Friday 27 September 2013

Life is like a Lepidoptera…

This week my husband discovered I had an otherwise hidden talent which impressed him greatly.  Now before you start sniggering I should explain.  I can catch butterflies in my hands without harming them.  I admit it’s not exactly something for the cv, but it was a talent developed in childhood and called into action this week when a red admiral blundered into our front room.  Before our dog had a chance to leap into the air and eat it (they taste like colours apparently) I caught it in one hand in mid-air and escorted it safely from the premises. My husband was the most impressed I’ve seen him for years.  This all led me to consider the part our little winged friends play in Victorian art…

The Blind Girl (1856) J E Millais

The first picture I thought of was obviously The Blind Girl by Millais but I have to admit it took me ages to get my brain to back up from concentrating on that precious little butterfly on the girl’s shawl.  It is a thing of beauty indeed and everything about the beauty of nature is summed up in that small tortoiseshell.  It is an interesting addition to the picture which already contains a stunning spectacle of nature, the double rainbow, but I wonder if it is about the unutterable scale of the wonder missed by the girl who cannot see?  Maybe to Millais, obviously a visual person, loss of sight is a tragedy of epic proportion and he expresses that by showing the spectrum of wonders.  The girl can experience things by touch but it is unclear from the image how far Millais feels that would compensate.  The clarity of his vision, the joyous spectacle of every inch of his canvas seems to me to be a declaration of his love of image.

The Hireling Shepherd (1856) W Holman Hunt
Okay, so this is cheating a bit, but I love a death's head hawk moth.  Really, I would be easily seduced by a shepherd with a moth.  They are astonishing in real life and I have been lucky enough to encounter many a hawk moth in my time.  I especially love elephant hawk moths, they are so endearing.  This moth obvious has deathly connotations, it is a warning, a momento mori, how negligence will lead to corruption, but I’d be too busy looking at the moth.  This is why I shouldn't be left in charge of sheep.

My father, the beekeeper, has a love of insect-kind which probably coloured my childhood.  I remember one encounter with a moth which will scar me for life.  Dad left what he thought was an empty chrysalis on the kitchen shelf only for it to hatch and secret itself under the sofa.  When I went to fetch my shoes I found myself right up against an Atlas moth.  We had to trap it under a washing basket until Dad came home from work so it wouldn’t hurt itself.  Google it, it’s enormous.

My Dad also used to stuff dead birds that flew into our bay windows.  He’d put them in our freezer until he was ready to stuff them.  One day I went to get an ice lolly and pulled out a blackbird.  Moving on swiftly…

Venus Verticordia (1865) D G Rossetti 
Another famous array of butterflies are the ones that flit around Venus’ head in this famous oil by Rossetti.  The butterflies here speak of temporary glory, something utterly astonishing but gone in a blink of an eye.  I wonder if that is a reflection on how we perceive a butterfly?  One moment the wings are open and we see all the majesty of their colours, a perfection of nature, then the wings close and they are gone.  Isn't it strange that the wings are only decorated on the ‘inside’?  There must be a perfectly sensible reason for that, something about warning/display and camouflage.  I like to think that the fairies only have time to paint one side.  Oh, talking of fairies…

The Butterfly (1893) Luis Falero
Nude-y butterfly ahoy!  In various Victorian paintings butteries were fairies in disguise.  Well, I say 'disguise', I mean 'nudey splendor'.  The Victorian fairy painting genre has a delicate blending of the figure of a fairy and the rich painted wings of butterflies, as in Falero's cutie above.

Midsummer Fairies (1856) John Naish
There definitely seems to be a relationship between the two, possibly the fairies use butterflies as cover for their nudey scampering around the garden.  Well, really!  There is a magic to butterflies (and some of the brighter patterned moths) that seems to be unlike other creatures, as if they are a little piece of magic in our hum-drum worlds.

Primrose Day Ralph Todd
Girl with a Butterfly William Webb
Much like myself and my butterfly-catching antics, there is a relationship in art between little girls and butterflies that needs examining.  It could be a comment on the fleeting nature of youth, but then why are there not more boys in the images?  Maybe there is a connection between the temporary life of the insect and the innocence of girls, as if it is a comment on how glorious and beautiful a woman in innocence is.  There is something very special about where the butterflies land - they aren't just fluttering past, they are choosing to settle on these 'flowers' of womanhood before it all goes downhill.  Not that I'm bitter or anything.

Spring (1911) Edward Frampton
May Daniel Maclise
It's not just little girls who get the butterflies, but it does seem to be young virgins, skipping through the spring of their lives, wearing frankly ludicrous hats (Frampton, what were you thinking?).  You see, if you don't have anything to do with beastly men you remain as fresh as a daisy and attract insects.  I think we can all learn a lesson from that.

Death of a Butterfly (1905-10) Evelyn de Morgan
De Morgan's butterfly looks more serious than the flighty little wisps of fun-shine we have seen so far, and there seems to be something rather serious going on.  The pastel maiden is down on the rocky landscape as a dark-winged figure seemingly falls towards her.  Is the butterfly about to be squashed to death by some woman who insists on flying with her eyes shut?  Is the winged figure hurtling at the rainbow-touting girl-sect Time, about to crush her with the horror of not being young and pretty anymore?  The horror. 

Sibylla Palmifera D G Rossetti
I feel a very feminine commentary to the role of butterflies in paintings.  There is a split feeling that they are silly and shallow and so very, very temporary but oh, the glory of those wings!  The butterfly is something to be utterly adored above all other things because it is so fleeting, gone in moments but then where does that leave women?  The butterfly seems inexorably linked to young womanhood, those precious moments before all is spoiled by time, child birth, knowledge, having thoughts of your own.  You know, all the bad stuff.  If only women were more like butterflies then the world would be a happier place.  

Well, for the lepidopterist it would be.  Some of us are starting to get a bit chilly...

Friday 20 September 2013

Friday Night is Film Night!

Put the popcorn on and get comfy because tonight is film night here at The Kissed Mouth!  I asked you good people (well, those on The Stunner's Boudoir on Facebook) to suggest films that have the feel of Pre-Raphaelite art or are wonderfully, romantically Victorian.  Here is a list (in no particular order) suggested by you, together with a few suggestions of my own...

1. Possession (2002)

Loved and loathed in equal measure, this film is worth a watch if only for the historic side of the movie.  I love the idea that you can chase down a Victorian mystery while researching (come on, obviously a fantasy of mine) but I find the modern side of the film a bit awful (apart from Tom Hollander, he's wonderful).  The sections with Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle are utterly delicious, and feature a nice bit of mock-Pre-Raphaelite art on the part of Jennifer's girlfriend.

Not Christina Rossetti and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  Honest.
I loved the book and find the film eminently watchable.  The costumes are beautiful and the end is heartbreaking but oddly uplifting.  The section when they go to Whitby is just beautiful.  Romance in Whitby.  That's the Victorians for you.

2. Topsy Turvy (1999)

This is splendid!  You can hear me singing along with gusto every time I watch it.  It tells the story of how Gilbert and Sullivan came to write The Mikado, their 1885 operetta.  It is also about the difficulty in working in a collaboration with someone who is the absolute opposite of you.  It's about ego, inspiration, addiction, why hotels have bathrooms (even though frogs don't stay there), the rudest name for a prostitute (snigger) and genius.  It is filled with stars who act their socks off.  It is stuffed with magnificent costumes both on and off stage.

Chinese, Japanese, Everybody Wash Your Knees!
The genius of the film is that you not only want to know about The Mikado but you are left wanting to know more about the actors and actresses.  I want to know more about Leonora Braham, Jessie Bond and Sybil Grey (left) who played the original three little maids because the little hints of their lives make you curious and sympathetic.

It's a beautiful film and very funny.  I miss my kimono from when I was on stage with this back in 1991.  It was lovely, one of the nicest G&S costumes I ever wore.  The wig was very itchy, but one must suffer for art, darling.

3. The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)

I preferred the book but the film has the brilliancy of Meryl Streep bringing the character of Sarah to life.  She is a sort of mingle of Pre-Raphaelite women, silent, tragic, wronged and sexually charged.  Again, like with Possession, I'm not fussed about the modern bits, although they do have some relevance to the morality imposed on Sarah in the 19th century.

Jez Irons and Meryl get swoony in giant night attire
Meryl is quite the Pre-Raphaelite stunner in this and is a modern, unconventional woman, which would have appealed to Rossetti (in whose house she ends up, it is implied).  Mind you, most women appealed to Rossetti.  Talking of unconventional women....

4. Howard's End (1992)

It's easy to pick all the Merchant Ivory films as they are all beautiful, but Howard's End has a very special place in my heart.  Not only does it give you two very unconventional sisters, Helen and Margaret Schlegel, but a wonderful Fanny Cornforth character, Mrs Jacky Bast (although it seems somewhat unlikely that she is married to Mr Bast).  Margaret attempts to find respectability with a husband whom she tries to love but cannot ultimately connect with, but Helen tries to find freedom in love and life only to come a bit of a cropper with a baby on the way.  The end is both tragic and optimistic (again!) and every time I watch it I find something new in it.

Lovely Jacky Bast
Poor old Jacky.  She is 'Mrs Bast' but who knows exactly what her status is and she does love the erstwhile Leonard, despite his social climbing and bad luck.  Her endless, voluptuous loveliness is his comfort in a rather cruel world, and she gets rather drunk at the posh wedding, which is a marvellously cringe-worthy scene.  Good on you, Fanny would be proud.

5. An Ideal Husband (1999)

There are a few versions of this, but this is my favourite, not least because Rupert Everett is perfect in it and I want every dress Minnie Driver wears.  There were a few votes for 'Wilde' to go on the list, and again I do love it, but this gets my final vote because it is funny and sad, plus gives you a lovely glimpse of the artistic scene in the 1890s.

Nice frocks ahoy!  Plus lovely Rupert.
If you told me I had to watch a film on political scandal I might not be enthused but that is what this is essentially.  It contrasts the triviality of Arthur Goring's playboy lifestyle with the rather nasty background of his otherwise steadfast and splendid friend, Robert Chiltern's rise to political brilliance.  Three women hold the fate of the men in their gloved hands and they swan about in gorgeous frocks tipping the balance back and forth.  Will Robert survive the hideous political machinations of Mrs Cheveley?  Will Mabel ever get a date to an art gallery?  Will Arthur actually have to get married?  You'll have to watch and see.

6. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Swoon!  Possibly the most beautiful 'white' film ever, this mysterious piece is as puzzling as it is seductive.  The white dressed girls languidly vanish one Valentine's Day leaving people devastated and guilty.  Definitely not based on any real event (despite countless web pages dedicated to how true it is), it is about sex, growing up, discovery, curiosity, alienation and possibly anything else you care to mention.  That is the beauty of Picnic, it is all things to all people.

You can take it as a literal tale of a party of school girls who disappear on a school trip to Hanging Rock, or you can take it as a tale of girls vanishing and women taking their place, of burgeoning sexuality and the moral strictures of Victorian society.  Or something.  Anyway, it's possibly the only film I have a Pinterest board for due to it's stunning visuals which bring to mind Whistler, Klimt and all things aesthetic and symbolic.  Enjoy.

7. Tess (1979)

Again, it would be easy to pick any number of Thomas Hardy adaptations for my list.  Before settling on Tennyson as the subject of my Master's thesis, I studied Hardy with great pleasure and much love.  I adore his novels and I am torn between three books as my favourite: Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Far from the Madding Crowd and Jude.  When it comes to this list, I had to pick Tess because of a rather odd Pre-Raphaelite connection...

When Tess meets her dastardly cousin, Alec, he begins his caddish seduction of her by feeding her strawberries.  This act is a foreshadowing of him 'seducing' her in the forest later (I have no truck with the statement that he simply rapes her, it's not that clear cut, as the strawberry scene shows) and is very disturbing.  I once used a slide of it at a lecture I gave on Hardy and film, and it got more comment than the naked Kate Winslet slide. Allegedly, the scene in the book had its inspiration in the story of how Rossetti fed Jane Morris strawberries at a party and what a strange spectacle it was.   Sometimes it is hard to envisage how weird and rude something is until you see it.  After seeing the strawberry bit in Tess, you are left with no illusions.

8. Gentleman's Relish (2001)

Gosh, here I go, descending into sauciness!  This is a hilarious tale of a painter who is forced to abandon his paintbrush after his rather traditional, figurative way of painting becomes unfashionable.  On the persuasion of his housekeeper, Violet, he takes up the camera to pursue his muse with rather naughty results.

Kingdom Swann and Cromwell Marsh get some rather surprising requests
It's jolly, very rude and has some hilarious dialogue.  I particularly love the character of the model whose behind is 'the biggest thing Germany has seen in years'.  It is sweet and optimistic and filthy.  Who could ask for more?  Plus it features Sarah Lancashire who should play Fanny Cornforth, especially after seeing her in The Paradise.

9. Mrs Brown (1997) and The Young Victoria (2009)

A double whammy of Queen Victoria goodness and I couldn't choose between them so here they both are.

At either end of her reign, Queen Victoria is a fascinating woman.  Placed on an uncertain throne with an untrustworthy mother and frankly appalling father-figure, it's a miracle she became Queen at all.  The weirdness of the over-protective environment from which she frees herself, coupled with the pressure to marry the right man is such a rollercoaster of a story, filled with happiness and grim misery.  Natasha Richardson makes a fabulous baddy, as always.

My second Billy Connolly choice of the evening is one of the most gorgeous love-stories I've ever seen.  I've a real soft spot for romantic drama where the protagonists aren't exactly in their first flush of youth, especially when it is filled with so much gentle humour and feeling.  His unswaying belief in her and her realisation that she needs someone in her life that will tell her the truth is a joy to watch.  He loves her so much and knows that he will never get more than moments of her time in which to share her life.  The scene where they dance gets me every time.

10. The Village (2004)

I'll finish on a possibly controversial choice.  The Village is one of my favourite films, not least because of its astonishing visuals and use of colour.  The beauty of the women's clothes and the simple exquisiteness of the houses is an absolute treat.

'I saw something nasty in the woodshed...'
For those people who have seen it, no spoilers in the comments please, but I shall try and give a sense of the story.  A small village lives peacefully in the middle of a forest.  The people of the village know that they should never enter the forest or wear 'the bad colour' (red) or else they will anger the things that live in the forest.  All trundles on peacefully until the child-like son of a Village elder unwittingly breaks the rules and all hell breaks loose.  Add to that one of the funniest romantic declarations I have ever seen and the most touching moment of love between two awkward young adults and it adds up to a corking couple of hours.  The moment that Lucius takes Ivy's hand in the darkness still makes me squeal, no matter how many times I see it.  Brilliant, terrifying, moving and funny.

If you get through all that lot, I also recommend:  The Mirror Crack'd (Agatha Christie with Lady of Shalott references), From Hell (atrocious acting but oh! the colour of Heather Graham's hair!), The Prestige (I still go cold at the end, no matter how many times I watch it), Sleepy Hollow (The dress!), Hysteria (rude and gigglesome), Wilde (Stephen Fry was obviously meant to play Wilde), Dorian Grey (dear me! What a naughty boy!) and Albert Nobbs (brilliant and touching).

Coincidentally, M'Lady Stephanie Pina over at the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood website reposted her brilliant page of Pre-Raphaelite sightings in film and television as I was writing this.  You can find it here.

Actually, I will just recommend one more film before I leave you.  This one has no relevance to Pre-Raphaelitism or Victorian Society but I believe it should be compulsory viewing for all people who spend time online.  If you use Facebook, or write a blog or live any part of your life on the web, please watch the documentary Catfish (2010).  It is a sobering tale of how your relationships online may not be all you think they are and how you should never assume you know a person from how they present themselves via the internet.

Stay safe online, my lovelies and enjoy the films!

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Having the Crime of your Life...

For quite a while now I have been tracing my family history.  There should be a warning on the website before you start saying:

 'Look, you probably won't like some of what you find out.  
We're not judging you, just be aware that people in the past were messed up.  
Not you, you're lovely. Well done.'

So far I've found married cousins (small village, was it?), hilarious surnames (Cocking-Champion.  No really) and other very complicated shenanigans.  Oh, and some lace makers.  I was somewhat surprised to find out that Great Great Grandmother's family was a little bit criminal.  My 4th Great Grand Uncles Solomon and Simeon Parslow were both convicted of crimes and transported to Australia for 7 years.  Solomon was done for sheep stealing and Simeon was convicted for larceny and receiving stolen goods.  In their defence, once they came back they never broke the law again.  Or at least, they never got caught.

All this got me thinking about criminals in Victorian times.  Oh, and this...

Mugshot courtesy of the wonderful site, My Daguerreotype Boyfriend
Naughty Daniel Lohill was convicted of stealing ferrets and a fur necklet.  He was also found guilty of stealing my heart, the scamp!  Shame on me.

Moving on swiftly, I wondered what images of criminals were around in Victorian art.  

The Railway Station (1862) William Powell Frith
Far Right: 'You're Nicked, Son!'

If you study Victorian art or society, you will no doubt see this picture a great deal.  Frith provided archetypal panoramas of Victorian society and this is no exception.  We have no notion of what the shifty looking chap has done, but he is respectably dressed.  I wonder if the Victorians had a fear that the criminal class could pass among them unnoticed, looking all middle-class and everything.  Things were much easier in the past; you could spot a criminal - he was the one of the horse with the mask and the pistols...

Travelling Past 1760 'Your Money or Your Life Thomas Joy
I was surprised at how glamorous a lot of crime appeared in paintings.  You'd think it was a modern problem, making the terrible situations of criminal activity look all cool, but actually the Victorians found a sort of nasty attraction to things they really shouldn't.

Hello, Ladies !
Prostitution must be the most well known and 'studied' (ahem!) aspect of Victorian crime because it is so double-sided.  On one side you get images like Found Drowned by G F Watts, Found by D G Rossetti and Thomas Hood's Bridge of Sighs, where the picture is miserable, punishing and bleak.  Prostitution was regarded as possibly the most unforgivable crime, something utterly abhorrent.  In the same breath, prostitutes were known to do well, to make something of their lives.  Some 'ruined women' did rather well for themselves, as highlighted in Thomas Hardy's poem The Ruined Maid.  Maybe the Victorian's needed to be reassured that their criminals were grubby and awful...

The Vagrant J Young
Wow.  That is a disturbing undergrowth lurker.  He is obviously is waiting to do you some sort of appalling misdeed.  Moving on.

Working and Shirking (1864) Marcus Stone
It's good to know that if you are an Undergrowth-Lurker, a nice soldier will come and take you away before you startle the ladies and bespoil the ferrets.

The Poacher's Daughter (1884) Archie Stuart-Wortley
At first glimpse, this is a lovely image of a poacher and his cute daughter after a hard night of nabbing wildlife.  However, the daughter places a comforting hand on her father's leg as the door begins to open.  Uh-oh, it's the police...

Newgate - Committed for Trial (1878) Frank Holl
Once you were in prison, things looked very bleak and rightly so.  Much is said about conditions in prisons even now, but the picture of Victorian incarceration is one of suffering and punishment in a very literal sense.   These women look on at the prisoner with despair.  They are without support, possibly for a long time and prison was most likely to return their loved one to them much altered.

Retribution (1878) William Powell Frith
It's unsurprising that the Victorian's felt the need to get retribution not just justice.  The balance between humanity and revenge was an uneasy one, and may explain why they preferred to think of Prostitutes killing themselves rather than pass through any sort of judicial system.  It's interesting to notice, when you watch as much murder mystery as I do on telly, how often the murder meets a sticky end rather than simply go to prison.  I wonder if we have never quite lost the sense of an eye for an eye.

Departure of Prisoners Remy Cogghe
So, poor old sheep-stealing Uncles Simeon and Solomon were sent off to Australia for seven years.  They were both in their late 30s when they went so were husbands and fathers.  It's not just the men who were punished; arguably the wives and children were greater victims of the sentence their men received.  Simeon and Solomon were lucky.  They returned and lived fairly long lives with their wives and children and never were in trouble again.  I wonder how true that was for the others who were transported or made their way through the punishing justice system here at home?  In pictures of the wives who were left behind, they are often pictured in black as if 'widowed' by their husband's crime and punishment.  I'm guessing that often was literally true.

Interestingly, there are many pictures that make crime cute.  I present Exhibit A:

Stolen Apples Hugo Oehmichen
The number of child criminals seems disproportionate and extremely worrying.  Was no apple safe?!

Scrumping Apples Caroline Paterson
We all know that today's cute apple-pincher is tomorrow's hedge-lurker.  It's all childish-pranks now but he'll be off to Australia before you know it.  It's interesting to think of the dual nature of our relationship with the Antipodes in the Victorian period.  While my Uncles were doing time down under, the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner was off to Oz to seek new opportunities.

Last of England Ford Madox Brown, inspired by Woolner's emigration
I think the most worrying trend in the Victorian period was animal criminals.  Seriously, it was like an epidemic...

Petty Larceny Briton Riviere
Petty Larceny?  My Uncle got transported for that!  What does this dog get?  A humorous portrait.  Justice? I think not.  Possibly the greatest travesty is this:  last year Liberty celebrated an image of animal theft all over a pair of Doc Martens.  Disgusting.

Strawberry Thief William Morris
Just because you portray it in a clever repeating pattern, it still boils down to theft.  It's even in the title!  Shocking.

I will leave you with this image of a love token made by a man transported to Australia.  The question of appropriate punishment will always bother us because it touches on a break in faith between people.  As a non-criminal, we often feel vengeful and righteous, but that does not take into account why people commit crimes and what the impact of their choice has on their families.

See you at the end of the week, and keep away from hedges.  You never know if a lurker is in there....