Sunday 31 August 2014

Wish You Were Here...

Hello Chums! I typed this for you from holiday down in Cornwall but couldn't post it as the wifi was useless. It’s been a long, hard summer of much working and not much relaxing and finally I got to be away from it all with Mr Walker, Little Miss Walker and Mrs Walker Senior (my mother in law)...

As I type, I am sat in the conservatory of a rather nifty bungalow in St Agnes, a small village on the north coast of Cornwall…

A Bay of the North Cornish Coast (1889-92) Arthur Hughes
Yes, it’s a bit like that around here.  Yesterday was splendid weather but today it’s rather more overcast.  However, as some of you will remember, Miss Walker has albinism, so bright sunshine is not necessarily our best weather.  Overcast rather suits us better.  Today we have been to Newquay Zoo and Jamaica Inn.  I did not fall for the charms of a reckless wrecker with brooding charm and swarthy looks.  I did however have a nice pasty which is probably a better choice for a woman of my age.

A Cornish Fishwife (1904) Flora Macdonald Reid
Yes, something like that.  Okay, maybe not that old, but I have a really nasty cold so I feel about 108.  Bad things happen to my sinuses when I have colds because I spent so many years working in close contact with office equipment.  Revolting.  I need a holiday.  Which is handy…

A Cornish Holiday Dorothea Sharp
Smashing!  No doubt in the next couple of days I will be gambling along the beach, fishing in rock pools, herding ducks with a stick… Okay, scrap the last one unless it’s compulsory.  I will also be eating more pasties.  And fudge.  And cream teas.  Oh heavens, this holiday may kill me…

A Cornish Idyll (1902) Walter Langley
I will be visiting a bit of art while I’m here.  We have St Ives and Penlee House on our ‘to do’ list.  I’m especially looking forward to Penlee House because it is stuffed full of miserable images of Cornish Fishermen’s widows, sobbing as the dawn breaks on another morning of drowned husbands and no fish.  Lovely.  This Walter Langley is rather more jolly though.  Give it time and he’ll be drowned too.  Something to look forward to, artistically speaking.

Cornish Miner (1885) Frederick Thomas Penson
My Cornish forebears weren’t fishermen actually, they were tin miners.  They cleared off to Peru in Georgian times after one member of the ‘Cocking’ family married Mr Champion and became Mrs Cocking Champion.  Dear me, the shame.

A Fish Sale on A Cornish Beach (1885) Stanhope Alexander Forbes
I also want to eat fish pie while I’m here.  I love fish pie.  I need to find the recipe for Ford Madox Brown’s favourite Cornish food, something called Thunder and Lightning. This was a dish made with garlic, treacle and pilchards.  Another reason to move to Peru, possible. 

Cornish Girl with a Basket of Primroses (1888) Frederick Millar
I haven’t been to Cornwall in years, possibly not since I was around Miss Walker’s age.  Tomorrow we’re off to visit a rather newer addition to Cornwall’s Tourist offer, the Eden Project.  For those who have never heard of this marvellous place, it is a 35-acre plant laboratory under great domes that show you global gardens and different ecosystems.  It looks amazing.

Cornish Solitude James H C Millar
Most of all, I’m looking forward to getting away from work and stress, if only for a week and having a bit of a sit down and sleep in away from everything.    Mind you, I have brought my computer with me, hence why I am able to write this, so technically I’ve brought all of you on holiday with me.  That’s okay, there is plenty of room and plenty of pasties.  If you will excuse me, I’m off to have a nap before I embark on some more relaxing.  This holiday lark is hard work you know….

On the Cornish Coast (1880) John Brett
Don't eat all my pasties while I'm asleep...

Tuesday 19 August 2014

The Splendid Island of Doctor Geof

As some of you will know, I have just spent the better part of the last week at WorldCon, a massive Science Fiction convention held at the ExCel in London.  This was a work thing, I was promoting the virtues of English Heritage's lovely database of research reports (50 years of information now free to download!), but I had the pleasure of having a stand opposite the Island of Doctor Geof...

Calling Doctor Geof an artist seems inadequate as he has an entire world of bonkers mayhem around him.  His smutty, steampunk jollity is both gorgeous and hilarious, full of corsets, bustles and a proper obsession with tea.  Over on his website The Island of Doctor Geof you can see some of his work and buy his art and his fabulous patches, of which I purchased a splendid amount because they were so funny.

The lovely Doctor also drew my portrait on my warrant card for the First Tea Company...

How can you resist any identity card that reads 'This card certifies that the bearer requires a nice hot cup of tea please'?  and my rank is 'Dark Chocolate Digestiveer, 1st class'.  Thoroughly civilised.

You know me, I'm a practitioner of what might be described as pouring gentle, jolly sauciness over what passes for knowledge and so I enjoy meeting others who brighten our lives with their talent and humour.  Anyone who produces posers that entreat you to 'Kill your Velocity, not an Air-Kraken!' is a bit of a genius in my world and welcome to stay.

If you fancy a bit of Dr Geof's splendid madness, he is part of the Longitude Punk'd exhibit at the Royal Observatory in Grenwich which runs until January next year.  He also is responsible for the Fantastical Steampunk Tea Museum under the Cutty Sark, which is open until the end of September.  Details of both exhibitions can be found on the Royal Museums Greenwich website here.

There is something magical about meeting people who are on exactly the same sort of off-kilter, bonkers wavelength as yourself when you least expect it, and one of the joys of running this page is that I get the pleasure of telling others about them.  If you are not easily offended and love a bit of saucy, tea-drinking, thoroughly English, made-up Victoriania, then take a trip to Doctor Geof's Island.  I guarantee you will like it there.

Plus he gave me a biscuit.  I'm anyone's for a biscuit.

Sunday 10 August 2014

Woman, Red in Tooth (and Claw)

There is a parental truth, universally acknowledged, that nobody likes a biter.  Most children go through phases of boisterous play-fighting, even the odd kerfuffle in the school playground, but if your child is a biter, then a special sort of hell awaits you. Lily has only once bitten another child.  She was around three years old and I was escorted into a separate room to be given the grave news that my child had bitten one of her fellow schoolmates.  Turns out the little girl who got bitten had been poking Lily in the mouth, just to see what would happen.  As it was, both parties learnt a valuable lesson, but I remember the shame I was required to feel as the mother of a biter.

I am sharing this shameful family secret with you for a reason and that reason is a pair of beautiful pictures by Anthony Frederick Sandys...

Love's Shadow

Proud Maisie
If  he would come today...(detail)
Both images date from the late 1860s, around the time when Sandys was most influenced by Rossetti.  The images are of his common-law wife, Mary Emma Jones, and in both pictures she is biting something.  Starting with Proud Maisie, the title refers to the poem 'The Pride of Youth' by Sir Walter Scott, where Maisie, eager for her wedding day, questions a robin about her future. He replies that she will be carried to a church by six strong men and the sexton would make her wedding bed.  He's talking about her death, the payment for her pride.  Maisie is eager but haughty which means the love, or indeed lust, she yearns for will be denied by her own foolishness.  She frustrates herself by being too much involved in herself.  The glorious mane of hair goes back in her own mouth and is bitten both as a sign of frustration but also an acknowledgment of her own desirability which she feels none are worthy of besides herself.  It has similarities to the illustration Sandys made for The Argosy (1866) (the image is entitled 'If he would come today'), for a poem about a woman frustrated by her lover's absence.  There is a hint of a snake consuming its own tail about her consumption of her hair, hinting that she will destroy herself by her actions.

Love's Shadow (detail)
In Love's Shadow, the woman bites on a posy of flowers consisting mainly of forget-me-nots or violets.  In preparatory drawings, she bites on honeysuckle, symbolising the bond of love, but the tiny blue flowers imply watchfulness and fear in love.  Presumably she has been given the flowers by her lover, but she bites them.  If her lover wished to remain unforgotten, something in the bared teeth and scowl makes the viewer wonder if the flowers are ironic, that it is the woman who fears being forgotten.  The small flowers of promised affection are greeted not with kisses but with a rather brazen snarl.  Here in her expression is love's shadow, the dark cast of love, inconstant in size, without form, but existent and rather feminine.  Love's shadow is feral, animalistic, female lust.

Eve (1896) Lucien Levy-Dhurmer
Animals bite people, in fact the very first biter was the serpent in the Garden of Eden.  Actually, no, that serpent didn't do the biting at all. The very first naughty biter was a woman.  Granted, she bit a piece of fruit, but it was forbidden fruit and she knew she wasn't allowed it.  Just like Sandys' girl, her bite was one of desire but her frustration was alleviated by her bite.  Her bite also resulted in disaster.  Women's desire damns mankind! The Daily Mail were right all along...

As I said to begin with, biting is more often associated with children.  A child who bites another child is a problem but there are images of proffered biting that give one pause for thought.

Give Me A Bite (1863) Henri Geoffroy
The little girl holds a jam tart in her hand while two boys look on covetously.   The girl looks fearful and unwilling to share her treat with the boys, one of whom is worryingly bigger than she is.  I think we can all tell how that will end.  The fact that she is dressed in glowing white, that her treat is ruby red, all point towards a deeper meaning.  It could be as simple as her love the boys wish to share in, but by the use of the word 'bite' in the title it seems rather more basic than that.  They want to take a bite of something that will destroy the whole.  She is right to hang on to it and not just give it away.

Giving a Bite William Mulready
A slightly stranger affair is this image by Mulready where a young man carrying water jugs is allowed a bite of something from the hands of another young man.  Seeing as the picture has Italianate overtones I'm going with mozzarella cheese, as the substance seems to be white.  The water carrier bends to bite the cheese in a vulnerable pose - why was he not handed some cheese to taste?  His body-language seems submissive and he is watched by the others, except the two animals, the dog and the monkey.  The dog seems to belong to the water carrier, and he is looking uncertainly but with curiosity at the monkey, dressed in red.  This monkey is tame, but by threat of the whip, just behind its owner.  Monkeys often stand for lust and more specifically man's lustful side, this monkey, dressed as a human, is kept in check by force, made to behave.  His natural state is held in submission and he is not really a person, but an animal in masquerade.  Maybe the same can be said of our water carrier, his appetites held in check by another.

Mauvais Sujet (1863) Ford Madox Brown
Rolling all our bad-girl Biblical stereotypes into one, Ford Madox Brown gives us Mary, the bad girl, biting her apple and looking naughty.  An unruly school girl, her hair wild and her earlobes dripping with red gems, this is a bad penny who is baring her teeth and biting that apple right in front of us.  For goodness sake, it doesn't get more blatant than that.  Images of bad children in Victorian England are predictably plentiful, but images of bad girls often have a sexual tinge with the misbehaving madam ripping her clothes or being provocative and Lolita-esque.  Images that promoted the idea of childhood sexuality confirmed widely held notions that girls held innate sexual knowledge, burgeoning and threatening to spill out.  This must have been a comfort to suitors and parents who rushed pubescent brides into marriage.  If girls are to display sexuality then it might as well be put to good use and be tamed by a husband.  When female sexuality is left unchecked, then all hell breaks lose...

The Vampire Philip Burne-Jones
The Vampire (1895) Edvard Munch
Despite the archetypal vampire being male, visual interpretations of the creature in Victorian England were very much female: Ravenous women falling upon unsuspecting, helpless men and consuming their blood when they least expect it, when they are at their weakest. I don't believe it's a coincidence that the couples above are in intimate settings.  Burne-Jones shows very explicitly a woman attacking her victim in their bed, and Munch's victim is curled against a semi-naked woman who is bending to bite him.  The female vampire bites and consumes men in a manner that is tied very obviously to sexuality.  The women and their rampant, unequal sexuality weakens the men and is something monstrous. The woman who bites, who consumes will leave you reduced and you will beg her to do it.  As men, you understand the appetite, you have the more 'natural' consumption, but the images of female vampires warn you that a woman who wants sex is unnatural, destructive, something to fear.  

The underlining message in these images is that a woman who bites unbidden is a thing of no control.  Her teeth close around things she desires as well as the shallow place-holders for her desire.  She bites apples, flowers, her hair and when she has the chance she bites men and draws from them their very life.  The sexual aspect of consumption is explicit in female vampires - she will draw her man into her in a perversion of the natural order of things, in an act of pure destruction without any hope of reproduction.  A woman that bites destroys her chance to fulfill her natural role in the world.  Woman as dominant destroyer is unnatural, yet hold an allure due to the promise of unbridled sexuality.  Far better that women receive the destruction, that their sexuality is slight and appropriate, and that they be grateful for the attention.  

Remember, no-one likes a biter.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Pleasure in Idleness

When I was a teenager (so, really not that long ago) I had this picture on my wall...

Dolce Far Niente (1904) John William Godward
I bought the poster from Woolworths for a couple of quid and I adored the sultry, languid idleness of the image, from the lily-pond, still and mirror-shining, to the beautiful woman curled up on the fur rug.  I thought that was how life would be when I was a grown-up.  Well, I don't have a peacock feather fan yet, but otherwise it's remarkably similar.

Years later, I was fascinated by this image by William Holman Hunt...

Dolce Far Niente (1866) William Holman Hunt
Not liked by many people, Hunt painted over the original face and hair (which belonged to Annie Miller) with those of his beloved Fanny, his wife.  The over-painting is not entirely successful but the whole, tightly packed image has a luxurious, voluptuous feeling in keeping with the title of the picture.  Dolce Far Niente means 'pleasantly doing nothing' or 'sweet idleness' and refers to the pleasure that lies in leisure.  For the Victorians, it was a theme they would return to in art repeatedly...

Dolce Far Niente John William Godward
Godward liked the subject so much, he painted it twice.  Again, he presents us with a supine lady on a fur, swathed in rich, translucent fabrics, engaged in nothing much.  The air of luxury is essential for the images it seems, I suppose because the rich could afford the idleness cultivated with such splendour.

Dolce Far Niente (1880) John William Waterhouse
Waterhouse presents a woman who has at least got off the floor, but she holds a peacock fan.  The peacock would be the perfect bird for these images as they aren't known for their industry or use, just their ornament and vanity, which may also have a resonance with the subjects of the paintings.  Hunt's woman is unusual as reflected in her mirror are bookcases, hinting that she had been reading if nothing else.  For the most part you have to ask what the women have stopped doing in order to be idle?  Surely there has to have been action in order for the enjoyment of inaction to be appreciated?

Dolce Far Niente (1882) Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Maybe then it is the women who are the pleasures of idleness for the men who observe them.  We, the presumably male viewer, can while away delightful hours, gazing upon these decorative creatures as they roll or loll about looking gorgeous.  They are merely part of the pleasurable view, as inanimate as the peacock fan and equally as decorative.  It's as simple as that, or is it?

Dolce Far Niente Frederick Arthur Bridgman
It could be there is a warning in the images.  Arguably its history taints it, but Hunt's picture unsettles some people and makes them feel that Hunt is not endorsing the pleasure inherent in the title.  Bridgman's voluptuous maiden above is the epitome of an idle pleasure, but possibly she is not so good for you.  Having no worth other than her voluptuous pleasure is rendering her viewer powerless, idle and an idle man is not a good thing in 19th century terms.  She is the siren luring her victims to a terrible fate of sitting and looking at her semi-naked splendour.  Steady gentlemen, try to resist for a few moments at least. Remember you're British and Victorian at heart!

Dolce Far Niente (1884-87) Mortimer L Menpes
The Italian title and the oriental dress are somewhat at odds, but both have resonance with aestheticism.  Rending oneself into a subjectless tableau of inaction, beautiful and inert, suits both the title and the movement as displayed by the rather bemused woman in a kimono above.  She does look as if she has forgotten where she left her keys rather than enjoying idleness.  She's standing up and everything.

Dolce Far Niente John Singer Sargent
Unusually, Sargent shows men enjoying the pleasure of idleness, but they aren't really idle in the true sense. Some read, some play suitably sensible games.  I bet they are all thinking jolly hard about manly stuff too.  Men are apparently rubbish at being idle, but then their natural state is very vigorous and active, so anything that doesn't involve striding across the countryside and wrestling wild animals counts as idleness.

Dolce Far Niente Stanley Cursiter
When women are idle, there are really only fans involved.  The fans possibly hint at foreign parts, suggesting that for true idleness you have to look beyond English shores.  With the delightful casual racism that garnished the 19th century, the inference is that foreigners are obviously more idle than good British girls.  Add a bit of sexual racism in there too, then the sultry supine maidens take on another aspect.  Is the danger of a idle woman, an idle foreign woman, that she may corrupt the upstanding British manhood she gets her sultry idle hands on?  Gentlemen, please show a pretense of resisting, for heavens sake!

Dolce Far Niente William Quiller Orchardson
In order not to lose my gentlemen readership to the lure of idle, foreign temptresses, I will end my post with my favourite couple of idle women.  Orchardson shows us a young woman on an oriental couch, leopard skin and fan on the floor but with a notable addition to the scene...

Dolce Far Niente Auguste Toulmouche
Her feet rest on a furry rug and she is surrounded by luxury, but on her lap is an open book.  Both Toulmouche and Orchardson's women are idle during reading.  How often, when reading a brilliant book, do you find yourself paused, gazing away, thinking of the plot, the characters, the world created by the wonder of the prose?  The idleness of the title is simply an external state because inside these women they are racing through the imaginary worlds of their novels.  The summer's heat renders me useless and there is no greater escape from the oppressive heat then to cradle a book and allow it to whisk you away.  If the novel is wonderful then after a certain point you can step into the imagination of another and the book falls away briefly.  You might be meeting a character, walking through a landscape, trying to make the right decision to reach your happy ending.  Whatever captures you, when roused from your revelry by an onlooker and asked the foolish question of what you were thinking about, the answer is invariably 'Nothing...'

Dolce Far Niente, indeed.