Sunday, 26 January 2014

Jane and the Wrongs of Women

Once upon a time, it was easy to spot the beautiful women.  They were well off, privileged, possibly royal.  They might be the Queen (who is always beautiful if she was born to be Queen), they might be a Duchess who just happens to be sleeping with the King.  They looked wealthy, plump, clean and disease free.  Nothing boys like more than a girl without pox.

Nell Gwynn (1675) Peter Lely
Emma Hamilton George Romney
Sleeping with a man of power and not being his wife was a sure fire way of being acclaimed as beautiful.  More often than not marriages were made for any reason but love and attraction, so for a man to be tempted to stray, that woman had to have it going on.  Also, nothing like a hint of 'slutty' to add to your beauty, apparently.  In those days a woman's value was in her purse or relatives not her face.  It probably didn't hurt to be pretty but pretty didn't mean power.  Family, money, land, connections, all of these made you a woman worth looking twice at.  When we look at these women now and read the glowing descriptions of them we accept that they are 'beautiful' without possibly appreciating the way the word is applied, both by their contemporaries and ours.

Roll forward to the Victorian period and behold the power of a severe centre parting...

Queen Vic on her wedding day
Victoria set the tone on the female aesthetic. With her round face, smooth shell of shiny hair and diminutive form, she was the model for the ideal Victorian woman, replicated in art such as James Collinson' For Sale...

Clean and Pox-Free!  Lovely.
All women were expected toaspire to a certain type of beauty.  Shiny, small and tight sums up the images we have of these angels of the house, all bound in corsets and with partings so sharp you could cut your finger on them.

Mrs Coventry Patmore (1851) J E Millais
 Along came the Pre-Raphaelites.  Contemporary with his ever-so conforming portrait of the spaniel haired Mrs Patmore, John Everett Millais unleashed his Ophelia upon a stunned world.  Unlike his painting of Christ in the Carpenter's Shop, the beauty of its female of protagonist was undeniable (and less controversial).  Elizabeth Siddal, found by Walter Deverell and brought to the attention of the world by Millais had shocking red hair, but otherwise was a small, neat little woman with a pretty face and refinement.  Her beloved Rossetti was bohemian and unusual, she was bohemian and unusual, and somehow their unconventional relationship worked with her unconventional looks.  Whatever else Lizzie was, in female aesthtetics she wasn't the most groundbreaking.

That title has to go to a woman who died a hundred years ago today.  Discovered in a theatre in Oxford by the erstwhile Rossetti, she was proclaimed as a beauty when, by her contemporaries standards, she was anything but.
Jane Morris in 1865
Tall, bony, frizzy haired, striking features and darkish complexion, she looked like a cross between a gypsy and an Amazon.  To a society used to their women shiny and pocket-sized, Jane must have seen like a freak.  Not only that but she was married to a man of wealth and tradition, living and moving within normal society as well as the bohemian art scene.  She became establishment - an usual thread in it, but part of the main tapestry nonetheless.

Traditional Victorian Couple
The Pilgrims of Siena (1881)
Jane is second from the right

Skip forward to modern day.  In an article just yesterday Jane was described as 'the famous beauty', but at what point did she become the hallmark of beauty?  I find it interesting that the article that hailed her looks (the number of times the word 'beautiful' is repeated is quite funny) as unquestionably stunning has a sidebar of which unfortunate 'celebrities' look rank or gorgeous on any given day (Madonna: garish, Irina the Russian model: perky).  I begin to wonder if beauty is linked to power once more, or an acceptance of establishment.  While Pre-Raphaelite art is seen as unquestioningly beautiful (if rather low brow and pretty by some) the the women who inhabit the canvases, whatever they look like, are the epitome of beauty.  Whenever I read dismissal or questioning of the status of Pre-Raphaelitism, I notice the criticism is often a thinly veiled attack on the appearance of Jane Morris.  Rossetti's art is spoken of as being large, dark women, improbable, unsettling.  While we love their art, Jane is a beauty.  This leads me to wonder about the nature of our biography of women, both living and dead.

Above is a trio of pictures of another dark-haired lady, one rather more modern.  Top is a picture of the food writer and tv presenter, Nigella Lawson, around the time that she rose to fame with her retro style and witty commentary.  The middle picture is when she appeared at court last autumn to defend herself against a barrage of personal details, and bottom is a picture of her a week ago, on holiday.  Adjectives such as 'saucy' and 'sexy' were applied to the first image, 'severe' and 'regal' going into court, but by the time the fuss had died down she gets 'bloated and 'puffy' applied to her for the last picture.  It doesn't take a genius (but it is beyond the power of the newspapers) to work out that the difference between the first two images and the last is that she definitely set out with the knowledge she would be photographed.  She is her public persona and is glorious.  The last is just her, her private self.  Not only that but her star is not in the ascendant (at least in the media) and so she is no longer beautiful. I am simplifying the matter to save even more rambling on my part but it seems to me that as a woman your beauty never lies in your face.   The consensus think you are popular, you are a beauty.  Your star begins to fall and your beauty vanishes.

Kate Moss' Pre-Raphaelitesque Wedding Photos (by Mario Testino)
It seems to me that Jane Morris highlights two great concerns for the public face of female beauty.  She broke the mould that said you had to be some King's mistress or some heiress to be beautiful.  She was there as the star of Pre-Raphaelitism went into the ascendancy and, by their accolade, she was Beauty.  She paved the way for women of striking and various features to be seen as beautiful and in that way all women can look in the mirror and think 'I am Beauty because Beauty is anyone and everyone.'  This is all well and good but Jane also highlights a rather less pleasant side of this award.  If that star does not climb anymore, if that star you are hitched to should fall, then you too cease your reign.  A woman who was beautiful yesterday because she was successful is 'puffy and bloated' today as she has nothing to offer in terms of 'interest'.  When Pre-Raphaelitism is good, Jane is a beauty, but when it is not, it is criticized for its obsession with large, manly women with big lips and weird hair, in short, Jane's appearance.  Jane reveals to us that  our weights and measures for beauty are never based on the appearance of our face.  The taste of the mob and the size of our (or our husband's) wallet is what is really seen.

Better to be yourself and block your ears.


  1. Pity no picture of Bessie has survived to compare.

  2. For me personally, the most intriguing thing about Pre-Raphaelitism is that the paintings are beautiful, despite the models usually being plain, if not downright ugly. I think Jane Morris was unattractive, even odd-looking, to judge from photographs I have seen. On the other hand, the paintings of her are beautiful. One can even perceive her plainness in the paintings, yet the paintings are still beautiful. Fanny Cornforth to my mind is the least attractive of just about all the well-known PR models, yet I still find the paintings attractive. Why this paradox? I would be interested to know if anyone else feels the same way. It may just be me, or perhaps a peculiarly male reaction.

  3. I forgot to add the following re. your comment that "our weights and measures for beauty are never based on the appearance of our face". As far as real women (not painting)s are concerned, I think most (all?) men judge beauty almost entirely from appearance, especially the face. Many men will deny this, as it goes against political correctness.

  4. Thank you for your comments. I would argue that I would hesitate to call any of the Pre-Raphaelite's unattractive because we have such limited images of them. Any of the world's most beautiful women probably have hundreds of unattractive photographic images of themselves along with the attractive ones because the camera is both kind and cunning. With Jane, we do have a lot of images and she does appear much different than the goddess Rossetti presented but then of course she does, that's the point. With Fanny, we have two only pictures of her, one of them from a distance, so I think it's interesting that say you find her the least attractive in real life, but I'm guessing that's the point.

    My final comment about the attractiveness of women not being in their face related to the point of the article - that you can be beautiful one day in the eyes of the media and then ugly the next just because you lose their interest. Of course people (as individuals) judge each other first and foremost on faces, what else are we meant to judge beauty on before we know the person better? Mind you, I'd happily argue that with people you know, attractiveness is based on far more complicated and confusing things.

  5. I don't know if it is fair to call Jane plain or Fanny the least attractive, especially since we run the risk of imposing our modern beliefs of beauty on a woman from another time. Lily Langtry was considered a great beauty, and I think she was indeed beautiful, but would she be considered beautiful today? I wouldn't call any of them unattractive, because there is more to beauty than physical features. I've seen a woman that was strikingly beautiful, yet the moment she talked her beauty quickly faded..or a woman who could be considered plain yet the more you are around her, her own personality shines through so much that suddenly you wonder why you never realized before just how lovely she is.

    For Jane, Lizzie Siddal and Fanny. I don't see them as plain in the paintings at all, rather I see Rossetti uncovering the beauty he saw and revealing it to the world.

    I understood Kirsty's statement about the attractiveness of a woman not being only in their face to be a commentary on the women society deems beautiful based on other criteria. And as they age we tear them apart. I've seen facebook posts criticizing Brigitte Bardot, for example, yet where are the posts criticizing Jack Nicholson? A woman loses her looks while a man becomes distinguished.

  6. Super article, Kirsty. Just one minor detail - the photograph of Queen Victoria dates from her daughter Vicky's wedding in 1858. Victoria was married in 1840 and there are no photographs of the royal family before about 1848.

  7. Ah, thanks Fiz, that makes perfect sense if you think about the availability and state of photography...


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