Sunday, 11 November 2012

Last Summer Green Things Were Greener...

Today is Remembrance Day, and we remember those that died in the terrible wars of the 20th century.  As is my way, my thoughts wandered to the way that war was viewed in Victorian times.  We modern folk seem to live a schizophrenic existence of romanticising war and fearing the horror it truly is.  Look at the rosy tint that the First World War has for us, comfortably cushioned by almost a hundred years.  We are not so blind as to not know the truth of it, but age lends a detachment.

Ernest Albert Fisher, 1916, also known as my Grandfather
For the Victorians, war actually wasn't so different, if their depictions of it are to be believed. Just as the twentieth century was marked by two enormous conflicts, then the Victorians were greatly affected by the Crimean and the Boer Wars.  The Indian Rebellion of 1857 also provided British civilian deaths, a huge shock to the man on the street in Mid-Victorian Britain, but it was two wars that provided the greater scope for mixed emotions with soldiers coming and going from home, and the home front continuing with the empty chair, waiting for the soldier to come home.

Waiting, An English Fireside 1854-5 Ford Madox Brown
The Crimean War (1853-56) was the first war to be documented both extensively and at the time it was happening, so the general public had a good idea of the day-to-day reality of warfare.

Mother and Child (1854) Frederic Stephens
Along with the large amount of very patriotic, front line works to do with the Crimean, for example Calling the Roll after an Engagement, Crimea by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler, there is a far amount of works such as the above, showing wives being told via letters, of the demise of their soldier husbands, usually with some sort of symbolism in the form of toys.

The Soldier's Wife (1878) George Smith
The fallen toys, either soldier dolls or lions and other symbols of nations, show the fate of the men far away.  The fate of the family without the man is uncertain, and these women have news of their men quickly, either by letter or newspaper.  Looking at the statistics for the Crimean War, it is more likely (by a large proportion) that it would have been disease that killed the soldier, rather than a battle wound.  The Crimean became a war that was famous for its logistical disasters, for the work done by Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole in combating the rampant infection and disease, rather than any battle glory.  Two notable names synonymous with disaster were Sevastopol and Balaclava...

News from Sebastopol (Sevastopol) (1875) Charles Cope
The Story of Balaclava: 'Wherein he Spoke of the Most Disastrous Chances (1855) Rebecca Solomon
Anything that has 'disastrous chances' in the title is not going to end well, and indeed Balaclava contained the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade, of which this gentleman is possibly meant to be a veteran.  The woman in the first picture has a map and a black edged letter, and her expression tells it all.

The Crimean ended and the soldiers came home, and the tone of the paintings is not just joyful, but utter, wretched relief.

Home: The Return from the Crimean (1856) Joseph Noel Paton
Of all the 'returned hero' pictures I have seen this one seems the most intimate and real, everyone looks exhausted and too shattered to feel anything approaching happiness.  The baby sleeps in the background and the widowed mother cries on the shoulder of her returned son.  The gentle glow of light from the fire makes it seem anything but a victory, just a blessed end.

I have to mention here that I was amazed to find that the last veteran of the conflict died in 2004.  How is that possible?!  The last veteran was Timothy the Tortoise, the mascot of HMS Queen, who died peaceful in her retirement home in Devon at the ripe old age of 165.

Anyway, seemingly no sooner had the Crimean War finished than the mutinies in India shocked the Empire.  Again, the speed of reporting and the details of the horrors caught the public imagination.  For most it must have seemed like the atrocities came out of nowhere, but it had obviously been simmering unrest that found its outlet in bloody carnage on all side.  

Eastward Ho! August 1857 Henry Nelson O'Neil
Home Again Henry Nelson O'Neil

There are stark differences in the attitudes of the two pictures: the nervous energy of the first is reflected in the bright colours, the bold reds and streaks of yellow, purple and green contrasting with the more faded, battered glory of the second.  The women are mostly separate from the men in the first, climbing the gangplank to kiss them goodbye, holding hands and parting, whereas everyone is together, clinging and massed on the ship in the second image, with yet more people clammering to receive the men back, safe.

The Flight from Lucknow (1858) Abraham Solomon
The aspect of the mutiny that caught people's notice especially was the role of women and children, fleeing the immediate threat.  Stories of the courage of well-to-do young women, loading guns and in some cases firing them, holding back the uprising that threatened their way of life as the ruling British.

In Memoriam (1858) Joseph Noel Paton
The reception of Paton's In Memoriam  at the Royal Academy was so sensational and horrific that he repainted a vital part to render it more palatable.  In the original version, the women cower during the attack at Cawnpore, looking terrified as through the door burst Sepoy soldiers, no doubt leading to their deaths.  Repainted, the women are rescued by red-coated highland heroes, drawing a more hopeful outcome to the rather more bloody reality.

Colonial wars rumbled on, with the professional army putting down rebellions and uprisings in India, Africa and beyond, but outside of general pictures about war and widowhood, the artistic imagination was not caught in such a manner until the Boer War (the second Anglo-Boer War) again opened the idea of the home front, reflecting the suffering many thousands of miles away from the action.

The Boer War (1901) John Liston Byam Shaw
This is one of the most famous war paintings that doesn't show war of the Victorian era.  It is also possibly the last war painting of the Victorian era, completed in the year of the Queen's death.  It is accompanied by two lines of Christina Rossetti's poem 'A Bird Song': 'Last summer green things were greener, Brambles fewer, the blue sky bluer', which refers to the narrator who has not seen a beloved woman for a year.  The general reading of this is that the woman has been widowed, and is recalling the year before when she last saw her husband.  This is supported by the black dress of the pensive figure.  However, I would offer another reading.  The 1900 election was won by the Conservatives, on a swell of anti-Boer, pro-war feeling, however that fervor died back in light of reports of the death of Boer women and children in the concentration camps.  Emily Hobhouse (left), a British Welfare campaigner, raised awareness of the appalling conditions in the camps, and the government reacted by appointing the Fawcett Commission, an all-female concern who toured the camps and reported on the horrific state they were in.  Maybe the young thoughtful woman is pondering on the fact that she has learnt too much of the suffering, that she is possibly representative of the women of the Fawcett Commission.  Her grief is not just that of a widow, but a woman who has the weight of national grief, national loss.  Last Summer she didn't know how people had been rounded up and killed in camps through malice or incompetence, on her behalf, and now she does.  No wonder she pauses in thought.

Going Home Frank Holl
So how much different are we today than our Victorian ancestors? We now have a yearly focus for our remembering, whereas they moved from moment to moment, battle to battle, waiting for the men to return, or waiting for the news to come.  Their disappointment in the bad decisions taken in war is always backgrounded by a surprise that things could go so badly, so ingloriously.  Possibly we have a level of cynicism that colours our view of war, that our exposure to the follies of war is so total that we don't have the level of surprise that such glorious disasters like the Charge of the Light Brigade brought with it. 

Peace Concluded (1856) John Everett Millais
I think the way that the woman's perspective is taken in the works of nineteenth century art is interesting and foreshadows the very active involvement of women in the Fawcett Commission. Possibly the women in these paintings are symbols for the antithesis of the 'male' action of war, but again I think it also showed a public need to expose the suffering from war that was not limited to the arena of a battlefield.  This is of course a great part of Remembrance Day, the need for people like me to remember the part my grandfather played in a life-changing war, and feel grateful, sad, relieved and apprehensive all at the same time.  Like the woman in Peace Concluded, we can feel relieved that the war is over, but there will always be another war.



  1. What a wonderful thing you have written and the paintings are soo appropriate. Thank you.

  2. Thanks Nancy, the pictures are so touching and quietly powerful. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece.

  3. Thanks for yet another wonderful post. I've been following this blog for 1 year now! I'm glad the talk in Bournemouth went so well. Sadly I wasn't able to attend (we did visit the Russell Coates in August - the whole time I was thinking, the great Mr Walker is somewhere on these premises! Anyway back to today's post: I've recently been reading "The Last Moghul" by William Dalrymple. It was very interesting to see the two pictures which related to the Indian mutiny. It was truly a horrific period in British history - the cold blooded slaughter of any British men, women and children that the sepoys could get their hands on. Then the even more terrible revenge inflicted on the Indians by the British army - the destruction of virtually the whole population of Delhi regardless of whether they were involved. It truly was the darkest period in the history of the British army. I can understand the public anger back in Britain when they heard of the slaughter of British civilians in Delhi, Lucknore and at Cawnpore and the desire for revenge (eg Charles Dickens called for every sepoy to be blasted from cannons!). But it's interesting to see how this spilled over into the art of the day - art as militaristic propaganda justifying terrible revenge?

  4. What happened in India is very important in terms of understanding England's attitude to other countries and other nationalities within the Commonwealth. It is a fascinating period in our history. The reaction of art to that complex event is also very enlightening and interesting, as it gives a window to popular opinion of the time and I was surprised that it wasn't more horribly jingoistic (although some of it is quite grim).

    Hopefully I'll do more talks and I'll meet you all at some point!

  5. I was doing a research about pre-raphaelites and I casually discovered your blog. It's amazing !


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