Wednesday 22 April 2015

Kiss Me, I'm Four!

This weekend is the fourth birthday of The Kissed Mouth blog!  Goodness me, where has the time gone? It's been a busy old year as well, so here is my retrospective (posh word for 'clips show') of the last twelve months...

May 2014
So in May last year I had a bit of a think about whether all of Rossetti's gorgeous women were just versions of himself (which sounds very strange when I say it out loud...), I had a look at some pirates, had a bit of a potter in the garden, flaunted a smidge of public nudity with Lady Godiva, but my image has to be from my massive post about Tennyson and Pre-Raphaelite art...

Elaine Julia Margaret Cameron
I've spent a lot of the last year deep in research on Cameron and her work, not to mention her models, which has been a delight.  It's fed into the novel I've been working on, and will also help with the paper I'm writing for the Julia Margaret Cameron conference this summer.  This image featuring the beautiful May Prinsep, is one of the most complete of Cameron's photos, in my opinion.  It balances her ability to capture the beauty of her subject plus having just the right amount of setting to transport you.  It's incredible to think this was taken in her hen house, with only a few rugs and props.  Just beautiful.

At the beginning of June, I spent a mad day pursuing Tennyson around the Isle of Wight (let's ignore the fact he's been dead for over a century, these things aren't important in a relationship), wrote a sad piece on the beautiful Sophie Gray, reviewed The Pre-Raphaelite Seamstress, 'Stand There!' She Shouted, and That Summer and wrote a piece on Ellen Terry, child bride and legendary actress.  Terry is one of those characters who defies all attempts to pigeonhole her: she was a child bride in a doomed marriage but escapes with dignity and good will to her husband. She was an actress, a mother, and a woman who gave us a defining portrayal of Lady Macbeth.  My image of the month, sadly, has to be this one...
Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1867) William Holman Hunt
Delaware chose to sell Isabella and the Pot of Basil at auction and it made half of the bottom of its asking price.  With no reserve, this beautiful work of art, which they had hope would make upwards of £10M, made £2.5M.  It cause howls of outrage from the Pre-Raphaelite community and made people worry about what Delaware would do next.  My worry was that they would sell parts of the collection that came to them via Fanny Cornforth.  It drew attention to the fact that works in public collections don't necessarily belong to the public when push comes to shove.  That is a sobering thought indeed.

This month I reviewed Elizabeth, The Virgin Queen and the Men Who Loved Her, did two posts on fairy tales, with imagery from Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and felt all summer-y with a post about beautiful paintings of women who aren't sweating at all.  I also travelled up to Hoylandswaine and saw their mural in all its glory.  My image for the month has to be this gem...

The Wounded Cavalier William Shakespeare Burton
I already loved this painting but it is now central to a scene in my forthcoming novel, so I have a very special place in my heart for it. Without giving too much away, while recreating this scene for a photograph, a few truths are revealed to the participants. I can't wait for you to read it! Hopefully I'll bring it to you at the end of the year...

In the long, hot month of August I brought you some ladies lounging around doing nothing (myself included), the universal truth that no-one likes a biter, the steampunk madness of Dr Geof, and went on holiday to Cornwall, where my image of the month comes from...

On the Cornish Coast (1880) John Brett
Just the vividness of the colours takes me back to the wonderful week I had, visiting Jamaica Inn, going to Penlee House Art Gallery and eating far too many pasties (I regret nothing). Cornwall is a special place with an artistic pedigree that is eviable.  Everything looks beautiful and everywhere is full of paintings of the sea.  And pasties.  My Lord, I did eat a lot of pasties.

This month I was still going on about pasties (and Cornish miners), the Effie Gray movie, and worried about the outcome of the Scottish referendum (we stayed together! Hurrah!). I visited the Celtic Revival decorated church in the New Forest (which reminds me, I need to take my Dad to visit it) and reviewed The Lost Pre-Raphaelite (which if you haven't read yet, do so immediately). One of my favourite posts I've done this year has to be the one I did on knitting...

The Purple Stocking J J Shannon
Looking back at this post this painting is still one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.  The halo of the metal plate, her concentration as she knits the stocking, it all adds up to a wonderful, delicate portrait of quiet industry. I bet she's never knitted a novelty Christmas hat.

This month I wrote a poem based on The Depths of the Sea by Edward Burne-Jones and I went to the opening of the exhibition about Rossetti's images of Jane Morris, as well as the opening of Dangerous Women. I also reviewed the game based on Strawberry Thief (that's right, a video game, I'm hip and down with the kids.  Well sort of), as well as talking about Rossetti's images of his models sleeping. Being a right cryer, I enjoyed doing a post about fellow-sobbers, from which I bring you this one...

The Restitution (1901) Remy Cogghe
I love the green of her dress and the gold of her hair, plus the mystery around the figures: why is she crying? What is the priest doing with the keys? I do love a problem picture, a picture that tells a story, that begs interpretation, that spins a tale for you to imagine.

With Blogvent fast approaching, I tackled images of praying and conversely got seduced into having some illicit liaisons (such larks!). The anniversary of the start of the Great War was remembered in a post about the Boer War and how it foreshadowed the conflict that was to come.  I also reviewed the gorgeous children's book Time and the Tapestry.  Many of you joined me in the utter frivolous naughiness of the work of Vittorio Reggianini...

The Interruption Vittorio Reggianini
With so much satin as to render all the participants a slip-risk, Reggianini did countless gorgeous ladies flirting, giggling, passing notes and falling under available handsome men. Nice work if you can get it...

Ah Blogvent, the annual madness...I have been challenged to do an entire month of Muff references this year and rename it 'Muffvent'. For goodness sake. Mind you, I absolutely will do that. I also got to see the wonderful Victorian Obsession exhibition at Leighton House and I can still smell that rose room.  I love that the gallery took experiencing the picture to a different sensory level and would be delighted to see more experimenting with this enhancing of the picture experience.  My suggestion would be to have a Reggianini retrospective with handsome satin-clad gentlemen for me to swoon under.  I regret nothing.

Anyway, of all the Blogvent images, I have to pick this one...

The Snow Maidens (1913) Henrietta Rae
 This boob-tastic snow scene raises some questions about health and safety and frostbite.  I love snowdrops too, but I can't say I've been tempted to sit amongst them nude.  Tulips however are another matter. And they are in my front garden.

In the new year I wrote a post on images of night and a saucy little number on poor Andromeda, the dragon-snack and bondage queen. I examined an artist's attitude to self portraits (thank you, Lovis Corinth, I think you will stay with me a while and not in a good way) and reviewed the catalogue for the Art & Soul exhibition.  Jolly good fun was had with John Collier, whose art is never dull...

Clytemnestra (1914) John Collier
An interesting artist, Collier was both establishment and bonkers avant garde.  His works included images of famous beardy men and puzzle pictures that do indeed puzzle.  The above image was banned because it was too shocking to show the knife-and-bristols combo.  I rather like her skirt, do you think the knife comes with it?

Looking back at February, I covered some of my favourite subjects.  I did a whole weekend devoted to illustrating Tennyson's poems, a subject very dear to my heart since my Masters thesis all those years ago.  I also reviewed the novel Afterimage and the Liberating Fashion exhibition. I talked about Fair Rosamund and the trouble with love potions, but the most comments I got came because of this fellow...

The Moon Nymph Luis Falero
So. Much. Nudity.  I'm sure I caused some of my gentlemen readers to keel over because of how shocking it all was.  Scandalous! Disgraceful! Jolly pretty, tho'....

The year was behaving itself quite well up until this point.  March came in very pleasantly with a review of Robert Stephen Parry's splendid new novel The Hours Before, followed by some jolly posts on the wives and girlfriends of military types.  I visited three exhibitions in London, Silver and Salt, Sculpture Victorious, and my favourite, the John Singer Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  Then this happened...

Chichester Cemetery, Plot 133/32
When I discovered the truth behind Fanny Cornforth's final years it was the end of a very long chapter for me.  Fanny and I have been together for twenty years and I have lost count the number of times I have talked about her, given people information about her, passed people copies of her letters and her exhibition catalogue, all of which I had sought out in endless hours of research all done in my own time.  Fanny enabled me to meet the most wonderful people, some of whom I count as my closest friends and she is the reason I started this blog four years ago.   I'm so glad I could share my discoveries with you because as long as I have been with Fanny, I have wanted to share her life with others.  I love seeing that other people want to research her, that others write blog posts and articles on her.  She is my favourite stunner, the patron saint of overlooked women and the more people who love her, the happier I am.

After I made you all cry in March, I brought you a review of the exhibition of the year so far, Mucha: In Quest of Beauty at the Russell-Cotes in Bournemouth.  It's on all summer, get there if you possibly can, you won't regret it.  I also went off to Lincoln and pursued Alfred Lord Tennyson a bit more (he loves it really), and looked at the visual life of Alice Liddell. My image of this month has to be this one...

Lissa, My First Success
I got to emulate Julia Margaret Cameron and swish around Dimbola Lodge taking and developing glass plates.  It was a wonderful experience and made me unnecessarily overexcited about the Julia Margaret Cameron bicentennial conference in July and the V&A exhibition in the autumn.  Not only that, but I now have a deeper understanding of what it's like to be a Victorian photographer which will come in handy with my new novel We Are Villains All, published later this year. Set in the quiet market town home of poet Maxwell Wainwright, someone has a reason for revenge. The arrival of photographer Brough Fawley brings everyone's emotions into focus and unleashes a vengeful spirit that will bring tragedy to everyone...

Well, I'm going to be giving a talk at Mrs Middleton's Shop in Freshwater on the Isle of  Wight on Saturday and then I'm writing a load of articles on Fanny Cornforth.  After that I'm giving a paper on the maids of Dimbola Lodge at the conference. It's going to be a very long summer. Thank you for reading this, thank you for being with me for the last four years because I'd be awfully lonely without you all. I have a lovely double-post planned for the first weekend of May, so see you next week...

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Photographing Alice (and Ina and Edith)

Once upon a time there was an old lady who lived on the south coast of England.  She had a secret, which as it turned out wasn't much of a secret no matter how hard she tried.

Mrs Reginald Hargreaves
When the old lady died, her ashes were buried by the war memorial that held the names of two of her three sons.  On her gravestone her secret was revealed...

Alice Hargreaves, or Alice Liddell as she is more famously known, died in 1934, 72 years after the writing of a story that would make her immortal.  When she was an old lady she became famous again, her photograph filling the papers as the world found out what had happened when the magical little girl had grown up. Once more her face was the subject of interest and record, just like when she was a little girl.

Perhaps then we have started at the wrong end of the tale.

Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived in Oxford.  Her name was Alice...

Alice Pleasance Liddell (c.1860) Lewis Carroll
Plenty has been written about little Alice, her sisters Lorina and Edith and a boat trip they took with a serious young man called Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (also better known as Lewis Carroll).  Dodgson was a friend of Alice's older brother Harry and Lorina, but when Harry went up to school, younger sisters Alice and Edith joined Lorina on her outings with the young man.  Dodgson wrote the story of Alice's adventures underground as a way of entertaining the girls on trips and in the tales he created a version of Alice who is curious, questioning, brave, obstinate and caught between trying to leave and trying to see more.

The Beggar Maid (1858) Lewis Carroll
When awkward Dodgson became Lewis Carroll, author and photographer he transformed himself in the same way as he transformed his most famous subject. Under his lens, Alice is a beggar maid, a ragged creature of pity.  In other photos, she is also a plush cat on a cushion with her equally silky sisters, as far from the beggar maid as you can imagine...

Edith, Lorina and Alice Liddell (1858)
Slipping by most people's notice was always Lorina, eldest sister and foremost friend of the young author/photographer.  When Dodgson was expelled from the Liddell family circle, a very twentieth century interpretation was placed upon it.  To our modern eye, some of the photographs look decidedly iffy: a young half-naked girl looking challengingly towards the camera, but are defended by many as being typical of contemporary art, coupled with knowledge that the mother was present when the majority of the pictures were being taken.  I say the majority for a reason, because there exists a very NSFW image of Lorina which is now argued to be the cause of the rift between the Liddells and Dodgson.  It was featured in the recent documentary on Dodgson and can be seen online and is of a very naked teenage Lorina and has no pretense of art at all.

Alice as The May Queen
Lorina (c.1860)
It is interesting to note that Alice is often playing a part in Dodgson's photographs but Lorina just sits there as the subject of that picture. It's almost as if Lorina does not need to play a part, she is the subject he wishes to take the picture of.  Alice, however, was dressed up, transformed, posed, a range of characters including the most enduring, that of 'Alice' which she was to be reminded of for the rest of her life.

The Sisters (Edith, Lorina and Alice Liddell) (1864) William Blake Richmond
Away from Dodgson and his interpretation of the sisters and Alice in particular, the Liddell girls found others who wished to capture their beauty.  Around the time of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, artist William Blake Richmond showed the sisters in a similar triangular arrangement to the above photo, with Lorina as the pinnacle. Although the two youngest still appear quite innocent and childlike, Lorina had begun to look more knowing and grown up.  It is unsurprising that Mrs Liddell, nicknamed 'the Kingfisher' after her desire to wed her girls to royalty, would want to separate her daughters from the poor young man who spent so much time with them.  Improper intentions or not, young Mr Dodgson did not have good enough prospects for Mrs Liddell.  The final picture he took of Alice is rather a melancholic piece...

Alice Liddell (1870)
At 18 and a marriageable age, Alice had to say goodbye to her childhood friend and concentrate on her future.  The notion that Dodgson was cast out for evermore isn't quite true but he did separate from the family for 6 months after which his relationship with the Liddell parents was cooler. He and Alice must have remained on good terms as Dodgson acted as godfather to her second son.  He didn't take any more photographs of her though, that mantle was taken up by another.

When the Liddell family moved from Oxford to the Isle of Wight in the early 1870s, they rented Whitecliff House, not far from Dimbola Lodge.  Naturally they caught the attention of Julia Margaret Cameron who was ever vigilant for new models. In the Liddell sisters she found young ladies of experience...

King Lear Allotting His Kingdom to his Three Daughters (1872) Julia Maragret Cameron
All three girl, from the left Lorina, Edith and Alice, surround Julia's husband, Charles Hay Cameron.  His dark drapery and age contrasts with their youth and beauty, and they appear satellites around his presence.  It's unusual to see the girls posed with another person, no longer so insular and separate.

Pomona (1872) Julia Margaret Cameron
Cameron also took some startling solo pictures of Alice.  Pomona has echoes of Dodgson's beggar maid, a mirror image of the pose taken by a woman rather than a girl.  Her expression is one of challenge as she nestles in the tendrils of the garden.

Alethea (1872) J M Cameron
From the same session, Cameron references her own work, this time "Call I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die!" of 1867, with the female figure in profile, her hair fanning out behind her. Rather than being a goddess like Pomona, Alethea refers only to 'truth', interestingly looking away.

St Agnes (1872) J M Cameron

St Agnes (1872) J M Cameron
In this pair of images, Cameron portrays Alice as St Agnes, patron saint of chastity, gardeners, and girls, amongst other things. Rather than being posed with a lamb, Cameron chose the other attribute, a palm, as no doubt it kept stiller than lifestock. My favourite has to be Ceres, goddess of the harvest, fertility and motherhood. She is a beautiful plant in the wild tumble of nature, the white flash of her flesh echoed in the sweep of grain crop against her shoulder. Alice makes a fine model for Cameron, with her strong defiant features a perfect addition to Cameron's other images of young, handsome women.
Ceres (1872) J M Cameron
Even before her marriage in 1880 to the cricketer Reginald Hargreaves, the public photographs ceased.  The early and sudden death of Edith in June 1876 traumatized the family and drew the sisters together in grief.  I don't think it's a coincidence that the remaining sisters could not find the will to be the same as they had been.  When they had posed, it was often as a trio, even if there were subsequent solo images.  Now that triangle had been broken, the ones left behind did not assume the role of muses without the one who had vanished from view. Alice Hargreaves (nee Liddell) would always be little Alice, tumbling down a rabbit hole on a boating trip with her beloved sisters. Alice, Edith and Lorina Liddell were each immortalised (to differing degrees) by Dodgson and Cameron, as a trio of sisters made extraordinary by the inspiration they lent to others, but it is arguably a mistake to imagine that the images we see are mere portraits of the girls.  Just as Carroll's Alice is not Alice Liddell, then the little girls in the photographs are a complex mixture of surface and meaning that is dangerous to confuse. Maybe in understanding that it becomes clear why Mrs Reginald Hargreaves sought to separate herself from the images and text that drew on her as inspiration. She was Alice no more.

But then maybe she never had been.

Saturday 11 April 2015

Becoming Julia

This week I am delighted to report I had a dream come true.  I became Julia Margaret Cameron.  For a day.  Well, sort of. On Friday I did a wet collodion process photography course at Dimbola Lodge, the Julia Margaret Cameron Museum...

Annie (1864) Julia Margaret Cameron
In December 1863, Julia Margaret Cameron's daughter and son in law gave her a present to occupy her.  She was 48 years old, her husband was away at the family coffee estates in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and her children had grown up.  It was felt that the enthusiastic Mrs Cameron needed something to absorb a little of her boundless energy. This came in the form of a camera. Despite claiming in her memoir Annals of My Glass House (1874/1889) that she began her career in photography 'with no knowledge of the art', she had spent some time with the Swedish phtographer Oscar Gustave Rejlander in 1863, and her brother-in-law was the amateur photographer Lord Somers.  What is true is that Julia's first solo success in the art of photography was an image of a local girl, Annie Philpot. This marked not only the success in producing the plate but also of printing a photograph from it.  Having experienced the excitement and frustration of producing a wet collodion plate, I now understand her delight...

Plate One: The Doomed Polar explorer, or Toby's Mate

Plate Two: A Ghost of Lissa
So, my friends, here is my day at Dimbola Lodge.  I was taught how to do this magical process by John Walker, a jolly fine teacher indeed.  The weather was at first very cold and misty, and the light was diffused and weak. When we set up the studio space, the exposure needed seemed to be around two minutes.  We grabbed a chap to sit for us and set up the scene before going to coat the plate.  When we came to expose the plate and capture the image, the sun came out, brief and strong, over-exposing the plate and causing the image to become ghost-like and bleached.  The same happened again when the lovely Lissa sat for the second plate.  At this point a fair amount of fiddling with shades happened and the exposure time was halved.  The result was startlingly better...

Plate Three: The Lovely Lissa
(Please excuse the shine off the glass plate, it's really hard not to get a reflection)

Anyway, as you can see, the reduction in the exposure makes the image suddenly appear.  Feeling more confident, John and I moved the camera nearer and the lovely Lissa was patient enough to put up with me for a bit longer.

Victorian photographer in his darkroom
Now the technical bit: First thing to do when taking photographs in this way is to clean your plate.  Polish, polish, polish until it squeaks and sparkles.  Then the plate is delicately balanced on the fingertips of your right-hand while a cotton bud coated in egg white is whisked around the edges.  This stops the collodion mixture from running off. Collodion, a wicked mixture of very toxic chemicals including ether, is then poured onto the centre and the plate delicately tipped to cover the surface, like coating a baking tray with oil.  The excess is shaken off into a bottle.  This bit is smelly indeed. The wet plate is then immersed into a bath of silver nitrate, to sensitise it to light, for three minutes.  With a  minute to go, the lights in the dark room are turned off, leaving only the red lights on, so that your eyes can get used to the darkness.  When the three minutes are up, the plate is lifted out, the silver nitrate wiped from the back of the plate and the sensitive plate placed into wooden holder, kept dark by a wooden slide until exposure.

Plate camera (minus lens) - not pocket-sized but very gorgeous
The setting of the picture had been established before the plate was prepared.  Having a quick check that no-one had moved while sneakily checking their mobile phone, the wooden plate holder is then placed into the camera.  A cover is placed over the lens at the front (we used a bowler hat as a lens cap).  The dark slide is taken from the plate holder and when ready, the cover is removed from the lens.  After a minute (or however long exposure is needed for) the lens cap is swiftly replaced and the dark slide slid back in to seal up the plate holder.  That box is removed and taken down to the darkroom immediately.

The plate is removed from the holder and held sensitive side up.  Developer is quickly poured over the image and the image magically appears.  This is the bit that defeated me and I always missed a small patch. You have to quickly and evenly pour a medicine cup of the liquid down one edge while tilting the plate in semi-darkness.  Then the washing begins.  Jugs of water are poured over the plate then it is immersed in a bath of water, then another bath of developing fluid after which it is safe to turn on the light.  The plate is then washed again and finally left to dry on a rack.  

When the plate is dry, varnish can be poured over the image (much like the collodion is poured) and left near strong heat to dry.  In our case we used a plate warmer.  Julia used a spirit lamp, which seeing how flammable everything involved is, makes it a miracle that nothing appalling occurred. Added to this she used cyanide as a fixing agent, which due to the risks involved, you can now replace with something less deadly.  Cyanide gives a warmer amber glow to the resultant image but the modern alternative is less death-laden, which has to be a good thing.  It is suggested that Julia's use of cyanide, which inevitably ends up on your skin, may have shortened her life.  I wore gloves and stuck to the flammable but less certain-death chemicals. Wash your hands, wear gloves, lick nothing and you'll be fine.

So finally I got the hang of it, after a fashion and the last plate of the day was a moment of utter joy when the developer revealed it...

Lissa, my very first success in photography...
As you can see, I managed to miss part of Lissa's right arm with the developer, but her lovely face came out perfectly.  I could not have been more delighted, relieved and exhausted. After varnishing the plate my day was complete.  As a souvenir of my marvellous day, I now have a set of wonderful glass plate negatives which look like the above when placed against a black piece of card, but appear as negatives when lifted up...

Lissa in negative
I felt like I had peeked into a part of Julia's life and walked in her shoes, if only for a few hours. The whole process was consuming and involved even with modern conveniences like running water so goodness knows how much time, energy and effort went into producing Julia's pictures.  However, when the results were as perfect as her masterpieces, I cannot think of a more rewarding employment of time.

My heartfelt thanks go to the staff of Dimbola Lodge, especially John Walker and the lovely Lissa.  If you too want to have a go at wet collodion photography, contact the museum (see the website here).

Wednesday 8 April 2015

Trailing Tennyson in Lincolnshire

As you will remember from my post on Tennyson and the Isle of Wight, I am not averse to a bit of celebrity hunting when it comes to dead Victorians.  Having pursued the poet to Farringford, it seemed only natural that I would travel up country at some point and find out where it all began.  This Easter, I packed my bags and headed north to Lincoln...

I began my weekend in Lincoln, beautiful cathedral city and home to the massive bronze statue of Tennyson...

The BFT (Big, Friendly Tennyson)
One of my more regular pleasures (in terms of frequency rather than normality) is visiting the whopping great statue of Tennyson and his dog, Karenina, in the Watts Gallery, Surrey.  I'll see him again soon when I'm over there for their upcoming Dadd exhibition.  Anyway, just outside the cathedral in Lincoln is a bronze version of the statue, with Tennyson looking down at a flower in the palm of his hand. G F Watt's statue has a wonderful inscription on the reverse of the plinth, which reads:

Watts was Tennyson's neighbour in Freshwater and close friend, meeting in 1857 in Little Holland House in Kensington. After the poet's death, Watts began work on the monument, finishing it ready for casting in 1903.  Watts died before the statue was in place in 1905. The quote "Over all one statue in the mould of Arthur made by Merlin" is very touching and tells you something of the relationship between the two men. 
 Under the plaque of his name on the front of the plinth is a poem from 1863:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
 I love this piece of poetry and it seems rather apt for my journey. As Tennyson felt and acknowledged frustration at his attempts to understand the flower (and by extension, everything), so too can a biographer feel frustrated trying to understand a person by the pieces we have of them, out of context. To that end, I waved goodbye to BFT and headed east in search of context...

First stop, Horncastle. Birthplace of Emily, wife of Alfred Lord Tennyson, and home to a vast array of antique shops.  Emily's father was a solicitor, Henry Sellwood, and according to the 1841 census they lived in the Market Place.  Her uncle was the explorer John Franklin who died horribly during Arctic exploration (as seems to be traditional).  A statue to him is in the market place of Spilsby, another market town to the south and east of Horncastle.  Passing through the very pleasant Horncastle, I was intent on finding Somersby, birthplace of Tennyson...

Former vicarage, home of Alfred Tennyson, Somersby

The hamlet of Somersby is astonishing in size (tiny) and level of birdsong (loud).  It has a mere 30 inhabitants, less than a third of the population at the time Tennyson was growing up there, but even with 90 people in the cluster of houses, it must has been an isolated place.  I began to consider the frequent themes of isolation in Tennyson's poems, the dislocation many of his narrators and characters feel with people and normal life. His father, George Clayton Tennyson, was a scholar and vicar of both Somersby and neighbouring Bag Enderby churches.  He is described in turn as both talented and clever, but also depressed, violent and unpredictable with drug and alcohol dependencies.  The home was extended by Tennyson snr, but still in 1824 there were 23 people sleeping under that roof (the family plus 10 servants) which made it a crowded home indeed.  It's unsurprising then that Alfred enjoyed roaming the countryside, the woods, gardens and streams that would occur over and over in his poetry. Nearby Holywell Wood is where Tennyson brought his new friend, Arthur Hallam (who subsequently fell in love with Tennyson's sister) and where he carved 'Byron is dead' on a rock on hearing the devastating news of his hero's death in 1824.

St Margaret's, Somersby
The pretty church that his father was vicar to usually looks like this, above.  However, at present it is undergoing pretty drastic restoration and so when we visited looked like this...

It was very exciting to see how much work is being undertaken and the skillful and thorough steps that are being taken to ensure the safety of the building.  It should be reopened to visitors in the autumn.

St Margaret's, Bag Enderby
We made the short journey from Somersby to Bag Enderby. No, that really is the name of the village...

Awesome.  There is the sister church to Somersby, where George Tennyson would walk after delivering a 'long and impenetrable sermon' in order to deliver another long and equally impenetrable sermon for the good people of Bag Enderby. Currently this is where the local history display of Tennyson's Lincolnshire life is being housed.  I especially like my new tea towel...

It doesn't get any more English than a souvenir tea towel.

Inside St Margaret's, Bag Enderby
The greenstone and wood interior gives an impression of what Somersby's church was like.  It is airy and plain, without pretense or grandeur.  At the back is a perpendicular octagonal font (a tall one which is octagonal) but that is about as ostentatious as it gets. There is a simple pleasure in the paleness of the stone, the echoing arches and the barrel of the roof above you. With the sun streaming in, it was wonderful.

On then to the market town of Louth, the Capital of the Wolds, which felt positively urban in contrast to the hamlets.  Tennyson was sent here to the Grammar school (since replaced by a red brick building) which Tennyson hated for the bullying and harsh discipline.  After four miserable years he was allowed to return home to be taught by his father (which presumably was occasionally little better).  Happier is the fact that Louth is the place of Tennyson's first publisher...

Jacksons, booksellers and printers in the Market Place, Louth, were the first to publish work by Tennyson and his brother, in 1827 (it's now an Oxfam shop).  Jacksons paid the Tennyson brothers £20 which they spent on hiring a carriage and riding to nearby Mablethorpe and shouting their poetry at the sea.  Now quite a recognised holiday place due to the railway link of 1877, the beautiful golden sands were still a local draw half a century previous.  Google it, it's beautiful.  In fact shout some poetry at an image of the beach.  Go on, it's traditional.

Alfred Tennyson (1831) attrib. James Spedding
This picture is particularly poignant as it was drawn in the year that changed the poet so much.  In 1831 both his father and his very close friend and almost-brother, Arthur Hallam, died.  Tennyson returned from Cambridge, where he had been at University, to take charge of the family and live in the hamlet for another six years. I'm a great believer in context and standing in the seclusion of Somersby it was easy to feel detached from the world.  Even though I am an avid reader (and writer) of biographies, I do not think you can underestimate the experience of standing in the place where the object of your interest stood.  It gives you new insight, understanding beyond someone's words of what it must have been like for them however many years separate you. As an adult, Tennyson found mixing with people a struggle, yet was a good loyal friend to those who understood him.  His time in Lincolnshire ended with the need for the family to move from the vicarage to Epping Forest.  He must have felt that he was leaving so much behind, both good and bad.

As much as I regretted leaving young Mr Tennyson as I travelled south, I shall see the older Mr Tennyson again soon.  I'm over to the Wight on Friday... 

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Mucha: In Quest of Beauty

April is upon us!  Not only that but today marks the opening of a brand new and exciting exhibition at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery in Bournemouth: Mucha: In Quest of Beauty...

Zodiac (1896)

Taking as its theme the quote 'The aim of art is to celebrate beauty', the exhibition shows Alphonse Mucha's extraordinary work which really has come to epitomise all that is 'art nouveau': swirls of hair, the movement of fabric and nature and of course, beautiful women.  I was surprised to find how modern his vision was from posters to celebrity and the synergy of packaging and advertising.

Biscuits Lefèvre-Utiles (1896)
When I was a teenager, I bought the above poster from a supermarket because it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.  Over twenty years later it hangs in our hallway and last night I got to see one of the original prints of it.  The business of selling in a belle époque manner finds its pinnacle in Mucha, his beautiful women offering all manner of things from bicycles to cigarettes to biscuits in a very alluring manner. It was copied but never equalled in terms of detail and sheer gorgeousness.

I'll just have a smoke...

...then I'll hop on my bike...
The selection of the advertising works on display are wonderful and it is amazing how the simple start of a long haired damsel in a floaty dress can be repeated yet never seem the same.  On show too are some examples of packaging of the products he advertised and the packaging ties in with the poster art giving a consistent visual message for a product.  Take that Don Draper!

Gismonda (1894)
Beyond his well-known advertising posters, what made Mucha a household name was his work promoting the actress Sarah Bernhardt.  Bernhardt's performances were advertised using lifesize images of her on long strip posters, striking and impactive. The figure of Miss Bernhardt is what is being shown here, her performance almost incidental to the fact that she is the art on display.  Mucha loved these works, displayed on the streets and enlightening the public while promoting plays.  These acts of advertising turned the outside into art galleries for the public.

Lorenzaccio (1896)
While Maxine Peake is making a smash as Hamlet it is worth noting the Bernhardt was playing male roles back in the 1890s.  My favourite poster of her advertises her role of Lorenzo de Medici in Lorenzaccio, the dragon symbolising the tyranical Duke Alexander who the main character considers murdering.  Incidentally, Bernhardt played Hamlet in 1899, accompanied by a poster by Mucha.

Dance (1898)

Mucha was so modern in terms of his vision of what art meant to people in the modern age.  At the end of the 1890 he produced a series of decorative panels on themes such as the arts (from which Dance above comes), seasons, precious stones, flora and times of day. Some of these pictures appeared as prints, some in calendars, all available and accessible to an audience who craved art they could own and appreciate in their homes.  Like me, buying my poster at SavaCentre outside Reading, the Parisian public could place a swirling Mucha woman on their wall.

Song of Bohemia (1918)
In 1910 Alphonse Mucha returned to his homeland of Czechoslovakia after an absence of 25 years.  He spent the next 17 years celebrating his country of birth in paintings celebrating Czech and Slavic heritage.  The women who appeared in them were still glamorous, but had a more spiritual and symbolic edge.  The culmination of this period is the Slav Epic cycle, a series of 20 massive canvases depicting the history of the Slavic peoples.

Model posing in Mucha's studio (1899-1900)
An unexpected delight in the exhibition is Mucha's photographs.  All manner of bendy young ladies drape themselves in familiar poses to beautiful effect, the resultant photographs showing belle époque goddesses.

I cannot recommend the exhibition enough, especially if you are after a little art nouveau glamour in your life.  The whole effect of the rooms is to beguile and engulf you in a swirl of hair and magic.  The art of Alphonse Mucha is more than just the advertising posters and this is the perfect place to discover how much more.  Mind you, the advertising posters are pretty amazing.  This might well be the most beautiful exhibition of the year...

To find out more, including opening times, visit the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum pages here.