Friday 29 April 2016

The Song of the Trousers

While pottering about with research, I came across an interesting little story which I shall share with you.  It concerns Ann and Emily Lockyer, mother and daughter, who were seamstresses.  In 1902, they found themselves up in Worship Street Police Court, Bethnal Green, on a charge of stealing trousers…
Stitch! Stitch! (1876) John Evertt Millais

Now, I don’t have to tell you that the lot of a seamstress was not a happy one.  It was well known that women who sewed often did so because they were widowed or orphaned and had children to support.  Home-sewing ensured you could mind your little ones while making money, however the sums involved were pitiful.  Thomas Hood wrote his famous poem ‘The Song of the Shirt’ in response to the sad case of Mrs Biddell, who sewed trousers and shirts for an employer who provided the materials for a £2 deposit (that’s around £100 in today’s money).  Mrs Biddell could probably expect a couple of pence pay per item and would no doubt have to pay for her own needles and thread out of that.  On the brink of starvation, Mrs Biddell pawned several of the items she had sewn and was sent to the workhouse in debt.  So moving was this account that Hood’s poem seems as a siren call to end such inhuman labour:
‘Stitch – stitch – stitch,
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with double thread,
A shroud as well as a shirt.’
Art at the time turned to reflect this struggle, showing women sewing in sad little rooms, poor and desperate.  Whilst feminine sewing had been seen as a proper pastime for lovely ladies, it became more apparent that for some it was matter of life and death, most probably death.

What Victorian Men think I do...
(Girl in a Blue Skirt, Sewing J B Marchais)

What I actually do...
(Song of the Shirt (1850) G F Watts)
So you would hope that 50 years later, things would have improved for home-sewers.  Enter Ann and Emily Lockyer.  Ann, 60 years old, was the widow of a cabinet maker.  Until the 1890s, the Lockyers had been reasonably comfortable in their work, and Ann was described in the census returns as a ‘Tailoress’, which suggests a certain level of skill.  Mr Lockyer had learnt the trade of cabinet making from his father and he, unlike his wife, was literate and of a certain standard of education (if the marriage register is anything to go by).  They lived in Bethnal Green, raising their children and leading a decent, uneventful life. 
Widowed and Fatherless (1888) Thomas Kennington
When Mr Lockyer died in 1898 all that changed.  Emily was unmarried and she and her mother obviously could not afford to keep a house of their own.  They appear in the 1901 census, living with their son-in-law, who was a postman and head of his own sizable household.  It seems unsurprising that they had to move into rooms of their own, but it does not seem to be an upward move.  The rooms were described as ‘miserable and squalid’ (a more honest way of saying ‘a property with character’, possibly…) 
Song of the Shirt (1877) Edward Radford

They worked for Shadrac, Schneider and Sons, a wholesale clothing manufacture of Durward Street, Bethnal Green.  Emily seems to have been the main employee because it was she that took in the pairs of trousers for ‘finishing’.  Finishing entailed a sewer putting on buttons, hemming the garment, sewing in bands and pockets and that sort of thing.  For each garment ‘finished’ the women received 2d, which equates to around 48p of today’s money.  When several of the pairs of trousers did not arrive back at Shadrac, Schneider and Sons in October 1902, they sent the police round to Ann and Emily’s rooms and found the pawn tickets relating to four pairs that Ann had taken to the pawnbroker.  The two women were hauled up in court on 15th October 1902 and it was reported in the Daily News the day after.

The Seamstress (1881) Christian Krohg
Under the headline ‘STITCH! STITCH!! STITCH!!!’, the paper spoke of the pair’s ‘pitiable appearance of poverty’s struggles’ and how they ‘wailed out their defence’.  Emily was reported as saying ‘We had no food.’ Her mother added ‘It is slow starving to work on these things at 2d and 2¼d a pair.  We did it to get food and light.’
The Young Seamstress (1907) Harold Knight
Such emotional pleas fell on deaf ears.  In response the Magistrate, Mr Cluer (probably not on 2d per case) said ‘it might be starvation, but it was not sense to throw away the chance of earning even the small sum they got.’ They were each ordered to pay 10 shillings, an equivalent of around £28 or serve five days in prison for unlawful pawning.  They were taken off to prison because where on earth would they get 10 shillings from?

Jane Morris, seated in a chair, sewing (1860s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Enter the reason I came across the story.  Reading the Daily News on Thursday 16 October 1902 was another woman, famed for her talent with a needle.  She was so horrified by the plight of the women that she wrote immediately to the newspaper:
Sir,  I enclose 10s towards paying the fine to extricate those two poor needlewomen sentenced at Worship-street court, as reported in your issue of yesterday, Oct. 16.  Yours etc. (Mrs) Jane Morris, Kelmscot (sic) Manor, Lechlade, Oct. 17, 1902
[The above has been sent to the Court Missionary. – Ed. D.N.]
The reason I found this so surprising and touching is because we often think of Jane as quite aloof and uninvolved in real life.  While her daughters and husband held the Socialist banner high, Jane is conspicuous by her absence and it has struck people as noteworthy that she did not involve herself as wholeheartedly as May, for example, in pursuing and upholding her husband’s principles. 
Hammersmith Socialist League, with William, May and Jenny Morris present
Little did I suspect that Jane favoured a bit of direct action and in freeing at least one of the women (possibly both with time served) and broadcasting her actions publically in the newspaper, she might have highlighted the continuing plight of needlewomen which does not seem to have improved a jot since Mrs Biddell in 1843.  It could be that she was purely motivated by the awful plight of the women, it could be that her husband’s socialism had also been her own, but it could also have been that she was smart enough to realise that whilst she had the luxury and time to do this…
Detail of Bedcover (1910) Jane and May Morris
…others were also sewing, but in ‘slow starving’ and squalor. 

Whatever her reasons I think I appreciate Jane Morris a little bit more today because of it.

Monday 25 April 2016

Kiss Me, I'm 5!

Well, look, this is getting ridiculous!  This nonsense has been going on now for five years and for some reason you lovely people have been good enough to humour me by keeping me company.  So, today The Kissed Mouth blog is half a decade old so here is my annual review of the year...

May 2015
I kicked off my year with posts on saucy Venus and people in disguise, but for the bank holiday I loved bringing you two posts on the Pre-Raphaelite beauty and everso well-connected May Prinsep.  I adore research that involves me ending up in graveyards and there was certainly lots of that as I visited churches and photographed memorial stones, together with showing you images of her from childhood to old age.  I'm thorough, I'll give you that.  Anyway, my favourite image has to be one of Julia Margaret Cameron's, if only for its stunning simplicity...

All Her Paths Are Peace (1866) Julia Margaret Cameron
June 2015
Into the summer and I reached my 500th blog post, which was all very exciting.  I got to talk to you about the amazing Sarah Ackland, pioneer of colour photography and creator of gorgeous pictures like this one, my pick of the month...

Flora (1910) Sarah Acland
I also talked about Julia Margaret Cameron rather a lot because it was her birthday so I did a couple of posts on the use of fabric and jewellery in her photographs, a subject that has continued to fascinate me and will crop up again in my upcoming book. I also got to do a bit of reviewing in June, reading a lovely book on Arts and Crafts stained glass and saw a film about Sherlock Holmes being my Dad.  Seriously, it's uncanny...

July 2015
Into the long, hot summer holiday and I gave a paper at the Julia Margaret Cameron conference in Portsmouth and met lots of smashing new people, I reviewed Marta Weiss' catalogue for the V&A exhibition on JMC and talked about a new play all about Rossetti's women that was up at the Edinburgh Festival.  I also raised blood-pressures with a naughty piece all about harems (steady now) and possible readings of The Lady of Shalott with reference to a horror film called It Follows.  The most fun I had all month was researching the controversy over this scandalous work of art.  Brace yourselves...

The Annunciation (1876-79) Edward Burne-Jones
The slanging match that erupted over the works of Burne-Jones exhibited at the 1879 Grosvenor Gallery exhibition is puzzling and funny now but must have left many people smarting as the establishment and the new crowd clashed over what was 'good taste' and who should dictate it. Looking at pictures like The Annuciation and the Pygmalion cycle it's hard to see why people reacted so badly but the very public scrap tells us much about the artistic scene and how much people had invested in it.

August 2015
I had the pleasure of talking to Victoria Olsen about Julia Margaret Cameron in August, as well as visiting the Richard Dadd exhibition at the Watts' Gallery.  They do such marvellous exhibitions at the Watts', I seem to be always looking forward to their next show.  Because it was the summer holidays, I was commuting by train rather than car and so felt inspired to write a piece about Victorian rail travel and how much more classy it seemed than barrelling about the south coast with only a bottle of pop and a Kindle to keep you sane.  I also explored Rossetti's dodgy reputation in the 20th century which was not as bad as you'd think but swiftly dwindled before the 1960s revival.  What gave me the most fun of the month was chasing after the lovely Annie Louisa Swynnerton, and finding her grave not far from where I work.  Her work is so gorgeous it was an absolute pleasure finding out more about the woman behind such works as this one...

Sense of Sight (1895) Annie Swynnerton
As you will probably know by now, I love finding the graves of artists and models and am currently after another one to show you at some point. I'm glad to know that I'm not alone in this pasttime and it is lovely to hear from you when you go and see the final resting place of someone we've talked about here.

September 2015
Into the autumn, I reviewed a couple more books - Ophelia's Muse and Red: The Natural History of the Redhead, which was all very Pre-Raphaelite-y.  I talked about Mary Watts' sister, the poet Christina Fraser Tytler, who posed for Julia Margaret Cameron.  Also in Cameron news, I brought you a little known story of how Mary Hillier stood up in court in the case of a silver spoon stolen from Dimbola Lodge.  In rather more personal posts, I talked about transforming yourself into a tree (should the need arise) and the horror that seems to be felt over aging and the ruination of muses. It was this month that I first showed you the last picture of Fanny Cornforth, which has to be my picture of the month.  Good old Fan...

Sarah Hughes, aka Fanny Cornforth (1907)
October 2015
I seem to have spent a lot of October at the cinema and reading as I reviewed Suffragette and Crimson Peak (both spankingly good films) and read The Looking Glass House all of which I enjoyed.  I talked about poor old Alfred, Lord Tennyson dying, and my weakness for man damsels expressed through images of Hylas and the Nymphs.

Hylas and the Nipples (1896) J W Waterhouse
Seriously, I'm a sturdy girl, I will rescue you and there will be no escape.  That sounded less threatening in my head...

November 2015
Well, looking at the posts I had a very busy November.  I went to Prague, which was lovely and full of Art Nouveau stuff. I reviewed a load of exhibitions including two Julia Margaret Cameron shows and one all about animals.  I brought you the sad story of Mary Kellaway, the third Mary in Julia Margaret Cameron's household. I also accepted my fate as the researcher who ends up in asylums, figuratively speaking.  Mind you, the biggest thing that happened to me in November was the launch of my new novel We Are Villains All...

Flipping heck! I wrote another book!  Huzzah!
Thanks to everyone who has read and reviewed my novel and please, if you enjoyed We Are Villains All, pop a review on Amazon or Goodreads.  You might just encourage someone else to read it and that in turn means I can afford more gin and stockings.

December 2015
December can only mean one thing, Blogvent, but last year we had Muffvent instead as apparently I'm not innuendo-filled enough.  I blame you lot, you saucepots.

Woman with a Muff (1912) Edward Okuń
She is not going to keep warm dressed like that... Moving on...

January 2016
Happy new year! I spent the month talking about Victorian images of Tudors, we saw the aftermath of attending a ball.  If we learnt anything it was that even if you are wearing a mask, it all still counts and will end in tears.  Honestly, I don't care what he promised you while you were waltzing, he was just after a fondle of your corset.  I also had a chat with you about Frank Cadogan Cowper, the Pre-Raphaelite who didn't let a little thing like the twentieth century stop him.  It was while I was looking for his grave in Cirencester that I found my image of the month...

It was such a beautiful grave that I had to find out more and I brought you the story of a woman whose talented children honoured her with their art.  Obviously, as it's me we ended up in an asylum again, but when you read the story of Mary Ann Gibbons, I defy you not to be deeply touched.

February 2016
I saw a couple of lovely exhibitions in February, but really what February was about this year was our first chance to remember the day Fanny Cornforth died and so we had our first 'Fanny-versary' with a week of posts about Fanny, our perception of her and what she means in the whole Pre-Raphaelite story. My favourite post was one I've been meaning to do for ages, all about how I think Monna Vanna is secretly Fanny Cornforth...

Monna Vanna (1865) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I saw Monna Vanna at the weekend when I visited the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition in Liverpool where she is hanging opposite Venus Verticordia.  Although both female figures are the typical Rossetti idealisation, you'd be hard-pressed to say that Alexa was definitely the model for both.  I'm so Fanny-centric, obviously I'll say that Monna Vanna is Fanny, but it is worth considering...

March 2016
March was a month of splendid books, with reviews on a new look at the photography of Lewis Carroll, the catalogue of the Liverpool exhibition, and a new Victorian novel by Robert Stephen Parry.  Oddly enough, it was five years ago, around the time I started this blog, that the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood website did a read-along with The Arrow Chest, Robert's other Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite-y novel which got me hooked on his work. Anyway, also in March I got to talk about the splendidly named Agnes Mangles, and I helped Dimbola with the identification of a plaque...

Mary Gilbert (c.1910-1919) Muriel Ida Perrin
An awful lot of work this year has been towards my new biography of Mary Hillier, maid and muse of Julia Margaret Cameron and I have had enormous fun discovering more and more details about the beautiful face of much of Cameron's work.

April 2016
Anyway, here we are in April and it's all gone quite Brontë this month what with it being Charlotte's 200th birthday.  I saw the gorgeous French bio-pic from the 70s with some of the most lovely hair you will ever see on screen.  I also saw the Marie Stillman exhibition at the Watts and told you all about the English Switzerland, but my image for this month has to be this...

Charlotte Brontë (c.1869-1895)William Bright Morris (after George Richmond)
I love a mystery and so when Mr Walker asked me to find out more about the Russell-Cotes copy of the George Richmond portrait of Charlotte Brontë, how could I refuse?  I love digging around to find the answer because the story of how Charlotte's publisher ended up with a copy of her portrait is proper Victorian romance, proving that very few things are  as straightforward as you'd think.  Actually, that's a pretty good summing up of what The Kissed Mouth blog is all about really.  While there are stories to be told, I'll be delighted to tell them and if you have the time, I'd be grateful for your company.

Hurrah, I'm five! Kisses all round!

Thursday 21 April 2016

Charlotte Brontë, 21st April 1816

Happy Charlotte Brontë day!  Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the author of Jane Eyre and to celebrate I bring you a bit of a mystery…
Charlotte Brontë (1850) George Richmond
You are more than likely all familiar with this image.  It is the portrait of Charlotte by George Richmond, done in chalk and dated 1850.  In George Richmond’s artist’s records there is an entry for the picture and his normal fee of 30 shillings, his standard charge for a head and shoulders portrait.  Whilst he recorded making duplicates of other portraits, there is only one Charlotte Brontë.  At least, by his hand...
Copy after George Richmond, painted on porcelain
 It was commissioned by George Smith, of Charlotte’s publisher Smith, Elder and Co, and given as a gift to Patrick Brontë, Charlotte’s father.  Charlotte died in 1855 and after Patrick Brontë died in 1861, the portrait went to Charlotte’s widower Arthur Nicholls, who had gone to live in Ireland with his second wife.  Story has it that the portrait fell on the second wife and it was given to the National Portrait Gallery.  Whether these two instances were connected I’ll leave it up to you to decide. Anyway, today's mystery is that in 1969 the Russell-Cotes bought at auction a pastel portrait of  Charlotte Brontë, signed George Richmond 1850 and it looks like this...
Charlotte Brontë (1850) George Richmond
or at least that is what they were told when they bought it.
Look familiar? Until the 1990s the picture was taken at its face value, that it was a copy of the Richmond picture, done by Richmond at around the same time as the original.  It was suggested that possibly it was the original Richmond picture but herein lies the keyword for today's post: provenance.  In the past I have identified works of art for various institutions and so when Mr Walker asked me to find out more about the Russell-Cotes' picture I was happy to take up the challenge but what you really need is a clear path of provenance.  The National Portrait Gallery undoubtedly have the original picture as their picture has a nice path from Charlotte Brontë to her father to her husband to her husband's second wife's head to the NPG.  Unless the pictures were swapped at any point, unless multiple copies were made and distributed for some unknown reason (and kept secret until now) then we can be fairly certain that the NPG own the official portrait of Charlotte Brontë done by George Richmond in June 1850.
The Brontë Sisters (1834) Branwell Brontë
Anne, Emily, (Branwell, scrubbed out) and Charlotte
Obviously it was not the first portrait of Charlotte, that honour goes within the family.  Possibly the most enduring image of the Brontë family is Branwell's portrait with his own image scraped out.  Much can be read into the insular, troubling image of the family, fragile from folds and huddled together in the darkness as they get scraped out one by one.  Sorry, my imagination was getting away from me there...
Charlotte Brontë Unknown artist
Nor is Richmond's portrait the only 'lone' picture of Charlotte, as the Brontë Parsonage also owns this offering.  A particularly doll-like Charlotte seems to be looking for someone, as does her dog.  Is it her own mortality slowly creeping upon her as she waits in her mourning clothes...?  Sorry, at it again.

I have a particular fondness for photographs of the Brontë Sisters, or Les Souers Brontë, as one of these is French (as these things tend to be).  Although they are lovely photographs, especially the top one, neither has any provenance at all or any compelling arguments other than 'wouldn't it be smashing if these were the Brontë Sisters?' The top photo is particularly gorgeous and dramatic and much has been made of the fact that the figure of 'Charlotte' on the left looks like her portrait but I'm sadly not at all convinced.  Gorgeous image tho'.  Look at the spaniel-shine on 'Anne's' hair on the right.  It's very staged, and if you told me that it was by Oscar Rejlander, I wouldn't be surprised.  As for the bottom image it's more like a family portrait of the 1840s or 50s but the women in the lower image look more like a mother and two daughters.
Miniature of Charlotte (1967) H Midgley-Dodding
So iconic is the Richmond image of Charlotte that she is instantly recognisable in the miniature done over 100 years after her death by the artist H. Midgley-Dodding.  Charlotte herself felt the portrait by Richmond looked more like her sister Emily, and wept when she saw it, but it is the accepted image of one of the most famous authors of the nineteenth century.  Most images after her death are derived from it, and they crop up as engravings in her books, like this one...

Charlotte Brontë (1873) Evert Duyckinick
Again, based on George Richmond's portrait
So, back to the Russell-Cotes' portrait. It entered the collection in 1969 and then was hanging in one of the galleries when it was spotted by a Brontë enthusiast in the early 1990s.  It was borrowed by the Brontë Parsonage for an exhibition in 1993 on the understanding that it was a copy of the original, but still by Richmond.  In a press cutting of the exhibition, from the Yorkshire Post, Jane Sellars, the Parsonage director was quoted as saying "We sent a photograph of it to an expert on the works of Richmond and he feels it is his work."  However, by the time the Parsonage returned the work to the Russell-Cotes, they had come to the conclusion it was more than likely a copy by an artist called William Bright Morris...

The William Bright Morris copy of George Richmond's portrait, dated 1909
Bright Morris (1844-1912) lived for a while in Capri and was a respected painter of landscapes and still life.  In 1909, he made a copy of the Richmond portrait which is now owned by Newnham College, Cambridge.  For obvious reasons, the 1909 Charlotte looks very much like the Russell-Cotes' Charlotte but most notably the signatures were the same, apart from on the Cambridge copy it read 'after George Richmond 1850'.  In the Russell-Cotes version, the 'after' is missing.  This seemed to be enough to say that Bright Morris must also have created another copy that made its way to a Bournemouth auction room in 1969.

The Brontë Sisters (apparently) by Edwin Landseer (apparently)
Sold at auction in 2012 (well, that bit is true)
Undoubtedly the signatures on both are very similar.  What I don't know is if they are both like Bright Morris' handwriting as he is not very well known these days and his work is not as widespread as would be convenient.  Anyway, I have found out that he also made a copy of the Richmond portrait earlier than 1909. In 1895, the Brontë Parsonage were planning an exhibition of the sisters' effects and George Smith offered to lend them original manuscripts of the novels and a copy of Charlotte's portrait by Richmond, 'painted by Mr Bright-Morris, specially for Mr Smith'.  Ah ha! So, there was another Bright Morris portrait painted before the 1909 one (which is clearly dated in the same handwriting that exists on both the Cambridge and the Bournemouth portraits).  Whilst that seems to clear one mystery it brings up another - why did George Smith want a copy of the portrait by William Bright Smith?  According to his correspondence with Charlotte Brontë, he already had one...
George Murray Smith (1901) John Collier
Charlotte and George Smith were very good friends, possibly more.  She first met him when she and Emily came to London to 'out' themselves as women to the publisher who had thought they were men.  George Smith was a handsome, amiable chap and he and Charlotte became good friends and so when Jane Eyre became popular and Richmond was commissioned to do the portrait, George Smith took the opportunity to get a personal copy done too.  In her letter to him of 27th July 1850, shortly after the Richmond portrait had been completed, Charlotte wrote to Smith thanking him for the portrait that had been sent to Patrick Brontë , the author's father.  She also went on to say
 'You thought inaccurately about the copy of the picture as far as my feelings are concerned, and yet you judged rightly on the whole; for it is my intention that the original drawing shall one day return to your hands.  As the production of a true artist it will always have a certain worth, independently of subject.'
So what do we derive from this?  Unfortunately we do not have George's original letter to her so we don't know if he had obtained the copy in 1850 or had intended to do so shortly after.  What seems apparent from Charlotte's letter is that he was intending to have the copy made by a respected artist, hence Charlotte's remark that it would be valuable despite being of her, bless her.  I think possibly that Smith was intending to have a copy done but the reassurance from Charlotte that he would eventually own the original made him delay his plan.  There is a letter from him to Ellen Nussey, a friend of Charlotte's, in 1869, stating that the museum in South Kensington (now the V&A) had managed to find out Charlotte's widower's address in Ireland in order to borrow the Richmond picture for an exhibition.  If Smith had indeed had a copy done in 1850 then it would have been easier for the museum to borrow his portrait than find out Mr Nicholl's and borrow the original.

1980 Famous Authoress stamp series by the Royal Mail
Again, based on the 1850 Richmond portrait
So what is the answer?  Well, as the auction house in Bournemouth could offer no provenance when requested in 1993, then we can't be certain but the narrative that seems to offer itself is that the Bournemouth Brontë  is probably George Smith's copy of Richmond's original.  We know from the 1895 newspaper article that he owned a Bright Morris copy, although without knowing more of Mr Bright Morris, we don't know when that copy was done.  As William Bright Morris was born in 1844, this backs up the idea that if he did George Smith's copy then it wasn't done in 1850.  I would even venture to suggest that if Smith is not in possession of a copy by 1869 (as suggested by the South Kensington Museum's use of the Richmond original), then it was done somewhen between 1869 and 1895, possibly prompted by the arrival of the original in London for the South Kensington exhibition.  If I had to guess, Smith got Bright Morris to copy the portrait around this date and then Bright Morris did a further copy of it in 1909 which resides in Cambridge.

So what is the lesson of today's post? Well, after 200 years, our love of the Brontë sisters is so strong that we long to know more and being such visual creatures we need to see them.  I think it is interesting that of late the alleged portraits of the Brontë sisters have been photographs, acknowledging a problem that Charlotte felt herself - paintings can often flatter or change the appearance to what we think a person should look like.  Looking at the progression of 'portraits' of Charlotte after the Richmond image they change small details making her look more romantic, putting a blush in her cheek, a book in her hand.  I think George Smith wanted a straight copy of Richmond's work which is why it would be tempting to think that Richmond himself made the copy.  As it is more likely another artist, presumably William Bright Morris, made the copy then the fact that it is so identical to the original (so much so that an expert felt it was by Richmond) tells us something about Smith and Charlotte.  Whilst Richmond's portrait might not have been an exact portrait of Charlotte, the picture was a moment in time, the capturing of a likeness of his dear friend of whom he was obviously very fond.  In making the copy, Smith is not only recapturing a good work of art but also the spirit of 1850 when the world had opened up to Charlotte Brontë  in a way that had been denied her and was ultimately not to be. In 1850,  after the deaths of her brother and two sisters Charlotte had been superficially freed from Haworth, travelling to London and beginning a new literary life.  As her happiness was not to last, it is unsurprising that Smith wanted to freeze her in 1850, the bright, young novelist with her whole life ahead of her.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

Splendid Lecture at Leighton House - Special Offer!

You will remember that a month or so ago I reviewed the gorgeous exhibition that is currently on at Leighton House. Well, the splendid people at Leighton House have an evening lecture entitled The Day-Dream of Painting: the Purposes of Drawing in Victorian England...

Study of the Figure of Love from Dante's Dream D G Rossetti
Taking place on Thursday 21 April, independent art historian and curator Christopher Newall will explore the various purposes for which drawings were made in the Victorian period; from works that were to be seen and sold, to private meditations, personal to the artist. The Lecture starts at 7pm but there is chance from 6.15pm to look round the exhibition Pre-Raphaelites on Paper: Victorian Drawings from the Lanigan Collection.

King Pelles Daughter Bearing the Vessel of the Sangrael (1861) Frederick Sandys
Tickets are normally £15 but because we're all chums you can get in for £10, which includes entry to Leighton House Museum, complimentary drink (huzzah!) and entry to the lecture, obviously.

Enter promotional code SPECIAL10 when booking here.

If anyone asks, say Mrs Walker sent you and wink.

Monday 11 April 2016

Movie night: Les Sœurs Brontë

Are you looking for suggestions for a film for this evening?  Looking for something to curl up in front of with some chocolate, a positive mental attitude and hopefully no sharp objects?  I think I have just the thing for you, as long as you are in a really happy mood.  If you are feeling a bit sad, don't say I didn't warn you.  May I offer you Les Sœurs Brontë...

There were rumours a few years back of a film version of the life of the Brontë sisters, staring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Branwell and that lady off Dawson's Creek as one of the sisters, but that doesn't seem to have come to anything.  Other than a 1940s version of their life, Les Soeurs Brontë is the only cinematic attempt to bring the life of Emily, Anne and Charlotte (and Bramwell) Brontë to the screen.  As the sharper among you will have noticed, it is in your actual French but has English subtitles and so my dear friend Miss Holman (resting assassin and good for bail money) bought it for me for my birthday...

The Brontë Sisters, from the left Emily, Anne and Charlotte
(Isabelle Adjani, Isabelle Huppert, and Marie France Pisier)
Although it was released back in 1979, I have to admit the only bit that seemed dated to me were the credits, as once we are thrown in, it doesn't jar in the way that some period dramas do.  Mind you, if you consider Isabelle Adjani went on to film one of my favourite period dramas, La Reine Margot, maybe the French are just good at making period film that feel timeless.  No false eyelashes and inappropriate make up here.  Everything is absolutely beautiful.  And bleak.  Really, really bleak.

Isabelle Huppert as Anne 
Mia Wasikowska in Crimson Peak
Blimey, but everyone is everso lovely in the film, especially the ethereal Anne, who out of the three sisters could easily be overlooked as she didn't write either of the Brontë novels that people can immediately name.  I have the impression that del Toro must have been aware of Huppert's styling in the film when bringing Edith Cushing to the screen (in Crimson Peak) or conversely the stylist for Les Soeurs Brontë also really like Millais' The Bridesmaid.

Emily strides around the moors, having a good wuther...
The film opens with Branwell completing the famous portrait of the sisters and himself, and it becomes immediately obvious that the family exists in a restricted space, all huddled together while the darkness gathers (much like in the painting).  Emily pulls on trousers and scrambles over hill and dale, outraging elderly family members, but ultimately getting nowhere and returning to the parsonage. I particularly liked the scene where her sister shows her a beautiful wild rose which Emily spurns in favour of the holly, which will last longer.  Just to prove her point, she stomps all over the rose.  Nice.

Charlotte and Anne, writing among laundry...
We follow the sisters to Brussels, and to the home where Anne was the governess, but always back to Haworth, to the tiny parsonage which seems cold and quiet.  The sisters are often shot with their backs literally against a wall, their costume different from the people around them (most extreme example of this being the opera scene at the end of the film).  There are many scenes at night where the Brontës are crammed into the space carved for them by a guttering candle.  There is an ever pervasive feeling of confinement, difference, captivity.

'Would it kill you to help with the laundry, Emily?'
The Brontë sisters are dressed beautifully, like little dolls, their diminutive size emphasised by their frankly massive dog.  Branwell's descent into misery and failure is marvellously brought to screen by Pascal Greggory and his cheekbones.  He manages to combine all the self-indulgent moping, drinking and more drinking of Branwell without being irritating, even when he sets his bed on fire.  For heaven's sake.  His profound inability to get away from Haworth is played as a very obvious foreshadowing of the sister's fate in a way I had not considered, and his demise (come on, that's not a spoiler, surely?) sets up the final part of the film.  Possibly my favourite moment of the entire film, just for its sheer bleakness, has to be the sisters reading appalling reviews of Wuthering Heights out loud while Emily scrubs the scorch marks off Branwell's wall.  Stunningly gothic.

Emily and Branwell, pretty and doomed
So, you know how it's going to end, and it's not cheery, but Les Soeurs Brontë is absolutely beautiful. Using the portrait of the siblings and Branwell's subsequent alteration of it as a reflection of the comparative fortunes of the  family, this is a suffocating narrative of isolation, both intellectual and within society.  All they have is each other, and as the film suggests, that is both their strength and their downfall.  It makes Bright Star look like a gigglefest, so make sure you're feeling chipper when you watch it, but I can guarantee that you'll love it, if only for the proof that life is too short to do ironing...

Les Soeurs Brontë (1979) is available from shops and the interweb now.  Although mine was a French edition, the subtitles were easy to find.  

Friday 8 April 2016

Review: Marie Spartali Stillman at the Watts Gallery

The last review of this week comes from one of the most eagerly awaited exhibitions of this year. Although I obviously relish the chance to go to large-scale Pre-Raphaelite blockbusters, you can't beat smaller single artist shows to help get you some insight into lesser known figures.  The Watts Gallery seem to excel in this sort of thing, bringing us Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, Richard Dadd and now Marie Spartali Stillman, over from the Delaware Art Museum where the exhibition first showed.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1868) Julia Margaret Cameron
I first encountered Marie Spartali Stillman as a model for Rossetti, most notably in A Vision of Fiammetta (1878).  After the Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists exhibition of the mid 1990s I became aware of her as an painter, and in recent years I have met her again with her connection to Julia Margaret Cameron.  I suppose it was only a matter of time until we spent some quality time together, just her and me...

A Rose in Armida's Garden (1894) Marie Spartali Stillman
I have to admit that when I see Marie's works, my first thought is always of Elizabeth Siddal.  I wonder if, had she lived, her art would have resembled Marie's in subject and style. The Watts Gallery now gives us opportunity to view a collection of Marie's works together in one room, to admire her talents, not only in pretty Pre-Raphaelite subjects like A Rose in Armida's Garden but also in still life and landscape, both in intimate and grand scale.

The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo (1889) Marie Spartali Stillman
I am guessing this is a smaller show than what exhibited in Delaware as the Watts have used their lower temporary exhibition space only, rather than the two floors they usually fill, but none the less it is filled with romance and beauty.  There are familiar pieces such as The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo which is even more beautiful in real life (as these things often are).  The pattern on the coat of the rather Simeon Solomon-esque fellow on the right is especially noteworthy.

Roses with Palette Knife (undated) Marie Spartali Stillman
I have to admit I'm not normally a lover of still life, but Roses with Palette Knife is so vivid you could almost smell it.  It presents you with such a tightly packed space filled with colour, not unlike the exhibition itself.  It hangs in a trio of Marie's fruit and flower paintings filled with vibrant petals, soft feathers and juicy, glinting pomegranate seeds, the colours popping from darkened backgrounds.

Kelmscott Manor: Feeding Doves in Kitchen Yard (1904) Marie Spartali Stillman
 Another thing about Marie that has become apparent over the twenty years I have known her work is how ridiculously well connected she was.  She knew Fanny Cornforth, which came as a surprise, but then both were friends of Samuel Bancroft Jnr (whose collection is in the Delaware Art Museum).  Her watercolours of Kelmscott Manor are the result of visits to her friend Jane Morris.  Pupil of Ford Madox Brown and model for Julia Margaret Cameron, Marie switched between muse and artist, again a link to Elizabeth Siddal.  In a society that valued her primarily for her beauty (both Rossetti and Swinburne, among others, were very vocal on the subject), it is to her credit that she worked so hard to be taken seriously as an artist, if that isn't an odd thing to say.  This exhibition is a testament to a woman who painted poetry and brought the soft romance of the world of the imagination to life.  If you are able, go to the Watts and fall in love with her yourself.

Poetry in Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman is on at the Watts Gallery until 5th June and further information is available here.  There is a splendid catalogue available which contains all the pictures and objects that were in the exhibition at Delaware, and is well worth the investment.