Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Strange Girls of Thomas Cooper Gotch

A combination of broken computer and weekend away left me without means of posting for a whole four days and I have missed you all. Thankfully for my sanity, all is back to normal and I would like to have a quick chat with you about the paintings of Thomas Cooper Gotch.

Not exactly a Pre-Raphaelite, but still Gotch’s work is something beyond the ‘normal’ of Victorian art, and I find I am drawn to his images with a combination of ‘My Goodness, that’s wonderful…’ and ‘That is just weird…’ Gotch began as a Newlyn painter in 1887, painting realist works, all very straightforward.

A Cottage Interior, Newlyn (1884)
Then he went to Italy….

Alleluia (1896) Thomas Cooper Gotch
I think we all know Alleluia by now, it is certainly his most famous work, possibly rivalled by The Child Enthroned. The bevy of young, innocent girls sing from heavenly scrolls of music. The girl in the centre at the back, clasps her hands in prayer and appears to have a burst of halo-ed light surrounding her. Each girl is dressed slightly differently, and is an individual. I am reminded of Burne-Jones’ The Golden Stair, also showing a bevy of musical girls.

The Golden Stairs (1880) Edward Burne-Jones
Burne-Jones’ girls are individuals but the difference are far more subtle in their faces and clothes, unlike Gotch's striking and colourful collection of singers. It’s interesting to compare the two as I didn’t think the colours of Gotch’s work were so strong until you put it next to the cool beauty of The Golden Stair. For some reason I thought the Burne-Jones painting was called ‘The Heavenly Stair’ but I think that was because of details like the doves, the white gowns and the whopping great long trumpets (being carried in a correct health and safety manner). I don’t mean to be fetish-y, but I end up staring at all the feet. That’s a lot of amazing feet.

I had a conversation with Grace from The Beautiful Necessity blog about which is our favourite nymph in Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs and I think the same can be done with Alleluia. My favourite has to be far right back row. She has such a beautiful dress, in the most delicate colours, and she has a complicated facial expression of quietness and contemplation as she sings. Also interesting is the young lady, second from the left in the front row, who seems to have seen something more interesting than what she’s singing. I like to think that Mrs Gotch just came into the studio with a plateful of party rings and a bottle of lemonade. If that isn’t a good time, I don’t know what is.

The Child Enthroned (1894)
Hester, daughter of Gotch, sat for the single figure in The Child Enthroned. Unlike the central girl in Alleluia, there is no doubting the halo of this lass. It is notable that the painting was created in the same year as ‘the Children’s Charter’ provided protection for the young. There is no doubt that this work, and Gotch’s other ‘child-centric’ images venerates the young, but The Child Enthroned seems to take it to a new height. I love the cushion she rests her feet on, as if to emphasise that she is too small to reach the floor. It gives the image a precarious mix of power of the girl together with the vulnerability of her age and innocence. I think she is the Victorian version of Hit Girl from Kick Ass, but that’s just personal opinion.

A Pageant of Childhood (1899)
It wasn’t just little girls that got medieval opulence and semi-religious status in Gotch’s work. In The Pageant of Childhood young boys don tights and pointy shoes and join in the fun. Music figures in this work too, as if to mark out the purity and elevated status of the characters, although I do question the wisdom of giving a child cymbals. What happened to ‘seen and not heard’? My head begins to ache just looking at the crash-happy girl in red and gold.

They Come
I had to check twice that They Come was by Gotch as the few colours contrasted sharply with the delicate tapestries of the previous works. This exists in grey-green and red, with pale pink and black providing light and shade. Unlike the corridors that the previous works seem to be set in, with their opulent wallpapers, the line of girls seem to be lined up against a wall, and not happily so. They group together in twos and threes on a mat of palms or rushes looking like they are facing a firing squad. What really makes the picture seem curious is the little girl sprinkling rose petals from jewelled cones that appear to be attached to her sash. What on earth is that all about? From the red dresses and the palms on the floor, I would offer a possibly religious reading, with the girls as martyrs, their innocence about to be sacrificed. Is Gotch suggesting that the girls are moving away from their lives of beauty and richness into the adult world, and when you are an adult you lose the stunning opulence of innocence? Comparing The Pageant of Childhood with They Come, I definitely feel more anxious for the girls in red dresses, as if the rose petals under their feet symbolise them, about to be trampled in the adult world.

The Flag (1910)
The Light of the World (1854) William Holman Hunt

Talking about disturbing images, this one scares me rigid. I feel the spooky bare-foot child has a lot in common with The Light of the World, both religious figures in the wilderness, but there is something about the girl that I find terrifying. Maybe it’s her lack of concern as she wanders around at night with her flag, maybe it’s her very direct gaze. She is a little girl in a dark wood but she looks like she hasn’t any fear. She is the certainty of religion, a promise that the audience could be as invincible as her if we embraced religion. Unlike The Light of the World, where Jesus wants us to open the door and let him in, there is no clue as to what we need to do for the child. Possibly she symbolises the hope that exists in the wilderness, that if a child can walk unafraid through the dark, then we should follow.

The Dawn of Womanhood
 Moving back indoors, here is an image that seems to incorporate aspects of the other pictures we have seen. A child on a throne reaches towards a shadowy woman in white. A winged girl sits by her side and roses are scattered on the floor. I read this to mean that love (in the form of the roses) will lead a girl to become a woman. The angel by her side could be cupid, waiting to direct the girl towards love, but she seems to look towards the spectre with doubt and a little apprehension. The girl on the throne reaches for the ghost of the woman, but seems to be unaware that she will have to come off her throne if she wants to follow the trail of roses. Also interesting is that the woman wears a simple white dress, as if the robes and luxury of childhood have to be cast aside and a more simple aesthetic has to be adopted. There is a sense in this picture and in They Come that the transition from girl to wife is an not altogether pleasant one, however inevitable and necessary it might be.

La Reine Clothilde

I leave you with a stunning image, this time of Clothilde who has become a queen. It is hard to guess her age, but she looks less childlike than The Child Enthroned and more like a young woman on the brink of adulthood and possibly this is the bittersweet message of the image. Clothilde is a queen with a shining crown of gold, but her reign is going to be short. From The Dawn of Womanhood we know that when the beautiful Clothilde finds love, which seems inevitable, she will have to surrender her crown. I don’t know enough about Gotch, I need to know more, but I am reminded of an undercurrent in Victorian society that feared the decline of a girl’s beauty with the advent of sexual awareness. One of the excuses Ruskin gave for not consummating his marriage was that it would have destroyed Effie’s beauty, a sentiment echoed in Joanne Harris’ Sleep, Pale Sister, where the artist Henry Chester fears his child bride (also Effie) and attempts to suppress her adult emotions with drugs and neglect.

My Crown and Sceptre (1891)
 I would not accuse Gotch of the repression of women into eternal childhood, and the few discussions of his work I have read seem to emphasise his glorification of childhood as being something to treasure, and a rare valuing of daughters in a patriarchal society. However, there is an undeniable valuing of beauty rather than potential. Furthermore, all the glory these girls possess now will have to be surrendered when they become wives, as the spectre of adult womanhood in The Dawn of Womanhood is dressed in simple white. You can wear as much rich fabric as you like, and hold a sceptre and golden crown but the moment you are deflowered, you are dethroned.

I agree with the angel. A veneration that taken away the moment you have anything to do with men is to be treated with suspicion, in my opinion. Furthermore, what does that say about men…?


  1. I'm not sure his contemporaries were quite sure what to make of his work though quite often considered him one of the last of the PRB's. Baldrey's 1898 articles on him for the Studio are on-line now and Pamela Lomax's biography is good.

  2. Thank you for the tips, I shall go and seek them out :)

  3. Gotch is a strange one. He was very much in favor of women's rights...and used his beloved daughter as his model quite often. His compositions taken as they are from Flemish and Italian art give his girls a Madonna-like presence but I like your idea of them being virgin martyrs.

  4. Well, you KNOW I have to pick out a favorite in Alleuia now!

    I'm going to go with the girl at far left, front row. Because she looks like someday she might have grown up to model for Waterhouse. :)

  5. Little one at the front with her finger pointing up! She's reading the lyrics and miming them unconsciously... I'd not seen 'They Come' before and you're right about the startling colours. I think the girls are waiting expectantly for something they are going to watch, something important enough to walk on rose petals. A w3dding party, perhaps? A royal procession? Either way, it's almost upon them. They can see it and we can't and never will. As an artistic exercise in tension, it's wonderful, a real tease. Thank you for posting these.

  6. Hello Rhissanna, and thank you for your comments! I'm trying to find out more about Gotch as his work is gorgeous. Good choice of Alleuia girl ;)


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