Tuesday 28 August 2012

Swim, Neddy, Swim!

Today is Edward Burne-Jones birthday, and I have been pondering what aspect of his work and life to talk about today.  I've covered the more dodgy aspects of his legacy of late, so I thought I'd talk about a subject near to his heart....Mermaids.

Mermaids in the Deep (The Mermaid Family) (1878)
Mermaids were a common sight in Victorian art, with rather gorgeous versions given to us by Waterhouse, Draper and Poynter, to name a few, but for Burne-Jones the fish-folk seem to have a deeper significance, a resonance beyond their beauty.  The above image comes from a series done when he moved into his 'sea-side home' at Rottingdean.  He converted the room at the back of the house into a homage to a tavern and called it 'The Merry Mermaid'.  Possibly as a nod to his escape from London, the freedom of the mermaid's flicking tail speaks of flight and freedom, and rather than a bird taking to the air, the mermaid can disappear into the velvet gloom of the underwater world.

Mermaid and Child
In Burne-Jones' mermaid pictures from Rottingdean you get a contrary emotion of not only escape but also maternal care and affection, as if Ned knew that should they need to take flight, they would carry him along with them.  Many of his mermaid images include mothers cradling their fish-tailed offspring.  I wonder how far Ned imagined himself as the merchild, being taken care of by the beautiful mother...

The Sea Nymph
Common to Burne-Jones heroines, the faces of the mermaids are inscrutable, no flicker of expression beyond that of 'aren't I beautiful?', their pale limbs gracefully arched, and their hair in a swirl of sea mist.  There is something about the swirls of the sea, especially in the picture just above which is made for Burne-Jones.  That blue is so typical of his work that you could be looking at the folds of one of his classical maiden's frocks.  It's a colour palette that appears again and again in his work and expresses perfectly the Burne-Jones concerns of bright and sombre, the play of life and death that seems to appear in so many of his great pictures.  Possibly the most perfect and famous example of this is, of course, a mermaid picture...

Burne-Jones never pursued the appreciation of authority in the way that some others did (yes, Millais, I'm looking at you), but conversely he didn't refuse honours bestowed.  In 1885, Ned became an associate of the Royal Academy and he exhibited a painting in response, in the Academy during the following summer.  His patron William Graham (father of one of Burne-Jones' favourite young lady friends, Frances) called the Academy 'the gilded cage in Piccadilly' and possibly Ned felt the conflict between wanting to take part and wanting to flee and hide back in the safety of the more familiar Grosvenor Gallery.  The resulting picture is one of his most famous and most difficult works...

The Depths of the Sea (1886)
Most of the readings of this work centre on Laura Lyttelton, friend of Frances Graham,  again a friend of Burne-Jones for many years.  She died after giving birth in 1886 and her death at such an early age was a terrible blow to Burne-Jones.  Georgie Burne-Jones encouraged the reading that the mermaid was Laura, that the odd smile on the mermaid's face reflected some of Laura's 'strange charm of expression'.  There may have been a hint that Ned had transformed his friend into an immortal creature of myth, to save her from death, that in capturing the dead sailor the mermaid is displaying power over death itself.  In Ned's imagination, Laura plays with death, a smile of victory on her lips before she swims away, free of such worldly concerns.

Rather than being the instrument of escape, the mermaid here is the one who has captured you, is dragging you to your death.  Or is she?  The sailor is already dead and the mermaid is carrying him off.  Possibly Burne-Jones feared the effect that plunging into the world of the Academy would have on him, maybe he equated it with being the dead sailor.  The mermaid claiming the dead body could have had an oddly comforting resonance in this way, that she would claim him if he was lost in the rough sea of the art world.  As it was Burne-Jones exhibited nothing after 1886, his mermaid year, and the Academy did not make him a full member.  Finally, wishing for his freedom, in 1893 Ned resigned from the RA and swam away.

For me, the mermaid is the perfect symbol of Ned's work, with its hidden power, wickedness but not evil, uncertain temperament, but also gentleness and timidity, as if it doesn't know what a thing of wonder it is to the rest of us. Happy birthday Ned, I hope you're swimming with the mermaids today.

Saturday 25 August 2012

Emma Watkins, the Missing Muse

Pity me, dear reader, as I spent a goodly part of this week in pain due to my sciatic nerve going horribly wrong again (as it does on a fairly regular basis since the age of 4) and so was sofa-ridden and fidgety.  I was struck with inspiration - 'I know what will cheer me up, I'll look up a Stunner!'

Now, the lives of most of the Stunners are pretty much known, but I was tickled by the idea of finding out the life of this young lady...

The Hireling Shepherd (1851) William Holman Hunt
Due to a bit of scandal and a bit of gossip, we know a thing or two about the temptress with the lamb on her lap.  This was Emma Watkins, and Hunt met her when he and Millais were staying at Ewell in Surrey.  Hunt was painting fields and Millais was painting rivers (can't imagine why).  According to Diana Holman Hunt, the Pussy Galore of Art Historians, Hunt saw two young women crossing the field and he thought one of them would be perfect for his shepherdess.  After they talked, the girl suggested that he should ask her mother if she was allowed.  Hunt went to Kingston (a nearby town) and saw the girl's mother and brother (apparently a seller of groundsel) and got approval for Emma Watkins (for that was her name) to be sent up to Chelsea, to pose in the studio.

Weed Seller from Ford Madox Brown's Work
This much therefore we know from what was passed down in legend from the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and that important year of The Hireling Shepherd and Ophelia.     This is what I've found out from a bit of digging around in the records...

Emma Watkins was born 26 October 1832, and baptised the following May.  Her parents were Samuel and Anne Watkins.  Samuel was a 'labourer', which is a bit of a cover-all term (speaking as someone who comes from a long line of 'agricultural labourers', one reason why I can't wear ballet pumps).  She was the second daughter (Mary was older), and would be followed by Jane Maria in 1835 and finally Edwin in 1837.  Samuel seems to have had a fairly uneventful life, other than 6 months in prison in 1835 for assault, and died  before the 1851 census.  When Holman Hunt spotted the two lovely lasses, it is presumable that it was Jane and Emma he saw, and Anne and Edwin, the teenage seller of weeds, that he asked approval from.  Excuse the shameless use of Brown's Work, but it is a rather splendid image of a groundsel seller.

When Emma travelled up to London, she was somewhat of a hit with the boys.  Yes, I am rolling my eyes as I report that Rossetti liked her immensely and nick-named her 'the Coptic'.  Whatever this meant is somewhat lost on us, possibly he meant she looked like an Egyptian or like a Sphinx, or maybe he was just being a prat.  She travelled up the first couple of times with her fiance, who is described as 'a sailor', but then travelled up and stayed in the same lodgings as Hunt in Chelsea. Hunt's friends ragged him about a jealous sailor, who would come and violently reclaim his girl at any point, and used to storm up Hunt's stairs, hammering on his door and calling for her.  Gosh, those boys knew how to have fun.  Eventually the painting was finished and Emma returned to Surrey, never to be seen again...

Well, Emma did indeed marry her sailor.  In the Spring of 1852 she married Robert Seers, a Marine from Kingston upon Thames, and in 1853 their first child was born. By the census of 1861, Robert had become a sail-maker and Robert Junior (born in 1853) had been joined by James (1855), Alice (1858) and George Thomas (1861).  Somewhen between 1855 and 1858, the Seers family had moved from Kingston upon Thames to Long Ditton, a nearby village, possibly coinciding with Robert's retirement from the Marines.

Emma's part in the Pre-Raphaelite story was not quite done.  The 3rd April 1858 edition of the weekly magazine Household Words printed a story entitled Calmuck, about an artist called Mildmay Strong who seduced a country girl he was using as a model, despite her protestation that she was engaged to a jealous sailor.  Mildmay Strong's friends ran up his stairs and impersonated the jealous sailor for larks...sound familiar?  Holman Hunt was livid (as was Annie Miller) and threatened to sue, fearing his reputation was in tatters.  Even his Landlady, Mrs Bradshaw was indignant, due to the description of her 'fictional' lodgings as shabby and miserable.  Emma Watkins still stayed with her when her husband was at sea, in 1858, so it can be assumed that Emma may well have heard of the business, but whether her 'jealous' sailor husband heard, who knows?

So much for Holman Hunt and Emma Watkins.  What of Mrs Robert Seers?  Emma, her husband and their children seemed to lead a fair typical life of that time.  Robert Seer seems to have held a number of jobs, including 'labourer' and died aged 72 in 1897, still living in Surrey, back in Kingston upon Thames.  The children married, had children of their own and lived on into the twentieth century.  But what of Emma?

The Seers seem to vanish from the records between 1870 and 1891, but when they reappear the family has fractured.  The children were married and settled, but Robert was alone.  Emma had been committed to the Brookwood Asylum, County Asylum for Surrey, servicing 'Pauper Lunatics' (which is a term that worries me no end).  She would live out her remaining years as an 'inmate', then a 'patient' (terminology changing significantly, inferring the change in attitude towards the insane).

Ward for Ladies, Brookwood Asylum c.1900
Emma died in 1914.  I have to say I was rather saddened to think of the hearty, ruddy country wench ending her days in an asylum.  Although the pictures and the descriptions make Brookwood seem rather modern and progressive, with talks of a band and a ballroom for the patients, it was still a Victorian asylum and all that entails.  I have no idea what Emma's illness was, but it is a worrying thought that she was locked away for over twenty years.  Maybe it's better to just think of her, for a short while, reclining in Holman Hunt's studio, being admired in comfort by a bunch of silly boys with a talent for rather splendid paintings...

Monday 20 August 2012

Come Up and See Me Sometime....

Well, actually, depending where you are in the country, this could equally be 'Come Down' or even sideways, but I feel I am digressing already.  Plus the 'Sometime' is a bit vague.  Let me start again....

Come and see me in Bournemouth on Saturday 13th October at 2.30pm in the Morning Room of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum!

That, I think you would agree, is somewhat less vague.  I am giving a talk on the journey of Fanny Cornforth from streetwalker to supermodel, or nut-slinger to national treasure, and you can come and see me.  

How smashing!

The good news is that the tickets are free (well, you always knew I was cheap), however, the space is limited so if you would like to come along, please email 


or call 01202 451820 to book tickets.

I look forward to seeing you there!

Gosh, what shall I wear?!

Saturday 18 August 2012

The Danger of Burne-Jones

I apologise in advance as this is not one of my easier posts, but more one filled with wonderings and questions.  I began my wonderings when I was reading the interesting opinions of Carlos Peacock in my post about the 1951 exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art in Bournemouth.  His rather sneering dislike of Burne-Jones surprised me, seeing as he was fair and level with the other artists.  The phrases 'bloodless aestheticism' and 'necromantic' 'wan ghosts' seem judgemental and worse, a sense that there is something 'wrong' with Burne-Jones that is not present in the rest of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

I was revisited by this impression when I was doing some work on Arthur Balfour recently.  Some of you may remember him from my post on the Souls group and Burne-Jones.  'King' Arthur was a huge fan of Burne-Jones and commissioned paintings on the story of Perseus for his home in Carlton Gardens.

The Doom Fulfilled (1888) Edward Burne-Jones
When Balfour became Prime Minister, he took his beloved Burne-Jones canvases to Downing Street and hung them in No.10.  Unionist MP Willie Bridgeman complained of their presence, stating the 'anaemic and unmanly forms' gave the meeting a 'nerveless and flabby character' which was 'painfully symbolic of their owner'.

While I'm not in the mood to repeat the gossip about Arthur Balfour, if I report he was an unmarried gentleman I'm sure you can guess part of what was discussed (although there is a whole other raft of gossip about him being a hermaphrodite, which is just plain puzzling).  As Mr Bridgeman MP said, the man and his choice of art were 'anaemic' and 'unmanly'.

I turned to Percy Bate's account of the Pre-Raphaelites in his turn of the 20th century book, to see his opinion.  He dedicates an entire chapter to Burne-Jones, and his opinion is that Ned was an important component in what we understand to be Pre-Raphaelite art and its development.  He does allude to the more negative aspects of opinion against the artist: 'All through his long career he was constant to one ideal and that ideal he expressed perfectly...to many his sexless figures and wan faces seem morbid and unpleasing.'  Again, the idea of bloodless, pale, almost ill figures and the notion of 'sexless' which brings me back to the rumours of Balfour.  Bate places Burne-Jones beside Rossetti, not as a contrast but as a compliment, but Rossetti is seen naturally as redblooded, full of life, straining at the lease of sexuality.  Ned is 'delicate fancy', perfect but removed from the world and all it holds, including sexuality.

Is there a hidden fear or suspicion of Ned Burne-Jones in these early 20th century criticisms? Even when they are positive, is there a need to defend what he portrays as being 'a removed perfection', and not of this world?  And what is it that we should be wary of?  I decided to look to see if there was any hint of this before Burne-Jones died...

Illustration from the 1885 programme of Patience
The 1881 Gilbert and Sullivan opera Patience is a satire and mockery of the aesthetic movement, where thinly-veiled versions of Rossetti, Swinburne and Whistler are made gentle fun of, while ladies drift around in aesthetic dress.  In later performances, the figure of Oscar Wilde became a more distinct target of its mockery, as he seemed to personify the spirit of the aesthetic young man...

Aesthetic teapot from 1882
While Burne-Jones was not a direct target of the opera, one scene had the ladies coming down a flight of stairs that was said to loudly echo his painting, The Golden Stairs.

The Golden Stairs (1876-80)
The opera shows the aesthetic gentlemen being attractive to the women but too self-involved and silly and end up with no woman at all (which is what Bunthorne claims he wants).  The retrospective application to Wilde gives an added dimension as to why the gentlemen may not wish to marry and taking a look at that teapot it all seems very crude and childish these days.  While it is almost certain the Gilbert and Sullivan in 1881 meant no allusion to homosexuality, could later productions have hinted at it, after the trial of Wilde?  Did any of the scandal rub off on Burne-Jones?

As it turns out, Ned knew both of the most 'notorious' gay men of the artistic circle, not counting Balfour (who also may have been conducting an S&M affair with the wife of a fellow Soul.  Blimey, he was a busy man!).  He was close to both Simeon Solomon and Oscar Wilde, the former being a friend from their early painting years, and the latter seeking him out because of his art.  It seems to be true that Ned refused to cut all ties with Solomon even after his arrests.  While expressing a dislike of the sin, he couldn't condemn the sinner and even when Solomon broke into his house, Ned refused to press charges.  While the others of the circle cut off ties and were quick to decry Simeon Solomon, Ned seems to only felt sadness at his friend's fall into destitution.

His response to Oscar Wilde was more reactive and fearful, but this possibly speaks of the comparative depth of their relationship.  While Ned was flattered by the attention and praise of Wilde when he was a figure in vogue, when he was found guilty of gross indecency with two male prostitutes in 1895 Burne-Jones wondered why he didn't have 'the common courage to shoot himself - I looked eagerly for it but it didn't happen...'  It can be supposed that rather than a disgust in the homosexual acts, what upset the sensitive Burne-Jones the most was the bringing into disrepute and scandal the aesthetic movement to which he had dedicated a large part of his life.  He relented in his attitude to Oscar the following year, giving money to Constance Wilde and speaking kindly of Oscar shortly before his release.  No matter how torn Ned may have felt in his feelings, his name and Wilde's would forever be joined through the movement to which they had both so richly contributed.  The teapot of the aesthetic poet strikes the most cliched attitude of effeminacy and speaks of the unmanly, a term applied so readily to the art of Burne-Jones.

Hang on though, the last thing I would think of Burne-Jones was that he was secretly gay.  I mean, where would he find the time with all the womanising?  Mind you, apart from the business with Maria Zambaco, Burne-Jones' love of the ladies was covered up both at the time and, until recently, in his posthumous biography.  If his lovelife is not open for discussion, then what are you left with but canvas after canvas of androgynous figures, pale and clinging.  When Willie Bridgeman turned his suspicious eye upon the canvases, he saw the 'unmanly', the deviant. When Carlos Peacock looked at the canvases almost half a century later, he agreed.  So what is the danger of the gentle Burne-Jones?

The Last Sleep of Arthur (1898)
Now that is the question.  Of all the figures from the Pre-Raphaelite movement, of all the controversies, the adultery, the suicide, the rise and fall, why should Edward Burne-Jones, occasional womaniser, workaholic, elder statesman, be the one that puts people on guard?  It is not simply the 'unfashionable' nature of Burne-Jones' work that is commented on, it is the 'bloodless' and 'unhealthy' nature of the work, as if the canvases could harm.  Indeed Bridgeman fears that the influence of the Perseus canvases affected the meeting, taking away the positive 'male' virtues of progress and courage.  I'm not sure that the inference is that the Burne-Jones canvases were feminine, more that they, like Balfour, had the hint of sexless inertia.  Did the Edwardians fear that more than homosexuality?

As I said at the beginning of this post, I don't have the answer, but I think it's an interesting aspect to the history of Burne-Jones' criticism and the need to comprehend his place in art and society.  I wonder what Burne-Jones would have made of the suspicion towards his work?  I suspect he would have despaired at his unworldly work being applied so roughly to our crude scratchings in the lives of others.  Poor old Ned.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Tea and Sympathy

For reasons I won't bore you with I am feeling a bit stressed this week.  I have too much to do and problems upon problems, so I am feeling somewhat frayed at present.  And covered in flea bites.  But fear not, I am English so....

The idea of solving everything from being a bit busy to bereavement through infusing leaves in water is a marvellously Victorian notion and I searched out some inspiration for how to deal with my current strain.

A Tea Party (1862) Thomas George Webster
Well, this looks very nice, if a little, well, poor.  I'm no snob, but really, that table looks a bit small and there doesn't seem to be any cake, which is a serious drawback.  It's an interesting thought that these girls are practising the social nicity of tea-time when in truth what good will it be to them?  Where is the mother?  Grandma watches over them from the corner, sipping her tea (or gin, depending on how bad the day has been) while the four children gather around the tiny table.  There is empty chairs in the diagonal corners, possibly hinting at the absent parents, who I assume are dead (because I like to look on the bright side) and the discarded hat on the left-hand side is a disquieting note. More things are missing from this scene than a decent piece of carpet, that's for sure.

Tea Time Thomas McEwan
Nothing I like more than a steaming cup of rural poverty.  For heaven's sake, get those chickens out of the kitchen!  No, this won't do either, I'm not putting the kettle on for the hens, however Thomas Hardy it might all seem.  I want something a tad more genteel, if you don't mind...

Afternoon Tea (1895) Harry Brooker
Well, they can afford two rugs and there aren't any chickens around, but everyone seems a little, well, under ten for my liking.  I bet they don't know the good gossip, and what's tea and cake without scandal?  Mind you, if the girl in the red hat left the room, I bet the others have got some dirt on her.  Look at the way she's lording it over the others.  The boy at the fire is giving her the evils, purposefully burning her crumpet out of spite.  I know I would.

Afternoon Tea (1878) Edith Ballantyne
This is rather lovely.  If my only option is to have tea with a load of ten year olds, I'd rather take tea alone with my book and parrot. Or cockatoo.  It might be lonely, but you get to eat as much battenberg as you like without people passing judgement.  By the look of that rather splendid dress I'm guessing battenberg gorging isn't an option, sadly, and there would be no gossip.  Sigh.  Still not the right picture for me...

Tea in the Conservatory Harry Browne
Now this is much more like it.  Tea with the ladies does promise to reveal a modicum of gossip over neatly cut sandwiches.  Plus there is something rather nice about having a terrier present.  Mind you, I'm not sure about all those plants: I get a bit of hayfever so I may sneeze during a marvellous revelation about the vicar and miss everything.  Moving on...

Afternoon Tea (1879) Jean Carolus
I bet the Georgians loved a bit of tea and scandal, mind you, the lady seated seems to be wearing dark, sombre colours, so I smell a session of tea and sympathy rather than tea and scandal.  Shame, as that really is a lovely carpet.  Still, I'm after an afternoon of gay laughter and cake...

Five O'Clock Tea David Comba Adamson
Here we go, this is far more like it.  With sleeves that huge, you know they will have some decent stories to tell.  You just know that the lady in the golden hat is about to spill the beans on the man in the haberdashery shop and the lady who'll do anything for a decent tassel.  Who doesn't love a good tassel?  I digress.  This must be my favourite, with a richness of colour and a lightness of touch.  This is a beautiful picture of a party I'd like to be at.

There's just one problem.  I don't drink tea....

Friday 10 August 2012

Monks and Marriage

As most of you know by now, I seem to spend a goodly part of my life drifting about the nineteenth century. Well, taste-wise anyhow.  However, it may come as a shock but I happen to quite like some twentieth century artists.  I know.  Who'd have guessed?  Anyway, one of my favourites is Stanley Spencer, who I think shows medieval sensibility with a  wicked twist on modernism.  However, this post is not about Spencer, but the artist I'm going to talk about brought him very much to mind.  One of Spencer's habits was to take the people he knew in Cookham (the village where he lived) and use them as his models, no matter how sacred the scene.  Apparently, there was a Victorian artist who did something very similar.  His name was Walter Denby Sadler.

Friday (1882) Walter Denby Sadler
Born in Dorking in 1824, Sadler was a contemporary of the Pre-Raphaelites, but his art bore more resemblance to latter period Millais than to the depth of feeling of early PRB. Similar to Millais, Sadler was a precocious child artist who chose to pursue painting at the age of 16 and went off to study at Heatherly's School of Art in London and then to study in Germany.  He exhibited from 1872, in the Royal Academy from 1873, and became known as a master of the domestic genre.  Sadler infuses his scenes with a clarity of light that encourages you to think that each of the monks above has his own personality.  I really shouldn't have started with Friday though, I should have started with Thursday...

Thursday (1880)
Thursday is the monks catching the fish they go on to eat in Friday and is one of the first pictures in Henry Tate's rather splendid collection.

No Enthusiast (1877)
Sadler's monks are jolly, pleasant, if foolish fellows, and were very popular as engravings, building up Sadler's reputation.  These images are comic, gently mocking authority, making them out to be stereotypical 'Friar Tuck' types, led by greed and laziness.  But if pleasant if silly monks are not to your taste, Sadler also seemed to run a line in social commentary of a sharper nature.

Married (1880s)
Not a ringing endorsement of married life if you judge by the wife's bored expression, and the husband has popped open a book, with the badminton equipment cast aside.  I could make a tacky comment about discarded shuttlecocks, but I'm better than that.

For Fifty Years
Again, I'm not convinced this is the warmest scene of married life, one description of the painting described the grey haired wife as 'blank faced and bored' after 50 years of marriage to the man offering his arm.  Nice.

Darby and Joan (1889)
That's better.  When I saw this picture it occurred to me that I had no idea of the origin of 'Darby and Joan' which appears to be  a Georgian poetic conceit meaning an old married couple still as devoted as they were when they were young.  In Sadler's work, the early nineteenth century couple are backgrounded by Georgian era portraits that seem to gaze loving at each other, as the old couple at the table do.  Not a discarded shuttlecock in sight.

Played Out (1882)
Sadler chose the Georgian period as a setting for a great number of his works, adding an extra dimension of pale elegance, like in Played Out, where exhausted young dandies relax after a game in the garden, possibly not with a happy outcome, judging by the body language. Again, you won't catch me mentioning neglected balls. This is where the neighbours of Sadler came in, elaborately posed by him for his images. In this way, his figures have a element of realism, a truth to their posture and positioning that the PRB would have been proud of (which also makes me think of George Leslie Dunlop).

A Prisoner of the State (1885)
Not all of his work was Georgian, and this medieval gem is certainly reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite concerns.  The old man, obviously not a threat to anyone, is a prisoner, an action which is hinted at as folly (in the persona of the fool).  Armed guards watch the old man being assisted on a roof-top walk by presumably his daughter, who also doesn't seem to be too much trouble, but there is something in the presence of the guards that makes you wonder the couple's significance.  The richness of costume is superb in this picture and you get a real feel for the period.

Widow at Home
So here we have Mr Sadler, gentleman artist with a wicked twinkle in his eye.  He is a pleasant blend of romance, cynicism and jolly monks.  Oh, and discarded shuttlecocks.  That's quite a combination.

Monday 6 August 2012

The Other Brother

Spot Quiz, Hotshots!  Name all the original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood....

Well, there's these three....

Yes, well we can name Johnny Millais, Mental Hunt and Rossetti, but what about the others, the rest of the magnificent seven?  Well, there was this bloke...

Not overly prepossessing, but this is a portrait of William Michael Rossetti, brother of the above Rossetti, and he was the non-practising member of the Brotherhood.  He had an actual job and stuff, so did recording, organising, looking after the teafund, that sort of thing.  Oh, and then you had the one that did sculpture...

Thomas Woolner was a sculptor who met with so little success that he emigrated to Australia in 1852 and was the inspiration for the painting The Last of England by Ford Madox Brown.  He came back after a year but had gained enough commissions and inspiration to make a go of it this time and became a very successful sculptor of heroic statues and friezes, including the Manchester Assizes.  Obviously, there's this Brother (fans and smelling salts at the ready, ladies)....

Oh Swoony Fred Stephens, how we love thee....so that makes six, who is number seven?  I always forget him and so in an effort to make myself look less of a fool in front of people, and to pass on the wealth of useless knowledge I accrue in the process I bring you James Collinson, the Other Brother!

Undated Self Portrait
I suddenly realised that I had not the slightest clue what Jimmy Collinson looked like, and I'm not overly convinced this is him, but it was the only picture I could find.  He's somewhat elusive, on the whole.  Born up in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire on 9th May 1825, his father had been a farmer but became a book seller, raising the family up in the world.  James had two siblings, Mary and Charles, James being the youngest child, born when his mother was 40.  Robert Collinson, James father, obviously did well enough to send his young son down to London to the Royal Academy.  James had exhibited his first picture, The Charity Boy's Debut in 1847, which made him the most established painter (if not the most famous, which would arguably be Millais, who was no doubt painting masterpieces in the womb) in the original line-up of the PRB.

The Charity Boy's Debut
James' father died in 1845and his elder brother Charles took over the bookseller's business in Mansfield, while James set about establishing himself in London.  He fell in with a rum lot, Millais, Holman Hunt and Rossetti and together with a couple of other chums they formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

James may have had an ulterior motive for becoming chums with Rossetti.  James Collinson was a devout Catholic, but converted to Anglicanism in order to get closer to a certain young lady...

Christina Rossetti (1849)
17 years old Christina had noticed James at Christ Church in Albany Street and in particular 'his heedful and devout bearing' (obviously what attracted me to Mr Walker, the state of his bearings) and so James not only gained six brothers, he gained a fiancee as well.  Christina went as far as to stay with the Collinson family in Nottinghamshire, spending time with both his widowed mother and sister, learning lacemaking, then with his brother and his wife in the bookshop.  This rather splendid site lists places and people that may have influenced the work of Christina while she visited James' family.  The fact that she travelled and made the effort with his relatives showed that there was a definite intention to marry, but alas Millais managed to break up someone else's relationship, again.

It was all going so well.  Collinson painted possibly his best known Pre-Raphaelite work, The Renunciation of St. Elizabeth of Hungary in 1850.

The Renunciation of St. Elizabeth of Hungary (1850)
That is an exceptionally vibrant pictures, very beautiful, with all those strikingly colourful gowns and ermine.  Well, good old Collinson hit the nail on the Pre-Raphaelite head with this one, sharp, bright and tight, bit medieval, bit religious.  He was getting on well with Christina, repressing his Catholicism nicely, when along comes this....

Christ in the Carpenter's Shop (1849-50) J E Millais

All of a sudden people were questioning these young upstarts: Were they mocking religion?  Were they mocking Mr Jesus and his weird looking mum?  Collinson had a crisis in confidence, manifesting around his latent catholicism and he ended his relationship with all three Rossettis.  Out of the brotherhood and away from Christina, Collinson went out on his own...

In a rash move, he sold all of his paints and brushes and decided to train for the priesthood, but that did not last.  He returned to painting and married a Catholic, ElizaWheeler in 1858.  Eliza was the sister-in-law of John Rogers Herbert, a painter whose work had influenced the Pre-Raphaelites.

Our Saviour Subject to his Parents at Nazareth (1847) John Rogers Herbert
When Collinson returned to his painting career he became known for secular genre pictures, inoffensive and now quite well known.  You'll recognise the next pair from a recent post...

I should really just label these 'Willing for a Shilling, parts one and two'.  These two are probably the best known, but he also did other pictures of an equally crowd-pleasing nature...

Private and Confidential
Such works are light-hearted, prettily painted and convey a moral message without moralising.  He spent some time in his later life in Brittany, where he returned to religious works, such as The Holy Family...

The Holy Family (1878)
He was secretary to the Society of British Artists from 1861-1870, and lived a well-to-do life with his wife and son Robert Vincent Collinson.  James Collinson died in 1881, the year before Rossetti, aged only 55.  His widow lived until 1 January 1894, and left £2259 in her Will to her son, Robert.  Robert never married, doing his parents proud by becoming a Catholic priest, and living until 1930, when he died in St Mary's Convalescent Home in Worthing, leaving his £5000 savings to a fellow priest, Peter Emmanuel Amigo.

So, poor old Collinson.  He died young, he lost his nerve and he's the least memorable of the Magnificent Seven who set up the art movement we all adore.  I bet people think that Walter Deverell or Ford Madox Brown are members of the original line-up, rather than Collinson.  If you had to name people who almost married Christina Rossetti, I bet most people would name John Brett before James Collinson.  However, he was there at the beginning and for that we should be grateful and remember him.  I hope that I have helped anyone who had difficulty in remembering Collinson will remember him now.  Including me.

Friday 3 August 2012

Marie, Full of Grace...

I have to admit that one of my favourite Rossetti pictures doesn't involve Fanny Cornforth.  Please don't tell her.  In fact, it doesn't even involve Alexa Wilding.  It is this one...

A Vision of Fiammetta (1878) D G Rossetti
It's just so very orange-y.  Okay, I admit that's not a very intellectual reason for loving something, so I'll cover by saying that the apple blossoms are exquisite and their promise of renewal is countered by the fact that Fiammetta is dead and this is a final vision of her.  It is temptation and denial, it is body and spirit, and it is not Alexa Wilding, no matter how much it looks like her.  It's a lovely woman called Marie Spartali Stillman.

Starting out when Marie was merely Spartali, she was a member of the powerful Greek community in London, with people such as Maria Zambaco and Constantine Ionides.  She was the daughter of Michael Spartali, and import-export merchant, who had been born in Greece, and Marie was born in Middlesex in 1843.  She had an equally beautiful sister, Christina, who modeled for Whistler in this rather lovely image...

Christina Spartali
La Princess (1865) J A M Whistler

The family had a house in London, on Clapham Common, called The Shrubbery, with views over Chelsea, and they summered on the Isle of Wight where Daddy Spartali grew grapes.  How marvellous.

From 1864-70 she trained under Ford Madox Brown, developing into an artist of obvious Pre-Raphaelite leanings...

The Lady Prays - Desire (1867)
It was while she was learning her craft that Brown became infatuated by her.  When I first read that, I thought I had read wrong because that is exactly what happened with Maria Zambaco and Ned Burne-Jones, but apparently it was the rules.  You teach a nice Greek girl, you have to become obsessed by her beauty.

Mariana (1867)
Mind you, her pictures are rather lovely.  Her sole female figures in wistful poses are typical of the period, but are reminiscent of Rossetti, with the watercolour romance of his earlier work.  Mind you, where Rossetti's women often just seem to exist to be looked at, there is a more dynamic aesthetic behind some of Marie Spartali's work.  Take the emotional Antigone...

Antigone (1871)
The picture conjures a splendidly bleak feeling, quite isolated and desperate.  When Rossetti heard she was training with Brown, he sent word to his old friend, insisting  "I just hear Miss Spartali is to be your pupil. I hear too that she is one and the same with a marvellous beauty of whom I have heard much talk. So box her up and don’t let fellows see her, as I mean to have first shy at her in the way of sitting."   Gosh, Rossetti, you smoothy.  I think Old Brown actually fancied having a 'shy' at her, but Rossetti used her as one of his regular models from the late 1860s onwards...

The Bower Meadow D G Rossetti
She was used as a bookend for Alexa in not only The Bower Meadow but also the reimagining of Dante's Dream, where she holds the other end of the canopy over the dead Beatrice.

Dante's Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice (1871) D G Rossetti
The lovely Miss Spartali is on the left, or is it right?  Hang on....

Chalk Sketch of Marie Spartali (1870) D G Rossetti
Right, she's on the right.  I think.  Ho hum, anyway, also of note in the picture is a certain Mr William Stillman, playing the part of Dante.  It is uncertain whether Miss Spartali and Mr Stillman had met before this picture, but Marie fell in love with William, an American widower.  Her family were against it, but the couple married in 1871.

William Stillman D G Rossetti
Sensible girl that she was, she modelled for other people too, posing for Burne-Jones (The Mill and possibly The Beguiling of Merlin) and countless images by Julia Margaret Cameron...

Marie Spartali (1868) Julia Margaret Cameron
William's job as a foreign correspondent saw the family move to Italy and travel in America, where she painted and exhibited on the east coast.  Despite the unsettled nature of her family life, she was a regular contributor to The Grosvenor Gallery and its successor The New Gallery, but although her work was popular, it didn't seem to sell in the shows.  

Love Sonnets (1894)
When she died, she left a note with her Will that it seemed odd to leave a Will when she had nothing of great interest to leave.  Today, however her works are numbered in some of the great Pre-Raphaelite collections in the world and her body of work is valued at many millions of pounds.  In her obituary in The Times, in 1927, it was written 'With the great triad of those early and now remote days, Mrs Rossetti, Lady Burne-Jones, and Mrs Morris, she was almost a fourth, and of the two latter was a lifelong friend.'  She was known as a talent and a beauty, in fact Swinburne described her thus: 'She is so beautiful that I want to sit down and cry!' which I think counts as a fairly good compliment.  People often want to cry after meeting me, but I think that might be different...

Her work was included in the 1998 Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists exhibition in Manchester, and I have read her described as the best of the female Pre-Raphaelite painters.  It does seem that she was described as such, a true Pre-Raphaelite, from the first, possibly because of her connection to the founders of the brotherhood and the circle as a whole.  

St George (1892)
She continued to paint in the style, producing beautiful works through the turn of the century and beyond, through motherhood, bereavement and endless travel finally settling in London with one of her step-daughters.  Her friendship with Georgie Burne-Jones and Jane Morris shows how she was regarded by the circle, and Samuel Bancroft Jnr wrote to Fanny Cornforth that he had met Marie Stillman (who Fanny claimed to know).

Kelmscott Manor (1905)

Stillman's daughter from his first marriage, Lisa, became an artist, and Marie's own daughter Euphrosyne (Effie) became an artist and sculptress too...
Portrait of Effie (1876)
Arnold Toynbee (1893) Euphrosyne Stillman
Her son Michael was an architect and settled in America, where it seems her art was taken slightly more seriously as retrospectives were held in 1908 and 1982.  Maybe one could be held in this country soon in light of the rather marvellous exhibition of Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale that is exciting us this year.  In any case, it's rather splendid to see her work, which I feel gives a glimpse of what Elizabeth Siddal's work may have been had she lived.  Marie is a Pre-Raphaelite heroine and a powerhouse of art and I look forward to seeing her profile raised when Pre-Raphaelitism becomes all the rage this Autumn...