Tuesday 29 September 2015

Time Makes Tragedy Of Us All

This is likely to be a ramble-y post, so bear with me as I return to the thorny issue of aging.  You might remember we talked about this a couple of years ago with my post about depictions of older women in art.  Well, this week I started thinking about getting old again for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, this happened...

That's me. I was taking a few selfies for my author postcards and when I made this one my profile picture in a couple of places I got a very interesting response.  Normally I look more bright and curly and more to the point less wrinkly around the eyes. This time I was sat in a darker room and, as one friend kindly said, I looked like the Woman in Black. When I pointed out that I was over 40 now I was told that I looked it.  Ouch.

Cara Delevigne and Kate Moss
Then Kate Moss had the bad manners to look over 40 (at the age of 41) and was told by one newspaper that she performed an act of extreme bravery by standing next to Miss Delevigne who was half her age.  Dear God, the horror! Look at Kate Moss!  It's like Dorian Gray's portrait has escaped the attic and is walking around!  Or something. Anyway, there should have been a black border around the piece as it was generally about the sadness that Kate Moss no longer looks like she did twenty years ago. Which leads me to this conversation I had recently with an older friend...

Sylvia Syms, then
Sylvia Syms, now

Apparently it is impossible to watch the lovely Sylvia Syms in any film or tv programme without being overcome with utter misery that she does not look the same as she did in Ice Cold in Alex.  Whilst I agree she looks pretty ace shoving the ambulance (was it an ambulance?  Why do I think it was an ice cream van?) up the hill in Alex, she looks marvellous now too and is ace in The Queen.  It's the same thinking that was expressed to me at a family funeral once where I was trapped in a room with all the other Mrs Walkers of the family and one told me that it would be kinder for women to be shot at 30 as we all look horrible after that. Lawks, I said.

Jane Morris (1898) Emery Walker
All this pop culture, self-obsessed rambling brings me to Pre-Raphaelite stunners.  Jane Morris was, until recently, the one stunner who we could see in old age.  After Rossetti's death we ceased to see her through the eyes of someone who loved her and saw her through the lens of various cameras.  It's not that her photographers didn't like her, but the camera is unable to lie. She poses, she sits, she waits and her stoic expression is recorded.  She is almost 60 years old here and her expression is unreadable (as it always is).  However, I often hear people express how unhappy Jane looks in her later life.

The Hourglass (1905) Evelyn de Morgan

Jane Morris (1904) Evelyn de Morgan
Undoubtedly, Jane Morris does look unhappy in the final painting of her modelling career.  When Evelyn de Morgan wanted someone to play the woman who has everything but the ability to stop aging she chose Jane, the aging Stunner.  It seems a common assumption, possibly correct, that we read the picture biographically.  We ascribe that sadness at a loss of beauty to Jane rather than the character and carry it over to all other images of her.  In the photographs of her in old age, sitting in her garden, out and about with her daughters, surrounded by friends: all appear sad to us.  Do we have any reason to believe that Jane was so shallow as to allow her changing appearance to overshadow all the blessings she had? From what little I know of Jane I do not believe her to be that shallow, so is it therefore a sadness we impose as viewers upon the faded stunner?  Her hair is grey, her face is lined, how unhappy she must be.

Lizzie, died at 32
Alexa, died at 37
To use that very unpleasant phrase, we seem to like our Pre-Raphaelite women better if they die young and leave a pretty corpse.  The subject matter of the Pre-Raphaelite artists encourages us in this mind-set what with the Ophelias, Elaines and Lady of Shalotts all popping off before they have to use night cream or resort to a box of Nice 'n' Easy.  Both Lizzie and Alexa had the good grace not to get old, conveniently dying while still young and pretty.  How good of them not to bother us with those inconvenient images of them looking older.  We can't cope when people get older.  Actually, in our visually orientated, youth obsessed culture we can't cope when we get older and everyone else is collateral damage.
Fanny Cornforth, 1863
Why do we react so badly when people we admire get older?  Returning to Sylvia Syms, she was the height of glamour for my older friend, the epitome of what it meant to be attractive when they were both young.  Now Sylvia is old that means my friend is old, that she is no longer up to pushing an ambulance or jeep or whatever it was up a hill.  Our society says that you might 'look good for your age', but on the whole that's just a nice way of saying 'well done on not looking horrific now that you are over 35. That must help with the sadness, but remember, you are no longer being sexually attractive. Only one woman over 35 is allowed to be sexy and Helen Mirren is doing that.'  It's a self fulfilling prophesy - society says women over 35/40/50 aren't sexy so we don't feel sexy so we are declared not sexy and so on. It's such a cycle of sadness and shame and denial that it's impossible to untangle.  Woman over a certain age cannot be happy and sexy, so if their fame is based on their attractiveness to the opposite sex then age must render them bereft.  All fame now for women is based to some degree or other on our looks so the moment a woman in the public eye starts looking a bit wrinkly, chunky or grey then they must be miserable. We feel miserable for them because through them we vicariously taste glamour, we have a role model for the sexual perfection we can aspire to.  All that makes what I am about to do unforgiveable...

Fanny Cornforth 1907
 Many people did not want me to show this picture but now it is in the public domain it is only a matter of time before you see it.  The people who have seen this image have told me that they find it devastating, mainly due to the context.  This is the photograph taken when Fanny was admitted to Graylingwell Asylum.  She looks - I don't know.  Well, she doesn't look happy but then she is a Victorian woman posing for a camera.  Look at Jane Morris.  Smiling wasn't really an option.  She looks concerned, her eyebrow on the right is furrowing down.  We know she was confused and angry when she was brought to the asylum because she thought she was being arrested.  However, we also know that she settled in to life at Graylingwell and it was a comfortable hospital dedicated to caring for and rehabilitating the mentally ill. Was she any happier in 1863, living with her depressed lover, traumatised by the death of his wife whose image haunted their home? She had been ditched by him, forced to marry a drunk, picked back up by her unreliable lover and surrounded by his circle of his friends who did not like her. Yet we don't read sadness into the image of her by the mirror.  In 1907 she was approaching the end of her life and everyone she loved was dead, so do we see that?  Jane Morris still had her children, a circle of admirers, so why do we read sadness in her image as well.  It would be understandable to see Fanny as unhappy in the vulnerability of age, but Jane?  Her life was a velvet cushion in comparison.

I think the answer lies in the way we see old age and youth.  There is little doubt that we are visually obsessed and our focus is on youth, especially for women. I'm sure my gentleman readers (both of you) will correct me if I am wrong but only age for women is seen as a battle we cannot afford to lose. We have so many products for sale that will smooth us, plump us (only our faces sadly, plumpness anywhere else is another source of sadness), recolour what goes grey and generally regenerate us like the Countess Dracula bathing in the blood of virgins.  Any opt-out of this unwinnable fight is seen as failure, a tragedy, such terrible sadness.  Look at brave Kate Moss stood next to her replacement, no doubt shortly before they take her out the back of the building and put her out of her misery.  It would be the kindest thing to do as those tiny wrinkles are making us all very sad.

Don't feel sad for the old stunners.  Don't feel sad for Jane, surrounded by comfort, surrounded by those that care.  Don't feel sad for Fanny even, cared for finally by people who didn't want anything from her. She lived her life as she chose, in a way that was open to her and considering the options her ancestors gave her, she made a considerable mark on the world.  Fanny Cornforth got old, of course she did, and she ended up in a home which is likely to be the fate of many of us reading this.  Her home was sympathetic.  She lived a long and memorable life to the point that some random woman wrote a book about her a century after she died.  That is pretty impressive for a blacksmith's daughter from the back end of nowhere.  Don't feel sorry for Fanny, it would do her no good and to be honest I think she would prefer that you thought of her and cheer. Maybe then we wouldn't feel so sad about our own wrinkles and grey hairs.

If you have to feel sorry for anyone, feel sorry for Helen Mirren, she's the only woman over 50 who's allowed to be sexy.  The responsibility must be exhausting...

Monday 21 September 2015

Ophelia's Muse: Q&A with Rita Cameron

As many of you will know there is a new book out to add to the growing shelf of Pre-Raphaelite Fiction.  Ophelia's Muse follows the story of Elizabeth Siddal from her life in the hat shop where she was discovered by Walter Deverell, through her burgeoning career as an artist, her struggles with her health and, of course, her tumultuous love life with a certain D G Rossetti.  I caught up with the author Rita Cameron to find out how she discovered Pre-Raphaelite art and what it was about Elizabeth Siddal that intrigued her so much...

Q. What brought you to the Pre-Raphaelites?
I always loved Pre-Raphaelite painting – I have very fond memories of visiting the Tate and other galleries with my parents when I went to London as a child.  The pictures are so lush and evocative. I made up stories to go with the paintings, and imagined what it would be like to be one of those sad, gorgeous women.  But oddly enough, I never delved into their actual stories until I started flipping through an art book on the Pre-Raphaelites in a bookstore display (on my way to buy textbooks for law school!). I chanced upon the story of how Lizzie Siddal sat in the cold tub while modelling for Millais, and I was instantly hooked. I had to know everything about her, and by extension, the Pre-Raphaelite circle. 

Elizabeth Siddal D G Rossetti
Q. Why do you feel that Millias' Ophelia remains so iconic?
First of all, it’s an incredibly beautiful painting, despite the tragic subject. The level of detail in the dress and the flowers, in each leaf, is exquisite. And then, in this lovely, peaceful setting, there is the shock of seeing Ophelia, breaking the surface of the water, breaking through the canvas almost. It’s such a private moment, and yet it’s hard to look away. I can almost feel the pull of that heavy gown, the inevitability of sinking. She really appears to be right on the cusp of death – not quite there and not quite gone, and the immediacy of that is very compelling.

Q. How did you come up with the title of your book?

Lizzie is often thought of as Rossetti’s muse, and she certainly was a source of inspiration to Rossetti and the other artists who painted her.  But I liked the idea of linking her more closely to the painting for which she is most famous, Ophelia, and leaving the painters, for the moment, in the background. I hope that the title hints at how perfectly suited she was to inspire such a transcendent painting, and suggests that she lived a life that echoed that rivalled Ophelia’s in its tragedy.

Elizabeth Siddal D G Rossetti
Q. Your sympathies obviously lie with Lizzie yet we get Rossetti's point of view too - how difficult was it to balance that?

It was a struggle.  In my first drafts, I think that I was too hard on Rossetti - he came across as too much of a villain. And the fact is that I really do have a lot of sympathy for him, and I wanted the reader to see the person that Lizzie fell in love with -  the mad, romantic painter and poet who put art first and followed his passions. I like to imagine that in this day and age, they might have met, had a wild fling, and then both moved on to other pursuits and relationships.  But in their era they were trapped, to a certain extent, and that was a large part of the tragedy.

Q.The debate as to whether or not Lizzie intended to kill herself continues even after all these years - how difficult was planning that scene?

I’m learning that in writing historical fiction, it’s often necessary to take a side where there is a debate about what may have happened in the past, in order to move the plot along or flesh out a character. But in this instance, I felt that there was room for ambiguity.  I imagined Lizzie at this point as lonely, distraught over the stillbirth, ill and addicted to laudanum.  In this confused and desperate state of mind, I thought that she might have been trying to bring an end to her pain and depression, without making a definitive choice to end her life.    

Elizabeth Siddal D G Rossetti
Q. You feature Annie Miller and Fanny Cornforth in your book but not Jane Morris - how tricky was it balancing all Rossetti's women?

I’m afraid that Rossetti’s other women got short shrift in the book, and in a way Annie Miller and Fanny Cornforth stand in for all of his other romantic affairs.  Jane Morris could have been included, but I was trying to keep the book focused on the relationship between Lizzie and Rossetti, and at a certain point I felt that it made sense to pare down some of the characters. I tried to see Rossetti’s other women as Lizzie might have seen them, as a threat and an indictment of her own perceived failures, more than as individuals in their own right.

Q. What's your favourite Pre-Raphaelite picture?

Mariana (1851) J E Millais
It’s so hard to pick just one, but at the moment I’m really loving Mariana and The Bridesmaid, both by Millais.  He has such a knack for capturing women in private moments of reflection.

Q. What are you writing next?
I hate to talk about what I’m writing before it’s almost done, but I have certainly been looking at a lot of Millais’ paintings recently.

Regina Cordium (1860) D G Rossetti
In Ophelia's Muse Rita brings us Lizzie Siddal, a Victorian girl torn between her art and the man she loves but is destroying her.  The emotional rollercoaster of her life gets equal billing with the art that surrounded her, often painfully echoing the love and tragedy in Lizzie's life.  As I said at the end of A Curl of Copper and Pearl, you should never mistake fiction for fact, and Rita weaves a story around the paintings we know so well and the woman who was the first, and for many the most important, Pre-Raphaelite supermodel. It is certainly a worthy addition to the Pre-Raphaelite fiction genre, and perfect for those long winter evenings.

Many thanks to Rita for her answers and for the review copy of her novel.
Buy Ophelia's Muse here (UK) or here (USA) or at a bookshop near you!

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Desperation to Transformation

Next month will mark the five year anniversary of when I underwent a massive transformation.  On the face of it I didn't look that different and many close friends didn't notice what I had done but in terms of how it affected my life it was cataclysmic.  I had a four hour operation, which for reasons of icky-ness I'll spare you the details, which relieved substantial quantities of pain I was suffering.  That was the primary reason I did it.  Secondary, but not inconsequential, it meant that since that day I have never had abuse from complete strangers.  Before then I was regularly shouted at, pointed at and generally discussed by random people in the street, in shops, pretty much anywhere.  Once in HMV a man brought his girlfriend over to look at me because he couldn't believe it.  Once in a pub, a man crawled underneath tables in order to take photographs of me.  I was out one evening with friends and a woman told me to my face that she didn't like me because of how I looked. One autumn morning in a private clinic in Winchester I transformed and have not heard a peep out of anyone since.

Apollo and Daphne (1908) John William Waterhouse
I was very lucky.  Money could make me vanish from sight, but thinking about the anniversary I considered how many stories there are about women changing themselves in order to escape the interest of others.  Daphne comes immediately to mind, transforming herself into a tree in order to escape the over-amorous Apollo.  Fuelled by a spiteful arrow from Eros, Apollo is unable to control his lust.  I gather the same is true of large quantities of alcohol. 

Daphne (1898) Arthur Hacker
Daphne pleads to the Gods to save her from her attacker and they change her into a tree.  This always seemed a little harsh to me as it seems a punishment on her for attracting attention rather than punishing Apollo for his unwanted advances.  That's not to say she didn't have a long and very happy life as a tree.  The birds perching on your branches, the squirrels frolicking up your trunk.  Actually it sounds quite nice.

Clytie Evelyn de Morgan
There are other women who transform in myths, but rarely does it seem to be for a positive reason.  Take Clytie, for example.  Her beloved, Helios (the sun), cheated on her and so she got her rival buried alive thinking this would make Helios remember why he loved her.  Yes, I know, looking back on it she could have handled that better.  Anyway, she went out to a rock and sat there, stark naked staring up at the sun and waiting for him to return to her, which he never did. After nine days she transformed herself into a heliotrope (or sunflower/tournesol in French) whose flowers track the movement of the sun each day.

Clytie (1895) Frederic Leighton
Again it is a tale of a woman turned into flora, benign and harmless. Clytie's active attempts to attract Helios are replaced by a passive watch, whilst Daphne finds safety from sexual attack in the form of a tree.  Is it the nullifying of sexual attraction and desire that these transformations result in, or something more specific to women?  Is it the troubling matter of women's choice?

Clytie (1880s) G F Watts

Clytie (1865-9) G F Watts
I have always loved Watts view of Clytie, especially the sculptures where you can see the muscles and sinew stretch and twist as she attempts to follow the path of her lover, even as she is transforming.  She is so possessed by her monomania that she is unaware that such a change is upon her.  I would argue that if she was male, Helios would be the one transformed (although he is already the sun which is quite unattainable, as lovers go).  The thing she has in common with Daphne is the presence of all-consuming desire which causes the woman in the situation to be 'made safe', made as sexless as a plant.

Echo G F Watts
Clytie wasn't the only transforming woman that Watts painted.  Echo transformed twice in her myth.  Firstly, possibly reflected in Watts' picture, she loses the ability to speak more than the last few words said to her which she is cursed to repeat.  The myth tells that the goddess Hera, sick and tired of Zeus' many dalliances with nymphs, sought to catch him.  Echo, a nymph who loved Zeus, tried to distract Hera with long conversations but when Hera worked out what she was doing took away her speech but for the last few words said to her. 

Echo (1874) Alexandre Cabanel
Usually Echo just looks sad and resigned to her fate so it was interesting to find Cabanel's image of her realising what has been done to her and fighting pointlessly against the change.  Echo's first transformation is again because of the dirty business of sex, whether she was the one who was rolling with Zeus or just covering up for his shenanigans. The removal of her voice was a punishment for being an accessory to extra-marital sex.  Terrible in itself but worse was yet to come...

Echo and Narcissus (1903) John William Waterhouse
When Echo finally fell in love, she picked the sort of chap we all know so well.  Narcissus was so beautiful that he only had eyes for himself and Echo could do nothing to woo him or tell him how she felt so her physical form faded away and she remained only a sound.  He transformed into a flower that gazes forever into the water, although it seems a punishment for his folly rather than desire.

These are in no way the only woman who are transformed in mythology, as metamorphoses are rife, be it the Heliades into poplar trees, Carya into a walnut tree, and Philyra into a linden tree (trees were popular, apparently).  That leads me to the final transformation...

The Tree of Forgiveness (1881-2) Edward Burne-Jones
Phyllis loved her husband Demophon, but he was forced to ride away and help his father.  When Phyllis gave up all hope of his return, she hanged herself from the branch of an almond tree.  An almond tree sprang from her grave and when Demophon returned and embraced it in grief, Phyllis suddenly emerged from inside it, the passion she felt transforming her back into a woman.  This is not a common ending to the story, usually only the tree merely blossoms or he never returns at all, but in Burne-Jones' dramatic painting the woman's transformation is one of empowerment, that her love sets her free and she can finally claim what she desires.  He doesn't look so sure but then his dead wife has just exploded out of a tree and that does tend to take you back a bit. Through Burne-Jones we have transformation as victory rather than finale, a win rather than just an end, and more importantly the woman choose the time and form of her transformation.

As for me, post-transformation, I am different but very much the same.  My transformation gave me the confidence and peace to become me, blogger, writer, general chatterbox and good-for-nothing saucepot. It was undoubtedly one of the best things I ever did, although there may well be moments when Mr Walker would prefer to be married to a tree...

Saturday 12 September 2015

Review: Red: A Natural History of the Redhead

You cannot be a fan of Pre-Raphaelite art without, at some point, noticing that one hair colour seems rather prevalent.  Whether you say 'russet' or 'Titian' or just plain 'ginger', the one hair colour that seems to be forever linked to Pre-Raphaelite art, rightly or wrongly, is red...

The 'natural history' of red hair is the subject of a brand spanking new book by Jacky Colliss Harvey, which I was sent as a jolly review pressie.  The front, as you can see is emblazoned with La Ghirlandata, reflecting the thread of the book that explores the cultural significance of red hair, but that is not all.  Starting 50,000 years ago, Harvey traces the origins and spread of russet tresses across the globe with the origins of man and the migration of the first tribes from Africa.  The recessive gene and its behaviour is the subject for the first fascinating chapters, showing how the characteristic can appear full strength, or in part, or in freckles, and predominantly in northern Europe.  Early on Harvey mentions albinism (which again I have an interest in) and there are links in the physical development and issues due to photosensitivity which I found very relevant to the Walker Household (which numbers one albino, one redhead and one chestnut glaze).  It's not only that which Harvey touches on; she also mentions things believed about redheads in history, from witchcraft, mind-reading and all manner of other magical powers.  I have informed Mr Walker that with his magical powers and Lily's mind-reading, we should go on the road...

The heavenly Joan Holloway from Mad Men
The cultural side of the book runs from Jesus to Joan Holloway covering all points in between.  The allure of a red-headed woman (and the conversant repel of a red-headed man) seems heavily linked with sin, temptation and temper.  One splendid quote runs 'God gives a woman red hair for the same reason he gives a wasp stripes.' Lovely.

...the 'redde-headed' queen
Elizabeth I...
The description of 'red' hair comes from Elizabethan time, according to Harvey, when the term 'redde-headed' was coined in Thomas Cooper's Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae.  The bright tresses of the queen gave way to a fashion for the colour, but stories of her temper and caprice were wide-spread and enduring.  Her independence, stubbornly holding out against attacks from abroad and at home, not to mention her unmarried status all added to the Virgin Queen's reputation and her red hair was just a part of that character.

The Biblical redheads, Judas and Mary Magdalene, find their full expression in art, as covered in the chapters on red hair in art.  This is obviously where we all come in, as the Pre-Raphaelites get a thorough going over as well as Whistler and Courbet.  Rather than concentrating on that well known ginger, Elizabeth Siddal, Harvey follows the life and career of Alexa Wilding...

La Bella Mano (1875) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Harvey states Alexa's hair was somewhere between copper and marigold, which is an interesting claim.  On the whole I feel that Rossetti had a mono-mania about hair colour and everyone got rouged up, even poor brunette Jane on occasions. Anyway, along with Alexa, Harvey looks at Jo Hiffernan...

Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl James McNeill Whistler
Jo, the beautiful Irish girl, was mistress to Whistler, and then model and mistress to Gustav Courbet, notoriously sitting (or should that be reclining) for L'Origine du Monde...

Look, I'm not posting a picture of The Origins of the World on here.
If you are of stout moral persuasion, google it
and then have a stiff drink and remember you're English.
Here instead is a lovely picture of a pussy
 and not the sort that will get you an adults-only rating.
Anyway, there is a very interesting discussion of the lady-garden in The Origins of the World, which is very determinedly not red, and is very, very dark.  If Jo was a natural redhead that is not her lower levels, and in fact the woman's head portrait that was recently matched to The Origins seems to bear this out.  Sorry Miss Hiffernan, that's not your bits and pieces.

Detail of Beethoven Frieze (1901) Gustav Klimt
In Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Frieze he characterizes the blonde woman as Debauchery, the brunette as Intemperance and the redhead as Lust.  This connection of red hair with sex is arguably what linked Jo Hiffernan with such an explicit image, and lingers still in figures such as Jessica Rabbit, referencing back to the ever-russet-y Mary Magdalene.  By contrast Harvey brings us up to date with heroines full of grit and determination, such as The X-Files' Agent Scully and Disney's Merida from Brave.  The duality of the redhead, both horribly fallen and steadfastly upright will rage on, no doubt.

Beata Beatrix (1864-70) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
To conclude, if you want a book about the meaning of red hair in Pre-Raphaelite art, then this probably isn't the book for you as that is only one part of what is on offer here.  However if you are after a full and fascinating account of the origins and cultural meanings of being a bit of a ginger, then you will be both impressed and entertained.  The subject spans ethnography, geography and science, all the way to art and pop cultural and is always understandable and thoughtful. 

For the record, I always found red haired men very attractive.  As Mr Walker knows well.

To buy Red: A Natural History of the Redhead visit Amazon UK (here) or US (here) or visit your local bookshop...

Wednesday 9 September 2015

The Curious Case of the Silver Spoon

As you know, my new novel We Are Villains All will be thrust upon you in December, so brace yourselves.  As I have pretty much finished all my work on it, just tinkering with covers and doing final amendments, my thoughts turned to what comes next.  It has been on my mind quite a bit since I finished the final draft of Villains back in the summer, but I think today I can add a new tab to the top of the page.  My next publication will be a return to non-fiction, to biography and to the life of an artist's model.  My next book will be a biography of Mary Hillier, maid and model to Julia Margaret Cameron.

Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die! (1867) Julia Margaret Cameron
 In light of this announcement, I thought I would bring you an interesting little story I came across in my research.  It is the story of a casual waiter, a silver spoon, and the testamony of a maid...

Lymington, Hampshire - 19th century
 On Monday 17th March 1873, a young gentleman called Henry Church was arrested in Lymington for hawking without a license.  This means that he was selling goods on the street, often by calling out or bantering with passers-by.  Sergeant Rodaway of Lymington apprehended the miscrient, but it seems that he had been tipped off by a silversmith and watchmaker of the town, George Marriott.  Marriott had been sold a silver teaspoon, which weighed a mere 1/2 ounze, for a couple of shillings.  The silversmith had obviously felt something was amiss as he had alerted the police, possibly because the teaspoon was crested.  That crest was of Julia Margaret Cameron's family. The charge of hawking without a license was withdrawn and a more serious one of theft was placed upon Henry Church who was transported over to Yarmouth, to the tender care of Superintendent Stephenson of the Isle of Wight Constabulary...

Matters moved quickly and on 26th March, Church found himself at the County bench, on the Wight, in a session that covered theft of hay (one day's imprisonment), theft of sugar (6 weeks hard labour) and non-vacination of a child (£1 fine).  When it came to Henry Church and the theft of the teaspoon, the court called Mary Hillier, maid to the Cameron household at Dimbola Lodge, Freshwater, as their star witness...

Sappho (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
Mary Hillier testafied that Church had sometimes worked at Dimbola as a waiter, presumably when Mrs Cameron had a house full of guests.  He had been at the house on 10th March and she had seen him go into the pantry where the spoons were kept, but it was not until 17th when she had noticed the spoon was missing.  It was one of 12, and when the police showed her the spoon that Church had sold to Marriott, she identified that as being Mrs Cameron's missing teaspoon.

Dimbola Lodge (1871) unknown photographer

Without any doubt, the court found him guilty and sentenced Church to two months hard labour.

I found this story facinating because it reveals a little of Victorian life behind the excitement and creativity of the photographs.  The Camerons ran a chaotic household, but one that was warm, friendly and welcoming.  It seems both unsurprising and disgusting that someone would take advantage of the trust that was placed in them to steal such a trifle.  It also struck me that Mary Hillier was in a difficult position herself as she was ultimately in charge of the silver spoons and had she not been trusted implictely by her mistress then she too might have fallen under suspicion.  She stood up and testified on behalf of Mrs Cameron (called the 'prosecutrix' in the newspaper reports, what a wonderful word) and got the spoon back, which is an interesting piece of back story for the Madonna of Freshwater.

Madonna and Two Children (1864) Julia Margaret Cameron

 For more information on my biography of Mary Hillier see the above tab and I will keep you posted as to my progress!

Tuesday 1 September 2015

The Other Fraser Tytler Girl...

I find it very interesting how certain people are lost in time.  A poet for example can just be forgotten, whereas another flourishes, despite being celebrated in their own time.  It is particularly curious when the poet is related to someone else who remains in the cultural consciousness.  Today's post is about just such a person.  This is the life of Christina Catherine Fraser Tytler...

Mrs Edward Liddell (Christina Catherine Fraser Tytler) (1877) Mary Seton Fraser Tytler
Now, before we start, let me just mention her name and its variations.  She is alternately known as 'Christina' and 'Christiana' and sometimes there is a hyphen in her surname.  For the sake of consistency I am sticking with Christina, but I'll explain Christiana later.  I'll leave the hyphen out, although it seems to be something the family used or dropped as they felt like it.  Right, on with the story...

While doing the research for this post I was reminded of the life of another lovely young woman, May Prinsep, to whom Christina and her family had links.  Christina was born 13 February 1848 in Bombay, India, the second daughter of Charles and Etheldred Fraser Tytler.  Charles worked in the East India Company's Madras Civil Service and was an associate of Thoby Prinsep.  When Etheldred died after giving birth to Mary Seton Fraser Tytler in 1849, Charles sent Christina, her older sister Etheldred and baby Mary back to live with their grandparents William and Margaret Fraser Tytler in Aldourie Castle on the shores of Lock Ness...

Well played, Aldourie Castle publicity chaps, well played...
The girls spent a decade growing up in the Highlands before their father retired and returned to his native Scotland with his second wife Harriet, in 1861.  They brought their sons Charles (1854-77), Edward (1856-1918) and William (1861-1935) as well as sister Eleanor (or Nelly) (1855-1909).  Another half sister Eva (1857-1859) had died in infancy in India.  Charles moved his wife and all of the children to a new home, Sanquhar, in Forres.

Sanquhar House (also known as Burdsyard)
Fraser Tytler family and friends outside Sanquhar, 1865
Although the family had land and decent connections, they were not wealthy and so it fell to the sisters to make good marriages. Etheldred never married, dying a spinster barely a year after her half-brother Edward, in 1919, both at their grandparents' castle by Loch Ness. Christina and Mary had other things but love on their mind.  Christina wanted to be a writer and her sister, an artist, but the usual round for girls of their class continued.  On Wednesday 23 Mary 1866, Christina was brought to St James' Palace in London and there presented to the Princess of Wales in the Queen's Drawing Room as one of many debutantes coming out into society.  Making their way in society seemed inevitably to lead the Fraser Tytler girls to Freshwater...

Christiana Fraser-Tytler (1864-5) Julia Margaret Cameron
Christina and Etheldred (known as Ethel) went to stay in Freshwater and obviously fell into the hands of Julia Margaret Cameron.  The photograph of Christina (or 'Christiana' as Julia called her) shows a beautiful young woman in a meditative pose.  When the sisters visited London in 1867 they visited Little Holland House and met G F Watts.  Christina and Ethel returned to Freshwater in 1868 and brought Mary and Nelly with them, again calling at Dimbola Lodge...

The Rosebud Garden of Girls (June 1868) Julia Margaret Cameron
(Nelly, Mary, Christina, and Ethel - unknown girl in foreground)
The Rosebud Garden of Girls (June 1868)
(Nelly, Christina, Mary and Ethel)
The Three Sisters / Peace, Love and Faith (1868) Julia Margaret Cameron
(Christina, Nelly and Ethel)
On 20 June 1868, the sisters visited Dimbola in Freshwater and Cameron photographed them in images inspired by Tennyson's Maud.  Each sister is representing a flower:

The red rose cries, 'She is near, she is near;'
And the white rose weeps, 'She is late;'
The larkspur listens, 'I hear, I hear;'
And the lily whispers, 'I wait...'
The sisters are bowed together like flowers, their similar faces emphasising their sisterhood.  I love The Three Sisters as it most clearly highlights the age difference between Ethel and Nelly, a decade between them, but also the deep love between them all, Mary not in the edited shot, but her sleeve seen on the far right. The poet and diarist William Allingham visited Dimbola on the day of the photograph and remembered the Fraser Tytler sisters - 'Meet girls going up the stairs in fancy dresses, Mrs C. has been photographing a group, and appears carrying glass negative in her collodionised hands. 'Magnificent! To focus them all in one picture, such an effort!'' When the poet Henry Longfellow met the Fraser Tytler girls in July 1868 he declared 'It was worthwhile coming to England to see such young ladies.'
Sweet Violet and Other Stories (1868-9) illustration by Mary Fraser Tytler
In December of 1868, Christina published her first book, Sweet Violet and Other Stories, which contained 6 illustrations by her sister Mary (who remained anonymous using her initials, M. F-T).  It was published as part of the 'Christmas books' section, intended as gift-books for girls and young ladies.  The Edinburgh Evening Courant reviewed it well, commenting that Christina 'has no inconsiderable power of portrait painting and for drawing suitable distinctions of character. We feel most readers will feel compelled to fall in love with "Sweet Violet".'  In one of the adverts for the book Christina is listed as 'Christiana' which I would have thought was a spelling mistake, but in the photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron she is also often listed as Christiana.  I can only guess that it was either an affectionate variation or an effort to make her name more poetic at the beginning of her career.
It was around this time that Christina met and fell in love with Edward Liddell, a vicar (to become Canon of Durham Cathedral) to whom she became engaged.
Christina Fraser Tytler (1870) Mary Fraser Tytler
Edward fell gravely ill in April 1870 and almost died.  It would be almost 18 months until he was well enough to marry Christina, on 26 September 1871 at St John's Church, Forres.  They were married by the Bishop of Moray and Ross and the church was filled by local people and gentry.  Edward was related to the Liddells of Oxford but also to the Duke of Wellington's family (his mother was a Wellesley) and so the guests included lords, ladies, a countess and a member of parliament.
Christina Liddell (nee Fraser Tytler) (September 1871) Mary Fraser Tytler
As a respectable married woman, Christina continued with her career, publishing novels Jasmine Leigh (1871), Mistress Judith (1875), Jonathan (1876) and poetry collections Songs in Minor Keys (1884) and Songs of the Twilight Hours (1909), as well as appearing in different publications such as Good Words for the Young, the Good Words Annual and  the Sunday Magazine. She is sometimes listed as 'C. C. Fraser-Tytler' and sometimes as 'Mrs Edward Liddell', as well as simply 'Fraser Tytler'
Note that she also played with the name 'Fraser Tytler' avoiding the woman-novelist stigma
Marriage suited her - a family friend Francis Jenkinson wrote in a letter home that he had seen Christina in March 1879 looking 'so plump and well, you would hardly have known her.' Christina wrote on religious subjects, much of her poetry using Christian themes and tone which may explain why her work is not better known today.  It is obvious that she found a great deal of comfort in her faith, channelling such traditional Victorian subjects as art through a Christian eye.  For example, in 'Love and Art', a male narrator tries to understand the woman he loves by beseeching a poet, a painter and a composer to replicate her in their art form but nothing could match the wonder of God's creation, the woman herself. In a very Tennysonian poem, 'Crossing the River', published in Songs in Minor Keys, Christina considers how it would be to cross the river that separated the living from the dead:
Ah, could we follow where they go
And pierce the holy shade they find,
One grief were ours - to stay behind!
One hope - to join the Blest Unseen -
To plant our steps where theirs have been,
And find no river flows between!
George and Mary Watts at Limnerslease, Compton

 Of all her siblings, Christina seems to have been especially close to Mary, and to her husband George Frederick Watts, whom she had met prior to Mary's meeting with him. Watts admired Christina's poetry, writing that he envied her gift of words - 'Words won't come to me! If I try to come at them they seem to fly over the waste and I only see a whisking tail!'.  In Emilie Barrington's G F Watts Reminiscences (1905) she quoted a letter he wrote in 1886 that he felt Christina's poems had 'a waft of sweet air in them'. It might have been this closeness that brought Christina and Edward to move to Puttenham, a neighbouring village to Compton, after his retirement.  They lived out the remainder of their lives in Birdshanger, which miraculously still stands today (you know my track record with people's houses) and I got to linger outside their massive gates and hedge on a recent visit up to the Watts Gallery...

I lowered property values just by my presence...
Edward died in 1914 and Christina in 1927, Christina leaving almost £6,000 to her sister Mary (equivalent to £300,000 in today's money).  Both of them are buried in a grave just outside the memorial to George and Mary at the Compton Cemetery...

Edward Liddell - Priest (and his dates)
and his wife Christina Catherine (and her dates)

Christina's work is not well known now and not many copies of the original books seem available to buy, at least not at an acceptable price.  You can download a lot of her work for free however -  Jonathan is available here, Songs in Minor Keys is here, plus others can be found through the Hathi Trust Digital Library. I hope to return to the subject of Christina and her sisters later in the autumn...