Thursday, 28 June 2012

We're Very Wide Awake, the Moon and I...

We'll start today with an image of a Victorian couple....

This charming pair are William and Louisa Fisher, both born around the middle of the nineteenth century and pictured here at the end of Victoria's reign.  William Fisher had lived his entire life in the same little village where he worked as a farm carter, marrying Louisa in the 1880s and their three children were born in the 1890s.William and Louisa ultimately lived and died within a handful of miles in the middle of the rural West Country, but for one of the few photographs they had taken, they chose to be pictured on the moon.

This got me thinking: why would an obviously rural, traditional couple chose such an outlandish picture?  One explanation is obviously it was an avenue offered to them, no doubt at a fair.  Other such images are around if you look for 'Victorians on the Moon'...

Unknown Victorian/Edwardian Couple on the Moon
What was it that made the moon the appropriate backdrop to these photographs?  Was it just the implausible, humorous fantasy of the couple sitting up in the sky, or was it deeper?

Turning back to William and Louisa, the moon would have had certain connotations to the farm working couple.  The 'Harvest Moon' provided light to gather in the supplies, making their long gruelling hours slightly more pleasant, aiding them in their work...

The Harvest Moon (1881) George Wetherbee
For the Fishers, whose families before and after were farm labourers, the moon, wide and bright, was their ally, but also as the farm workers return, a couple hang back, no doubt talking about more than corn.  That brings us to the second aspect of our lunar landscape, love....

There is nothing more romantic than canoodling precariously on a crescent moon.  Why the moon would be such a hot spot for lovers is a little mysterious - maybe the notion of 'honeymoon', maybe the connotation that night time was for lovers?  If romantic images of the moon are what you crave, there is no shortage of them...

Luna Evelyn de Morgan
Luna Edward Burne-Jones

Moonbeams Evelyn de Morgan
In iconography of the more aesthetic end of the nineteenth century, the moon is a very feminine form, often paired with a symbolic woman, draped classically or nude against the pearly light.  Despite our insistence that there is a man in the moon, more often than not, there was a woman, if not a veritable gaggle of them, all glinty with celestial sparkle. While de Morgan and Burne-Jones gave a story-less image of astral bodies, the most famous woman-and-moon combination has to be found in the story of Endymion.

Vision of  Endymion Edmund Poynter
Endymion and Selene (1850-60) Victor Pollet
While Louisa Fisher is a rather unlikely goddess in sturdy boots, the story of Endymion does have a rural setting, so has some resonance for the Fishers.  Again, the moon, hanging above the countryside has a romantic, powerful meaning that spans time and reality, linking gods and goddesses with their counterparts in Victorian farms.

Sleeping Earth Waking Moon Evelyn de Morgan

There is a definite link of rthe Victorians between the elements and the female form.  One wonders at the connection between the 'female' earth and the man who works the land...

Moonrise (1909) John Pedder
I suppose if you think about it, what importance did the moon have in the city?  At a time when lighting became widespread in the city streets, the moon still provided the only light at night in the countryside.  While there are a number of scenes of London and other large cities, darkened with a pale moon high in the sky, you get the impression that the moon is there for decoration only and has no meaning, no partnership with the people below.  Contrasted to this is the countryside's bond to the moon, the rural folk almost acknowledging it as the pale face of a diety above them as they work. 
Reverie Marcus Stone

Stone shows his contemplative muse sat in a moonslipped landscape.  In a way it reminds me of John Byam Shaw's The Boer War, something about the woman beside the water, lost in thought.  Again, the pale woman is reflected in the pale moon, tying her to that shining orb, her wakeful contemplation mirrored above her.

Sheba, the Night and the Moon (1913) Eric Robertson

The Eclipse (1888) Paul Besnard
A pagan interchangeability of woman and moon plays in the latter years of the nineteenth century, and is often referenced in the resulting art nouveau iconography.  In the Fisher's rough portrait, they salute their pre-Christian past, working the land presumably since before such notions of church existed.  It is cheering that despite the unchanging nature of their life, endless lack of social progress, working until you die, they still had a moment for fun, a cheeky portrait of the most unlikely dieties ever to be framed on a wall.  There is something more whimsical, more romantic about the Fishers chosen portrait, than a more traditional arrangement, like the neighbouring Scarlett family's portrait, taken around the same time...

The Scarletts pose outside their cottage, the model of rural respectability, their daughters dressed in their Sunday best.  Captured forever is their pride, their dignity and how they chose to portray themselves.  There is no hint of levity, no romance.  The Scarlett portrait is as straight as it gets outside a formal studio.  The Fishers have apple-cheeked smiles, aware of their ridiculous backdrop and laughing with us at the playful madness.

The reason I was looking at the picture this week was that I have the good fortune to be descended from both families.  William and Louisa Fisher are my maternal Grandfather's parents, and the little girl stood in front of her father in the Scarlett's family portrait is Daisy, my Grandmother.  This is possibly why, from an early age I've always known that however much the Victorians struggled to keep up appearances, they always made time for fun. 

And symbolism, obviously.


  1. That portrait of the Fishers is just lovely; such happy grins on their faces! What an interesting post you've done here - thank you.

  2. My great grandparents look a cheery pair with a cheeky sense of humour. That doesn't remind me of anyone.... ;)

  3. Great post - you do explore such interesting aspects


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