Sunday, 14 October 2012

I Want to Run Away With You, Your Caravan and Rabbit Stew

A little known fact about me is that I harbour a secret desire to run away in a gypsy caravan.  I long to have one of those rounded wagons with rose painted on it, while I swan about telling fortunes and making rabbit stew, with fringe-y scarves and lots of eyeliner...

Okay, maybe not the rabbit stew bit now I'm a vegetarian, but the fortune telling and fringe-y scarves would be fine.  It was an early obsession for me.  When I was a little girl, there was a television version of The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden, where the lead character was a little gypsy girl called Kizzy.  As I was about 3 at the time and couldn't pronouce 'Kirsty', I decided to call myself 'Kizzy' which family and friends who have known me for far too long still call me.

Anyway, my fascination with the entirely fictionalized gypsy lifestyle was shared by the Victorians, who loved to shove a gypsy into a painting to add a bit of excitement.  Yes, there will be nudity.  Let's get this caravan on the road!

A Gypsy Girl of Seville (1887) John Bagnold Burgess
The addition of the word 'gypsy' seems a little unnecessary, as there is very little that marks this rather beautiful young lady out as a gypsy.  Oh, hang on, fringed shawl, that'll be it.  Otherwise, she is a young Spanish woman, looking wistful against a wall.  The selling point to this otherwise unremarkable portrait is that she is a gypsy, so why would that be a selling point?

Princess Dreamy Eyes Francis Eastwood
Princess Dreamy Eyes?  I ask you. I may be casting aspersions, but something tells me that it isn't her real name.  Or maybe it is - one of my favourite Country Life's Deb of the Week has to be Miss Ida Bacon (please say it quickly - Miss Side of Bacon), so calling your daughter Princess Dreamy Eyes isn't out of the question.  Miss Princess seems to be wearing a lot of jingly coins and some big earrings, which are her gypsy markers, and so this is a rather attractive, exotic portrait of a lady...

Life on the Road Valentine Garland
Ah, not only did we have rather splendid images of some girls with big jewellery, but here we have actual caravans (sigh!) and two little dogs, showing a possibly more melancholic side of the traveler lifestyle.  There is no reason to believe these dogs are badly treated, they look well, healthy and clean, but there is something a little sad about them, as if the uncertainty of the travelling life holds no ultimate satisfaction for them.  Then again, Valentine Garland may have just nicked their portion of rabbit stew.

It's interesting how the notion of 'gypsy' is very feminine, certainly in art.  Sure, there are gentleman gypsies around but they only really appear in group scenes, and not very prominently....

The Gypsy Camp Harold Harvey
Horses play a big part in gypsy pictures, if they are not just pictures of pretty girls.  Above we have a pretty girl and a lovely horse.  After all, the horses are the means of the travelling.  Possibly there is a respect played to the animals in our fictional gypsy-related idyll, because they play such a vital role.  The horse pull the caravans, the dogs provide protection, they are seen as equal partners in this lifestyle.  For artists such as Lucy Kemp-Welch, who specialised in horses, the horse symbolised the wild dignity of the travelling folk.  Made a change from fridge-y scarves...

Gypsy Horses Lucy Kemp-Welch
There are actually a number of early twentieth century artists who seemed to have made a study of rather idealised images of gypsies, such as Laura Knight, Alfred Munnings and Augustus John, who seemed to watch to catch more non-judgemental social aspect of the lifestyle, both foreign and familiar, both beautiful and mundane.  Unlike this...

The Gypsy (1865) Thomas George Webster
Look out Missus!  There's some thieving gypsy coming to nick your kids/money/nice fisheye mirror.  I was actually surprised not to see more of this sort of nasty stereotype.  You get a whiff of something a little sinister in the fortune telling pictures, but the woman lurking outside the window looks horribly malevolent as she extends the finger of doom (or petty theft) towards the angel of the house, who is doing some nice needlecraft.  Naughty Gypsy!  Oh, talking of naughty gypsies....

LG as a Gypsy (1898) Edward Linley Sambourne
I'm sure she has a fringe-y scarf somewhere.  I was also surprised that amongst the 'beauty shots' of young gypsy women, that there wasn't more of this sort of thing, that there wasn't more flesh on show.  Mr Sambourne (neighbour of Lord Leighton) had an 'appreciation' for naked ladies that weren't Mrs Sambourne, that supplemented his work for Punch.  This is a particularly gorgeous if saucy shot of a lady in gypsy garb (although I'll be wearing a blouse when I'm cooking over an open fire) emphasising the wild sexual abandon that often was rumoured to accompany the rabbit stew.  Mind you, I think that may have been behind some of the earlier pictures of lovely ladies.  You could buy a picture of some Princess Pretty-Chops, all respectable and pleasant, but you'd know she was moments away from getting her thrups out and banging a tamborine with wild abandon.

On second thoughts, maybe I better not pursue a life of Romany excess, I have a suspicion I may take to it all too easily...


  1. It's interesting that the white horse in "The Gypsy Camp" is in almost precisely the same stance as the one in "Gypsy Horses." There is also a brown horse with a white star on its forehead in both of them. Odd coincidence (?).

    If I were going to lead the gypsy life style, I would have to get rid of a whole lot of possessions. I have way too many books and art supplies to haul around. There's something freeing about the idea of having so few possessions... until you're sitting there trying to figure out how to paint an entire painting with one round brush.

  2. hehe thank you! I can't believe that Webster painting...ewww! I too grew up dreaming of a life travelling in a gypsy caravan....definitely was an obsession. There's something so enticing about the idea of just heading off with no plan of where your going, just a desire to see what's around that next bend. Perhaps a bit romantic in comparison to the reality but still!! :)

  3. There is something very escapist about the whole gypsy lifestyle but I'd need somewhere to charge up my kindle...

    Grace, possibly there is a dress code for horses, like for lovely gypsy girls? Blouse optional, obviously.

  4. The lady in the first painting looks like Isabella Rossellini.

  5. I love that Kirsty!The thought of all that rabbit stew and lustful goings on is very appealing.

  6. And true gypsies appear in many novels (lots in childrens stories), either to warn of the future or as the bogey man to kidnap. A related topic would be travelling punch and judy shows.

  7. I wonder if the idea of escape is behind the image of the gypsy, the desire to be free of not only concerns of society but also sexual inhibition.

    When Quorn come up with a rabbit substitute I'll be jumping aboard a caravan and we'll become the travelling Walkers.


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