Saturday, 9 July 2011

What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Wood Like This?

As previously covered in my post on Robins of Modern Times, I love a strange child picture. Well, here is a beauty...

The Woodman's Daughter (1850-1) John Everett Millais
Oh yes, I had forgotten how utterly peculiar it was.  Based on a melodramatic poem by Coventry Patmore, the picture shows Old Gerald, the Woodman and his daughter Maud, together the Squire’s Son, who doesn’t seemingly have a name, but does ruin poor Maud and drive her to infanticide and madness.  Good wholesome family stuff.

It was exhibited with the following lines from the poem:

She went merely to think she help'd;
     And, whilst he hack'd and saw'd,
The rich Squire's son, a young boy then,
     Whole mornings, as if awed,
Stood silent by, and gazed in turn
     At Gerald and on Maud.

He sometimes, in a sullen tone
     He offer'd fruits, and she
Received them always with an air
     So unreserved and free,
That shame-faced distance soon became

So you get the impression that it isn’t just Maud that attracts the Squire’s Son, but both father and daughter.  Maybe what he was after was a bit of rustic-tourism, which could be levelled at a number of rich, industrial types who bought paintings of the honest, rural workers.  Paintings like this…

The Woodman's Child (1860) Arthur Hughes
Hughes gives us an unthreatening, lovely child, lying on the ground among nature.  There could be nothing dodgy about that, could there…?

Robins of Modern Times (1860) John Roddam Spencer-Stanhope
Yes, alright, but Robins of Modern Times aside, Arthur Hughes’ picture is a traditional scene of a blameless child of nature.  Not so with Maud and the Squire’s Son.  Oh, look, I can’t keep calling him the Squire’s Son, it’s far too much to type, I’ll call him Bob.  Anyway, Maud and Bob are a foreshadowing of things to come, and it won’t be pleasant.

Let’s play my favourite game again – cover up Bob and look at the painting.  Now uncover him and see the difference he makes?  It’s astounding, that red really jumps out at you, while Maud and Old Gerald recede, almost blending with the woods.  It makes me think of the following lines of the poem:

The pool reflects the scarlet West
     With a hot and guilty glow;
The East is changing ashy pale;

Millais seems to be laying the blame firmly at the feet of the ‘scarlet’ one who has a ‘hot and guilty glow’. Does anyone else think he is wearing a very weird outfit?  Maud and Gerald seem to be wearing contemporary clothes, but Bob seems to be playing principal boy in a pantomime.  His tunic and tights come off as a bit medieval, and really, white tights do not flatter anyone’s knees.  I think the ‘medieval-ness’ is heightened by the trees, which remind me of Uccello’s The Hunt in the Forest.

The Hunt in the Forest (1468) Paolo Uccello
In the original sketch, Bob was handing over cherries, which is a little obvious as to what he was after, naughty boy.  Millais changed it to strawberries and that brings to mind possibly the rudest scene in cinema I have ever seen…

Roman Polanski's Tess
When Tess eats the strawberry, you know she is done for.  If you take strawberries off a rich boy, you’re bound to end up disgracing yourself and mad, probably at Stonehenge.  With regard to The Woodman's Daughter, I wonder at the fact that she doesn’t take them off his offered hand, but waits for him to give them to her.  It is a very passive gesture, waiting to see what you are given rather than taking what you want from what is offered.  It strengthens the feeling that Maud is the utterly useless victim in the action, maybe by class, but if she isn’t able to chose a strawberry, what chance has she against illegitimate pregnancy?

Venus Verticordia (1864-8) D G Rossetti
It took me a while to work out what he had hidden behind his back.  In the sketch it’s a riding crop, but in the finished picture it’s a butterfly net.  Butterflies are the symbols of so many things, the soul, the fleetingness of life, lust, nicely rounded up by Venus Verticordia.  All of these things come into play in The Woodman’s Daughter - the purity of Maud’s soul will be compromised, her life is condensed into a few sad stanzas and lust will take her from the little girl in the wood to the baby-drowning madwoman at the end of the poem.  I like the way that Bob is offering her the strawberries while holding the net behind him, it’s very Child-Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  By the way, my father does a great Child-Catcher impression, which I think explains a lot of what’s wrong with me.

The Woodman's Child (1850)
Patmore declared that the figure of the girl looked like ‘a vulgar little slut’, which I think is a bit harsh, but apparently the original figure was less twee and pretty and Millais painted over her, hence the blur around her face.  If you look at how sharp the boy’s face is in comparison it looks like two different painting styles.  Although it is unintentional, I think the effect does give the impression of the young boy’s focus and strength and her uncertainty and weakness in the face of his purpose. Just seeing how prominent he is, you would think that Millais laid the blame for the whole sorry affair squarely at Bob’s feet, but the fact that he changed the figure of Old Gerald from looking on with concern to not paying attention makes me feel that Millais lays some blame at his feet too.  Some people read the oak in the front left to symbolise Gerald’s integrity, but I’m not sure as even in the poem, the father is a bit oblivious to everything except chopping stuff down.

Trust Me (1862)
Bob bothers me.  His gesture is reminiscent of two other paintings by Millais.  Firstly, it’s like the father’s stance in Trust Me (1862), who is also dressed in red and white.  It would be marvellously ironic for The Woodman’s Daughter to be called Trust Me (Have a Strawberry).  That reminds me of a man I used to work with who was known as ‘Mr Peppermint’, who used to tempt young ladies with his bag of peppermint creams.  Damn, they were good.  Sorry, I digress…

The other painting it recalls is obviously Isabella, and Kicky the brother, again wearing those white tights that do nothing for your knees.  I did read an interpretation of the painting that suggests that Bob’s arm is a similarly phallic thrust, but it’s a bit early for language like that.  I’ve only just had breakfast.

How about this?  I think of the figure of Christ in Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50) which he worked on just before this painting.   

Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50)
 Again we have a small red-haired boy, so possibly Millais was playing with the idea that one is Christ and the other possibly, well, the anti-Christ.  OK, that’s a bit strong, but one is obviously the personification of good and the other is temptation and ruination. 

So what do we learn from this? 
If you take strawberries from rich young men, you’ll end up mad.
Dads enjoy chopping down trees more than anything else in the world.
I’m anyone’s for a peppermint cream.

Salutary lessons for us all, I feel.


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