Tuesday, 14 June 2016

A Sight to make an Old Man Young

Today's post is probably going to end up a bit rambling, but it concerns a poem about a painter painting a woman he loved and the paintings based on the poem of the woman whom the painter in the poem paints.  It is also one of the most Pre-Raphaelite poems you'll read even though it predates the movement.  Are we okay so far?  Marvellous.  Off we go then...

We'll start with the poem, which is 'The Gardener's Daughter', one of the English idylls by Alfred Tennyson, from 1842. It is properly entitled 'The Gardener's Daughter; or the Pictures' and is about not just one painting but two, or maybe all great art, but we'll get to that.  The poem concerns two painters, Eustace and the narrator who are the very best of friends.  Eustace is a bit of a hottie, as the narrator says he could 'have sat for Hercules; so muscular he spread, so broad of breast.' Well, you have my attention, Tennyson.  Sadly we have no pictures of Eustace.  However, Eustace has a fiancée called Juliet and like most smug couples seem to want to do, she seems to want to get our narrator married off, possibly because he is spending all his time considering how muscly Eustace is...

For visual reference, this is what I think Eustace looks like.
Check out that moustache...
Eustace paints Juliet and it is a very fine painting, but the narrator says he will only paint that well when he falls in love because 'Love, unperceived, / A more ideal Artist he than all'. I find the description of the painting very interesting:  Juliet is described as having eyes 'Darker than darkest pansies, and that hair / More black than ashbuds in the front of March.''  Remind you of anyone?

Aurea Catena (1868) D G Rossetti
I immediately thought of Jane Morris from the description of Juliet as painted by the besotted Eustace. If ever a painter reflected the spirit of 'The Gardener's Daughter' it's Rossetti.  The idea that Love can possess an artist and elevate his art to great heights is reflected in how we worship his portraits of Jane Morris and Elizabeth Siddal (and Fanny, but to a grudging, lesser extent) and see them as proof of his adoration.  Anyway, I digress. When the narrator says that he would need to fall in love in order to paint such a good picture, Juliet replied that he needs to see the Gardener's daughter...

"I am half sick of shadows" said the Lady of Shalott (1913) Sidney Meteyard
So, off Eustace and the narrator go to see this woman who is so beautiful that the narrator claims he is in love before he even sees her.  The gardener's daughter, who we learn is called Rose, lives a very Tennysonian existence, bowered in isolation, a cloistered existence listening to the bells that tell her of marriage and funerals.  This reminded me of the Lady of Shalott's flowery tower, cut off from life., but Rose does not seem to be despondent in her isolation, or even very aware that she is cut off from other people.  She seems to be a fixture in the garden, like one of the plants, not least because she is named after one of them.  I find it interesting that in the context of the woman the word 'rose' is not only her name but the name of the flower which only moves when blown by the storm, but otherwise passively remains still in the sunshine.  The narrator uses 'rose' several times in the context of his movement, his decisive rising to action, as if to deliniate the stark differences in male and female roles in his perception.  However, just to undermine any hint that Tennyson is an old sexist, it shouldn't be forgotten that it is Juliet who motivates the men to go and find the narrator a girlfriend, probably just to get them out of the house.  However I digress, and the description of the garden is so utterly delicious, including this gorgeous line: 'The lime a summer home of murmurous wings.'  Please find a moment today to use the phrase 'murmurous wings' because it is beautiful.

The journey through the countryside seems to bring the narrator closer to nature until he and it are one: 'May from verge to verge, / And May with me from head to heel'. When we finally see Rose she is entangled with the flowers that bear her name.  The artist requests one of her flowers, which he rates higher than 'a hundred kisses press'd on lips / Less exquisite than thine.' That makes me suspect he's doing kissing wrong, but I'm too polite to say so.  Anyway, the artist courts the lady-shrub and all ends happily, as you'd expect, although as this is Tennyson, you'll be relied to hear there is no death or revenge, just marriage and a lot of blooming. 

The Gardener's Daughter William A Breakspeare
In many ways, it is unsurprising that  artists chose to use Tennyson's poem as inspiration.  It's a poem about the power of muse and the elevation of art by love, and so in action that is probably self-reflexive, meta or something that is a polite word for narcissism, the artists endeavour to create the art work that is envisaged by the artist in the poem, namely the portrait of Rose.  In a search of all art entitled The Gardener's Daughter there is quite a bit that is directly drawn from the text, for reasons I will go in to in a moment, however there are naturally some 'generic' Gardener's Daughters too, such as Breakspeare's lady above.  She is a gardener's daughter rather than the gardener's daughter, if you know what I mean, but I wonder if the picture was thought to be from the poem?

The Gardener's Daughter George Dunlop Leslie
Similarly, Leslie's lovely lady is not Tennysonian either, but that is a nice basket of pinks she is carrying.

The Gardener's Daughter (1860) Edward Henry Wehnert
In order for me to accept the painting was inspired by the poem, I need to see some referencing. Wehnert very ably fulfills this brief for me.  He has pictured Rose, 'Gown'd in pure white, that fitted to the shape,' as described by Tennyson.  The poet had her with only 'One arm aloft', but I'll let the artist off on that point.  Her hair is rather more blonde than the 'soft brown', but she does appear to be part of the plant, which is the poet's intention.    She is 'a Rose / In roses', and by adding trellis along that back of the scene, Wehnert's provides the cloistering that is in the poem, isolating her in her fragrant Eden.

The Gardener's Daughter John Ingle Lee
John Ingle Lee shows the beautiful Rose about to hand over a beautiful rose to the narrator.  I recently saw this painting at the Liverpool Pre-Raphaelite exhibition and it is an image that screams PINK! across the room at you in a slightly disconcerting way.  The head and shoulders of the figure fill the canvas and she has the most striking eyes that seem to capture the artist's strong attraction to Rose which is downright saucy.  Anyone who thinks Tennyson is all about Light Brigades and Victorian morals has never read 'The Gardener's Daughter' and 'the bounteous wave of such a breast / As never a pencil drew.'  Steady on Tenny!

The Gardener's Daughter (1850) Frank Stone
Possibly the most straightforward of the paintings has to be Frank Stone's early piece, showing not only Rose with her one arm up fixing her roses, but also the love-struck young artists in the background.  Stone is one of the few artists who does not take the place of the narrator in the piece, but shows the scene from the third-person unless poor Rose's garden was filled with smitten artists, all gawking at her lustfully...  

The Gardener's Daughter A J Woolner
Woolner too shows Rose, with her hand in the air (like she just does not care) tending her 'Eastern rose' (as Tennyson specifies) on her porch.  This is one of many that appeared in illustrated Tennyson collections, making it the perfect subject for a little vignette.  I could go on and on about the significance of what scene an artist chooses to portray from a poem, but the moment the narrator sees Rose is pivotal, one he has built to throughout the poem and described so carefully that you have no doubt he is also describing the wonderful painting he will produce under Love's inspiration.

From the Moxon Tennyson (1857) by W J Linton
Similarly, Linton chooses to show Rose in the doorway, picking rather than wrestling with her roses (Tennyson suggests the climbing rose had been blown down the previous night and Rose was reattaching it to its frame) and the whole scene is rather ladylike and traditional.

Illustration from 1907 Poems, by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale
By contrast, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale's image is a riot of movement and plants with Rose gamefully thrusting her rose bush back where it belongs.  I prefer Brickdale's more active Rose to the passive little dolls in the previous illustrations because she is as vigorous as nature as I believe Tennyson intended her to be.  The flow of her dress echoes the curve of the branches behind her and her face turns and appears to be a bloom on the bush.

From 1912's Poems, illustrated by Emma Florence Harrison
Somewhere in between lies Emma Florence Harrison's Sleeping Beauty-esque Rose, caught in the tendril of rose bramble that ensnares her to her garden.  Harrison might be encouraging a reading of the poem that sees our narrator rescuing Rose, or in fact 'harvesting' might be a better adjective.  It would fit with the theme of the seasons, of growing, maturing and bearing fruit.  When the painter sees Rose, he is in the dizzy grips of Spring, full of lust and in bloom, and this desire keeps burning over the summer until Eustace marries, completing his cycle to maturity in Autumn and spurring the narrator to claim Rose who murmurs on 'silver fragments of a broken voice ... 'I am thine.''

The Gardener's Daughter (1867) Julia Margaret Cameron
This is one of two images entitled The Gardener's Daughter by Julia Margaret Cameron but as the other one is also called Maud, this is the best choice.  Cameron had a habit of reflecting her vision of real relationships within some of her images, including ones of Mary Ryan, who also posed for this.  Ryan was Cameron's maid, rescued from begging and ultimately Cameron's very own beggar maid to King Cophetua (or Henry Cotton, to be precise).  There are sweetly awkward photos of Cotton and Ryan as Romeo and Juliet, but I wonder if Cameron is referring the manner of the couple's meeting in this image?  The story is that Cotton attended an exhibition of Cameron's work and fell in love with an image of Ryan only to turn and find her working at the exhibition, helping with the sales.  He kept the receipt she wrote him for the photograph next to his heart and finally went to the Isle of Wight to claim her as his wife.  I doubt it is a coincidence that Cameron pictures Ryan as the discovered beauty in the garden, especially as the image was taken around the time of Ryan's marriage, in the summer of 1867.

The Gardener's Daughter Fanny Bowers
In conclusion, may I say that 'Fanny Bowers' is possibly the best saucy name for an artist who is painting The Gardener's Daughter.  What I find interesting about the poem and its associated images is how, with only one exception, the artists chose to cast themselves as the artist in the poem.  This is possibly a natural move, identifying with a character and all that, plus also allowing the viewer of the painting to live that moment when the narrator sees Rose for the first time, described as 'a sight to make an old man young', which is quite a compliment.  It could also be seen as claiming the accolade Tennyson refers to; that their painting of the beautiful Rose will be a masterpiece because they are painting the picture of Rose from the perspective of the man who loves her and Love is 'a more ideal Artist he than all'.  It could be argued that by choosing to inhabit the character of 'the artist' from Tennyson's poem, his epiphany and subsequent masterwork are enacted before us as performance.  

Mind you, it might just be an excuse to show a really pretty girl...

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