Monday, 1 June 2015

Model Children

If you have the dubious pleasure of knowing me personally, you'll know I take an unfeasible amount of photographs of my daughter, Lily-Rose...

Lily-Rose, May 2015

I always loved taking photographs and she's a fairly handy model (who can be easily bribed with chocolate) and very beautiful, so the photographs keep coming. There are no doubt other things going on with my photographs, including my fascination with how beautiful her genetic condition, oculocutaneous albinism, is. I wondered about Victorian artists and the use of their children in art...

This is our Corner (1873) Lawrence Alma-Tadema
There is always a good reason to use your own children in your art.  Lawrence Alma-Tadema used his daughters, Laurense and Anna in this wonderful picture, appealing to the sentimental side of Victorian taste.  More than that though, he also captured his daughters in a moment of time, in a little reading nook.  Alma-Tadema had lost his first wife four years before and moved to England from Brussels, marrying again in 1871.  Possibly guilt over the rapid change in the children's situation caused him to paint them so lovingly, or maybe a sense of unity that the three of them had survived such a time of sorrow.  One girl is in shadow looking unsure but her sister has moved into the light.  Maybe Alma-Tadema felt that they were emerging from a shadow, looking forward to a brighter future in a new country with a new wife and mother.

William Holman Hunt and his son Cyril (1872) Charles Dodgson
Holman Hunt and little Cyril also went through the loss of Fanny Holman Hunt, just two months after she gave birth to Cyril, in Florence (Cyril's middle name was Benoni, meaning 'child of sorrow').  Six years later, this photograph shows father and son united, but with a new woman in their lives, Fanny's sister Edith who had been acting as Cyril's guardian.  The photograph was possibly a gift for Edith who began her romantic affair with Hunt in 1872, marrying him three years later.

Cyril Benoni Holman Hunt (1880) William Holman Hunt
The artist's obvious pride in his son shines through this handsome portrait of his teenage boy.  Cyril, transformed into a gentleman (14 years old) is shown enjoying suitable pastimes and dressed to the nines. There is a tenderness to this picture, the pose and attitude of the young man, which expresses the love between father and son, and in the growth and accomplishment of the child as perceived by his father.

My First Sermon (1863) John Everett Millais

My Last Sermon (1863)
A man who was not short of children at home was John Everett Millais.  After marrying Effie Ruskin, the couple didn't hesitate in repopulating London with their many little Millais children.  Effie, obviously named for her mother, was born in 1858 and was the third child (first daughter) of the couple. Millais' cherubic images of his daughter include the two above and another of her dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, all very cute and very commercial.  With Millais' art, there seems less personal element, and more of an eye to what would be popular. It could be as simple as commercial acumen but it could also be a celebration of his success in making the marriage work whether others couldn't - Ha! Take that Ruskin! Mind you, I know of a few people on Facebook like that...

Margaret Burne-Jones (centre, with Sara and Elizabeth Norton)
I empathise with Edward Burne-Jones' delight in the beauty of his daughter, Margaret, and his use of her in his art.  Margaret, deep set eyes and oval face, looks like the epitome of a Burne-Jones virgin and her father's art reflects and repeats that pale simplicity until all of his women look a little like Margaret.

The Golden Stairs
Margaret is fourth from the top with the long trumpet, surrounded by her friends, all looking very much alike...

Sketch for Sleeping Beauty in The Briar Rose Series
Most famously, Margaret was Sleeping Beauty in her father's massive Briar Rose panels.  Speaking as a mother (what an odd phrase) I wonder if part of Burne-Jones' artistic vision was a way of freezing his child in her growth away from him.  Burne-Jones was miserable when Margaret married and he had to let her go and so to show her as the princess, sleeping peacefully, preserved as a child, might have acted as wishful thinking. 

Collette's First Steps (1895) Henri Gervex

Collette Gervex (1910)
The artist Henri Gervex chose the moment of his daughter's first steps to paint her portrait.  Obviously the painting is a conceit, the painting did not happen spontaneously at the moment she walked, but is a piece of memory, created around the time that Collette began to walk, possibly inspired by the moment of her first steps but not begun and finished in that moment.  Unlike Burne-Jones' desire to keep his daughter passive (consciously or unconsciously), Gervex is celebrating his daughter's blossoming independence, her active motion which will eventually take her away from him.  Fifteen years later, the beautiful young woman who stands before us is reminiscent of Holman Hunt's teenage son. Gervex shows us the young woman, graceful and fashionable, who is ready to go out in the world on her own.

Julia Margaret Cameron and Henry Herschel Hay Cameron (1867)
Despite starting late in life, Julia Margaret Cameron managed to use her children in her art, not to mention her grandchildren.  Her love of children makes me sorry she did not have the camera earlier in their lives, but she certainly made up for it with images of her children, grandchildren and friends' children.

Lionel Tennyson by Julia Margaret Cameron

Madonna and Child (with Archibald Cameron)
Her first photograph success was the child of a friend and her pictures of children rival the images of flowing haired maidens as being the strongest in Cameron's repertoire. Her pictures of the children of her famous friend Alfred Tennyson show them relaxed or playing a part in a scene, in contrast to the more formal treatment they received from professional photographers.  Each picture seems like a relationship Cameron held and treasured, and by showing each sitter in a new light, Cameron explored the child's character, delighting in her own insights and sharing them with the world.

The Last of England (1855) Ford Madox Brown
Saving the most complicated for last, you can't talk about parent artists without talking about Ford Madox Brown.  His use of all his children in his art is both charming but also filled with pathos. Starting with his daughters Lucy and Catherine (or Catty, seen in the pink bonnet eating the apple in The Last of England), Madox Brown also included his two sons, Oliver and Arthur in his work.  Arthur is the baby in Work...

Work (1863)

Detail of above
Arthur Madox Brown is the little baby in the urchin girl's arms.  He grew ill as his father worked on the picture and died before the work was finished.  The baby wears a little black ribbon around his arm as a mark of the loss. Arthur is also the baby in Take Your Son Sir! and his death at 10 months is used as explanation for the picture's unfinished state.

Take Your Son, Sir! (1851)

Ford Madox Brown created a lasting memorial to a child who lived a mere 10 months and he is remembered today in one of the most puzzling pictures of that period.  It is possible that his death contributed to the enigma, as we have only the mother's face, the baby and the reflection of the father in the image which I have seen interpreted as a simple celebration of motherhood and also a damning  accusation of illicit liaisons and illegitimate children.

Oliver Madox Brown Ford Madox Brown
The use of children in the art of their parent can be as simple or complex as you choose to interpret it. At one end, they are the model close at hand, always available and able to sit for  as long as you like (or as long as they will stay still). In some cases, like that of poor little Arthur Madox Brown, it feels like foreshadowing, but it is just a reflection of infant mortality at that time. The images of Arthur seem filled with pathos because he died at the moment we see him in the painting, but then this image is just a fact of life. The image of him in Work with the little black ribbon is similar to Rossetti's tribute to his wife in Beata Beatrix, a tribute and memento mori both for the child and for us all. However, using your own children might also reflect your own fears of them growing up, growing away from you, your own mortality. Parental pride cannot be underestimated, and there is definitely an element of bragging in some of the pictures.  Look how gorgeous my child is!  Look how accomplished they have become!  That's my genetics at work.

Well, that's what happens in my work anyway...

Lily-Rose, 2011
Mind you, I'm just following in the footsteps of my own photographer father...

Me c.1976 by my Dad


  1. Lily-Rose is a beauty! That sepia portrait of her is magnificent. :)

  2. She is my little stunner, bless her!

  3. Eveleen Myers, like Cameron, used her children to hone her craft.


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