Friday 21 August 2015

Annie Louisa Swynnerton

There are artists whose paintings you will recognise but when you come to look into their lives, there is surprisingly little information available.  You may find a couple of entries in artist dictionaries, a Wikipedia entry and that will be it.  About a week ago I featured this painting over on my Facebook page (come join me there, it's delightful and filled with gossip)...

The Letter (1900-1920) Annie Louisa Swynnerton
Gorgeous!  Someone asked me if she had really only lived 20 years, but that is the date range of the picture (to add to the confusion it was actually shown at the Royal Academy posthumously in 1934).  Annie in fact lived a long and happy life and I'll try and do her justice here...

Annie Louisa Robinson was born 26th February 1844 in a central area of Manchester.  Her birth place is often given as Hulme, but within a few years her parents seemed to have moved to Chorlton-on-Medlock and then Greenheys. Her father, Francis (1815-1889) was a solicitor and the family seemed to have been Methodists, attending the non-conformist chapels in the area.  It might have been in her childhood that Annie met the non-conformist minister William Gaskell, husband of the author Mrs Gaskell, who she painted in 1879.

William Gaskell (1879)
Of the six Robinson daughters, at least three of them worked as artists. Annie and her sisters Emily and Julia were all artists and all founder members of the Manchester Society of Women Painters, which I'll come to in a minute. One of the other sisters, Adela, married an artist engraver called John Brownlie, so it seems that artistic matters were valued in the Robinson household, enough to influence the life-choices of the sisters.

The Dreamer (1887)
According to The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928, during a period of financial difficulty, Annie started to sell her watercolours for money, but judging by the course of Annie's life over the following years, either the period was short or her painting sales were extraordinary successful.  After attending the Manchester School of Art from 1871, where she won a gold prize and a scholarship for an oil and watercolour painting, she moved to Rome to study. Annie stayed in Rome with fellow Manchester artist Susan Isabel Dacre (known as Isabel) from 1874 to 1876 after which the pair moved to Paris where they studied at the Academie Julien. A portrait of Isabel dating from this time was given by the sitter to Manchester Art Gallery in 1932...

(Susan) Isabel Dacre (1880)
On their return from Paris, Annie and Isabel, together with other local artists formed the Society of Women Painters to provide a place and facilities for the members to work together and study from life.  Apparently in those days you had to leave Manchester to see a naked man.  Anyway, the Society saw it as their duty to disseminate the principles of true art among the students of the art schools.  They had rooms in Barton House, Deansgate where classes were held in elementary drawing, drawing from the antique and drawing and painting from living models.  Isabel Dacre was the president, Annie served as secretary, her sister Emily was treasurer and other members included E Gertrude Thomson, Eleanor S Wood, Jane Atkinson and Julia Pollitt (nee Robinson, Annie and Emily's sister).  The Society held annual exhibitions which were described in the local press as 'one of the most pleasing events in the artistic year in Manchester.'

Tryst or A Salford Lass (1880)
In 1880 Annie exhibited The Tryst, described in the press as a remarkable picture.  It was immediately bought by Henry Boddington jnr (of the brewing family) who gave it to the Salford art gallery.  Interestingly, I couldn't find too much information on the artistic career of her sisters, but whereas Annie's work received praise in every instance I found it mentioned, very little is ever said about either Emily or Julia. One of the few mentions I found was in the 1880 review in the Manchester papers describing Emily's picture Scene from Esmond as not accurate to the source material, although it did not elaborate what the problems were.

Joseph Swynnerton
Whilst in Rome, Miss Dacre and Miss Robinson made the acquaintance of Joseph Swynnerton, sculptor.  Swynnerton had been attending art school, the Academy of St Luke, since 1869. In the 1882 Manchester Society of Women Painters exhibition, Isabel exhibited a three-quarter length portrait of Swynnerton.  In the summer of 1883, Annie and Swynnerton married and returned to Rome where they lived until the year of his death, 1910.  The couple do not seemed to have stayed exclusively in Italy, however, and Annie's career continued steadily back in England.  In 1883 she showed various paintings in exhibitions, including Oleander, described in the press as 'a perfect gem'...
Oleander (1883)
During this period both Annie and Isabel Dacre became active in the suffrage campaign.  In 1889, Annie signed the Declaration in favour of women's suffrage and in 1897 she signed the claim for women's suffrage.  During this period she also  continued to catch the eye of reviewers, her paintings travelling world wide.  Her painting Florence Nightingale at Scutari was sent over to the Women's Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, as well as regularly exhibiting in the Royal Academy exhibitions and the Royal Scottish Academy, as well as the Royal Glasgow Institute, continuing her work with the Society of Women Artists and many others. In 1895, Annie was only the second woman ever invited to sit upon the hanging committee of the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition.

Cupid and Psyche (1890)
One of her most famous paintings, Cupid and Psyche, was first exhibited at the Walker Gallery in 1891.  It was described in the local papers as robust, showing thorough and straightforward workmanship: 'the work shows such research of plastic beauty, the drawing so firm, the head and limbs so well modelled, that they give one the idea of being the work of a sculptor.' It might be that the reviewer is hinting at the influence of her husband, but even today the unruly curve of the wings and awkward beauty of the pair still captures the imagination.

The Glow Worm
Annie was influenced and supported by G F Watts and Edward Burne-Jones, and she tackled figurative and allegorical subjects.  I find her style clearer and less impressionistic than Watts but his influence can be clearly seen in works such as Mater Triumphalis...

Mater Triumphalis (1892)
The Edwardian period brought more success and after her husband's death in 1910, Annie seems to have lived more in London than abroad.  Her painting Oreads of 1907 was acquired by John Singer Sargent, a great admirer of her work and he helped her to become the first elected ARA (Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser being founder members) in 1922.  Annie also headed the section of Chelsea artists in the coronation procession of George V in 1911, organised by the women's suffrage societies.

The Sense of Sight (1895)
The picture that seems to have secured her place in the halls of the greats is The Sense of Sight, a painting showing an angel who has found heaven on earth in everything she sees (possibly as a reflection of how Annie felt in her role as a visual artist). In his 1905 book Women Painters of the World, Walter Shaw Sparrow reproduced the picture in monochrome (red).

Mrs Florence H Musgrave
Annie appeared in reviews of the Royal Academy and other exhibitions after the First World War, usually in unreservedly approving terms.  In a 1929 exhibition of Aberdeen Artists' Society, one reviewer noted - 'Among the strangers (ie the non-Scots)... we liked better the work of Cadell, David Foggie and Annie Swynnerton.'

New Risen Hope
 In the wonderfully disappointed review of the 1924 Royal Academy exhibition in the Western Daily Press, entitled 'Not Exactly Brilliant', the reviewer praised the painting New Risen Hope, which had been selected to be purchased for the nation via the Chantry Bequest, one of three of her works that would be purchased in her lifetime.

Dame Millicent Fawcett (1930)
Another to be purchased, in 1930, was her portrait of feminist and suffragist Millicent Fawcett, which was described in the art press as 'full of character and as fine a piece of colour as anything in the exhibition.'  Laura Knight, the next woman artist to become ARA after Annie, met Annie in her old age and remembered her as a formidable and eccentric woman who had done much for the status of women artists.  Gladys Storey in her book Dickens and Daughter (1939) remembered Annie a little less euphemistically: 'She was a talented artist and an accomplished woman, though scarcely one of whom it could be said she possessed a charm of matter.  Indeed, by maintaining the courage of her convictions she was at times embarrassingly outspoken.'

The artist at her easel
Annie's eyesight failed her in old age.  She moved down to a house called 'Sicilia' in South Hayling on the south coast of England in 1930, preferring the air and sunshine to her London home.  She died there on 24 October 1934, leaving a studio full of 170 pictures, all but 12 of them unfinished and unframed.  When this collection was sold the following year they made £601 which is just short of £40,000 in today's money.

Annie Swynnerton's Grave, St Mary's Church, South Hayling
To conclude, I always like to find a way to bring my research home to me and with Annie it was fairly straightforward.  Last Tuesday my daughter and I drove along the coast to Hayling Island and found Annie's grave.  In the quiet graveyard, overlooked by a 'Light of the World' stained glass window, is Annie Swynnerton's grave, marked by a large plain stone.  The inscription reads

'I have known love and the light of the sun.'
What more can you ask for?

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Rossetti's Reputation in the 20th Century

If you have ever had the pleasure/misfortune to study the Pre-Raphaelites at University level, you probably came across the fact that the Pre-Raphaelites were desperately unfashionable for most of the twentieth century.  I encountered such phrases as 'artistic cul-de-sac' and 'popularist, chocolate box art' which didn't deter me one little bit but did make me wonder what on earth was going on.  This may well be a phenomena that afflicts British universities, as it seems that the Pre-Raphs have always been valued abroad far more than they are at home.  Either way, it has been an interest of mine for the last few years to see how their reputation fluctuated over the years between their deaths and the Great Revival of the 1960s and 70s.  Today's post is a little survey of this, via the reputation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as seen through the lens of the local press of Great Britain...

A very twentieth century Rossetti
 By the time Oliver Reed donned the floppy bowtie (above) in Ken Russell's Pre-Raphaelite biopic Dante's Inferno (1967), a lot of water had passed under the posthumous-reputation bridge.  Turning back to the beginning of the century, just as the last of the brotherhood had died, Rossetti was coming in for close scrutiny due to the work of Thomas Hall Caine...

Rossetti pacing as Hall Caine wrote (1894)
Hall Caine had made quite an industry out of his Rossetti memories.  The above illustration come from a book of stories by well-known writers of the period, such as Kipling and Rider Haggard, of their life experiences.  Hall Caine's is predictably about his time with Rossetti which was ironically brief as compared with the amount of time he spent subsequently milking it.  When he published The Prodigal Son (1904) it was met with complaints.  One incident in the novel had the hero place a manuscript of poems in the his beloved's coffin, then digging her up for them some years later.  I wonder where he got that idea.  The Lancashire Post referred to it as a 'lapse from good taste' and the Shields' Daily Mail said it was 'interesting without a doubt, but we don't think admirers of Rossetti will be under any sense of gratitude to him for writing it.' These strike me as being polite ways of calling the odious Hall Caine a grave robber, which is ironic really...

Rossetti paints Elizabeth Siddal (from Look and Learn)
Possibly thanks to Hall Caine, an interest in Rossetti and his loves appeared in the newspapers quite frequently and Elizabeth Siddal's name was always spoke of with reverence.  The Burlington Magazine published five previously unseen pictures of Elizabeth by Rossetti in June 1903, and this also added interest into her life, often giving it the prefix 'tragic'. One thing that struck me was how confused the reports are as to which model they are talking about.  For example, this quote from the Shields' Daily Gazette of 1904 about Elizabeth:
'We are all familiar with the woman's face and figure which play so greater part in Rossetti's later and least conspicuously artistic work - her dark golden hair, her languorous pose, her full lips and Grecian brow, and sad eyes, testifying to the burden rather than the joy of life.'
 That to me sounds like they are describing Alexa Wilding, especially as they place her at the 'later' part of his life. Still, there was a doomed romance about the pair and that was popular in newspapers, so the sad stories of Lizzie and Gabriel continued.

Dante's Dream (1871) D G Rossetti
On the whole, the press loved the Pre-Raphs and Rossetti in particular. When the massive canvas Dante Dream became cracked and bowing in its frame, a panicked piece appeared in the Dundee Evening Telegraph (May 1905) about the 'imperiled' picture. In the marvellously-titled Cheltenham Looker-On of 1905, the writer says that to the 'severest' audience, Rossetti's pictures might have seemed 'a trifle luscious' but to call them improper was ridiculous. It seems the Edwardians were game for a bit of lusciousness...

Fazio's Mistress (1863) D G Rossetti
When the Tate purchased George Rae's collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in 1916 (including Fazio's Mistress, above), there were calls for it to be put on immediate display. The Liverpool Echo of 1916 reported that Rae's collection should be displayed in the National Gallery if the Tate was not able to house it.  The Tate was closed in 1916, but as George Rae had been a Liverpudlian, it was seen as a matter of local pride that the works be on show : 'The pictures represent Rossetti's powers at their prime and are essential to any comprehensive study of his art.'  In times of war, it's interesting to see how strongly people felt about that, and how the local newspaper felt it to be essential.

Rossetti being amazed by Elizabeth's loveliness, or something (from Look and Learn)

Debate over Rossetti's love-life continued.  In the Bath Chronicle of 1913, it was delightfully stated that 'Miss Siddal possessed all the qualities that were needed to make a good wife', which I'm sure brought her great comfort.  However, 'artistic men rarely made the best husbands. They were not calm enough.' Yes, I'm sure that was the problem.  Interestingly, in the Gloucester Chronicle of 1914, the description of the ideal Rossetti face was that of Mrs William Morris.
'Strangely enough, the great painter's ideal, which he found at last in one woman's face, was that towards which the mysterious trend of human countenance was moving through the ages.'
  The piece concluded that the 'Rossetti' face had become the pinnacle of beauty and was typically English and modern. During times of war nothing is more attractive than a pouty pair of lips...

Douglas Malcolm
Possibly my favourite Rossetti mention occurred in reporting of the sensational murder of Count de Borch (say that quickly) by the everso English Lieutenant Douglas Malcolm.  The erstwhile Dorothy Malcolm, wife of the above had been carrying on with the dastardly foreigner while her brave hubby had been fighting for King and Country. In the Dundee People's Journal of the summer of 1917, Dorothy was described as having 'a Rossetti face and neck as cold as chiseled marble, lips of vivid scarlet and dark, deep eyes veiled by long lashes'. Malcolm discovered the affair when home on leave, challenged the beastly foreigner to a dual (which the coward did not turn up to!) and then just went round and shot him four times.  Hurrah! The jury found him guilty only of justifiable homicide due to self-defence, which is marvellous.

The Seed of David (1856) D G Rossetti
In the 1920s, Rossetti celebrated his centenary.  Unfortunately he was long dead by that point so he didn't enjoy it as much as you'd expect. William Kerr, writing in the Gloucester Journal on the 12th May 1928, hit the nail on the head in terms of how reputations shift. Please excuse the long quote, but I find this fascinating...
'There is one great difference between birth-centenaries and death-centenaries. The death-centenary of a great artist or a man of letters sees him a classic, with his due place in the cannon of classics. The birth centenary finds him at the nadir of his influence, if not of his reputation. For a master in the sphere of the imagination has three generations of readers, spectators, "subjects". The first, his contemporaries, adore or hate him from a level of frankly critical contemporary equality: the second, his much younger contemporaries, his posthumous disciples, adore him quite uncritically, as not only a master, but the last and most significant of masters. The third generation find it a duty and a pleasure to pull down the false gods - its fathers - and set up in its place the new true gods. As a generation is roughly thirty years, and an artist's influence begins about his thirtieth year, his birth-centenary falls in the hey-day of that third generation, and the celebration has something of the gruesome interest of an exhumation.'
Kerr believed on balance that Elizabeth Siddal had been the true muse and her presence had heralded his period of genius - 'The Rossetti one would remember with love is the Rossetti of the fifties'.  Elsewhere Rossetti's centenary was a chance for people to weigh up his contribution to art and poetry.  In the front page article in the Hull Daily Mail on the 12th May, the writer remarked that 'in both sides of his art Rossetti fell short of the highest' and speculated if he had applied himself wholly to one discipline he might have achieved genius.  They conclude by admitting 'it would be ungrateful to grumble, since Rossetti has left us so much of beauty'.

So many of his contemporaries were of course dead at this point but The Yorkshire Post reported on a picture unveiled for the centenary by Arthur Foord Hughes, painter and son of the Pre-Raphaelite Arthur Hughes.  Mr Hughes now in his later years recounted how he had modelled as a baby for Rossetti (possibly for The Seed of David) and how Ruskin almost sat on him. True story.

With the publication of The Wife of Rossetti by Violet Hunt in 1932, further interest in the love life of Rossetti was ignited. The Lincolnshire Echo of November 1934 ran a piece under the headline 'Rossetti and his Elizabeth' - 'She was sweet seventeen and a milliner's assistant. He was a young artist out with his mother who was choosing a bonnet.' Well, before you complain, the piece goes on to say that's how Walter Deverell met Elizabeth, not Rossetti.  Rossetti and Elizabeth's courtship was the subject of Frances Winwar's Poor Splendid Wings (1933-4) which inspired various articles in the newspapers. Love the cover. Many thanks to Stephanie Piña for telling me that the cover contains the statement to the effect that 'gossip holds no place here'.  yes, Violent Hunt, we're looking at you.

There was also a play about Rossetti at The People's Theatre in 1935 that was so scandalous that William Michael Rossetti's descendants complained and it never opened.  The director of the theatre, Nancy Price gave a statement saying that the unnamed descendent did not wish the life of Rossetti to receive any more publicity, but I suspect there might have been something about shovels and graves mentioned. 

I don't believe it is the same Rossetti-related play as 'The Merciless Lady' of 1934, which the above photograph is a still from.  I suspect 'The Merciless Lady' was as bad as it looks (observe the horror of Lady Lilith, and the amount of make-up everyone is wearing) and it seemed a good idea to ask for a ban on all future Rossetti-themed plays.

The Second World War put a hiatus on Pre-Raphaelite gossip. A brief mention in The Western Morning News of the Pre-Raphaelites in an exhibition of 1941 questions their relevance during the Blitz. By the time of the centenary exhibition in the Tate for the Pre-Raphaelite in 1948, the tiny piece is nothing more than a dozen lines.  The currency of Rossetti's style of beauty can be seen in the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury review of the film The River of 1952, describing the heroine as 'a Pre-Raphaelite beauty' (I'm guessing that's her up there with the pompom flower). Two crosswords of the 1950s use Rossetti as their hints (24 across: Like Rossetti's damosel, 6 down: She had three in her hand (Rossetti)) but on the whole the mentions just stop.  There is little in the way of good or bad, they just slip from common mention in the press, giving the impression which must have been mainstream in academic work by this point that they just weren't relevant.  How far we seem to have come from this point can be illustrated by a review of an exhibition in 1952 of the Hamilton Bequest at the Arbroath Art Gallery.  The reviewer complains that the more famous pictures are examples of great artists on bad days and the Rossetti picture is so bad it 'lets the Pre-Raphaelites down with a thud'.  The picture on show that disappointed the writer was this one...

Regina Cordium (1866)
I can't imagine anyone feeling let down by this beautiful picture but by 1952 it was seen as disappointing.  The neglect of the Pre-Raphaelites is evident in the silence that surrounds them in the press at this time and it is a marked difference to the media clammer nowadays to say how good/bad they are (witnessed at the time of the most recent Tate exhibition in 2012).  For Burne-Jones, things seem to take a different path and his later reputation is often tied to press feeling about his nephew Stanley Baldwin.  For Rossetti, there is a great deal of interest in the first half of the century - acknowledgements of his failings, defending him against the disclosures of Hall Caine and endlessly playing the love story between him and Elizabeth Siddal as a dodgy, drugged up Romeo and Juliet.  All in all though, there is a fondness for the man who provided a good story, which in the end is not the worst way to be remembered.

Roll on the revival...

Thursday 13 August 2015

From Life: Interview with Victoria Olsen

Victoria Olsen
When I moved from looking at Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs to wanting to know more about her life, the first biography I bought was Victoria Olsen's From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography.  It remains one of my favourite books on the subject as it is written in an engaging manner with obvious attention to detail and wonderful research.  Recently when I was searching through Amazon for yet more books, I discovered Victoria had written Wordblind: A Tale of Two Readers, a children's novel in Kindle form, and I loved it.  It tells the story of two sisters, May and Annie, living on the Isle of Wight at the end of the nineteenth century.  After the death of their mother, the two sisters have to find their place in society, but Annie is dyslexic or 'word blind'.  I was so impressed by Victoria's work that I had to have a chat with her...
Q. When did you first come across Julia Margaret Cameron and what held your interest?

I first heard of Cameron during a college course I took on Victorian literature in the 1980s. The professor required us each to choose a related topic from a list, research it, and give an oral presentation to the class about it. I chose Cameron and Victorian photography because I’d always been interested in visual arts (I come from a family of artists and photographers, though I have no talent that way myself). I saw her work in Gernsheim’s classic monograph and was hooked….though Gernsheim’s book (published in 1948!) was very old-fashioned and sometimes patronized her. It made me think that there was much more to say about Cameron and her work.

Q. At what point did you decide to write your biography and why?

The Dream (1869)
After college I went to graduate school to get a Ph.D. in English literature but I remained fascinated by the Victorians. I researched a dissertation on 19th century women’s contributions to new definitions of “culture” and I felt it was important to include fields besides writing. Luckily, my dissertation advisor was supportive and I ended up including a chapter on women painters and photographers (Cameron and Clementina Hawarden). When I graduated and went on the job market, though, I was expecting my first child and there were no jobs in my field. I figured I’d spend some time home with the baby and revise the Cameron material into a full-length biography that would update the Gernsheim book…. It took eight years!

Q. One thing that fascinates me about Julia Margaret Cameron is her treatment of her friends, the lengths she went to, the devotion she showed to the men in her life. Do you have a favourite Cameron anecdote?

Sir John Herschel (1867)
There are so many good ones—I think my favourites are the ones where we get a sense of how she treated those Victorian celebrities she photographed. Like when she ruffled her friend and astronomer Sir John Herschel’s hair to get that halo effect. She was quite capable of scolding Tennyson, who was idolized by her peers. She treated those “geniuses” with both reverence and intimacy.

Q. Do you agree with Virginia Woolf’s assessment that she took photographs of ‘Famous Men and Fair Women’, or do you think there is more to her gender assessments than that?

Parting of Lancelot and
Queen Guinevere (1874)
I like Woolf’s assessment because it’s so literary – a perfectly symmetrical alliterative phrase. But it’s not complete and I’m sure Woolf knew it. Much of Cameron’s work fits into neither categorythe narrative works to illustrate Tennyson’s Idylls of the King being just one example—but there were also big exceptions within the portraits. For instance, Cameron was dear friends with Anne Thackeray Ritchie, daughter of William Makepeace and a famous woman author in her own right. Woolf grew up with “Aunt Annie” and knew Cameron’s portrait of her well so she knew that Cameron photographed “famous women” too. And, on the flip side, there’s the story from the end of Cameron’s life in Sri Lanka when she is supposed to have photographed her gardener because she was struck by the beauty of his back…
Q. What do you ascribe her continuing and expanding appeal to?
I think the photographs are still compelling and better understood now after decades of new scholarship, but it may be her life that continues to inspire contemporary audiences. Coming late to her career, feeling divided between work and family, battling “trolls” and “haters”—these are ongoing issues today too, especially for women.
Q. What led you to write Word Blind?
It was a confluence of factors: my interest and expertise with Victorian culture, but also my sympathy for those who didn’t easily find their place in it. Reading was so important to the culture and literacy was spreading – but what if you still couldn’t read? How does a culture – or a family—manage members who don’t fit in? And I grew obsessed with the story of Virginia Woolf’s half sister, Laura Stephen, who had some mental disabilities that led her to be institutionalized and ignored by the rest of the family (including Woolf). I wrote an essay about her here. But there wasn’t enough information to write Laura’s story, so I changed details and some issues and fictionalized it.
Q. What are you working on now?

I’m researching something similar, actually. I discovered that Jane Avril, the Moulin Rouge dancer and model for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters in turn of the century Paris, was once institutionalized in a mental hospital famous for its treatment of “hysterical” women. She wrote a memoir that suggested that she “cured” herself by transforming madness into art. That has been fascinating to me: what did she mean by that? how did her life and work reflect the major shifts occurring in art, psychology and gender relations at the time? I am still trying to figure that out, and my first essay on Jane should come out in the October issue of Open Letters Monthly

I’m also turning WordBlind into an audiobook and From Life into an e-book, so I can share those links with you when they’re out.
Q. Finally, do you have a favourite Cameron photo?
Hard to choose! But I love one of Cameron's own favourite photographs of her favourite niece, Julia Jackson (Virginia Woolf's mother).
It shows off many of Cameron’s great strengths—the dramatic lighting and shadow, the stillness of the pose, the intimacy of her relationship to her subjects. But it shows her careful composition too—all those balanced semi-circles make the photograph into a sort of cameo pendant. And then it’s beautiful in ways that are impossible to name or point to as well.
Many thanks to Victoria for her time and answers. From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography is available here (UK) and here (US) and Wordblind (Kindle book) is available here (UK) or here (US).


Monday 10 August 2015

Review: The Art of Bedlam

I really need to be careful or I shall end up being known as the Mad Art Historian due to the amount of time I spend reading asylum records, but while artists and models continue to be mad, I shall be there to see what happens to them.  Off I go to The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd at the Watts' Gallery in Compton...

Most people will know one thing about Richard Dadd - he killed his father after going bonkers in the East. If you know one picture by Dadd, it'll be this one...

The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke (1855-64)
All those among us that have Queen II can now start singing, as this is The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, a tiny little canvas packed full of details. A 'Fairy Feller' is posed with his axe to crack open a nut as various fairy-folk watch.  The paint is almost three dimensional, the different layers separating the spaces, with the whole scene slightly obscured by the grasses in the front.  I spent a fair amount of time with two ladies trying to find the tiny figures dancing on the brim of the hat of the bearded chap in the centre of the image.  That alone nearly drove us mad.

Detail of The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke
This is such an intense picture, forcing you to get closer until all you can see is the odd little world.  If ever a picture wanted to express the feeling of mental illness, this is a perfect example because it sucks you in and focuses you on nothing else.  There are oddly grotesque little moments too as well as moments of beauty. Although this picture is very much connected with his insanity, it wasn't the first time he had attempted such a subject.

Puck (1841)

Before he embarked on the Eastern Tour with Thomas Phillips, Dadd was already painting fairies in this image of a slightly malevolent Puck.  Not crammed full of the detail that would fill his post 1843 fairy images, it still is rather odd. 

The Halt in the Desert (1842-5)
Thomas Phillips chose Dadd to accompany him on a tour as his draughtsman and to begin with the journey went well, as can be seen in pictures such as The Halt in the Desert.  His watercoloured works are gentle and powdery rather than the more vivid works of Holman Hunt which I am more used to.  I rather like the dreamlike quality of Dadd's desert nights and an ironic calm that infuses his scenes.  As they were travelling home, Dadd became ill which was firstly ascribed to sunstroke but then it was clear that more was wrong.  His parents removed him to the countryside on his return where he killed his father believing him to be the devil.  Two of Dadd's siblings suffered from paranoid schizophrenia so it is possible that is what caused the crisis.  Dadd was apprehended and taken to Bethlem psychiatric hospital (also known as Bedlam).

Bacchanalian Scene (1862)
If my research into Fanny Cornforth has taught me anything it's that confinement to an asylum does not necessarily result in cruelty, isolation and a medical oubliette.  Once under the care of Bedlam, Dadd was encouraged to paint in a sort of occupational therapy or a way of explaining his emotions.  Included in the exhibition are a set of extraordinarily thought-provoking works entitled Sketches to Illustrate the Passions which show everyday things that contribute to mental illness.

Deceit or Duplicity (1854)
Insignificance (1854)
Including subjects such as Grief, Insignificance and Hatred, each one is a fascinating study of things that drive us as people and if taken too far can result in madness in ourselves and those we influence.  Interestingly the personifications of the passions are quiet, still and remarkably steady as if the madness has held them in place.  Agony is chained and holding his head, tense and wide eyed, not shrieking or outwardly showing expression.  In a way it is more disturbing that we cannot see the normal cries of pain, it's all gone beyond that.  Insignificance, also known as Self-Contempt, shows a little man carrying a portfolio almost as large as he is, to a front door where the handle and bell are out of his reach.  He scrapes his boots in readiness to enter a building it would be impossible for him to get entry to, a perfect expression of that paradox of people who feel an inferiority complex but often display superiority symptoms in compensation.  Somehow the little man with his huge portfolio is both comic and irritating, ridiculous and sympathetic all at once.  Does he really think he can enter the building?

Port Stragglin (1861)
The one thing that does strike you about a good deal of Dadd's work is the detail.  In work like Port Stragglin it is hard to see everything, the minute points in the imaginary landscape, a rich innerland from Dadd's hospital home.

Contradiction: Oberon and Titania (1854-8)
Dadd painting Contradiction
Dadd's work in the hospitals was made possible by enlightened care from his doctors, resulting in his fairy pictures and many other works.  The picture of him painting Contradictions shows him working on the tiny details, his distracted gaze reminding the viewer of his mental state.

Portrait of a Young Man (1853)
A very touching image from the exhibition is this, a portrait of his doctor William Charles Hood who was Physician -Superintendent at Bethlem and acquired Dadd's work, taking a special interest in the artist's work and well-being.  Hood was remarkably young when he worked at Bethlem, under 30 years old in this picture, but he also died young too, in 1870.

Wandering Musicians (1878)
I didn't know much about Dadd before I saw this exhibition and now feel I know more than just fairies and madness.  Whatever caused Dadd's suffering, his expression of it through art show an infinite world filled with both beauty and horror, violence and love.  What is remarkable is the way his pictures draw you in, an intimate whispering of madness until it seems sane and reasonable.  The fairy will crack open the nut, but then what will happen?

The Art of Bedlam is on until the 1 November and further details can be found here.