Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Jog On, Guinevere

I’m not going to talk about Guinevere.  She hogs all the limelight and gets to be all romantic and stuff, but really what has she done to deserve all the applauses and bouquets? She swans around Camelot being queen and has it away with Lancelot.  Well, so what? Yes, he has his shiny armour and curly dark hair (sigh), but really, when you are married to King Arthur you ought to be a little more circumspect.  No, I’m not going to talk about her, I’m going to talk about Vivien.

Merlin and Nimue Aubrey Beardsley
If I had to be someone from Arthurian legend, I’d be Vivien, or Nimue as she is sometimes known.  Her life starts out tragically, born on a battlefield beside the corpse of her father and her dying mother.  Surely in such a situation, things can only get better.  She wanted revenge against Arthur for the death of her parents so she takes his father-figure from him, Merlin.

The Victorians loved her.  What a woman.  If you think of the average patron of the art, when faced with a picture of an older man being ensnared by a sexy young sorceress, I’m guessing they had mixed feelings.  This shows in the portrayals of her.  Take for example our friend Frederick Sandys…

Vivien (1863) Frederick Sandys
Bocca Baciata (1859) D G Rossetti
This is Sandys at his most Rossetti, but to stunning effect, just look at the peacock ‘tail’ behind her.  Like Burne-Jones’ Morgan Le Fay, Vivien holds a sprig of daphne, but the position of the hands brings to mind Bocca Baciata, apple included.  Nice sneaky boob flash too. No wonder Rossetti accused Sandys of plaguerism.

Speaking of Burne-Jones, his is probably the best known picture of Vivien.

The Beguiling of Merlin (1874-76) Edward Burne-Jones
 He is getting a good beguiling here, lucky devil.  I love the binding in her hair that looks almost like snakes, possibly referencing Medusa again.  Also his clothes and hers seem to be wrapped drapes, possibly hinting at how Merlin is being caught in a web of magic.  The scarf stretching from one shoulder to the other especially seems to restrain him.  I love that Merlin is shown without a beard, as I usually think of him looking somewhat like Getafix in the Astrix books.

Yes, that’s more like it, although I’m not sure I think of Merlin carrying a golden sickle and eating wild boar.  Mmmmm, wild boar.  Anyway, back to Burne-Jones.  This wasn’t the only Merlin and Nimue picture he did, he also produced this one…

Merlin and Nimue (1861) Edward Burne-Jones
 The figure of Nimue was allegedly drawn from Fanny Cornforth, and some people choose to interpret this as being proof that the sensitive Burne-Jones found Fanny ugly and evil.  Well, that’s a bit of a stretch, as he also did Hope from her, but I’m on my high horse, so I better dismount.

Thank you Julia Margaret Cameron for giving me a good beard-y Merlin.  Of two images of Merlin and Vivien, I will show you this one first…

The Beguiling of Merlin Julia Margaret Cameron
No, it isn’t your average Victorian wedding photo, nor is it a dodgy Santa’s grotto, but it is Vivien casting a bit of saucy magic on a not-unwilling Merlin. The old wizard takes  the attractive young woman on as his apprentice and teaches her his most dangerous spells.  That can’t possibly end badly…

Damn your sudden yet inevitable betrayal!
This is a marvellous photograph of Vivien or Nimue turning Merlin’s magic against him, her posture casual as she destroys him.  Treacherous woman!  Thinking about it, it is a pretty brave character to show.  She is a woman without status who uses her own cunning to trap one of the most powerful wizards, using his own magic, and she does not meet her comeuppance.  She has nothing to lose and so risks everything to get revenge on King Arthur, not by hurting him directly like Morgan Le Fay attempts.  Vivien strikes at Arthur through Merlin, who is at once his father and his power-source.

In Idylls of the King, Tennyson describes Vivien as being the serpent in the garden of Eden, as she ‘writhed towards him’, and embraced him with arms that ‘clung like a snake’.  Now that reminds me of possibly my favourite Arthurian picture…

The Temptation of Sir Percival (1894) Arthur Hacker
Sadly, this isn’t Vivien, but the devil in a floaty dress, sent to tempt the saintly Sir Percival.  A common trait in evil women is apparently the inability to wear shoes, never trust a barefooted woman, she is up to no good.  I love the expression on his face, he seems to be saying ‘Get off, I am not sharing!’

The thing about Vivien is that she doesn’t pay for her crime, she succeeds and that’s the end of her story.  For the most part, Merlin is not shown as deserving his eternity of helplessness, unless you are particularly against wizardry.  I think she is an amazingly liberating anti-heroine, a bad girl who wins.  Thinking about the audience this was playing to, it’s breath-taking to think that some sort of punishment wasn’t written into her story by the Victorians.  Guinevere goes off to die miserably in a nunnery for her adultery but no-one messes with Vivien.  Mind you, she was powerful enough to take Merlin out, so no wonder they left her alone, she wouldn’t go quietly.

I’m off out to beguile someone, I may be some time.  I’ll see you for another three-day weekend, and our theme will be the Victorian response to British History.  See you on Friday!


  1. I fecking love that Hacker image. I think the woman in the painting vies with the mermaid in _Depths of the Sea_ for having the most disarmingly startling expression on her face. The PRB and Victorians seemed to have a very particular idea of how and where a woman could direct her gaze, and she is a great example of this.

    In somewhat related info, one of my enjoyed Tumblrs is from a gal who models, and she recently posted about how she stumbled through the mud to get to a shoot location and then she "put on my ladylike dazed “oh whats that profound thing lingering slightly out of frame of the cam shot”, face". I giggled pretty hard at that description. It pretty much perfectly describes that typical Pre-Raphaelite look, doesn't it?

    I can't help but wonder if Ned chose to portray Merlin as unbearded because the idea of an older, white-bearded man who could be enticed and enchanted by the charms of a much younger woman...well...struck a little too close to home, if you know what I mean. I mean, even when he painted _The Wizard_, portrait of him and the young May Gaskell, he chose to make himself seem much younger than he really was by that point. Poor Ned. So lived in fantasy...

    But I digress. In other news, bonus points for the Firefly reference.

  2. Yes, I agree that I think Ned was aware of the comparison :)Mind you, I'd be pushed to think of any of them who lived in reality. Hurrah for Firefly!

  3. Nimue has always been my favorite, since long before I discovered the Pre-Raphaelites. Though the main reason -- Camelot (which I had memorized by age 12 thanks to HBO kindly playing the 1982 revival incessantly, back when we didn't have a VCR yet) -- also has my favorite Guinevere. :-) But ah, "Follow Me!"

    (In other news, they are seriously going to take away my geek card, because I can't find the Firefly reference. *hangs head in shame*)

  4. :) I forgive you as it is a bit random, but Wash is acting out a scene with dinosaurs and it is what one dinosaur says to the other as it attacks him (possibly misquoted) 'Damn (or Curse) your sudden yet inevitable betrayal!' - It works with a great number of films as it turns out (and paintings!)

  5. Best blog title ever! Had me sniggering in the taxi whilst my son and husband blithely played Angry Birds! Great pictures, great words, loved it!


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