted at last— ‘Well, I know I don't say it right,' and I hushed him up.'

From the diary entry, it doesn't seem it was at a party or said to anyone other than Allingham and Rossetti but I don't put it past Rossetti to have to told William Bell Scott this 'hilarious' anecdote. I also don't feel, from Allingham's record of the incident, that Fanny meant the remark maliciously, she was just exclaiming on the change in Scott's appearance. Scott, by reputation, was proud of his looks, but his sudden alopecia after his illness had caused him great embarrassment. Like Rossetti, he appears to have been a very good looking chap in his youth but not so much later on.

William Bell Scott (1850s) Arthur Hughes

Bell Scott, Ruskin and Rossetti in 1863

I also wonder about the fact that Bell Scott was born in 1811, older even than Ruskin, but in with a crowd  two or more decades younger than he was, with all that youthful energy.  Bell Scott is a great painter, wonderful landscapes and interesting genre pieces but never the most interesting man in the room. He is obviously allowed to dislike Fanny and I understand his problem with her, even before she made a comment on the one thing he didn't want commenting on. She had no qualities he seemed interested in.  She was not ethereal or quiet, she was not well-bred and titled (his mistress was Alice Boyd, the painter and sister of the Laird of Penkill Castle).  She was also Rossetti's mistress and not to be too judgemental, Rossetti could be an absolute git-weasel, so what does that say about her if she likes that?  In hindsight, with all the evidence we now have, we can see that Rossetti's behaviour is all coming from a very dark and sad place but that doesn't mean that he couldn't be a antagonistic to be with, especially for people who had no appreciation of the vagaries of mental health conditions. Anyway, in a way, I'm not surprised that William Bell Scott lashed out in memoir form, after all he was writing at the time when lots of people were claiming the narrative of the Pre-Raphaelites and Rossetti. What interests me is the story itself, and to be exact, the nuts.

Rebecca Davies in Desperate Romantics

In the BBC's Desperate Romantics, Fanny Cornforth cracks nuts between her teeth and spits the shells at Rossetti (‘Do you make a habit of spitting?’ ‘Depends what I have in my mouth at the time, sir…’). In Scott's account Fanny is cracking the nuts in her teeth and throwing the shells about, but that rapidly became spitting the shells, hands-free, which is quite impressive. I've always maintained that the cracking in the teeth is the important part, that Scott was labelling Fanny an animal, but I never considered the nuts themselves.  What do they symbolise?

Fanny Cornforth in the garden of Tudor House (1863) W & D Downey

Yes, well, we have the very obvious body parts.  Scott was judgemental of Rossetti's attachment to Fanny, which he obviously didn't approve of or understand, so it would be understandable that he'd think it was purely sexual and that Fanny had Rossetti by the nuts, as it were.  There is also the connotation of the 'nut' being the head, and possibly Fanny being a cause of the mental change of Rossetti, that she was 'cracking' his nut, damaging or lowering his IQ by her cheap, tarty presence. It's also interesting that the nuts are in her mouth, whether she spits them or not. She is not even cracking them in her hands. The nuts have become the words that she uses to communicate.  They come from her mouth and are either spat or thrown. Her non-verbal, semi-violent methods or attracting attention again make me think of animals but also of a lack of intelligence and threat. That Rossetti is 'delighted' with this 'brilliant naivete' says quite a bit about how Scott perceived him.  Was Rossetti that sophisticated that he needed a break from it? It does mark Rossetti as a man who enjoys simplicity, or put less politely, crudity. Seen with hindsight of his painting and poetry output of the 1860s, especially the more fleshly stuff (which involved Fanny), you could draw the conclusion that Rossetti liked pretty girls doing things with their mouths and that's all. It rather takes one of the great painter/poets of the nineteenth century down a peg or two.

Fair Rosamund (1861) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

So, nuts - why nuts? I did wonder if they had any significance and so turned to the language of flowers and the symbolism of food as I was interested to see that if you type in 'language of flowers' and 'nuts', many websites come back with 'stupidity'. It's not a massive shock if Scott intended the nut to represent Fanny's stupidity, especially when coupled with her brilliant naivete. In Mrs L Burke's 1865 The Miniature Language of Flowers, there are no nuts, but the Bladder Nut Tree symbolised frivolity and rather crude amusement due to the fact that the seeds make a rude noise when you squeeze them. For the Romans, nuts symbolised fertility and the shells were thrown before bridegrooms and brides. Taken with Fanny's perceived occupation as a sex worker, this symbolism would fit as well. Although she didn't have any children, Fanny is often seen as a bountiful, luxurious, extra woman, with her size and appearance.  In Theresa Dietz's 2022 The Complete Language of Food, various different nuts have interesting meanings, including brazil and pecans (hospitality), sweet chestnuts (luxury and interestingly, chastity) and macadamia (ingenuity). Scott didn't specify a nut, but subsequent writers have opted for walnuts which are often linked to Christianity (the shell being the church and the kernel, the congregation), but also of male virility and power, which would link to how forward and proactive Fanny is in the story of their meeting.  I especially liked the symbolism of walnuts as representing people who are tough on the outside and sweet and soft inside, which I think fits Fanny as shown by her actions, but I very much doubt that is what Scott intended unless I have misjudged him.

Woman Combing Her Hair (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

If you fancy a really way-out reading of the nut story, I can offer you the Celtic Revival and Echtra Cormac (Cormac's Adventure in the Land of Promise), which Whitley Stokes offered in translation in 1891.  Within this tale of Irish mythology, there is a very interesting passage which goes something like this...
'Lo, it is custom for those who dwell in that city to break the nut with their teeth and swallow the fruit within. For others it is custom to break the nut and give food to those near them, who sate the hunger of others with the nuts which they are eager to take.' 

Okay, so it's a stretch, but the symbolism of the nut as knowledge or faith being learned, digested or shared, is an interesting one. Read in this way, Fanny's nut cracking and throwing is an act of sharing, but it is only the shell she throws. If her nut cracking and throwing is truly symbolic, then it is an act of sharing something useless, that she keeps the good things for herself and shares that which is no use to anyone. This sort of symbolic reading of Fanny is repeated in Violet Hunt's The Wife of Rossetti (1932) where she talks about Fanny's ancestor who would promise to share peaches and apricots when all she had was apples. Hunt learned her version of the Pre-Raphaelite drama from Scott, who was a family friend, so the use of symbolism might have come from him. 

 

Found (study of a head of a woman) (1853-7) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

So, where does all this leave us? Honestly, I have no answers, as the reason why William Bell Scott would write down such an elaborate lie is mysterious.  Was the intended target Fanny or Rossetti?  He brands one a sex worker and the other a man who likes women with strong teeth and weird soliciting techniques. It does occur to me that Scott might have seen a sex worker perform such a trick (I'm guessing with peanuts rather than walnuts unless she had really sturdy false teeth) and kept that in mind for when he was writing up his memoir, but why bother? Had Fanny really upset him that much? Part of me is really doubtful that Fanny was the intended target as that is a lot of weird effort to go to in order to get even with a working class woman, who by that point had retreated to obscurity. I have a feeling a lot of the appalling things said about Fanny are actually about Rossetti - she becomes collateral damage in people getting even with Rossetti, who alienated a lot of people, if not actually infuriated them. By the 1890s, William Michael had actually done a fairly decent job in creating the myth of 'the great man' Rossetti, backed by various biographers who had piled on after Thomas Hall Caine's unctuous offering, Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1882). I can see people who may have felt aggrieved or felt that they had a different story to tell, getting in on the act. 

Woman with a Fan (1870) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

So, we end up with nuts. Whether it is about the thrower or the target is unclear but the story only came to define one of the people involved. The fictitious Fanny with her strong teeth may symbolise strength, masculinity, emasculation, luxury, ingenuity or idiocy but that is not the woman who Rossetti approached in a dining alcove at a firework event in 1856 and pulled the pins from her hair. Let's hope we never forget that again.