Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Let Her Path be Spread with Roses White and with Roses Red

Ah, May.  A jolly fine month in my opinion.  Still Spring-like and cool, but getting warmer and full of optimism and two bank holidays (well not this year exactly, but you know what I mean).  The things I could talk about!  Well, I could talk about this…

May Morning on Magdalen Tower (1888-90) William Holman Hunt
However, it creeps me out.  It’s like a sing-a-long in the Village of the Damned.  Also, I always embarrass myself and never remember if it’s ‘Magdalen’ or ‘Maudlin’ (it’s probably the latter as posh people pronounce words so they don’t have to move their lips and show their bad teeth.  Or they all secretly want to be ventriloquists.)

I could also talk about this…

‘I am to be the Queen of May! Oops, I’m dead…’ Yes, well, for heavens sake, I always talk about women carelessly dying all over the place.  So, what could I talk about?  As my Granny used to say, ‘If in doubt, look inside your blouse…’

Me, with the Burne-Jones May Cross
Close-up of my cross

Ah, my beloved May Cross.  This is obviously a reproduction, and I bought it many moons ago, when Past Times was good.  It’s a copy of a cross designed by Burne-Jones for Whitelands College May Celebration.  Founded in 1840 by the High Anglican National Authority, Whitelands College was a teacher training college for the Society’s schools.  In 1881, under the guidence of John Ruskin, they started choosing a ‘May Queen’, the most ‘likeable and loveable’ of the students as voted for by her peers.

That Queen would be awarded the May Day Cross.  The first one was designed by Ruskin’s cousin’s husband, Arthur Severn, and was decorated with hawthorn blossom.  It is believed that the inspiration for this ceremony was the death of Rose La Touche in 1875.

May Cross from 1884 by Arthur Severn
When Rose died, Ruskin was devastated.  Next to the date of her death in his diary he drew hawthorn leaves, and for some reason the plant was the one he chose for the cross.  It might have been because of the echo of his lost love's name in the plant (rosaceae) or that a medieval meaning of the plant was death that linked it to Rose La Touche.  However, I think it was probably for its happier connotations, those of hope and marriage, that it was chosen as the subject of the first crosses.

I think the cross on the far left is by Burne-Jones as it is described as being in its original London & Ryder box on The British Museum website.  Ruskin asked Burne-Jones to design a cross in the mid-1880s and after a great deal of trouble and more than fifty drawings, he designed a cross for the ceremony.  I’m guessing mine is based on one of the fifty…

May cross from 1893 by Arthur Severn
You can see examples of the crosses in the British Museum, where not only the Whitelands College ones are displayed, but also one from the High School for Girls in Cork, run by a former governess at Whitelands.  In 1885, she started the same tradition at her new school, presenting a June Cross, with a pattern of wild roses (an example may be the middle of the three crosses above), also designed by Arthur Severn.

So, what’s it all about then?  The girls who received these crosses might not have been the brightest in the school, it’s not a reward for academic achievement or sporting prowess (we are young ladies after all!).  These crosses reward the most loveable girl, as voted for by the other pupils, which actually is quite a lovely thought and is an answer to those people who say ‘There are no prizes for being nice…’  Thinking about it in terms of the symbolism, it is definitely pointing the way to happy wife-dom, how being a pleasant girl will make you a good wife (don’t tell poor Mr Walker). 

I think the ceremony is still enacted, but now the college is co-ed, there can be a King of May too, which is a charming thought.  Forever more now, I shall think of May as the month of wearing my cross and just being nice to everyone.  Even John Ruskin.

Oh, it might be a long month…


  1. I kept thinking about Times Past and how much I enjoyed getting presents there in Bath.

  2. Ah, Bath, yes I know it well, in fact it might be where I got my necklace from, and possibly my Morris ring.

  3. Did you see my comment on the vesting priest?
    Lots of Catholic symbolism in crowning the May Queen! It's really Our Lady.

    1. Much older than the Catholic church ;)

  4. The May Queen is a strange one. Yes, obviously you can see veneration of the Virgin in the ceremony, but she also seems to be something deeper, the coming of Spring, the idea of bounty and hope. I always believed that they used to burn her when I was little, which kind of put me off being Carnival Queen, just in case... (obviously the Pagans never burnt any May Queens, even if they had them).

    Don't get me started on May Poles, they are just wrong.

  5. It's great to spread the word about Ruskin's May Queen event, and as a jeweller with Arts & Crafts as one of my favourite styles, lovely to see those crosses. I think the 1884 Arthur Severn one is my favourite. I first came across them in that Artist's Jewellery book where Diana Holman Hunt writes about a lady with a harpsichord used as a cabinet "full of Henry Wilson jewellery" *sigh*. If you want to see HW's work there's a lot in the V&A jewellery gallery. Yes it's a real shame about Past Times. Lovely stuff.

  6. I'm still laughing over the "Village of the Damned." And since I haven't thought of Past Times for years, I took a look at the website - and cringed. What in tarnation happened to them? I still have a poesy ring purchased from Past Times in the early 90s - nothing of the kind there now. I was glad to learn of Ruskin's take on the May Queen. Here in the American South, the event was reduced to a gathering of college girls in poufy dresses, culminating in the crowning of the prettiest - as usual.

  7. Indeed, the May Morning choristers have always struck ME as a creepy band of bewitched boys! And your photo made me wonder just what happened to my EBJ cross from Past Times? I'll have to excavate my jewelry box.

  8. Ah Past Times, Museum Selection is better, but doesn't come close to how good Past Times used to be. So sad. I want to use a harpsichord as a jewellery box now. That is so very cool indeed.

  9. I too own the May cross from Past Times, bought because I love Elsie Jeanette Oxenham books with their May Queens and folk dancing. I have always wondered what the real crosses looked like, so thanks for this post. Also I recently found this machine embroidery picture of a May Queen on etsy

    I have to say the procession picture straight away called to my mind John Wyndham's 'Midwich Cuckoos' which I think was turned into the 'Village of the Damned' movie you mention, and is that Albus Dumbledore on the far right?

  10. I've sung at Magdalen College chapel with the RSCM. I've not been up the tower, but I've been in many a procession of eerie choristers, and as I got older, taught choristers to process with eerie grace into the chapel (well, theoretically it was to be like angels, but children being that neat in procession always looks eerie). I think they made me in charge of a group of choristers because I'd grown too tall for my robes and my voice had dropped from being a treble singing in the soprano range, through mezzo-soprano down to a definite contralto (and occasional back-up tenor when too many of the men got ill...). Ah well.

  11. Oh, and it is written Magdalen, but pronounced Maudlin. And I'm accused of speaking "posh" and have broken front teeth (blame hockey and lacrosse), so maybe there IS a connection :P That and Oxford is a weird place - we call the Thames the Isis, for a start, so pretentious pronunciation is not beyond our oddness.

    If you ever go to Oxfordshire, have a look at the windows in the cathedral, because at least one is a true Pre-Raphaelite design, then trundle the 25 miles to Henley-on-Thames and go to the church of St. Mary's by the Bridge, and oggle the Morris-esque murals and fancy windows. It's a Pugin-esque interior, full of Victorian mediaevalisms imposed on the genuinely old architecture, and is quite fabulous. And the mural of the Adoration of the Lamb, really, visit it before the water-leak ruins it forever.

  12. Marvellous, thank you. Oxfordshire is always worth a visit so I shall add it to my list of things I have to do when I'm there ;)


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