Tuesday 27 May 2014

The Visual Tennyson

This is an almost impossible blogpost because of the sheer scale of it, but bear with me.  I want to talk to you about Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites...

The Lady of Shalott (1905) William Holman Hunt
Being a lover of Victorian, and specifically Pre-Raphaelite, art, I cannot fail to notice that this chap had a massive influence on the artistic output of an artistic movement.  In terms of writers, the Bible and the Works of Shakespeare account for a large portion of the paintings produced from the inception of the Brotherhood in 1849 until the final works of Waterhouse after the First World War, but Tennyson is not only an equal to them but was also their contemporary, actually out-living the artist who portrayed him in this little sketch...

Alfred Tennyson reading Maud (1855) D G Rossetti
This was on the front cover of my first collected Tennyson and I was struck by the awkwardness of the image.  I was more used to seeing Tennyson like this...

My favourite official portrait of Tennyson
In the 'official' photographs of him, he looks appropriate (and extremely attractive).  The curl of his moustache, the wonderful scroll of his collar and billow of his cloak.  He looks like a man in command of both his facial hair and the English language.  In Rossetti's sketch, I was intrigued by the way he clasped his ankle as he read.  It looked uncomfortable, unconscience.  I cannot decide whether I find the pose self-comforting or else so involved in his work that he is unaware that he is doing it.  Either way, I find it enchantingly human and not what you would expect from the Genius of Victorian Poetry (TM).  Maybe the intimacy that Rossetti captured in his sketch of Tennyson is why the Pre-Raphaelites felt such a connection to his verse and why it inspired such tremedous works.

The Palace of Art (from 1857 poems) D G Rossetti
Any talk of Tennyson and Pre-Raphaelites needs to start with the Moxon Tennyson.  In some ways, it is no coincidence that Tennyson reached the top of his poetic career just as the Pre-Raphaelites formed their brotherhood.  Tennyson was named Laureate in 1850, succeeding William Wordsworth and it could be argued that his royal role put an onus on him to produce appropriate verse for occasions such as the arrival of Princess Alexandra of Denmark to England. The more wayward, romantic visions of his younger days could have been folded in to the mass of his later works but they found the perfect partnership in the wayward romantic art of the young Brothers.

Mariana (1851) J E Millais
Mariana (from 1857 poems) J E Millais
Millais produced not only one of the first Pre-Raphaelite paintings based on Tennyson, but then repeated the subject in a different way for the Moxon edition of Tennyson's poems in 1857.  I think it was this edition of his poems that sealed everyone's fate.  It's not that the Pre-Raphaelites were the only ones illustrating, although they produced over half the illustrations (30, as opposed to 24 from the more traditional artists) but their work was groundbreaking.  Compare Rossetti's finale image from The Lady of Shalott with this one from Ode of Memory by Thomas Creswick...

Lady of Shalott
Ode to Memory
As a collection, the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers produced illustrations for the poems that were claustrophobic in the tightness of their focus and visually dense.  The faded, ragged edges of traditional illustration, as typified here by Creswick have been replaced by a bordered box.  The action may go on beyond the edges, but we are left in no doubt that this is the moment we should be looking at.  Looking back to the posts I did on Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale's illustrations of Tennyson, then you can see how much she owes to the Brothers and their work in 1857.

Lady Clare Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale
Moving forward from the illustrations, Tennyson's verse became an endless source of inspiration for the movement.  The shared interest in Arthurian romances obviously led to some cross-over work, from the established figures like Merlin and Guinevere to figures added by the poet to the legend.  I'll come to her in a moment...

The Beguiling of Merlin Edward Burne-Jones
The visual language of Arthurian romance was taken by the Pre-Raphaelites and moulded into something less chaste, less masculine-centric as guided by Tennyson.  The women were given equal billing turning something like the illustration below, one of the traditional ones for the 1857 poems by Daniel Maclise, into ultimately something more sexual, as expressed by Khnopff's Vivien...

A somewhat camp King Arthur by Maclise
Vivien Fernand Khnopff
Obviously I can't talk about Pre-Raphaelite Tennyson with talking about the Lady of Shalott.  It now seems impossible to think about Pre-Raphaelites, Tennyson, Lancelot or British Art without this painting by J W Waterhouse...

The Lady of Shalott (1888) J W Waterhouse
Rivalling Ophelia as the nation's favourite picture, The Lady of Shalott has provided inspiration for many, many artists to the point where it would probably be quicker to list who didn't have a go at the poor woman either feeling 'half sick of shadows' or having a naughty peek out of the window then snuffing it in a boat.  I could spend more than one blogpost talking about images of The Lady of Shalott and I will at some point, but we still have loads to cover, so on we go.  See, I told you this was probably impossible...

In his lifetime, a defining work for Tennyson professionally and personally was In Memoriam, a lengthy piece of love and loss, written after the death of Tennyson's best friend and adopted by Queen Victoria as the soundtrack to her grief-stricken years.  For want of a better phrase, Tennyson's poem taps into the 'grief tourism' of Victorian England, with improving mortality rates for the middle and higher classes.  While Tennyson's grief was intense and expressive, you too can wallow in misery without having to lose anyone yourself, as shown in this image...

Never Morning Wore to Evening But Some Heart Did Break (1894) Walter Langley
Whilst Langley isn't Pre-Raphaelite, he borrowed from Tennyson to express the grief and hopelessness of existence for the unlucky for the interest of the less unlucky.  Mind you, it wasn't only images that drew from In Memoriam...

Little Speedwell's Darling Blue (1892) J E Millais
Apart from being a work from Millais more cloying period, Little Speedwell is taken from section 82 of the poem, but the subject matter of Millais' work seems out of character with the introspection of the verse.  Possibly Millais intended the title to be a tribute to the poet in the year he died.  It's almost as unlikely a Tennysonian painting as this one...

The White Owl (1856) William J Webbe
This is a rather famous picture, having been found in someone's broom cupboard or the suchlike in recent years, and is startlingly realistic.  What I didn't realise was that it's subtitle 'Alone and warming his five wits, / The white owl in the belfry sits' was a quote from 'The Owl' by Tennyson.  That is an impressive owl.

No conversation about visual interpretations of Tennyson's work can not include the work of his neighbour, Julia Margaret Cameron.  It was his work that drove her dreamy images, his words that materialised as her glass-house visions.

So Now I Think my Time is Near (illustration to 'The May Queen') (1875) J M Cameron
Elaine Julia Margaret Cameron
Acres has been written on the relationship between Cameron and her good friend Tennyson, but she harnesses the power of his verse in her misty pictures like no-one else.  The heroines of the poems find form in Cameron's family, friends and servants, reflecting the Pre-Raphaelite concern of using real people as models, and despite the restrictions of photography at that time, she manages to convey the emotions of the poems.  Look at the resignation on the May Queen's face, or the quiet longing on Elaine's.

In 1992, a hundred years after his death, I think it is no accident that they used art to express his written word and that it was the works of the artists he influenced so much.  The works of Burne-Jones (The Beguiling of Merlin), Arthur Hughes (April Love, inspired by Tennyson's 'The Miller's Daughter'), Waterhouse (The Lady of Shalott) and Rossetti (Mariana) are now so linked with the poems that gave spring to them it's impossible to untangle them from each other.  The further we get from his Laureate, the harder it is to separate Tennyson from visual imagery he inspired. The Lady of Shalott regularly comes in the top five favourite British paintings in polls and no doubt provides the Tate with a fair amount of income from people who may not be familiar with the poem.  He is the father of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and it is a credit to him that his written word has such power that it can still inspire people who have never read a word of it.


  1. Dear Kirsty
    A really interesting post (as always). Here in Lincoln, we have the Tennyson Library and the rather wonderful statue of Tennyson by Watts just by the Cathedral, so we do rather feel he was 'one of us'! There was an exhibition at our local museum (The Collection) a couple of years ago which was all about Tennyson's poetry and included April Love (lent by the Tate and a treat to see) as well as a couple of Waterhouse sketches for The Lady of Shalott. Also, WAGscreen, a local film company, made a short film of The Lady of Shalott to coincide with the exhibition, basing the costumes and 'look' on the Pre-Raphaelite and Waterhouse images.
    Best wishes

  2. Ah, Ellie, I am very much in love with the massive copy of the statue that is in the 'workshop' at the Watts Gallery (I sometimes day dream that I could sit in the palm of his hand). The WAGscreen Lady of Shalott is a lovely film indeed!

    Thank you for your comments and I'll bring you more Tennyson-ness at the weekend!


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