Tuesday 31 January 2012

Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon

Yesterday, we talked about how the art of female pre-pubescence in Victorian Britain might be explained by a desire for the alleviation of responsibility on the part of the artist.  If little girls live in Wonderland, who better to have as your guide into the realm of the imagination?  The infantilising of women can be seen as the natural progression of this same concern and fascination, to keep the ones you love in this ‘desirable’ state.  Today, we will look at some of the other images which are not quite so glorious…

I finished yesterday with the statue The Bud and The Bloom by Andrea Lucchesi which illustrates how the girl-child grows into the girl-adult, as the little girl bends over backwards to see how she should develop.  For some artists there is no development: she becomes a ‘woman’ when he perceives in her the qualities necessary.

A Venetian Bather Paul Peel
It took me a moment to realise that this was not a woman I was looking at, and it was only her height in proportion to the mirror that made me look twice.  Of course, her reflection gives away her age, and there is a level of androgyny (Is her hair up?  Is it short?  Is she a boy?).  As this is Paul Peel, I think we are fairly safe in assuming it’s a girl because of the following…

Before the Bath Paul Peel

Waiting for the Bath (1890s) Paul Peel

After the Bath Paul Peel
Okay, enough bathing, Mr Peel!  Almost bordering on obsession, Paul Peel liked little pink girls having baths: the reluctance, the anticipation, the firelight playing on rosy skin afterwards.  All very commercial I’m sure, but the sheer quantity of images does rather make you stop and think.  Was there not a vase of flowers in your house, Mr Peel?  I’m just saying…

The two little scamps above, hiding from their nurse led me to think about the statue.  There are many ways of reading the notion of ‘the bud and the bloom’, the most obvious is that the little girl will obviously ‘bloom’ into a woman.  However, it can also be read that in each little girl is a woman waiting to happen, and those seeds are not buried very deep.  Think of the ‘vanity’ images I used in a previous blog about mirrors…

Vanity (1936) Frank Cadogan Cowper
A lot of the models looked like teenage girls (and possibly were), taking Cowper’s young lady as a prime example.  Within her child-brain are the seeds of vanity, the affliction of womanhood.  These are ‘Little Women’ and should be treated with suspicion as they will be up to no good, mark my words.  There is an entire swathe of images of little girls ‘up to no good’, like so….
In Disgrace Charles Barber
In Disgrace William Gore
In Detention (1888) Auguste Trupheme
Who’s been a naughty girl then?  In Detention is slightly unusual in many ways because most of the images involve the girls in paroxysms of guilt, about to be found out.  Very few images show the child actually being caught, very few adults are in evidence making them pay for their misdeeds, for example this rather awful image…

'In Rueful Anticipation of Forthcoming Events' (1868) Philipp Hoyoll
In pictures of naughty boys, they are often being caught by the ear, or being reprimanded for the naughtiness.  For little girls, it seems to be different.  Without being too sensational about it, I think that we, the middle-class male consumer of this art, are expected to decide her punishment.  It could be that no-one wants to see these charming little cherubs punished for their little accidents, so we the audience can decide to be lenient with them.  Or not.  When you buy the canvas, she becomes your child to do with as you wish.  Yes, that is what I mean.

Now, there was of course a place in the market for women, who were apparently huge consumers of this sort of art.  Women’s role in the market of girl images is a very interesting and problematic one, especially when we come to a certain Charles Dodgson.  There is no way I could write a piece of images of girls and not include Lewis Carroll, and he is the poster-boy for sexualizing little girls.  I wonder how we would feel about him had he not had burnt a load of his pictures.  I can’t imagine they would have been worse than 'Evelyn Hatch' and we’ve all seen that.  Her mother was in the room when the image was taken. Crikey.  Alright, moving to another one of his images, I’ve seen this used to illustrate Carroll’s obvious girl-lovin’...

But then it reminds me of this…

Naughty Child Edwin Landseer
…and as far as I know, no-one has ever accused Landseer of kiddie molesting.  Is it because Carroll repeated did pictures of little girls?  But then that’s like accusing George Stubbs of bestiality, and no-one’s done that either (unless I’ve missed a book…)

Look at the fetlocks on that….
It’s so easy to look at images like the ones I’ve used today and point fingers.  It makes us uneasy to see Evelyn Hatch sprawling naked in a mock-adult manner. It is unthinkable that such an image could be taken today, and working backwards, images like Landseer’s, Hoyoll’s and ones from yesterday would be treated as suspicious, as why do these men want to focus such attention on little girls, if not for nefarious purpose?

Geddes, we are no different today.  While we are on the subject of how allegedly perfect we are today, I give you exhibit ‘A’…

For those not blessed with daughters, Lelli Kelly are a shoe company that specialise in highly decorated trainers and party shoes, covered in glitter and sparkles and their main gimmick is that you get free make-up.  The ‘Make Up Mobile’ above was particularly squealed at by my daughter when she saw the adverts as it came with a picture of a puppy.  I can buy my six year old daughter crop tops, heels, mini-skirts and most excitingly, thongs.  She can have all manner of merchandise with the Playboy Bunny on it.  My view on the Victorian child-art debate is that we should pay attention to the fact that we are in glass house before we start lobbing stones.  If the Victorians are guilty of applying a womanly aesthetic to little girls, then we have learnt nothing as we still do it.  Many would argue there is no issue in parents allowing their little girls pretend to be women, applying glittery make-up and wearing adult styled clothes.  How many would argue the same for Evelyn Hatch?  All she is doing is aping her elders at the behest of her parents.

My advice, for what it is worth, is that if something gets your ‘wrong-radar’ up then don’t consume it, and express your feelings to someone.  It’s awfully safe to accuse a long-dead artist of paedophilia, doesn’t mean that his obsession was sexual.  Then again, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t.  All we have left are the images, and we seem to have a huge problem in how to address them.

Can we ever have a comfortable Victorian child aesthetic?  Join me tomorrow for some suggestions and a little home experimentation…

Monday 30 January 2012

Thank Heavens for Little Girls

It is a Truth universally acknowledged that all Victorian men were secretly paedophiles. John Ruskin, Lewis Carroll, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, the list is endless and I have heard all of their names, linked at one point or another, with an inappropriate love of little girls. Oh yes, it is another universal truth that all these paedophilic gentlemen were solely interested in little girls. This is one of those subjects that I didn’t realise was a subject until I started to consider what we all believe to be ‘true’. What the hell was going on with middle-class men and little girls in Victorian Britain?

Let’s start with an area I like to think of as Child Worship. It was a bit of a Georgian preoccupation to have an investment and an attachment to your young children. I’m sure parents before 1750 loved their kids, but the rate and horror of child mortality before this period was astonishing so possibly the attitude was a little altered by the uncertainty of your progeny. The Georgians bravely seemed to embrace the potential of their youth and dedicated time and effort into enjoying, moulding, influencing and celebrating their children. For some, this was a risky investment, as the chances of escaping infancy were somewhat shaky, but for the first time you can see glimmers of what we now revel in, the enjoyment of being a parent. Take this painting for example:

It’s Regency Britain, and your gorgeous little girl is skipping around this green and pleasant land with her spaniel, her blonde curls fluttering in the breeze. Bless her. This cherubic little Miss is typical of child portraits of this time, all dimples and satin sashes. Her name is John Ruskin.

Princess Ruskin is a prime example of the feminization of childhood. At least as far as the early Victorian period, all children wore gowns, until the boys reached a certain age when they were ‘breeched’ (which sounds far dodgier than it is), which is when they had their first pair of breeches. Now this is nice middle-class children we are talking about, and that is for a reason. This is the generation of men that nowadays we suspect of being child molesters. At around 6 years old, these boys were put into trousers and sent off to school and that was it, their childhood was over. When Ruskin referred to his childhood, he described his pre-school days in the most flowery terms, and himself in terms of feminine qualities. It is almost as if he regarded himself as a girl before those trousers went on, and the girl-years were the best. The ideal of childhood is female, the only idea of childhood is female, so little wonder that male, middle-class artists were drawn to paint the little girls who were Queens.

The Child Miranda Frederick Burton
The zen-like calm and Christ-pose of Miranda is almost eerie. She is looking straight at us, emitting an iridescent glow from her hair, clothes and shell-pink skin. This is a not a cute little girl, this is a powerful creature who is better than us. Blimey, he may as well have put her on a throne…

The Child Enthroned Thomas Cooper Gotch
Yes, like that one, thank you Gotch. And she’s got a halo. That’s a bit much…

Lily Noble (1863) John Everett Millais
Lily Noble is a sort of half-way house. She is obviously not a goddess, but she does sit upon a throne, her name almost Dickensian in its literalness. These three girls are perfect, silent souls who sit in all-knowing judgement over us. To paint them is to paint a golden idol, a precious almost holy thing, and in no way are they doing anything remotely ‘childish’. Yes, she's holding a doll, but it might as well be a sceptre.

May Morris (1872) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
When Jane Morris ended her relationship with Rossetti in the early 1870s it was in response to his growing sexual interest in May. I read that recently and found it utterly breath-taking and without basis in anything in Rossetti’s character. How many children are in Rossetti’s art? You could probably count them on one hand, he seems to have had an aversion to them, possibly due to his own sad experiences, but when you see the above picture, it does stop you for a second. Pictured in the same ‘Stunner’ way as her mother, May is only 10 years old in the above portrait. She has the same facial expression as her mother, that some people interpret in Jane as sexual longing. Well, I’ll believe Rossetti’s a child molester when hell freezes over, but it’s a strange choice to pose a tweenager in the same way as you pose her mother, your lover. There is very little difference between the image of May and this one by Albert Moore…

A Girl Albert Moore
This ‘girl’ is obviously older, but still the word ‘girl’ prevails. When did a girl become a woman? To hazard a guess, I would think her wedding day, which is ironic if you look at images of some of the wives of our beloved Pre-Raphaelite circle…

Mrs Burne-Jones (1860) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Now although she looks about twelve, Georgiana Burne

We know all that Victorian women were all ‘the angel of the house’ and at the mercy of their father-husbands. That doesn’t explain the images of little girls that abound. These images aren’t like Georgie, a child-like woman, these are images of little girls on thrones, with halos. These are little goddesses.

Autumn Leaves (1855-6) John Everett Millais
Sophie Gray (1857) John Everett Millais

Look at the direct, silent gazes of the Millais girls. Sophie Gray is a good example of the all-knowing child, challenging us to approach. She is only fourteen in her portrait, and only twelve in Autumn Leaves. The attraction possibly lies in the promise of matched 'intellect', without the bother of adult preoccupations. For artists such as the Pre-Raphaelites, the realm of the imagination was perfection, and the child ruled such a world. Fairy tales, heroes and dragons, mock-medieval a-sexual simplicity is made for the child aesthetic, with no threat of sex. No worldly concerns to hinder them, the child lives in an unworldly state of imagination until the day she says ‘I do’. For men who attempted to insert themselves into this world regularly and professionally, the child must have seemed their guide. If you look at it this way, it becomes completely understandable why men of fantasy, both literature and art-based, sought out the companionship of young girls. In fact, it explains John Ruskin’s sham of a marriage, how he couldn’t bring himself to ‘womanise’ the girl, and by his terminal hesitation, he managed to ruin his marriage. It explains Rossetti’s love of the Morris children in their isolation at Kelmscott, offering him a complete release from the real world back into childhood. It is a relief from all the responsibility, the physical and emotional demands and the constant pressure of being a Victorian man. When Emile Zola wrote ‘I want never to be anything but a child walking in the shadow of your dress,’ he might as well have added ‘but as that isn’t possible, I’ll vicariously live through a child instead.’ To be a child meant never having to leave the Wonderland of the imagination, and as a boy that experience was cut short at the age of six before they got to truly appreciate the freedom from modern care that girls enjoyed.  No wonder these men craved the company of little girls, they were their ticket to Wonderland.

That’s all very well and good if you believe that side of the story, if you believe that Victorian gentlemen all had the very best of intentions. Join me tomorrow for Part Two: ‘Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon’…

The Bud and The Bloom (1906) Andrea Lucchesi

Friday 27 January 2012

Harry Potter and The Stones of Venice

Sometimes in art history, the strangest connections can be made and one such oddity was made this week and ended up with me finding the link between Lord Voldemort and Burne-Jones. That link? A marvellous, lesser-known Pre-Raphaelite by the name of Thomas Matthews Rooke. My friends, it’s time to have a look at Rooke…

If you can find T M Rooke mentioned in a book, it’s usually in relation to his work with Burne-Jones. Rooke joined his studio in 1869. His job was to transfer the designs for monumental pictures from the sketches to canvas. Rooke assumed the role of chief assistant and worked closely with Burne-Jones for many years, resulting in his recording their conversations, later published as Burne-Jones Talking: His conversations 1895-98 Preserved by his Studio Assistant Thomas Rooke (edited by Mary Lago) (Does what it says on the tin).

Interior of St Paul's Cathedral (1918)
Rooke studied at the Royal College of Art and Royal Academy Schools before applying for work at Morris and Company in 1869. Through this channel he ended up in Burne-Jones studios and there he remained until the painter’s death in 1898. Although best known for his work for Burne-Jones, Rooke also worked for Ruskin, spending his summers on the continent and producing architectural drawings of cathedrals for Ruskin’s publications.

That’s your lot. I will now bring up a slide show of images and you can talk amongst yourself….

(For those old enough to remember, I will also be humming the tune from ‘Vision On’ when they showed the drawings by viewers…)

Hang on, though. That sound you can hear is the murmurings of discontent in the Walker household. Thomas Matthews Rooke’s work is fairly amazing, is it right that he exists as a footnote in another artist’s history? So why don’t people look at Rooke?

The Story of Ruth (1877)

Jezebel Being Thrown to the Dogs (1879)
His work was largely in two areas: Biblical and architectural. One of these is unfashionable and the other just isn’t sexy enough. While it is just about feasible that you’d think ‘Do you know what I’d like on my wall? A lovely interior of a cathedral in watercolour!’, probably there would be less takers for Jezebel Being Thrown to the Dogs. If anyone thought ‘Do you know what I fancy? Jezebel being thrown to the dogs!’ I am now worried about you.  However, I will indulge you.  It is one of the nicest pictures of a woman about to be mauled by dogs I have ever seen.  Nice drapery.

I have no problem with Biblical art, being a certain age and having been brought up a good CofE girl at Sunday School, but it’s not as instantly cool as say ‘The Lady of Shalott’ or ‘Ophelia’, plus also people get thrown to dogs. However, if you look at the whole Ahab cycle in its amazing frame, it is possibly the fanciest graphic novel I have ever seen. It’s clever and beautiful and who doesn’t love that?

King Ahab's Coveting (1879)
 He wasn't all God and dogs though.  So much of his other work exists in private collections, it's hard to get a clear scope on non-biblical and non-architectural pictures, which isn't fair.  Take An Idyll for example...

An Idyll (1881)
Autumn's Pipe (1887)
His work has a gem-like loveliness that is reminiscent of early Rossetti or Arthur Hughes. Although he is often compared to Burne-Jones, and not favourably, his work is possibly closer to J M Strudwick or Spencer Stanhope, even Marie Spartali Stillman.  The reason Rooke is knocked is possibly his closeness to Burne-Jones, even after 'the Master' died.  Rooke became part of the Burne-Jones 'Reputation Machine', led by Lady Burne-Jones, who wanted to edit Rookes personal notes about her husband on the pretext of using them for her Memorials.  Georgie seemed to share her husband's concerns about how he would be remembered, and whether he would be treasured.  Rooke seemed to have a zen-like assurance that his mentor and friend would always capture hearts and minds, and through him we can see Burne-Jones as a funny, sharp man who had an opinion on everything.

I actually found a mention of Rooke in English Pre-Raphaelite Painters by Percy Bate (c.1900, and my knackered copy has a Radio Times clipping about The Love School squirrelled between its shiny pages).  He gets one long paragraph in the chapter entitled 'The Rossetti Tradition' and there is a copy of Ahab's Coveting as illustration.  Bate's words on Rooke are interesting: 'Hardly a great artist, Rooke is at any rate a sincere one...a very genuine artist, who is obviously possessed of the first artistic requisite, a keen sense of the beautiful.'

The Marriage of Editha (1909) Ford Maddox Brown and T M Rooke
I have to admit that a part of me wants to know more about Rooke because of the way Burne-Jones regarded him.  He called his assistant 'Little Rookie' and said of him 'Also there is a very high place in Heaven waiting for him and He Doesn't Know It.'  What a lovely sentiment.  Mr Rooke, I'd like to know you better.  Well, Mr Walker is hard at work on an article about Rooke for The Pre-Raphaelite Review and we have declared 2012 to be the year of the Rooke.  We shall get to know him better and I shall report back.

Oh, and the Harry Potter reference?  Thomas Matthews Rooke had a son called Noel, also an artist who had the dubious pleasure of teaching Eric Gill wood-engraving (wash your hands afterwards).  Noel married the fabulously named Celia Mary Twistleton Wykeham Fiennes (do you see where I am going with this?). Celia's brother Maurice was the grandfather of Ralph Fiennes (last seen by me being Lord Voldemort).  It's like six degrees of Kevin Bacon in the Pre-Raphaelite World...

Monday 23 January 2012

Beloved Kathleen

While I was researching a post about the use of Victorian pictures in book cover illustrations, I came across the following wonderful image…

Abnadoned (1881-2) James (Jacques) Tissot
Lovely and dramatic, I often have a whim to hurl myself across a hearth rug. You will be unsurprised to learn that the above image is by James Jacques Tissot and of course the model is…umm…

Now, in many ways the reason I love my art history work is I love finding out about the relationships behind the pictures, but I’d be the first to admit that possibly the Pre-Raphaelite women are in danger of over-exposure to the point that we don’t take seriously the events of their lives as we are just so familiar with them. I’ve recently heard an art historian quite casually refer to Lizzie Siddal’s suicide as a matter of fact without referring to the issues, the evidence and the reasons. I guess Desperate Romantics has probably not helped the rather glib way that their lives are addressed without thought to how the people involved were affected, however I’m on my high-horse again, and that isn’t the point of this post. Back to the image, I wondered who the young lady was. The answer is the amazing and heartbreaking Kathleen Irene Ashburnham Newton.

Study of Kathleen Newton James Tissot
The lovely Kathleen, an Irish girl raised in Colonial India, certainly packed a lot into her early life. Her father was employed by the East India Company in Lahore. The Sepoy Rising of 1858 saw the family move to Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), and at 17 Kathleen was engaged to a surgeon with the Indian Civil Service, by the rather interesting name of Isaac Newton. She sailed to be married, but was wooed by another passenger, Captain Palliser of the Bengal Rifles, who did not succeed in seducing her. Being a good Catholic girl, Kathleen confessed all in Church and was advised to tell her husband of the attempt on her chastity on their wedding night. 

Mr Newton immediately began divorce proceeding.

The Orphan (1879)
Captain Palliser struck a deal with the outcast Kathleen and agreed to pay her passage to England if she  became his mistress. She agreed, but when she became pregnant she refused to marry him. When her divorce became final, she moved herself and her daughter to London to live with her sister in St John’s Wood. She was still only 17 years old.

Another recent arrival to St John’s Wood was the French artist Jacques (or James) Tissot. Having fought in the Franco-Prussian War and the defence of the Paris Commune, Tissot packed his bags for the opportunities available across the channel. He met Kathleen around 1875, and in 1876 she gave birth to her son Cecil, rumoured to be Tissot’s child. The couple set up home together at No.17 Grove End Road, and Kathleen and their home became the repeated subjects of his art over the next six years.

These six years were domestic bliss, the only years that the artist spent in a family home, and I was amazed by the volume of work he produced, Kathleen's face appearing over and over, strikingly beautiful and beloved by the artist, capturing his muse compulsively.

Mrs Newton with a Parasol (1879)
When Kathleen became ill with tuberculosis, Tissot was devastated. Unable to cope with his sadness at her failing health, Kathleen took an overdose of laudanum. She died aged 28.

Astonishing. I have nothing clever to say about how utterly bleak and moving that it. Tissot was destroyed by her death and left London, turning to religion and a whole separate career as a religious painter that I didn’t even know about. Who can imagine anything so completely at odds to his paintings of idle, beautiful city dwellers?

The Annunciation (1886-960
Now, I’m probably a bit jaded with my Pre-Raphaelite social history by now. Lizzie had her still born baby and took an overdose, one Waugh sister died after giving birth so Holman Hunt married the other one, don’t get me started on Alexa Wilding (more of that to come), but the life of Kathleen Newton stunned me. Divorced for being honest and blameless, the unmarried mother of two children and the muse for some of the most beautiful works in the later Victorian period, only to kill herself at 28 because she couldn’t stand the grief of her lover.

Holyday (1876)
I feel the need to read A Type of Beauty: The Story of Kathleen Newton (1854-1882) by Patricia O’Reilly, a dramatized account of her life, because I would like to think that someone can find words sufficient to tell this woman’s story. She was Tissot’s ‘Mavourneen’ (my beloved) and ‘Ravissante Irlandaise’ (Delightful Irish) and he had to bury her in unconsecrated ground in Kensal Green Cemetery. That, my friends, is a Victorian tragedy and I hope with all my heart that the writers of Desperate Romantics never get their hands on it. 

Type of Beauty (1880)

Saturday 21 January 2012

Who's Been a Naughty Boy?

In between taking large quantities of cold medication (I've gone a bit chesty, if you know what I mean) I have been thinking about what to write for today's blog. Kind of counter-inspired by the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum's latest exhibition 'In the Footsteps of Gods and Heroes', I've been thinking about villains of the Victorian art world, and especially Charles Augustus Howell.

Oh, Mr Howell, how very spendid to see you.  Charles Augustus Howell is one of those people who is fascinating, intriguing and rather seductive, and the undoing of many a person, both ladies and gentlemen.  Born in 1840, he lied his way through the next 50 years before being found in a gutter with his throat slit and a shilling shoved between his teeth.  Or was he?  Now that's the problem with Howell...

Charles Augustus Howell (1882) Frederick Sandys

We can be vaguely confident that he was born around 1840.  He claimed to be the son of an English drawing master who was living in Lisbon, and a Portugese mother, but he was a bit vague about detail.  By the time of Charles' marriage to his cousin Frances Catherine Howell, or 'Kitty', his father has obviously had a career change and is listed as a 'merchant'.  But we'll gloss over that...  The stories he told of his youth in Portugal are pretty fabulous: card-sharping in Oporto and diving to loot Spanish Galleons of booty.  Sigh, he sounds dreamy.  No wonder Whistler called him 'the creature of top-boots and plumes, splendidly flamboyant.'  My own youth in 1970s Wiltshire contained very little in the way of card-sharping and Galleoning looting, so I'm easily impressed.  As were many others, as we shall see...

Howell entered Pre-Raphaelite circles in the 1860s when he began to work as Ruskin's secretary, and also modelled for Rossetti, being a rather handsome fellow...

Study for Found D G Rossetti (Yeah, but who hasn't modelled for bloody Found?)
I think it is probably no coincidence that Rossetti welcomed Howell into his life after Lizzie's death when possibly his judgement may have been a little wobbly.  Howell was able, charming and persuasive, and if you needed something Howell was your man.  Need some more blue and white china?  Howell would oblige.  Need some paintings selling?  Howell was your man.  Need your dead wife exhuming?  Charlie's your boy.  Pre-Raph's Mr Fix-it was the one who secured the return of the little book of poems, inconveniently left in the embrace of Lizzie.  What a man!

Study for Dante's Dream D G Rossetti
Ford Madox Brown described him as being 'second to no one in England in his intimate knowledge of ancient and oriental furniture, china, tapestries', William Michael Rossetti commented on his 'quick and accurate discernment of the merits of works of art and decoration of many various kinds, along with extensive practical knowledge of their market value', testament to Howell's sharp sense of business and knowledge of their world.

Mrs Charles Augustus Howell (1873) Frederick Sandys
Am I the only person who thinks 'Blimey, I bet her frock made her popular at parties...' Kitty Howell was as beautiful and beguiling as her cousin-husband.   Their wedding in 1867 was attended by William and Jane Morris, Ned and Georgie Burne-Jones, William and Christina Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown.  The Howells moved in affluent and cultured circles and were trusted friends to all.  Rossetti commented in 1872 that 'I can express complete confidence in his judgement on questions of art'. And everyone lived happily ever after...hang on....

According to Georgie Burne-Jones, Howell was 'one who came among us in friend's clothing...but inwardly was a stranger to all our life meant.'  Now, that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement.  While Charles and Kitty Howell were a golden couple, much beloved by all, there was another side to Howell which was not so beguiling.  Sacked by Ruskin in 1870, Howell failed to keep the exhumation of Lizzie Siddal a secret, thus causing scandal and unhappiness from an already terrible event.  He also took a lover in 1873, the artist Rosa Corder, another beautiful woman.  Some chaps get all the luck...

Arrangement in Brown and Black: Portrait of Rosa Corder (1876-1878) J A M Whistler
It was with Miss Corder that Howell started another little business venture, well two if you count their daughter, Beatrice Ellen, born in 1883.  Rosa was a talented artist who trained under Frederick Sandys.  Sandys' style was very similar to Rossetti's....can you see where this might be going...?

Mr. ___ and Miss ___ nervously perpetuating the touch of a vanished hand (1922) Max Beerbohm
Allegedly, Howell convinced Rosa to produce 'Rossetti' drawings that he then sold on as originals.  Naughty Howell.  This soured relationships between Howell and his Pre-Raphaelite chums, causing Rossetti to write the slightly less friendly limerick 'There's a Portuguese person named Howell, Who lays on his lies with a trowel, When I goggle my eyes, And start with surprise, It's at monstrous big lies told by Howell.'

Apparently, it was Fanny Cornforth who gave Howell his nickname 'Owl', albeit inadvertently.  When asked if she had seen Howell while she was out of town, Fanny replied that she had 'see'd no 'Owl', and it stuck. It's ironic that for all his big stories of heroic daring-do and involvement in a political assassination (the attempt by Felice Orsini to assassinate Napoleon III), he was undone by some rather silly forgeries.  However, neither his wealth nor his amazing reputation (or rather infamy) seem to have suffered too much.  Conan Doyle apparently based Charles Augustus Milverton
Charles Augustus Howell Mortimer Menpes
Howell died, aged 50, of tuberculosis, or at least that was the official line.  The rather more delicious unofficial story was that he was found outside a pub in Chelsea with his throat slit.  The cover-up commenced and the slitting was all explained by a 'post-mortum'.  Now, far be it from me to dismiss a juicy tale, but if Howell was a big a liability as it seems, why bother covering it up?  He had faked his death before, in order to make a fortune from the sale of his stuff, so people were rather surprised when he actually died, properly and for real.  Ellen Terry wrote to a friend 'Howell is really dead this time - do go to Christie's and see what turns up'.

So, what can be made of this figure?  Was he a rotter, an opportunist, a liar and blackmailer? Possibly.  Should he be played by Kiefer Sutherland in a film?  Almost certainly.  Would I wear Kitty Howell's dress?  Given half a chance.  In the end, he does rather enliven events and in many ways we fulfil his wishes in still talking about him.  What ever else Charles Augustus Howell may have wished to be, he obviously wanted to be immortalised by his reputation.

Congratulation Charlie, you may well have got your wish.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Through the Doors (The Finale)

Here we are for the last part of the virtual 1883 exhibition of The Rossetti Gallery, the gallery run by Fanny Cornforth and her husband, John Bernard Schott, and comprising of a number of the pictures that Fanny ‘acquired’ during her time with Rossetti. The exhibition served a couple of purposes; firstly, it was Fanny’s tribute to her great love, the man to whom she had dedicated her life. Secondly, it was arguably Fanny’s gesture of defiance, held just down the road from the ‘official’ exhibition at The Royal Academy. We know that William Michael Rossetti tried to cut Fanny from his brother’s life and subsequent legacy by not informing her of the funeral until after it had taken place and then attempting to reclaim pictures and silence her. Lastly, it was no doubt a money-making scheme, charging an admittance and a cost for the catalogues. The Schotts were able to live quite comfortably for many years in Kensington, so it can be argued that the scheme worked. So, on with the show…

41. Pandora

As we saw yesterday, the latter part of the exhibition was made up of photographs of various pictures. Unlike the ‘actual’ pictures she owned, it could be argued that Fanny only needed to take what she liked when acquiring photographs because the majority of Rossetti’s work would have been available to her in this medium. What did she chose? Jane Morris.

42. Mrs William Morris

Jane Bloody Morris. Again. I have questions, I don’t know about you lot. What was she playing at? Although we don’t have it on record precisely how Fanny felt about Jane, we know that Rossetti feared Fanny’s jealousy and her accusations, which Rossetti strenuously denied. Her collection of ‘Jane’ images raise questions about the nature of their relationship. Although Jane never spoke of Fanny, and you could almost believe that Jane didn’t know of Fanny’s existence, there is evidence that Jane feared Fanny had acquired letters between Jane and Rossetti, and would make them public. As it turned out, Fanny either didn’t have them or didn’t act on them. If Fanny was as vindictive as everyone seemed to have believed, you have to ask why she displayed, without judgement, so many images of her rival.

43. The Question (or The Sphinx)

I’ve always thought this is an odd picture, but well-chosen for display as it’s a nude and Rossetti did few nudes, even fewer of them being male nudes. It shows Youth, Manhood and Old Age, all approaching the Sphinx to find the secrets of life and death. Again, it is a sketch for a picture that was never executed, a potential never realised.

44. Mrs William Morris

Looky here again. Hmmm, interesting how Jane is ‘Mrs William Morris’ but Lizzie is ‘Miss Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall’. Neither of them are linked to Rossetti by name and Jane is titled very formally, emphasising her link to another man. You do wonder how many people knew about Rossetti and Jane by 1883, how many people talked about it? It might be interpreted as a kindness by Fanny to emphasise Jane’s position as William’s wife, but I doubt there was any such thought in her head. I wonder if it was a move on Fanny’s part to establish herself as Rossetti’s mistress, alone.

45. Hamlet and Ophelia

The catalogue reads ‘Ophelia is drawn from Miss Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall, Hamlet from Charles A. Howell Esq. Both faithful portraits.’ Although Howell was known to Fanny (who allegedly nicknamed him The Owl, by the dropping of her ‘aitches), it is not clear how well Fanny knew Lizzie. Thinking about it, Fanny resumed her modelling for Rossetti after his marriage, while Lizzie was still alive, so it can be assumed that Lizzie and Fanny must have met. I wonder if this picture and the catalogue text were included to draw attention to Lizzie as Ophelia, again. It was her most famous role and here she is again, this time for her husband, being Ophelia.

46. Mnemosyne or The Lamp of Memory

Like No.22, this is another version of the famous oil of Jane being the lady with a lamp. This is the original picture, before the canvas was enlarged and the lower part of Jane was added. One of the pleasures of looking at these pictures is that Fanny managed to acquire copies of working studies, unfinished works, that give you an idea of Rossetti’s thoughts and inspirations. To start with, this was a far more intimate picture, close and intense, before Rossetti added to the canvas. Another image of Jane? Of course…

47. Cassandra

This is a busy one. Right, the description reads ‘The subject shows Cassandra prophesying among her kindred, as Hector leaves them for his last battle. They are on the platform of a fortress, from which the Trojan troops are marching out. Helen is arming Paris; Priam soothes Hecuba; and Andromache holds the child to her bosom’. Crikey, there’s a lot going on there.  It's all noise and tragedy, with Cassandra foretelling doom to a man who doesn't have time to listen.  I wonder if Fanny felt like it sometimes was her job to tell people what they didn't want to hear?

48. Washing Hands


49. Portrait of the Painter’s Mother

I think this is the right one, so I’m brazening it out. Of course this is the right one, ahem. The catalogue lists it  as a sketch from April 28th 1853, and is a pen and ink sketch. I think this is a marvellous drawing, the strength of his mother clear to see. This is one of the earliest pictures in Fanny’s collection, and it’s a photograph, so she had chosen to acquire this image. Possibly she was trying to feel closer to Rossetti, whose mother was an important part of his life. Looking at this image, I can’t help but think that Rossetti looked ever so much like his Mum, the same large, dark eyes. Maybe Fanny saw her lover in his mother and liked the image because of it.
50. Borgia

The catalogue says that this is an image of ‘Lucrezia, Alexander VI and Caesar Borgia watching the children dancing’. This is the third Lucrezia Borgia image in this exhibition, and this one comes from 1851, although the central figure could be said to resemble Fanny. I’m not sure why Fanny collected these images, as the only person I know that had been called ‘Lucrezia Borgia’ was Jane, by (I think) Bell Scott, who believed her relationship with Rossetti was harming the artist. This reminds me of the books Willowwood and Victorian Love Story where it is hinted that Fanny like Rossetti’s early works because there was always an interesting story going on in the picture. Well, here you go Fanny, the Borgias should be an interesting enough story for you…

51. The Beloved

This comes with the line ‘My beloved is mine, and I am his’, and this is a photograph of the oil before completion. I had lots of fun comparing the finished image and playing ‘spot the difference’. I don’t get out much. Keomi the Gypsy Lover of Frederick Sandys, on the right, needs a lot of work, and the little chap in the front is missing some flowers. I saw this picture mentioned in an article as being proof that Rossetti was a big ol’ racist. Oh Lordy, I don’t even know where to start with that…other than ‘no, dear, he wasn’t.’

52. Perlascura

Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in! Damn, almost at the end and she springs a final Jane Morris on me! Admittedly, this is possibly the most stunning image of Jane, utterly breath-taking in its simplicity and beauty. This is one of my favourite of Rossetti’s chalks and he was a man who was good with his chalk. Look at the light on her hair! The line of her jaw! Heavens above. This is the last picture, and it’s of Jane. All that remained in the display were some poems and a couple of pictures of Tudor House, but this is the last of Rossetti’s pictures.

Do you know what I thought when I realised that? Isn’t it odd that she didn’t finish with a picture of herself, or even of Rossetti. What’s even odder is that she finished with a picture of her rival, the woman who took away her lover and arguably his sanity. In the exhibition, around 10 of the image could be said to be pictures of Fanny, but around 14 are of Jane. That’s over a quarter, and an impressive amount to be on show. Was it Jane’s fame (or infamy) that made Fanny display them, knowing people would come and see what she had? Did she show them to imply that all fights were off, that she acknowledged Jane’s presence in her lover’s life? I wish she had left some sort of hint as to why she chose the pictures she had, what they meant to her, even if it was only money. Was Fanny so calculating that she could exploit her rival’s image in order to make money from her dead lover’s art? That’s a bleak conclusion. Maybe she wanted all the Stunner’s to be together in remembering Rossetti? No, that’s far too saccharine. No answer is totally satisfying, so maybe we’ll never know, but isn’t it interesting when you get surprised by someone you thought you understood completely?

Consider this parting thought: Fanny Cornforth, blacksmith’s daughter from rural Sussex whose siblings nearly all died in infancy and whose mother and father had died young and nastily, had amassed an art collection of national significance that would enrich museums an art galleries in at least two countries. Now that is a surprising thought, and is one of the major reasons that I love Fanny. And I do love Fanny.

Anyone who sniggered can see me after class…