Monday 23 May 2016


As you have all witnessed, I love to sing.  Even on these otherwise silent pages there is no escape, as I proved in this post.  Good Lord, the horror, imagine living with me.  I've been singing in public since I was a teenager - then it was our local operatics group.  Exhibit A is my family in costume while doing My Fair Lady (or My Dolly Palone, as we called it).  Lawks.

Mum, Dad, Big Brother Niall, Sister in Law Antonia, and Me
These days I tend to limit my concerts to my car during commutes, where I can be as loud as I like, but all this self-indulgent rambling brings me to the subject of today's post: Singing in pictures...

Harmony (1879) Jean Carolus
As I mentioned in this post about musicians in paintings, it's a bit of a strange thing to do, render something visually which can only be experienced by another sense. Singing is another step on from playing a musical instrument because it is even harder to show that the singer is doing anything.  Look at the lass above holding the sheet music.  She appears to be trying to remember what she planned to have for tea.  Come on, put a bit of effort into it...

Fiammetta Singing (1879) Marie Spartali Stillman
It helps if you have someone there with a lute to accompany you as you stare wistfully into the distance and clasp your hands.  It is sometimes difficult to know what to do with your hands when singing unless you have a microphone to hold or scarves to whisk around your head.  Fiammetta has gone with grasping them in front of her and hoping no-one notices how sweaty her palms are.  She also looks like she has forgotten the words.  Poor love.

Girl Singing Emilie Isabel Barrington
Now I hate to argue with Ms Barrington, but her girl is not singing unless she is a ventriloquist.  This is a problem with many 'singing' pictures - they are actually people waiting to sing. She's got her music and everything but her mouth is not open enough for anyone to hear her.  Maybe she's a nice lady-like singer because it isn't strictly necessary to be as loud as me.  The Stonell Family are known for volume.  We're great at funerals.

The Gentle Music of  a Bygone Day (1873) John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
Now, Stanhope's lass actually looks like she's singing, although her posture is all wrong (sorry to be picky).  She'd do better sitting up or standing, rather than bending over her music.  Mind you, they are a fairly slouchy pair as her backing musician is leaning against a tree.  They knew how to rock out in the bygone era.  No sleep 'til the Reformation! Or something...

The Music Lesson Federico Andreotti
I grant you that having a good singing voice seems to be a sure fire way to get attention from the opposite sex.  As this couple of ladies above are proving, put in the effort to improve your voice and the chaps will be all over you like powder on a wig.  Maybe they are trying to pull their music teacher?  I especially suspect the girl in the blue dress as that does seem to be quite low cut and there is quite a lot of deep breathing in singing, if you know what I mean.  I would suggest bending over a little to look at your music occasionally.  Just saying.

The Misses Santley (1880) Henry Scott Tuke
I don't mean to cast aspersions, but the Misses Santley do not look like they are enjoying their singing one little bit.  Maybe they are being forced to sing something very dull - when I had singing lessons I was made to sing 'Flow Gently Sweet Afton' which can cure you of ever wanting to sing again.  Maybe they had got overexcited by the thought that a handsome young artist was coming to their home to paint them. They'd be a little out of luck with Mr Tuke. As for poor Mr Tuke, he knows that somewhere there is a lovely warm beach with some semi-naked chaps that are going unpainted.  Damn it.

The Singer (1880) Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta
I love this picture because she looks rather game.  She's got her ankles out and so we can assume she's on the stage (rather than on the game).  She has a bit of a bustle going on and her corset top is really pretty.  However, I wonder how singing in a corset works?  Where does all the air go?  Do you just pop out the top?  I was taught to sing from the middle but she doesn't really have a middle anymore as it's all squashed in, so she must either train around that or just sing from her chest, which probably pleases the audience more anyway. Take a nice deep breath and I bet you get an encore...

Two Girls Singing Giovanni Costa
Unlike images of young ladies playing music, singing has a slightly less clear cut meaning.  Playing an instrument is presumed to take more effort and talent as anyone can just open their mouths and sing, especially in private.  We have no idea how good these two girls are at singing, but it does not have the 'improving' quality of playing the piano, for instance, and leans more towards the alluring qualities of womanhood.  But there is also the notion of 'angelic voices', the idea that a woman with a beautiful voice is also pure and innocent, which I think probably applies to the shiny duo above.  I doubt they are singing that filthy song I learnt at school about what happens in meadows.

The Blind Singer Felice Castignaro
A good singing voice can also lend itself as a counterpoint to the singers appearance.  The blind singer above looks like a beggar with their sighted companion, yet it is easy to assume the sound coming from his or her lips (we don't even know if it is a girl or boy) transcends this terrible, grubby, unfair world.  There is something about wonderful singing that can move you to tears - the emotion, the inflection in the voice, the ability to infuse each sound with a myriad of feelings that cannot be expressed in the words alone. I remember being about 14 years old and singing 'Hail Poetry...' from The Pirates of Penzance and just feeling amazing.  The layering of sound completely wraps you up and you are creating this enormous voice that has such depth it is breathtaking. Sometimes singing can feel like you are holding an object in your hands and slowly running your fingers over it with every note you sing.  It is a thing of smoothness, of curves and dips and you have to touch it ever so gently, but just running your fingers over it is the most beautiful experience you can imagine (with your clothes on).  Actually, there are times when you hold a note so long that you become marvellously breathless and a bit euphoric and singing is a little bit naughty, which is why I was so glad to see this image...

Mrs George Batten (1897) John Singer Sargent
I'm a little in love with Mabel Hatch (or Mrs George Batten as she was also known).  The singer and society beauty had this rather saucy portrait done by Sargent whilst she was singing. It's not the insane tininess of her waist or her hand resting on her hip, nor her low neckline that makes this a very sexy portrait, but her expression which is a smidge wanton. Or it might just be that she is closing her eyes while singing and I'm not meant to be thinking about orgasms at all. Ahem...

Mabel Veronica Batten (1893) Violet Manners
There are many reasons why Mrs George Batten is my favourite image of a singer, including the fact that it does not appear to be a picture designed to flatter.  Of course it does flatter, it makes Mrs Batten look so gorgeous that both Mr Walker and I said 'flippin' heck!' in front of the painting at the recent exhibition at the NPG.  But it appears to show a woman singing without acknowledgement that we are watching, that she is lost in the sound of her voice and it makes us long to hear her.  The singer on the canvas has closed her eyes, a visual image of a woman who is not seeing.  Much like the image of the blind singer above, it is about the sound, a sense we cannot use in our appreciation of the image.  Of course with Mrs Batten, we are left imaging that her voice is as beautiful as her face.  My goodness, can you imagine?

'Thy Voice is like to Music heard ere Birth...' (1902) Sigismund Goetze
So, we can agree that it is a challenge to show singing in paintings.  It is hard to show someone singing realistically in a static, silent image, and it can end up looking a little odd like Goetze slightly creepy offering above.  It can appear somewhat indecorous to show a woman with her mouth open in an image that is about the beauty and refinement of the people involved.  Singing is angelic, pure and as heavenly as angels (who are often singing) but is also a physical act that can be very physical indeed if you are going to do it well and loudly.  It can be argued by the range of pictures that Victorian artists struggled to combine the two sides of song, both heaven and earth, and decide whether the woman singing is doing it for the pleasure of man or God.  While you are pondering that, I'm off to finish the time machine so I can go and sing a duet with Mabel Batten.  

That's not a euphemism, honest...


  1. Dear Kirsty
    Those naughty Victorians and Edwardians - pretending to be prudish and covering up piano legs and then showing images like that! Good gracious!
    I'm with you on the power of music and 'Hail Poetry' too. I don't think I'd be able to compete with Mabel Batten though...
    Best wishes

  2. Interesting what you say about singing and flirtation. One thing that strikes me about Jane Austen books and adaptations is how boring life was before television! In nearly every book, they have those long evenings after dinner - Mr Darcy writing letters to his sister, while the women take a little walk around the room. Sometimes it would be a proper dinner party - the older people would sit around playing cards, and this would be the opportunity for the younger women to show off their playing and singing skills. Of course, the gallant gentleman would be required to turn the music! In less exalted circles, everyone would be expected to do a "turn" (often a song or a poem or something). I'm not sure if it's a good bad thing that television and/or the computer has made this extinct?


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx