Monday 27 June 2011

Following Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I was wandering around Wightwick Manor with a crowd of other people, when I came across a display on the history of Morris and Company.  I found myself next to a young lady in her late teens who seemed very disgruntled.  She gestured to the photograph of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in disgust. ‘I used to really fancy him,’ she complained, ‘then I found out he didn’t look like Aidan Turner…I was gutted!’  I felt somewhat defensive of poor DGR, after all he created such beautiful work, he inspired others, led others to create greatness…then I looked hard at the photograph…

Oh, I see.  Yes, well if you’re expecting this:

Aidan Turner and Rebecca Davies in Desperate Romantics
And you get, well, Tim Curry on a bad day, then possibly it is fair enough to be ‘gutted’.  However, I got to thinking, why didn’t the makers of Desperate Romantics go with a more realistic physical portrayal of Rossetti?  Why did they choose to make him like the London Underground in August: hot and unpleasant?  People chose to follow this man, they fell in love with him, he inspired them – was it really only his looks that made them do that?  If he wasn’t an obviously handsome man, then what was it that brought people to him and is this shown in any performance of him?  Let’s start with our hero…

Self Portrait (1847) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Hello Manflesh, are we pretty?  Excuse me, how unprofessional… Here we have a very handsome young Rossetti at around age 19 with flowing hair and poetic looks.  The ladies may fan themselves and swoon if they wish.  There is no doubt that young Gabriel is very beautiful and so I can see why all the ladies flocked to him, all the men followed him etc etc.  Hang on though, this is a self-portrait.  It’s not that I doubt his honesty or artistic skill, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t say maybe, just maybe he showed himself in his very best light.  I’m not for a moment saying he took a few artistic liberties.  By the way, as I’m typing this I’m not at all sat in my pyjamas, I am the spitting image of Astarte Syriaca. Honest.

Honest, it's me.
 Well, whether or not that is a realistic portrayal of Rossetti, the next image we have of him is in 1853, six years after the portrait above.  This time we can have a little more faith in it because firstly it’s by someone else and secondly, we have a photograph from the same time. Ta dah!

The Rossetti Brothers 1853
Date Gabriel Rossetti (1853) William Holman Hunt
Now, hats off to William Holman Hunt because that isn’t bad at all.  It’s hard to tell in the photo if he had such enormous bush-baby eyes, but I have to say that Hunt captured him amazingly, down to the way his hair flicked out over his ears.  Compared with the picture of him at nineteen, this is an entirely different Rossetti, quite thin, very serious, huge forehead.  Blimey, even then William Michael seems to be his brother’s minder.

We have to wait almost a decade before we have another image of him.  In the December of 1862, this cabinet photo was taken:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1862)
 We now enter the ‘Tim Curry’ phase of Rossetti.  His eyes are very direct and prominent in this picture, and he looks somewhat rumpled.  William Michael wrote in 1889 that the picture was an excellent likeness showing his rather ‘complicated’ expression.  His nature was both intense and indolent, and ‘easily capable of imposing its will upon others’, but WMR did confess that was perhaps from knowing his brother rather than from the picture alone.

The year after, pictures abound.  1863 was a good year for Rossetti photos, as he had a number taken of his friends and family, which he appeared in.

Worst. Blind Date. Ever.
1863, back garden of Tudor House. From left: A C Swinburne, DGR, Fanny Cornforth, WMR
In the year, not much has changed.  He looks a little tidier, but not much. If you consider that Aiden Turner is supposed to represent Rossetti between the years of the first photograph and the ones above, then no, sadly, he does not look the slightest bit like him.

So, why make Rossetti look like Aidan Turner? At the time of Desperate Romantics, Turner’s star was ascending due to his marvellous performance in Being Human, and he would go on to other very convincing roles, including my personal favourite in Hattie.  He is an actor with depth and talent, neither of which seemed to be allowed in his portrayal of Rossetti, although he was given some funny lines and got to take his clothes off a bit.  Smashing.

What about other Rossettis?  I know of three others on television – Oliver Reed, Ben Kingsley and Clive Swift.  So how did their performances express Rossetti’s depth and charisma, or did they also fall back on looks to explain his appeal?

Ken Russell gave us an unhinged, brooding Rossetti in Dante’s Inferno (1967).  He personified Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll, an angry young man for 1960s Britain.  Russell saw a direct link between Rossetti’s outlook and the ethos of the 1960s and brought us Oliver Reed, who was also very sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Judith Paris as Lizzie, Oliver Reed as DGR in Dante's Inferno
I love this portrayal of Rossetti, partly because I love Ken Russell’s films but also because it is not an easy film to watch, filled with anger, contradiction and giddy joy.  Although Oliver Reed isn’t hard on the eyes, he does give a fair approximation of what I understand ‘charisma’ to be.  Reed’s Rossetti is not in control of his life, as action snaps back and forward, but he appears as the eye of his own storm, bringing people to him.  It feels as if both Russell and Reed had empathy with Rossetti, feeling a definite connection with the poet/painter, and their joint presentation of Rossetti is of a man whom they understand and appreciate.  Contrast this with Aidan Turner’s comment that Rossetti was ‘one of those people we all kind of hate’.  Well, yikes, channelling your inner git-weasel isn’t a great compliment to the painter of Venus Verticordia, now is it?

Contrast Reed’s hulking Rossetti with Ben Kingsley more slight portrayal in The Love School and you would think they both couldn’t be right.  However, from what I have seen of Kingsley’s Rossetti, through the wonders of YouTube, I actually want to see more.  His quick movement, childlike need for approval and general whimsy are entirely in keeping with Rossetti.  His Rossetti is close to the Desperate Romantics period, but unlike the later production The Love School seemed to understand Rossetti.  Plus, Kingsley looks like a young Rossetti.

Patricia Quinn as Lizzie, Ben Kingsley as DGR in The Love School
I would like to see more, so again appeal for the BBC to let us have The Love School on DVD.  Likewise, I have no way of knowing how 1978’s News from Nowhere represented Rossetti (as portrayed by Clive Swift), but they chose to cast Timothy West as William Morris, can you imagine?  That is just inspired.  I need to see it, please release it on DVD.

Are we so shallow now that in order to hail a man as a leader he has to be hotter than York in August?  If Rossetti truly was the kind of man we all kind of hate, then why in God’s name did people flock to him?  I mean him no disrespect in saying that certainly after the first flush of youth, he was not outrageously handsome, but maybe I am just judging him by modern standards.  It is possible that this... what ‘hot’ looked like in 1863.  Mind you, I think we are doing his contemporaries and ourselves a great disservice.  Leadership has very little to do with looks and more to do with what is inside, attraction likewise.  I have met a few men in my time whom I would merrily follow over hot coals and aside from Mr Walker (who is a God among men, aren’t you dear?) their looks have been the least of my concerns.  

Possibly it’s time that programme makers had the courage to allow actors to compel us with the force of their performance not the prettiness of their faces, and to credit an audience with the ability to understand what is hot and what is not.

Saturday 25 June 2011

Sex and Death for £6 - Bargain!

If you find yourself within reach of the West Midlands in October this year, you may wish to consider attending Franny Moyle's talk on 'Sex and Death in Pre-Raphaelite Art'.

It's on Sunday 9th October at the marvellous Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and frankly sounds like a bit of a giggle.

Here's the link:

Come on, for £6 what more do you want? Sex, Death and a wander around a sumptious collection of art.

I have my ticket and promise to behave.

Well, as much as I ever do.

See you there !

Alexa Again

Just the other week I was saying how I had never seen a photograph of Alexa Wilding and how excited I had been to discover a small picture of her face in an old biography of Rossetti.  Well, imagine how over excited I am today – in The Victorian Art World in Photographs by Jeremy Maas I found another one!

Inscribed on the back with ‘Miss Wilding’ by William Michael Rossetti, it was among his brother’s belongings, so had obviously been given to him by Alexa, or possibly Rossetti arranged to have the picture taken.  She holds a flower, with one pinned to her neckline and one on her lap, looking to the side rather dreamily.

Alexa Wilding (1866) 
 Unlike the previous photo of Alexa, I think this one was devised with far more ‘artistic’ intentions.  She is looking off to the side, which is a fairly common pose for Rossetti muses.  I wonder if another purpose of the picture might have been to support her acting aspirations.  She does look like a romantic leading lady, doesn’t she?

Anyway, here is the lovely Alexa.  Again.  Not quite so mysterious now, is she?

Thursday 23 June 2011

A Passion for Paxton

While searching out images for another post, I stumbled across a picture by an American artist, William McGregor Paxton which left me swooning for more.  I immediately thought he was a sublime blend of Whistler and Millais, with a splash of Brickdale and a dash of Watts, and felt the need to gather some of his delicious images together and do a piece.

The picture I saw that made me clasp a hand to my chest and sigh was The Album...

The Album (1913)
 Look at the utterly amazing green of the dress and hat, together with the darling little cherries.  The flat space behind her brought to mind images like The Blue Bower, as Paxton seems to use the closing of space utilised by the Pre-Raphaelites.

The Blue Bower (1865) D G Rossetti

There couldn’t possibly be anything as beautiful as this picture, I thought, but lo and behold, look what the kind Mr Paxton had provided me with…

The Green Dress (1913)
 That is an impressive bustle.  It reminded me of G F Watts image of Mrs Nassau Senior, displayed at Wightwick Manor.  The vivid colour and clarity of light is astonishing, the almost artificially bright green kicks against the subtle colours of the Japanese figurine.  In case you are worried about the figurine, fear not, here it is again.
The Figurine (1921)
The figures and pots appear again in The Housemaid and a Whistler-esque figure in Japanese dress is seen in The Yellow Jacket.

The Housemaid (1910)
The Yellow Jacket

That lady reminds me of paintings such as La Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine and Caprice in Purple and Gold and to a lesser extent The Blue Bower again.  

La Princesse... (1864) J M Whistler
Caprice in Purple and Gold (1864) J M Whistler


Paxton was working fifty years later than Rossetti and Whistler on these paintings, so on occasions the Edwardian style distracts from the similarities, for example take The Shade Hat of 1912.

The Shade Hat (1912)
She is a fashionable young lady in contemporary dress, adjusting her whooping-great-big hat in front of a backdrop of gold and grey-green wallpaper.  Just concentrating on the Edwardian Lady, it is easy to miss that she is essentially a half-length female figure in front of a patterned wall, like Rossetti’s Regina Cordium (1866).  The wallpaper that covers her background reminds me of the paper in Isabella, the gold and grey flourishes covering the wall.
Detail of Isabella (1848-49)      J E Millais

Regina Cordium (1866) D G Rossetti

While we’re on the subject of Rossetti, take Paxton’s image of Girl Combing Her Hair:

Girl Combing Her Hair (1909)
 Where do I start?  OK, well we have Rossetti’s image of Fanny Cornforth doing the same, but also Fazio’s Mistress is relevant, as she gazes at her mirror, doing her hair.  The girl actually reminds me of Jo, The Beautiful Irish Girl by Courbet, 'Jo' being Jo Hiffernan, Whistler’s mistress. 

Fazio's Mistress (1863) D G Rossetti
Jo, The Beautiful Irish Girl (1865-6) G Courbet

Glow of Gold, Gleam of Pearl, Paxton’s dazzling nude echoes Rossetti’s Spirit of the Rainbow (only better, shhh, don’t tell Rossetti).

Spirit of the Rainbow (1876) D G Rossetti
Glow of Gold, Gleam of Pearl (1906)

I find the portrait of Enid Hallin to be a beautiful companion to William Holman Hunt's Dolce Far Niente, a title that would do just as well for Paxton's lovely lady.

Dolce Far Niente (1866) W Holman Hunt
Portrait of Enid Hallin

Paxton is linked with the light and interiors of Vermeer, but I think his work equally should be linked with the aesthetic movement in 1860s England.  Described as an ‘American Impressionist’, his art can be related to Courbet, but I can see his work being included in turn-of-the-century post-Pre-Raphaelite reference, like Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale.  His Japonisme echoes Whistler and Rossetti, and his subjects speak of all the Pre-Raphaelites.  Possibly, it would be nearer to liken Paxton to G F Watts, the Impressionist Pre-Raphaelite, and when comparing The Green Dress with Mrs Nassau Senior, the similarities are striking.   

Either way, I am delighted to have another artist to swoon over and now want a hat with cherries on it.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Midsummer is a Time for Languid Lazing

I'll make this short as I am just too languid to write for long.  Today is Midsummer's Day, and accordingly I have spent the day in aesthetic draping and reclined on a marble seat, too exhausted to move due to the sweltering heat.

OK, maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration, but you never know.

Anyway, a quick, relaxed scan of my art books revealed some suitable pictures for today, the most notable of which must be Albert Moore's beautiful Midsummer.
Midsummer (1887) Albert Moore

Gosh, that orange is astonishing, and brings to mind the curled figure of Flaming June by Lord Leighton...

Flaming June (1895) Lord Frederic Leighton
 Sorry, I dozed off, where was I?  Oh yes, orange seems to be the colour of summer for the classical aesthetic crowd, naturally enough you would think.  It does bring to mind warmth, sunshine and the glow of lazy, young women sprawling around doing nothing, like my good self....

The Sweet Siesta of a Summer Day John William Godward
I really need to be lying on a tiger skin while typing this, that would help.  It reminds me an awful lot of a poster I had on my wall as a teenager...

Dolce Far Niente (1904) John William Godward

Apparently any sort of animal skin will do, but a peacock fan would probably come in handy right now. 

When it comes to summer, it seems that oranges are not the only fruit, sorry, colour, as I discovered when seeking a colour illustration for A Summer Night by Albert Moore.

A Summer Night (1884) Albert Moore
In black and white, I really thought I was looking at a golden bevy of young ladies, but although the furnishings are a delicate gilt, they are beautifully offset by the dark dove grey of the night, making their skin shine like pearls.  Maybe summer can be other than gold and flame?  Let me investigate further....

Green Summer (1864) Edward Burne-Jones
Well, that's a little more leafy and lush, and it's almost as if the women are part of the foliage.  I would have expected this picture to be called Spring rather than Summer, but the deep, woody green brings to mind walking among trees on a hot day, feeling the cool and shade, breathing in the deep emerald of nature.  For Ned, summer seems to be green, as his lone female personification of the season shows.

Summer (1869) Edward Burne-Jones
The woman, who I think may be Maria Zambaco, looks so marvellously cool in her diaphanous gown, standing in front of her glass-like pool.  Now this is a sort of summer I would like to experience, cool stone beneath my feet, although I think I may have to wear a slightly less revealing gown in case I had to open the door to the postman.

A Summer Morning (1897) Rupert Bunny
Now I'm feeling a little more awake, thanks to Ned Burne-Jones, I can show you one of my favourite summer pictures, namely A Summer Morning by the splendidly named Rupert Bunny.  Mr Bunny's works are a joy to look at (which is a fun thing to say out loud, go on, try it) and I do encourage you to Google him.  A Summer Morning has a glittering pool and a swan to recommend it, together with a very Waterhouse-esque woman attempting to charm the swan with a flower.  Doesn't she know they can break a man's arm?  I think I'll move on...

Summer Offering (1911) Lawrence Alma-Tadema
With Leighton, Moore and Godward getting their summer on, you couldn't expect Alma-Tadema to be left out, however he too seems to have gone for pink rather than orange.  I especially like the slightly odd composition of this work, the flowers almost blocking the woman's face, as if she is incidental to the work and the roses are the subject (which I suppose they are, being the 'summer offering').

Now I am feeling less languid and reclined I suppose I ought to go and make the best of the sunshine, as we all know an English summer is notoriously changeable, as Charles Perugini shows in the charming Summer Shower.

Summer Shower (1888) Charles Perugini
Mind you, I don't want to get my shuttle cock wet, and that isn't a euphemism.  I'm off for a lie down. 
Happy Summer equinox.

Monday 20 June 2011

Myth and Mainstreaming

‘Pre-Raphaelite’ and ‘Mainstream’ are two words that go together as well as 'butterfly' and 'cheese'.  Certainly, a lot of people now think that the familiar works such as Ophelia and The Lady of Shalott represent what was popular in Victorian England, but when you look into Pre-Raphaelite art, most of what we celebrate here was seen as somewhat left of centre and a bit odd to contemporaries.  That is why I was surprised to discover that a very mainstream woman was, for a moment, a Pre-Raphaelite goddess in one of the best known pictures of the later Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Rossetti worshiped Jane, Millais adored Effie, Ned idolized Maria, but universally no one woman seems to have been everyone’s ideal.  Jane’s brows were somewhat brooding, Effie was seen as just a middle-class hostess and Maria Zambaco scared the life out of a lot of people, so there was not one woman who could be said to be a universal muse.  Listen to this…

‘The noble chiselling of the mouth…the supreme and splendid curve of the cheek, the augustly pillared throat which bears it all…beauty based on absolute abstract laws.’
Who is Oscar Wilde eulogising about? Sadly it wasn’t me.  It was the Dean of Jersey’s daughter, Lillie Langtry.

When she appeared in London Society for the first time, she always wore the same black dress, which made her famous.  She was the woman with only one dress, can you image?  The shock, the scandal!  It is in very simple dress that she was portrayed by Millais, Sant and Watts, appearing as a thoughtful young woman.  Frank Miles, the illustrator, called her ‘the Grecian goddess in the black dress?’ and W Graham Robertson said she had the face of the ‘lost Venus of Praxiteles’.

Lillie Langtry G F Watts
Portrait of Lillie Langtry James Sant

 You may wonder why I am telling you about Lillie Langtry today.  Well, I was familiar with her image, her reputation (especially her later, less austere behaviour), but what I didn’t realise was her connection to the Pre-Raphaelites.

A Jersey Lily (Lillie Langtry) (1878) J E Millais
  Lillie was disappointed that Millais wished to paint her in her black dress. ‘I had hoped to be draped in classic robes or sumptuous medieval garments, in which I should be beautiful and quite transformed.’  No-one seeing the photograph or Millais portrait of Mrs Langtry could argue that she was anything but beautiful, but I think it is interesting that despite the instantaneous adoration that seemed to flow to her as soon as she appeared in Society, she didn’t believe she was an attractive woman.  Not only that, her wish to be 'transformed' may prefigure her later choice of career.  She was probably happier with Edward John Poynter’s portrait, golden and romantic or his subsequent painting of her Nausicaa and her Maidens Playing at Ball (1879) and most interestingly Helen (1880). 

Nausicaa and her Maidens Playing at Ball (1879) E J Poynter
Oscar Wilde, a friend, proclaimed her in a poem to be the ‘New Helen’, which is a dubious complement.  Think about Annie Miller, Rossetti’s Helen of Troy, destroying all in her wake through her beauty.  The link between Lillie Langry and Helen of Troy grasped the public imagination so much that she became known as The New Helen as much as she was known as The Jersey Lily, which is the nickname I was familiar with.  Seeing as she had become the mistress of the Prince of Wales in 1878, then her ‘one-dress-to-her-name beauty’ reputation seemed to have been superseded by ‘destroying beauty’, slipping into legend as he altered her hair from brown to red. Mind you, when Sandys painted his marvellously petulent Helen of Troy, she also had red hair, so I wonder if women with Titian tints were seen as saucepots and homewreckers?

Helen (1880) E J Poynter
Helen of Troy (1863) D G Rossetti
Frederick Sandys' marvellously stroppy Helen of Troy

Wilde described Lillie as epitomising the new type of beauty, taking over from the Pre-Raphaelite form that combined ‘Greek form with Florentine mysticism’.  This new form was the Aesthetic ideal, ‘a pale distraught lady with…dark auburn hair, falling in masses over the brow…eyes full of love-lorn languor…’

Let me think, let me think, who does that remind me of? 


It was seen as a complete surprise when Ned took up Lillie’s offer to sit for him as his model (after her ‘loss of Royal patronage’ *ahem* and subsequent bankruptcy) but Ned wanted something out of the arrangement.  His work had been criticised for featuring sickly women, so the rather classic, sturdy beauty of the erstwhile Mrs Langtry seemed to be the answer.  The resulting picture was The Wheel of Fortune (1871-85).

 When I mentioned this picture last week, I had no idea it was Lillie Langtry.  Lillie disliked it, possibly feeling it to be a little close to the bone. She stands as a towering figure of Fortune, turning the wheel for the King, the Slave and the Poet, without a look of interest in any of them as she wields her power.  Ruskin was meant to have told Mrs Langtry that ‘Beautiful women like you hold the fortunes of the world in your hands to make or mar’.  In Burne-Jones’ painting she is holding the fortunes of three men whose fate is treated with equal disinterest as she turns her wheel, the great leveller of men.  Possibly in her position as ‘lover’, Lillie levelled men as she shared her bed with a future king and more lowly gentlemen.  By the time The Wheel of Fortune was exhibited, Lillie had taken a further step to stop her own fortune from turning away from her.  She had taken to the stage, and no longer had the time to sit for society painters, losing her crown as England’s Beauty, the new Helen, but possibly finding a slightly less fragile fate to pursue.

I think it's interesting that of the paintings that were done of her, she had the strongest feelings about the ones where she played a part.  This possibly paved the way for her career on the stage, where she got to play beautiful, powerful women to an appreciative audience.  There are worse ways to earn a living...