Monday 27 February 2012

Ooooh, Ghosties!

Mr Walker does not do scary movies.  He may well be the cream of manhood, but in the face of a film with spooks and chills he tactfully withdraws.  Therefore Miss Holman and I found ourselves at the cinema without a gentlemanly escourt, to see The Woman in Black.   Oh deary me, I think I may have lost a few years of life, due in no small part to the enthusiastically screaming teenagers in the audience, but in between the jumps and bumps, the bit with the rocking chair, oh, and this bit...

Oh, for the love of God.  Anyway, inbetween the very effective scares I got to thinking about the Victorians and ghosts and how representative The Woman in Black is of Victorian culture.

As I said in the last post, there is nothing I love more than a modern interpretation of Victorian culture. I love it so much I'm having a go at it myself.  I remember the first time I read The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, and I couldn't believe how scared it made me.  I think it was the first and possibly the last time I have been utterly terrified while reading.  Ironically, the passage that scared the pants off me was not in the film (The bit with the dog in the fog), but that small, moving passage was so powerful that I had completely forgotten great big bits of the plot and denied they were in the book.  Thinking about it, despite the child murdering, insane, revenge spirit doing her worst against Harry Potter, possibly what happens to the dog in the fog is too much for audiences.

For the Victorians, the ghost was a complicated symbol.  They searched for them desperately, but feared them utterly.

The Apparition John Everett Millais
For the most part, the Victorian obsession with ghosts is entirely linked to the obsession with guilt. The Victorians knew the choices they made were complicated and motivated by contradictory aspirations.  The ghost in Millais' The Apparition confronts a man who looks terrified.  She is dressed as a bride and the vapour trail behind her forms her train.  She reveals herself between the bed curtains and he reaches towards her.  He does not recoil or flinch, and that is the key to the image. What did this man do to the bride that makes him reach towards her?  She seems to confront him, but he seems to already know his guilt and he wants her forgiveness.  I wonder at the piece of paper on the floor and the smoking candle, and my wild assmption is that consumed by guilt, our chap is in the midst of committing suicide (hence the note) and as his life ebbs away (the guttering candle) he sees the woman he abandoned on their wedding day (leading to her death, probably in a gutter or the snow, as per normal).

The Ghost John Everett Millais
Just to even the score, Millais does a 'woman regretting her choice' wedding picture, with her ghostly groom looking both sad and disappointed at his feckless bride.  Shame on you, Miss!  For many people, the choice of marriage partner was crucial for advancement, that marrying for love, if that meant starving, did not mean being a good Victorian.  If you go around marrying nice poor men, how are you going to get a new bonnet, or that aspidistra you so desperately need for your what-not?  Choke back the guilt and get on with it!  Hang on, I feel a bit of Shakespeare coming on...

The Ghost of Banquo Theodore Chasseriau
In the novel The Woman in Black, Arthur Kipps goes off to Eel Marsh House in an attempt to further his career, newly married with a young son.  His ambition makes him continue to plow into danger, not respect the doom that has settled on the village.  It is his Victorian ambition to better himself and his family that causes him to fall very foul of the mystical forces at work in the tiny village.  Although it is a little extreme, Macbeth is just an ambitious chap who lets his pesky conscience derail him. Oh, and all that murdering, that didn't help.

The Party on the Stairs Adelaide Claxton
Every building I have worked in so far has been 'haunted', once by a previous member of staff which is somewhat disconcerted.  I have even worked in a portacabin which had the ghosts of dead miners roaming it (or stationery cupboard was never warm), but I do have a healthy scepticism about ghosts, despite seeing a woman who was there one minute and gone the next.  The little girl on the stairs sees a party of Georgian ladies and gentlemen, walking through her house, laughing and joking.  Unlike Millais' spectres, these ghosts have no interest, or acknowledgement of the 'modern' world.  They are echoes of a previous time, happy times in the house, not out for revenge or even notice.  Possibly the reason that this aspect of haunting is fairly rare is because it is without purpose.  The little girl has done nothing to deserve a visitation from the dead, and they are not exactly visiting her.  The dead have no interest in her, they are just passing through, just echoing back.

The Ghost Story Frederick Smallfield
The ghosts that visited Ebenezer Scrooge weren't just passing through, they were there to show him that he was on the brink of losing his humanity.  For the most part, the visitation of ghosts seemed to indicate that you had gone astray in someway and the best you could hope for was a pointer in the right direction rather than a horrific reminder of the worst decision of your life.  Maybe the reason that ghost stories were (and are) so popular was because the reader could get a vicarious thrill from the punishment of others and at the same time double-check their own sins.

Study for The Haunted House Alfred Munnings
Back to The Woman in Black, and there is definitely a sniff of modern Japanese horror about it.  Without giving too much away for those who have not read the book or seen the film, it is quite un-Victorian in that the ghost that Arthur Kipps encounters is not specifically for him, he has nothing to atone for but has just stumbled into a pre-exisiting situation.  Blimey, that sounds a bit clinical.  Arthur ends up being collatoral damage who has to atone for another person's sins, which is unfair and not very Victorian at all.  He wants to do his best, he shows respect and cares about the past events, but still has to pay the price (the dog in the fog!).  That's not the way it works, not in Victorian England, that's not how Victorian-karma goes!

Father and Son with the spirit of the departed wife and mother
When Rossetti's interest in her began to wane, Fanny Cornforth became a medium to enable him to contact Lizzie Siddal, and herein lies a giant, unspoken aspect of Victorian ghost culture.  If ghosts are portents of doom, vengeful spirits here to bring down your past mistakes upon your head, why did people seek them out at seances?  Why do we hunt for them now, entire programmes on satellite telly dedicated to seeking them out?  Maybe part of it is that life is short.  Life can be brutally short and what becomes of all that love and care we pour into others when they cease to be?  It's not only the belief that our sins will find us out, but a hope that our love will find us too.  The Father and Son in the picture above obviously felt that the deceased woman was still with them, literally 'in spirit', all that love they had shared had not just vanished, had not just amounted to nothing.

Although we live longer than our ancestors (and definitely longer than most people in The Woman in Black) there is still the fear of how brief our lives can be, and what is the point in investing your everything in someone only to have them leave you.  How comforting to think that they remain, unseen but not uncared for.

Go and see The Woman in Black, but go during the day and make sure your screen is packed with screaming teenagers.  Really, it releases the tension, and all I have to say is that I will never look at a rocking chair in the same way ever again....

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Reading Art

My love of writing comes directly from my love of reading. There is an indescribable pleasure in becoming immersed in a tale, just you and the story together, excluding the world for a few stolen moments. I recently loved a book so much that I carted it up to London to read on the train as I had to know what would happen. That book was Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, and got me thinking about writing a quick piece regarding the best novels you can read about the Victorian Art Scene. Here are my lucky seven recommendations….

7. Gillespie and I Jane Harris
I bought this about a fortnight ago and couldn’t put it down. It concerns a ‘Glasgow Boy’, Ned Gillespie, and his would-be biographer Harriet Baxter. Like most of the books on this list, the story isn’t about his art, but the interaction of his art with the real life events makes for touching and chilling reading. One of the things I loved about the book is the use of the first person narrative, calling into question what you are being told and how it relates to the ‘facts’. It’s both entertaining and horrifying in equal measures and reduced me to fighting travel sickness just so I could find out what happened in the end.

6. The Vesuvius Club Mark Gatiss
This is a naughty book.  Excuse me, this is a naughty, morals-destroying, resolve-loosening, seducer of a novel.  If you are easily shocked, this is not the novel for you, however if you fancy being ruined by Lucifer Box, you know he's up for it.  Mr Box is a portrait painter, but also a cunning gentleman of action, a bit like if Millais was secretly James Bond.  Oh, that just makes my head hurt...

5. Sleep, Pale Sister Joanne Harris
I’ve spoken about this book before and I have to admit a guilty adoration for just how insane this book is. Part murder-mystery, part laudanum-induced nightmare, the plot is Sensational (in all senses of the word) but never less than entertaining. The artist, Henry Chester, is part Lewis Carroll, part Millais and all very wrong indeed. No doubt a nod at Ruskin, he marries a child-bride called Effie who both disgusts and fascinates him, until they are all dragged into a thoroughly unpleasant web of revenge, where the outcome is extremely uncertain for all concerned. I loved this because it evokes the period nicely and gives you, full gusto, the more hysterical side of what we suspect about our beloved Pre-Raphaelite art scene. There are no half-measures and you will not be bored.

4. Ivy Julie Hearn
Yes, I know it’s teen fiction, but when it’s about Pre-Raphaelite art, I’m not a snob. It’s a good read and the artist, Oscar Frosdick is an entertaining mothers-boy with a none too pleasant Mother. Ivy is part Lizzie Siddal and part Oliver Twist, and the result is humorous and gripping with quite a twist in the middle. The drawbacks are part and parcel of the genre – there is only so much that can be said in teen-fiction, that possibly Sarah Waters would deliver in a far more cutting manner, but if you want to get your teen into Pre-Raphaelite art, then this might be a useful route.

3.Mortal Love Elizabeth Hand
Oh dear, I loved this book a little too much and I wanted to own a narrow boat and drive men insane with my mysterious, fatal beauty. Ho hum. Anyway, this is a difficult but rewarding book that skips from one generation/dimension to another. The artist in question is Radborne Comstock, locked in a madhouse, trying to paint his way out and remain sane (which seems a bit of a fruitless task as everyone else seems completely deranged). In modern-day London, a mysterious muse called Larkin is destroying the lives of men as they become involved in a hunt for lost Pre-Raphaelite art. It’s not for everyone, but if you give it a try you may like it (how many times have those words got me into trouble..?)

2. The Crimson Bed Loretta Proctor
Frederic Ashton Thorpe and Henry Winstone love the Pre-Raphaelites and want to be like them. Fred marries the mysterious and troubled Eleanor and Henry finds success and tragedy in equal measure. Centred around the image of a beautiful crimson bed, the lives of these talented but unhappy people embraces art, love and secrets. The story is compelling, and you need to know the outcome of the actions of our characters, desperate to be happy, yet sabotaging their own chances and those of their friends and lovers.

1. The Arrow Chest Robert Parry
No list about Victorian art novels is complete without The Arrow Chest. The artist Amos Roselli loves a troubled muse, but she is slowly being destroyed by her choice of a life of comfort and certainty. A darkness slowly envelops the couple as they attempt to escape a fate so eloquently expressed through Roselli’s art. Possibly the most beautiful realisation of the true landscape of Victorian art, and the most convincing and touching portrait of a Victorian gentleman artist, this has to be one of my favourite novels, regardless of subject. The maid, Beth, made me think of Red Lion Mary, or Watts often-painted maid, and you don’t stop caring and worrying about her or any of the characters from the first page to the end. That, my friends, is how it’s done.

That is my list of art fiction. If you want to read a modern book which mentions Pre-Raphaelite art, try The Dreaming Damozel by Mollie Hardwick or Pale as the Dead (amongst other things). If you want a dramatisation of the Pre-Raphaelite story, you could do worse than try Victorian Love Story by Nerina Shute, The Golden Veil by Paddy Kitchen or The Wayward Muse by Elizabeth Hickey. If you know of more, post them up in the comments! Happy reading...

Saturday 18 February 2012

From Obsession Comes Results or Alexa Yet Again

Really, this will probably be the last Alexa Wilding post for a goodly while, I promise.  As mentioned by Clara at the end of my previous Alexa post, there is a very illuminating Appendix in the new collected letters of Rossetti (and also available here for free), which I read as part of my endless, endless research into Alexa's life.  Now, I must admit the worst thing about writing non-fiction (and a huge reason why I really don't want to write another full length biography) is when you do loads of research and then find someone else has published first.  However, this is me and I still have a trick up my sleeve.

Okay, friends, here we I suggested in my earlier post on Alexa, there is the small confused matter of her two children in the 1881 census, but we now all agree that they are Alexa's kids.  I managed to turn up the birth certificate for Charles, her eldest, via Ancestry (God, I love Ancestry) and she is down as 'Alexa' rather than 'Alice'.  So, naughty Alexa did have her kiddiwinks out of wedlock, while living a rather nice life in South Kensington.  Neither child was buried with her, and according to the Appendix, Charles and possibly also Nellie (or Eleanor) emigrated to South Africa.  As Fanny's step-son Cecil also went to South Africa, I begin to wonder if it is compulsory for children of Stunners to clear off to South Africa...

Also, and most excitingly for me, the Appendix contains a nice new photo of Alexa!  You may remember I have shown the following couple before...

Alexa c.1875
Alexa c.1866

Now, I didn't realise that the picture on the right was from 1866, which would make Alexa about 19 at the time.  In the Appendix, there is an expanded version of the 1875 picture, which shows you the rest of Alexa's dress...

It's all quite frilly, but it does show Alexa in her late 20s, and she does look like a very beautiful young woman.  The new picture that the book contains is as follows....

Alexa c.1866
Now, this is a sister-image to the other 1866 portrait, but shows her full-on.  It's not an overwhelmingly flattering shot, but does show a rather relaxed looking Stunner, waiting for life to happen to her.  Her hair is smoothed back, parted down the centre and caught in a net behind.  Compare this to the 1875 image with her fluffy hair, all secured in a ball on the top.  Alexa in 1875 looks like she's had a bit of life happen to her and she's lost the rather arch expression of her previous portrait.  One explanation of this is given in the Appendix, that possibly she was the lover of G E Shelley, gun-loving, bird-watching playboy and Victorian cliche.  He is allegedly the father of her children, rather than the 'fictional' Charles Wilding, travelling salesman, who is listed on Charles and Nellie's birth certificates, and as 'householder' of Alexa's house in the records.  While it is indisputable that Shelley knew Alexa and was intimate enough with her to be present when she died, I'm not sure if more can be stated for certain, and I do like to be for certain because otherwise it's tempting to hurry down the route of a good story, rather than fact, and that road leads to nut-slinging illiterate tarts.

To add to the facts of Alexa's life I do have a new piece, previously (I hope, and as far as I know) unpublished...

When Rossetti discovered Alexa in the street in 1865, I doubt he quite realised how she would rescue his finances.  However, rapidly Alexa became the object of Rossetti's vision, appearing repeatedly in 1866 and early 1867, in Regina Cordium, Monna Vanna, Lady Lilith, Sibylla Palmifera and other works, earning him money and causing him to pay her a regular wage in order to secure her services.  He allowed her to sit for two other people: his studio assistant Henry Treffry-Dunn and George Price Boyce, both of whom were somewhat besotted by her.  However in February 1868, Rossetti bemoaned Alexa's disappearance in a letter to Boyce: 'I fear you may fail in finishing Miss W's head after all, as that young person has gone out of town for some time as I understand - an inconvenience to me...' (letter to George Boyce, 10 February 1868).  Rossetti used other models during 1867 and 1868 until Alexa reappeared in late 1868/69.  Jane Morris began to dominate the canvases, along with Ellen Smith and even a couple of portraits of Fanny.  It has been suggested that Alexa, only 21 at the time had gone off on some love affair or just been flaky and unreliable.  On the contrary, Alexa was not only in town but had a good reason for not appearing in the studio.  She was heavily pregnant.

Alexa gave birth to Maria Lee Wilding on 25th February 1868, father unknown.

Unlike her subsequent children, there is no pretence of a husband or a father on the baptism certificate.  Alexa's name alone (as 'Alexa Wilding') appears, alongside her daughter's when Maria was baptised at Trinity Church, Marylebone, in September of 1868.  She is listed as living in Bywater Street, Chelsea (just round the corner from Fanny Cornforth at Royal Avenue and Rossetti at Cheyne Walk), no longer living in her Newgate Market home with her Grandma and her Uncles.  I wonder if Maria was named for her Great-Grandma, Mary, but in any case Maria vanishes from the records and is not heard of after that (not that she was heard of before).  What happened to baby Maria?  Was she adopted?  Did she die?  Did anyone know that Alexa had given birth?  The tone of Rossetti's letter is peevish and sulky, not like he knew his model was in trouble.  The Appendix suggests that Alexa may have made the acquaintance of G E Shelley in 1870, but that the love affair was unlikely to have started until mid 1870s because Alexa had been too busy modelling.  That counts double for the period 1866 to early 1867, the only people she spent time with seem to have been the artists, especially Rossetti and Boyce. 

Now, isn't that something to consider...?

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Happy Valentine's Day, Oh Beloved Readers!

Well, here we are, and I hope you're in the mood for romance, because it's Valentine's Day, so you don't get a damn choice.  Look, we're here, we might as well make the best of it, I mean how much time do we get alone? I don't care if you're not in the mood, make an effort.  It's Valentine's Day, so we're getting romantic whether you want it or not.

Sorry, that wasn't very romantic, but my many, many years of no Valentines makes me a little wary of this holiday of romantic obligation, as for the first 23 years of my life no-one felt obliged to send me a Valentine.  Yes, yes, come on, I'm after your pity, but I redefined 'awkward teen' so it was to be expected.  The jumper with all the pigs on it probably didn't help either...

Anyway, enough of my nonsense, on with the point of today's post, which is the Victorian Valentine...

May a gentleman bend you over backwards and cop a feel in the name of love...
I was actually surprised that although images of 'love' abound, images of Valentine's Day are relatively few and far between.  Odd really, because the Victorians loved Valentine's Day, in the same way as they loved any excuse to send a card and make a fuss.

The Valentine (1894) Edwin Harris
This is a charming image, and Edwin Harris is a Newlyn/Birmingham Boy: that lovely west country light, with slate blue and white prominent in the picture.  The young lady reads her card while her friend, who isn't even vaguely jealous, looks on.  God, I can't think of anything worse than having an audience while you open a Valentine.  It's alright if it's from Hot Bob, but what if it's not?  What if it's from the lad who shovels the dung, who has a squint and six toes on one foot and is actually your cousin?  Doesn't bear thinking about...

The Valentine (1863) Thomas Brooks
That's better, like many things in life, it's best done alone.  I rather like the shawl and the pink bonnet, although it's rather overkill for being indoors.  Hopefully her admirer has a home with a fireplace, at least she can take her bonnet off when visiting.

The Valentine's Letter Florent Willems
I found this interesting as I think it's an image of a woman sending a Valentine.  On the other hand, no, she's receiving one from a small servant boy.  Not actually from the small boy, at least I don't think so.  Well, she does look wealthy and he does have his own hat.  She could do worse...

The Valentine George Smith
Ahh, this poor lass deserves her Valentine, look at her.  She has a broom and a cat and even the cat is looking elsewhere.  The best she can hope for is a quiet moment in an alleyway with her Valentine.  I wonder if the cat is symbolic of the girl, gazing at the other cat with the bowl of milk, sat in the sunlight.  I bet that cat doesn't have to sweep out the alleyway. Stupid cat.  I hope her Valentine is from a rich, handsome man who has a clean passage.  I do like a gentleman with a clean passage.

The Eve of St Valentine's (1871) George Smith
Hurrah!  Here are a group of likely girls, writing their love notes the night before Valentine's Day.  Let's hope they are not all writing to the same chap, unless there is a subsequent picture of the three ladies involved in a huge scrap, entitled 'St Valentine's Afternoon'.

Well, on the whole they are a fairly uninspiring group, except this one, which is my absolute favourite...

St Valentine's Morning (1863) John Callcott Horsley
I'm astonished that this young woman can tear her eyes away from the mirror long enough to open a Valentine.  Look at her expression, doesn't she love herself?  Did she send herself the Valentine's card?  How small is her dog?  She's so vain that her mirror is dressed to match her.  Good luck to any man who attempts to compete with her for her attention...

Anyway, my dear Readers, Happy Valentine's Day, and I hope you all get the adoration you deserve.  As you are all marvellous and attractive, I'm sure you did.  If not, they most likely delayed in the post.  Stupid post, they held up 23 years worth of mine, you know.  Shocking...

Sunday 12 February 2012

A Tale of Two Stunners

Yesterday, I was up at the Big Smoke for the 150th Anniversary of Elizabeth Siddal’s death, and I attended a very good talk by Lucinda Hawksley at Highgate Cemetery. Miss Holman (Resting Ninja and Woman of Intrigue) accompanied me as we took a turn around the cemetery, looking at all the many fancy and amazing graves, for example…

This is the tomb of George and Ann Wombwell. Mr George Wombwell was a Managerist, and atop his giant tomb is a stone lion, a portrait of his own lion which was so tame that children could ride it. There wasn’t any telly in those days, and riding a lion was as good as it gets. Actually, it sounds pretty good. Obviously, not for the lion.

Also, look, it’s Mrs Henry Wood!

It’s easy to get a bit starstruck at Highgate as so many fabulous people are buried there, and even ‘normal’ folk got to be planted in the most outrageous graves. Look at the Egyptian Avenue….

It’s fairly mental as it is, but when it was new, they think it was painted elaborate colours. Now, that isn’t even vaguely garish and in bad taste. As it was, your average Victorian didn’t fancy being planted in anything so overtly heathen, and so preferred the rather more classical tombs that were erected later when the Egyptian ones didn’t sell.  Obviously something based on Ancient Greece is far more Christian...

Anyway, the reason we were there was that it was the 150th anniversary of Elizabeth Siddal’s death and so we wanted to see Elizabeth Siddal’s Highgate grave….

Restored and well-tended, Elizabeth resides with her in-laws in the Rossetti family plot. She’s not on the main footpath, so you are taken there by special request, but as it was the anniversary, we visited her as part of the tour. There had been a ceremony early in the day and the flowers were laid, and the area had been tended so that visitors could easily reach her. Lizzie is featured on the literature of Highgate cemetery, as one of the celebrity inhabitants and it’s obvious that the grave has been restored because of her inclusion in it. Yes, Christina Rossetti is in there with her, but she is currently the most famous and ‘important’ person in that grave. It could be argued that to the majority of people who know her name, her value lies not in her work as a poet or painter, but in her role as muse to the Brotherhood. The majority of the people on our tour did not know that much about her or the Pre-Raphaelites, but they knew she was Ophelia. She remains in her neat, respected grave, visited by adoring fans, all because of her beautiful face…

Off we go to Brompton Cemetery!

Now, I do recommend a visit to Brompton, it’s just off the tube and is filled with more stone angels than you can shake a stick at.


There are angels looking up, angels looking down, angels praying, angels weeping and angels clutching crosses. There is even an Eric Gill angel…

Very nice too. If only he’d concentrated on art, and not fiddled with his dog or his family.

There is a magnificent tomb for Leyland, the art collector and patron, designed by Burne-Jones.

But even the average stone in Brompton is pretty…

Armed with a map (and Lord knows you need a map in Brompton, it’s about two and a half kilometres long), we set off in search of our second stunner. Her face occurred over and over in Rossetti’s work and she died a fairly wealthy woman in South Kensington. By co-incidence, she resided within the same graveyard as Leyland who felt her face and Rossetti’s rendering of it was the pinnacle of his later work, her fine beauty being an aesthetic zenith. We were in search of Alexa Wilding.

Poor Alexa, dead at 37, still managed to die in a rather nice neighbourhood as we have seen in my previous post on a tour of Pre-Raphaelite hotspots. Surely, if we appreciate Lizzie for her beauty, a little of that appreciation should go to Alexa? We walked the long avenue of graves, all in neat rows, to the end of the section and a rather dense patch of brambles and snow.

‘She’s in there…’ I admit, rather guiltily, and we clambered in, apologising as we stepped over graves, attempting to read the names. In this little area, people were stuffed in, closely packed and the brambles were growing with gay abandon as my ankles and feet can testify this morning. Miss Holman and I exclaimed regularly, but it was not so much a discovery as snow in shoes, brambles round ankles or general frustration at the disrepair. We searched through all the graves without luck and we were making our way back out when the words ‘Mary Ann Wil…’ caught my eye on a very battered and flaked stone.

Mary Ann was Alexa’s grandmother, who died in the 1870s. I went back and leaned so the light struck the stone and the faded letters were casting faint shadows of their former impressions…

Alexa Wilding, died April 1884 aged 37.

We’d found her. Buried in brambles and snow, her stone flaking and worn, she remains forgotten at the back of a graveyard, not far from her home in South Kensington. While the great and the good had gathered around Lizzie’s restored and revered stone, Alexa was battling brambles with only me and Miss Holman for company. And I had snow in my shoe. And neither of us was Jan Marsh.

While I personally think it’s right that people can visit Lizzie’s resting place and pay their respects, it would be equally as fitting for the glorious face of Alexa to be remembered in a slightly less crumbly, painful manner. We need a stunner grave tour, although you’ll need a car to get to Kelmscott and God knows where Annie Miller is, let alone Fanny. Back to the records….

My thanks to Miss Holman as always. As the saying goes ‘Friends don’t let Friends disturb graves alone…’

Friday 10 February 2012

Look-See Cooksey

You know me, I like a challenge as much as I like a good painting.  A combination of these two marvellous things has arisen this week, just by chance.

Picture me, sat on my sofa at home, assisting Mr Walker with the research for a piece he is writing on the lovely TM Rooke.  I am idly flicking through the Public Catalogue Foundation catalogue for Dorset and I spy a very lovely picture indeed that is in the Russell-Cotes collection.  On enquiring, I discover that it sadly cannot be displayed at present as it urgently needs conservation work and is in a queue for raising funds.
‘What do we know of the artist?’ I asked, and Mr Walker gave a considered look and replied it wasn’t a familiar name.  ‘Aha!’ I cried, ‘I shall find out more!’

The artist in question is May Louise Greville Cooksey, and this is what I have found out.

This is the picture I spied in the PCF catalogue for Dorset

Maria Virgo (1914)

I was struck by it as it reminded me of the very well known image by Marianne Stokes, that graced our Christmas postage stamps a couple of years ago.

Madonna and Child (1907) Marianne Stokes
From searching Bridgeman and the Your Paintings website (PCF catalogue online via the BBC) I think this may be the only Cooksey in a public collection, although there may be others, possibly in Liverpool.  I’d love to know if anyone knows of any more of Cooksey pictures in galleries.  Anyway, on with the story…

May Louise Greville Cooksey was born in Birmingham on 7th November 1878, the eldest of five children.  Her parents were Harry Smith Cooksey and Catherine Ellen Williams Cooksey.  Harry had been an agent for Mansell Brewery, but set up his own removals and storage business, first of all in a pub, then in its own premises.  Harry came from Southampton originally, but his parents had moved to Tuffley in Gloucestershire when he and his siblings were young and there he met Catherine.  They moved up to Leamington Priors, where they remained almost to the end of their lives, before moving to Surrey.  May and her siblings all attended school, with May attending the Leamington and the Liverpool Schools of Art.  In 1899, at the age of 20, May converted to the Catholic faith, being baptised at St Francis Xaviers in Liverpool.  In 1901 she received a Liverpool City Travelling Scholarship which meant she could travel to Italy and paint.  She became a member of the Liverpool Academy of Arts, living out the rest of her life at 1 Bold Place, St Luke's Chambers, Liverpool, then moving to Crosby in Lancashire, where she died in 1943.

Her work is very attractive, what you can find of it, which is why I am eager to see more.  Take, for example, this rather beautiful portrait…

There is a rather soften-Pre-Raphaelite style to it, reminiscent of Gwen John and Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale (there are two names I didn’t expect to say in the same breath).  Also, I can recognise the style of Boyce in the patterned background and single, beautiful figure.  Her work also covered tempera-styled panels, referencing murals and aestheticism…

Young Woman Holding Honesty
Dolce Far Niente
There are obvious parallels to the work of Sandys or Rossetti, with lush Renaissance ladies displaying their beauty.  I’m intrigued by her colour palette, seemingly changing radically from one image to the next.  Although the two ladies above are quite similar in subject and mechanics, and may even be the same model, the difference of the powder-pastels of the Honesty picture is striking when compared to the rich colour of Dolce Far Niente.  Look at the orange and blue in that dress!  Stunning.

I’m not much good with cityscapes and landscapes, I do like my pictures to be about people, but her work done while travelling is attractive and interesting.

A Bruges Street Scene

She seems slightly impressionistic and used light well.  Venezia makes me long for summer and the glint of sunlight on a canal, although it is not that glamorous down the Kennet and Avon on the whole. 

I think where May Cooksey has suffered is that she never produced anything that was a blockbuster, she never had her one killer image that made her famous and got people collecting her art.  A possible reason for this was that she specialised in religious art during and after the First World War.  A bit like TM Rooke, that is not going to make you fashionable, however lovely your work is.  May produced a series of oils on The Stations of the Cross for Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church and Presbytery in Liverpool in 1928, which are on display and mentioned in their listing.   

Despite exhibiting at the Royal Academy (possibly where Merton Russell-Cotes saw Maria Virgo) and extensively at The Walker Gallery in Liverpool (great name for a gallery.  I will be up there to claim it one day), May Cooksey is one of the forgotten gems of Edwardian art, which is a shame as I want to know more and see more.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Will Tell Fortune for Chocolate…

As is often the way, I have been researching one post but it has ended up with me writing another one in the meantime. I am currently writing a piece on Victorian art novels and my favourites of this genre, and was flicking back through Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris.

I love this novel and its dizzying plot of gothic intrigue and repressed perversions. An early scene is when Effie and Mose go to the fair and meet Fanny Miller, disguised as a fortune teller. This led me on to think about the image of a fortune teller, and pictures of people telling fortunes as a fun pastime….

Tea Leaves Alma Broadbent
This is a particularly charming image of two ladies indulging in this innocent pursuit. But what if she sees something terrible in her friends cup, will she tell her? What if they are after the same man, will she warn her off? Sorry, but the tea leaves say that if you go out with Bob, it will end in apocalypse. And your pot plant will die. There is something distrustful in me that suspects that people who tell your fortune may have ulterior motives (as seen in Sleep Pale Sister).

Love’s Oracle Albert Ritzberger
So consumed are these girls with telling the young lady’s fortune that they haven’t noticed their lamp is about to set fire to one of their hair. King of Hearts, eh? Bob is definitely the man for you and your perilously tiny waist. The cards say you should marry him immediately (as none of us want him). Ah, see how much power you are giving to a third party who is telling your ‘future’ for you. Maybe that’s why so many people liked to go to an impartial third party, someone who had no vested interest in you and Hot Bob.

Fortune Telling Abraham Solomon
How revoltingly simper-y and what on earth have the cards foretold that makes the blonde one go all gooey? The brunette looks less than impressed, maybe it’s because she’s worked out that she’s in the least talented Solomon’s painting. Damn it, I could have been a Simeon pastel, but instead I get to have this dozy bint leaning on me for all eternity…

The Pre-Raphaelites and their followers like a woman holding a crystal ball very much. I won’t bore you with all the images I found of them because there are loads, and that isn’t really what this post is about. Oh, go on, here’s one that’s rather pretty…

Crystal Ball Robert Anning Bell
The lone woman and her crystal ball seems to be an image of solitary power for the disenfranchised. Prophesying women don’t seem to fare too well in stories, and so there seems to be a lot of pictures of women, in intimate settings, gazing into the shiny sphere as if they need to know, they need control over their future and surroundings when all other power is denied them. The theme of power is important though, when considering the seemingly frivolous images of fortune tellers…

Telling Her Fortune Hans Von Hayek
The lady with the shawl inspects the baby’s palm as her parents look on nervously but with optimism. I can’t quite work out who the man belongs to, or whether he has just wandered in for an adjoining picture. Will the baby’s fortune be good? What happens if it isn’t? Surely everyone’s life-line is very short when they are a year old because their hands are so tiny...

The Fortune Teller Joseph Clark
Sometimes when viewing these images I wonder what exactly the painter wants me to take away. Take these two women: one is a traveller, one is a fine lady. One has the position and money, one has neither, but where does the power lie in this image? The Fortune Teller has all the power as she has the fine lady’s belief. Again, look at the expression on the lady’s face, she looks terrified but hopeful. Blimey, that’s not good. If there is a chance that you will learn that fate has something awful in line for you, why find out? It’s just because you want to find out something fabulous, isn’t it? Hasn’t life been good enough already, you greedy so-and-so?! Go on, Fortune Teller, tell her something alarming…

The Fortune Teller Frank Cadogan Cowper
God, I love how hideous this picture is. This weird, mannerist freakshow is a mine-field of symbolism. Firstly, why are they hiding behind the magnificent wall of ivy. That is good ivy, but oddly big-leafed, or is it that the people are small? Look at the tiny blue shoe! Look at how doll-like they are, and not in a cute way, in a wooden-stick doll sort of way. I love that the Fortune Teller has a magnifying glass (to see the doom more clearly), and look at how large it is. Think of it as a companion piece to the Solomon above, as it shares the same subject matter and figures. Two women, one dark, one fair, see a Fortune Teller. The blonde one seems fairly pleased, the dark haired one less so. Look at her bonnet; maybe that is making her moody. Possibly it serves the dual function of stopping her scratching her stitches. Either way, unlike the saccharine sweet Solomon, this is unsettling, vaguely surreal and a little bit threatening.

His Fortune (1902) English School
Anyway, Fortune Telling seems a bit of a strange occupation for good Victorian girls, but it is a telling example of the contradictions in Victorian society, which for me makes Victorians so endlessly fascinating. Take this picture: can we deduce that Hot Bob (seen in the mirror) will say ‘oh, I see that the cards foretell we will fall madly in love…will you marry me?’ Did people really hold store by things prophesied by a turn of a card or the leaves in the bottom of a cup? How many lives did it affect, how many decisions were made just because someone said a piece of paper said it was so. And think of the little baby, how were children affected if their fortune was not so good? Well, to be honest if the girl above thinks she can snag Hot Bob with her cards then good luck to her. Mind you, if she leans forward any more it’ll be more than his fortune he’ll see….