Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Hey, Wait a Minute Mr Postman....

I had a stinkingly awful week last week.  No-one died, nothing like that, but small misery upon small misery was brought to me and eventually I sat there thinking it would not be a bad thing to just hurl myself upon the binding machine at work and end it all.  A tad over-dramatic, I grant you, but really, it was just miserable.

Then my email pinged and a cheery message appeared.  Suddenly things weren’t so bad as there was a bright little world outside and if I just hung on for a bit, then things would be fine.

Ah, the miracle of mail, electronic and otherwise, it has the power to turn a day from one shade to another, from dark to light and, of course, the other way too.  Take for example this splendid offering by John Bagnold Burgess…

Good News and Bad News (1876) John Bagnold Burgess
So, one of our mantilla-wearing lovelies has had good news and one has had bad, I wonder if there is a subtle way of telling which is which…well, never mind.  The thing about paintings with letters is that they tend to encompass the whole of life within them, which makes them superb narrative subjects.  Look behind our Portuguese ladies and there is a priest squinting to see the list of how much it costs to post letters.  His hat is insane.  Beyond the grill, the past-master waits to impart more news.  He has the power to change lives and seems to exist in a different realm to the people he affects.  The presence of the priest makes me wonder – is he God in his celestial post office?  I seem to have gone off on a tangent a little early.  Moving on…

Mother and Child (1854-6) F G Stephens
War made for powerful letters, no doubt.  If the only way you were going to find out what was going on was by the slow and painful progress of a slip of paper, then by the time you discovered your loved one was dead on some battle field abroad, he was already cold in the ground.  For example, the anguish on the face on the (I assume) widow in Frederick Stephen’s Mother and Child as she reads the news that her husband is dead, tells us all we need to know.  The child turns from her toys (no doubt bought from The Highly Symbolic Toy Shop) as her mother starts to buckle in her very pleasant chair.  I really like this picture, I wish Fred Stephens stuck with painting as it is rather beautiful despite its awkwardness.  Also, I wish there were more pictures of Mr Stephens as he is uncommonly pretty, but I digress.

News from Afar (1860) Alfred Stevens
A Letter from the Colonies (1852) Thomas Webster
Of course it wasn’t just war that took people away.  The escape of people such as Thomas Woolner to far off lands to find their fortunes, brings with it a raft of paintings relating to the news from afar.  Alfred Steven’s lady could be pained by news from a lover at war, but the presence of the fine vase and silk table cloth makes me wonder if the loved one has gone in search of riches rather than glory.  Either way, our lady seems to feel trepidation in her heart at the thought of him far away (or one of her corset bones is digging in).

One look at Thomas Webster’s A Letter from the Colonies tells me exactly why people went.  My God, look at the rosy cheeked, rustic-ness of it all.  Everyone looks so cheery, and the postman leans through the window to deliver the mail.  Just the thought that I would end up in a bonnet like the old woman’s makes me want to run off to Australia too.

(Actually, in the seventeenth century, a large branch of my family did emigrate; they went to Peru from rural Cornwall.  We put it down to the fact that the unfortunately named Anne Cocking married George Champion, thus becoming Anne Cocking Champion.  We think the rest of the family left because they laughed all the way through the wedding and couldn’t look the couple in the eye again.  True story.)

So we have death and travel, but of course there is one very obvious reason for getting a letter.  I speak, of course, of love…

The Letter Vittorio Reggianini
Naughty girls in your very shiny dresses, I bet that’s a saucy note from a young gentleman you are holding.  I love the blonde girl listening at the curtain, just in case they are discovered.  I wish I owned a dress that shiny, maybe someone would send me a love letter.  Let’s be honest, it’s not my lack of shiny dresses that keeps the admirers away, plus I’m a married woman and not allowed to whinge about such things.  Anyway, love letters only lead to trouble…

Palpitation (1844) Charles West Cope
Look at the detail!  Our lass seems to be in a state of nervous excitement as the postman leaves the letters, and her parasol and bag are discarded on the floor in her anxiety.  It is obvious she will be careless during this romance, which may result in her being discarded too.  However, a far more likely scenario is that her father (note the top hat and gloves on the table) will make use of his powder flask and stick and render our romancing cad as dead as the deer on the wall.  I’m just guessing – it will all be over if mother flings back the door to call out that the postman has been.

The Love Letter (1861) Rebecca Solomon
This image is entitled The Love Letter, but something tells me that the letter isn’t from the gentleman who has just come through the door as she doesn’t look overwhelmingly pleased to see him.  Also, there is the strange thing that she is wearing her outdoor clothes, as is the man reflected in the mirror, so maybe she has been for a walk with him only to return to a love letter from another man.  The Hussy!  That sort of thing does not end well….

Past and Present I (1858) Augustus Egg
You naughty woman!  One letter later and it’s all over.  Her posture is fabulous as if he has thrown her on the floor, but he remains like a statue, shocked and destroyed, so it is as if his devastation has flung her on the ground.  I do get the mad urge to wait and see if the man is going to pull a rabbit from the top hat.  It might lighten the mood a little.

Recalling the Past (1888) Carlton Smith
Handily near the waste paper basket, the woman reads through love letters and then casts them aside.  It’s not certain why but the fire poker looks a little like a sword, and the antlers and red coral may hint at conflict and death.  For goodness sake, woman, light a fire and do it properly.

Old Letters and Dead Leaves (1875) C A Calthrop
 Calthrop’s girl seems to be a little less dramatic and a bit more stoical as she picks her love letters from her chest, among symbolic dried leaves.  You can almost hear the rustle of the leaves and paper, both fragments of what was alive once, now only a reminder of happier times.

I leave you with what is possibly the longest title for a painting I have come across….

And then, the lover sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress’ eyebrow, Act II, Scene VII from 'As You Like It, by William Shakespeare 1564-1616 (1883) Charles Seton
Look, put the letter down and get a load of how fabulous your companion is, woman!  There is a time for letters and a time for offering a bit more than your eyebrow to a handsome man in white tights. You can't help some people....


  1. I love this post! Your analysis of the paintings was deeply insightful and deeply irreverant in equal measure. And hilarious! Agree about Fred Stephens, I always feel a little guilty about fancying dead chaps, but a pretty face does help to make the hours fly by. Thanks for making me laugh at the end of a long, mainly dull day. Jane Gray

  2. wonderful and amusing post! had me giggling whilst trying to write my thesis. i too until recently was exchanging letters of a tender nature to a male acquaintance. there's nothing like words of passion recorded unutterably inside a crisp white envelope.

  3. I agree with the other ladies,I think I fancy more dead men that I do live!!! well they don't have socks and shirts to iron and they can't moan about their lot Ho Ho! This is as usual a brilliant post,how can you keep this up?
    Although I love the internet,blogging,e mail etc. I do think that a letter that takes it's time getting to you and is written on real paper is a magic thing.Great narrative paintings and your humour is wonderful!lol Angela

  4. Ta muchly, although I'm sure there are plenty of hot men out there who have a pulse. A good half dozen at least.


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