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...


  1. so interesting.. thanks for sharing!

  2. You know, I think I need to learn more about Maria. My obsession with Ned is only a few years old, and I really don't know enough about her.

    Lillie was a lovely lady. And I can relate to her desire to be painted as part of a story. I would feel the same way :)

  3. i'm watching Lillie, the old Masterpiece Theatre, and find it well-done - Lillie seems to be on a mission to destroy the lives of men who fall for her. it fascinates me because i know a man who does the exact same thing to women.

  4. Interesting... thank you for your comment!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx