Saturday 27 August 2016

Review: Georgiana Houghton at the Courtauld Gallery

There are exhibitions that catch your eye because they are just so unexpected.  With most Victorian art shows I'm delighted to see pictures I'm familiar with and others I've never seen but I don't expect to be wonderfully baffled.  Well, all that changed yesterday when we visited 'Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings' at the Courtauld Gallery, London...

Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884) was a spiritualist artist, which means that she channeled spirits that painted through her, making her the medium (in many senses of the word) for automatic writing and visions of the spirit realm.  Her hand was guided by different spirits, sometimes her family, sometimes great artists such as Thomas Lawrence and Titian, sometimes even angels and other heavenly bodies, and the pictures took many hours to complete.  The complexity and many layers of paint and ink reveal a view of the after-life and different worlds that is both recognisable and startlingly abstract.  All this in 1860s England.  Blimey.

The Holy Trinity, 29th November 1861
I was aware of the growth in interest in the spiritual in the 1860s because Fanny Cornforth became a medium for Rossetti.  I also had seen those slightly ropey spirit photographs with gauze escaping from people's mouths and double exposure images of women shrouded in sheets.  The art of spiritualism however had completely escaped me and I still have difficulty quite understanding how we are not hailing Houghton as the mother of abstraction.  I mean, look at The Holy Trinity and tell me that you are not reminded of Vorticism or Futurism.  It could be aeroplanes, ocean liners, all that modern world stuff.  Instead it is the hand of a middle-aged lady compelled by the power of God to make shapes on a page.
Flower and Fruit of Henry Lenny, 28th August 1861
I was going to go to Georgia O'Keeffe at Tate Modern, but look at some of Houghton's flowers and fruit, almost a century beforehand.  Massive and abstract, dense and lush in colour, her worship of the Lord is expressed in fluid lines and often sensual shapes. The gallery is filled with these glorious canvases, some on double-sided stands so that you can see the dense writing on the back of the paper.

Reverse of The Eye of the Lord, 22nd September 1866
This is a difficult exhibition to review in many ways as it is completely mind-blowing.  It is also an almost perfect exhibition - if you like Victorian art, you'll love it but also, if you like modern art, you'll love it.  If you have an interest in religious art, it's a winner, but if you love spiritualism of any and all sorts, it's fabulous.  I'm struggling to think of who wouldn't find something to enjoy in this roomful of Victorian lady pictures.  That's a bold claim indeed.

Detail of Glory be to God, 5th July 1864
The problem for Houghton was that she  thought the same as me and so rented an expensive gallery in Bond Street in 1871 to show her wondrous paintings.  The critics were dazzled and puzzled but loved it, but it was a massive commercial failure and nearly bankrupted her and her attempts to popularise the art of spiritualism were never realised. Mercifully, her work was preserved both by the Victorian Spiritualists' Union in Melbourne, Australia and the College of Psychic Studies, London.  This exhibition is the first time since 1871 that her work has been shown in this country and I think it is high time we welcome back an astonishing artist who was so ahead of her time.

The Eye of the Lord, 22nd September 1866
I took Lily-Rose with me (as is our way to expose the poor child to as much Victorian art as possible) and was slightly worried that there were no seats in the gallery as her patience is as limited as most 10 year olds and so she tends to just sit when she's had enough.  However, she went from picture to picture chatting away to herself and when we caught up to her she was saying all the things she could see in the pictures.  She loved it, picked out a postcard to take home at the end and could tell us more about the pictures than what was on the label.  I am now considering renting her out to the Coutauld.  Kids will love this as it is bonkers spirograph with hidden faces, eyes and all manner of different patterns thrown in. As I said, I am struggling to see who won't be blown away by Georgiana Houghton and her visions.

The Glory of the Lord, 4th January 1864
If at all possible go and see this exhibition, as you will not see anything else like it.  It is just astonishing, utterly mid-blowing and visually arresting.  Whether you believe in the her claims of spiritual direction or not the fact that a fifty year old woman was producing ground-breaking abstract art in Victorian England should be enough to get you there.  If you told me tomorrow that it had been a hoax, that it was from the 1960s or the work of someone with a spirograph and time on their hands I would probably find that easier to believe than these works coming from a religious woman at the time of Queen Victoria.  It's an artist leap that is inexplicable and has to be seen to be believed.  

Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings is on until 11th September at the Courtauld Gallery and information can be found here.

Friday 19 August 2016

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Just so we know where we stand, there will be a lot of nudity in this post and so if you are offended by pink bits, probably best you give this one a miss.  However, if you are partial to a spot of nudity, come on in, the water's lovely...

Phryne Before the Areopagus (1861) Jean-Leon Gerome
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Victorians could not cope with pubic hair.  Possibly the first thing you will hear about John Ruskin, esteemed art critic and godfather of Pre-Raphaelitism, is that he was startled by his wife's lady-garden on their wedding night.  Even though this explanation of Effie's cryptic note that Ruskin was 'disgusted with my person' was only put forward in the 1960s by Mary Lutyen (who later withdrew it), it has lingered in such a powerful way that it was included in the recent Ruskin-bashing movie Effie Gray.  The point of this post is to look at how far that is true and more importantly, who are we to mock?

Rolla (1878) Henri Gervex
I think there is no doubt that an awful lot, the vast majority, of images of nudity, both male and female, in the nineteenth century do not show pubic hair.  That judgement seems to be applied predominantly to us up-tight English-types, but as demonstrated by the glorious Rolla above, the French were no better.  The nude on the bed has no hair, either in her armpits or lower down.  She is as smooth as a marble statue, and a neat and tidy as can be.

Venus of Urbino (1538) Titian
In a way it's rather an unfair criticism to level at the 19th century when it seems that before that point in art public hairs weren't freely sprinkled over the nudes.  Raphael, Pre-Raphael and Post-Raphael all had smooth women, perfectly molded like dolls and men with little or nothing to show for their years.  More often than not the hairiest thing on the canvas was a small dog.

Legeia Siren (1873) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
 Looking again at the swathes of hairless Victorian nudes, what seems to happen more often than I had noticed previously is the mysterious floating fabric, covering up the area in question.  As Rossetti so ably demonstrates, in olden days, floaty fabric roamed free in the wild and got caught on nudey ladies who were out for a stroll with their musical instruments.

The Tree of Forgiveness (1882) Edward Burne-Jones
Phyllis and Demophoon (1870) Edward Burne-Jones
Burne-Jones found out the perils of nudity, even hairless and tiny nudity.  Phyllis and Demophoon was seen as a little scandalous (only a little, ahem) and so the errant Demophoon found himself covered up by a whisper of fabric to hide his tiny blushes.

Female Nude (1891) James Watterson Herald
In truth, the more you look at it, the more cunning artists seem in covering the problem.  There is no problem with breasts, you can have boobs galore but when it comes to pubic hair or the lack therein, you can either have it out there like a smooth bump, like a pair of marble pants, or you can deploy a bit of posing.  James Watterson Herald above has gone for the side-knee-bend, giving a small amount of modesty for the lower regions, while simultaneously making you look like you need the loo.

Standing Female Nude (1907) Brian Hatton
More simply, the model can just stand sideways, hiding all her business from sight.  Brian Hatton's girl has some rather pointy hipbones, but there is no need to disguise anything - she might smooth as an egg, she might not be, who can tell?

The Pearl and the Wave (1862) Paul Baudry
Of course, you can always show the woman from behind as bottoms offend no-one, apparently.  If your model is willing and supple, she can twist her top half back (or twist her lower half round in what I believe is called the 'booty scooch' on America's Next Top Model) and give the double whammy of boobs and bum. When you start looking, there is actually far less visible loins than you'd think and even then, you could argue that those 19th century artists were just continuing the tradition of art where no-one sported hair that wasn't on their head. In fact, I would go further and say that the Victorians allowed us to get hairy.  Yes, you heard me...

Nude on a Couch (1880) Gustave Caillebotte
There is an explosion of pubic hair (which sounds terrible) especially on the continent but also spreading over all regions.  Start searching and French nudes become more anatomically correct around 1860 with Gustave Courbet's The Origins of the World but we can take some national pride in the fact that William Etty added a bit of hair to some of his nudes and James Mallord Turner's more risque sketches are shaded in the appropriate areas...

Reclining Female Nude (1809) James Mallord Turner
One reason for the growth of pubic hair in the 1860s (if you excuse the expression) could be the rise in photography and with it the predictable growth in pornographic imagery.  Hurrah, we've invented a way of freezing astonishing and monumental moments in history!  Let's take loads of photos of boobs and minky moo!

Masked Prostitute imitating Devil Horns with her fingers (1890s)
Photography meant that there was nowhere to hide.  Long before Photoshop, it was perfectly alright to be as God intended in photographs and in fact in Victorian porn (as in life) there is no need to crop, airbrush, or in anyway disguise anything because perfection is a subjective thing.  Plus, after all that underwear and outer wear, layers and layers of clothing, you'd be glad to see anything.  Or, in fact, everything...

Maude Easton in Folly Costume (1891) Edward Linley Sambourne
Edward Linley Sambourne was a cartoonist for Punch and a very upright member of Victorian society (if you excuse the expression).  He used photography to capture his models, including Maude Easton, in various positions which he transformed into political cartoons.  There are plenty of photographs of Maude in the buff and they are of a quite traditional 'artist's model' type but then there is this.  Fully clothed with her skirt pulled up, the rather startling centre of our focus is her pubic hair.  She is coyly wearing a mask whilst sitting, legs apart.  Similar in subject to The Origins of the World, it is unequivocally sexualised nudity, yet we see very little other than upper thigh and a lot of hair. Is it the hair that is indecent then?  Are we all secretly of (fake) Ruskin's opinion? 

What brought me along this train of thought was the viewing of a new Channel 4 series entitled Naked Attraction.  It was the subject of a lot of shouting on Facebook and so intrigued and convinced it could not be as horrific as I had heard, I downloaded a couple of episodes.  For those fortunate enough to have missed this visual treat, the premise is that an ideal way to find the love of your life is to see them stark naked to start with and so a lady (or gentleman) stands in the middle of six booths which slowly reveal the naked bodies on offer.

Yes, really...
The climax, if you will, is when our picker has whittled it down to two naked people that they fancy and then has to strip off themselves before making their final choice.  Flippin' heck.  I was so astonished and horrified I had to watch all the episodes on offer to make sure.  What caught my eye was the lack of pubic hair.  If you are single and attractive then there can be no hair down there.  All the women (and to be honest most of the men too, thanks to the back, sack and crack wax) had been groomed to within an inch of their lives and most of them had no pubic hair, revealing all manner of bits and pieces.  One woman was judged to have 'a lot of hair' over her nethers but it was only the barest sneeze of fuzz that must have required a set square and many hours of waxing.

Female Nude (1907) Brian Hatton
So, what is my point?  I think it can be argued that we have retreated from the realism and body acceptance that unwittingly grew from the 19th century and the birth of photography. We pride ourselves on being ever so liberated and relaxed about nudity but it is obvious you are only welcome to get naked (or in fact exist publicly) if you conform to a very strict set of appearance guidelines. We are hung up on what we look like and massive industries exist to make us aspire to be thin, young and hairless, and in mainstream modern pornography this trend continues because that is our pinnacle. We shy away in disgust from Victorian images of naked children yet seemingly wish to emulate their hairless, slender appearance.

For the Victorians, the novelty of having a photograph of a naked lady or gentleman was sexy enough, but we are many years down the line.  Just as the camera brought erotic images to the left-hand of any curious individual, now the internet can show you anything you desire and a great many things you don't.  If anything I would argue this has not made us more relaxed about the human form but more uptight, more punishing.  If Maude Easton is your idea of sexy then Naked Attraction is definitely not for you because there is not any mystery, nor erotic celebration of the naked form, just a lot of people without a wisp of public hair among them.

In case you were wondering, that sound is John Ruskin saying 'I told you so' and then laughing...

Sunday 14 August 2016

The 'Sixties in Shalott

Here we are again, talking about Tennyson and illustration as an excuse for my collection of illustrated Tennysons.  Anyway, enough about my problems, this week I have another smasher to show you and one I hadn't seen before.  I bring you 'The Lady of Shalott' (1966), illustrated by Bernadette Watts...

I was immediately struck by the style of the illustration and wanted to see more, so £4 later (via Abebooks) I owned a copy.  And it is indeed a thing of beauty...

Hurrah for an exlibris copy! So, in the 1960s, Dobson Books published a richly illustrated edition of the poem 'for the child of the 1960's' (as the flyleaf states). As the introductory text says 'Its mystery and magic is still being discovered and loved around the world more than a century later. Its "message" is simple - death in the real world is preferable to life lived at second hand.'

The Lady is pictured as a slight, sad figure, beautifully dressed as she pulls on swathes of colour, as if weaving a rainbow. She is melacholic and drooping, while about her outside figures skip, dart, run amongst geese and live lives that are anything but static.

The deep blue of the sky is the perfect foil for the golden 'brazen' Sir Lancelot, as bright as the sun, striding through a sea of corn.  If you had to die for one look, what a look it is!

In complete contrast to the majority of illustrated copies of this poem, there is no depiction of the mirror and the moment it cracks.  Instead, the illustration shows us the solitary figure, precariously high in the tower staring for the first time out across the swathe of countryside she had never seen firsthand.  Not only Lancelot, but also the cornfields, the peasants, the river and the flickering flags of Camelot.

The lady, already pale like a ghost, flutters into the deep colours of the outside world to find her boat, on her first and final journey beyond the walls of her tower.  Her lack of colour seems to interrupt the washes of blue and orange that cover the page.  Her final journey has her sitting in the boat, not lying, beautiful and dignified and with a hint of a smile as she finds her final resting place.

Bernadette Watts (1966) photograph by Rosalind Pulvertaft
The back flyleaf gives details of Bernadette Watts, the illustrator, newly graduated from Maidstone College of Art where she studied under Brian Wildsmith.  As the bio says - 'Now 24, Bernadette Watts has few ambitions, other than to be a successful illustrator of children's books...'  

Bernadette Watts, from her website
Well, fifty years later, I caught up with Bernadette who is indeed a successful illustrator of children's books, to ask her a few questions...

Q. Did you know much about Tennyson before you illustrated The Lady of Shalott?

I knew nothing about Tennyson, although since my schooldays I did love poetry, such as Walter de la Mare, WH Davies, Keats, Coleridge etc. My Mother was a recluse and spent hours reading. She often recited 'The Lady of Shalott' to me and so I too learned it.

Q. How did you get the job?

I didn't "get the job", I just illustrated it because I wanted to and Dobson Books took it. I have never "got a job", only done my own thing.

Q. I see a link between your art and the work of David Gentleman, a favourite of my husband, and totally unlike the other Art Nouveau-esque 1960s Tennyson illustrations I have.  What artists influenced you?

David Gentleman's cover
for Romeo and Juliet
Brian Wildsmith's illustration for
The Oxford Book of Children's Poetry (1963)

I don’t know David Gentleman's work, but have heard of him. If you read my Website you will see that my teachers at Art College included Brian Wildsmith and David Hockney. 

Q. Is The Lady of Shalott your favourite Tennyson poem? Is there another one you would like to illustrate (or have)?

No, I haven't illustrated any other Tennyson poem. I did design and illustrate a collection of poems by

James Reeves ONES NONE. You can find that on Amazon. It won a design prize.

My very sincere thanks to Bernadette for her patience and help and for creating such gorgeous illustrations for one of my favourite poems.  Editions of her illustrated poetry books and children's books can be readily found at Abebooks, Amazon or any bookseller.

Saturday 6 August 2016

The Flapper's Tennyson

As you will know by now by this post, this post, this post and this post (oh, and this one too), I love a bit of Tennyson illustration.  Despite having an extraordinary number of books of Tennyson, I am always willing to buy more copies of his poems if they are illustrated by someone new and exciting.  That's how I ended up with this...

It's a little bit battered, it doesn't have the spine bit anymore, but inside it's perfect and it only cost me £6.  What intrigued me most was that it was an illustrated copy from 1928.  A Jazz Age Tenyson?  What on earth must that look like...

A Dream of Fair Women is one of a series of poetry books put out in the late 1920s by The Bodley Head publishing.  Its two founders, John Lane and Elkin Matthews, had been selling books under the title since the late nineteenth century, including The Yellow Book.  Both of the founders died in the early 1920s, but the nephew of John Lane continued in control of the company until it ran into financial difficulties in the 1930s and became part of other publishing houses.  Anyway, in the middle of this period The Bodley Head offered a series of poetry titles under the banner of the 'Helicon Series', all of which were illustrated by cutting edge illustrators of the day. Constance Ethel Rowlands' The House of Life by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is definitely going on my wish list...

Anyway, back to Tennyson.  The Bodley Head Helicon Series includes a copy of The Day Dream by Tennyson, with illustrations by Elizabeth Rivers from 1928, but also from the same year came A Dream of Fair Women, this time illustrated by Agnes Pinder Davis.

It's a small book, both in size and in length, at only 46 pages. The illustrations consist of 4 full-pages and four small pictures at the end of the sections, such as the above which symbolises how men fight over and for women, represented by the apple.

Theda Bara in Cleopatra
The narrator tells us of a dream he has in which he is walking in a beautiful forest. The dream comes after he has read Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women and features women of history who are renown for their beauty.  He starts with a meeting with Cleopatra.  In Davis' illustration, she is a smoke-eyed movie goddess in the style of Theda Bara in Cleopatra (1917).  She is more than aware of how much power her beauty affords her and is frustrated that she could never seduce Caesar.  In Davis' drawing, she sits on a swirl of fabric, sphinx-like and unknowable.  The narrator finds her alluring but disconcerting, especially when she gets her boob out with the asp bite on it.

It's not just femme fatales that feature in A Dream of Fair Women.  The narrator's second encounter is with Jephthah's Daughter, a dutiful and honourable woman. Her father made an oath to God that should he return victorious he would sacrifice the first thing that greeted him on his return.  That sort of thing never goes well.  Anyway, predictably, it was his first and only child.  When Jephthah tried to find a loophole in the promise, his daughter would not have it and said he had to keep his promise.  For Goodness sake...

I find this illustration to be the one that reminds me most of both Eric Gill and Aubrey Beardsley.  The patterning on the cloak especially has a Belle Epoque feel to it, but the stylised face of Jephthah echos the Afro-Modernism of Gill, although less mask-like.  You can see both the Egyptian influence, so prevalent in the 1920s and the influence of dark-eyed movie stars in her work.  Look at Fair Rosamund, and check out those eyelashes...

In Fair Rosamund's section she sums up the peril of being born beautiful:
'Would I had been some maiden coarse and poor!
O me, that I should ever see the light!
Those dragon eyes of anger'd Eleanor
Do hunt me, day and night.' 
She poses in an 'Damsel of the Sanct Grael' manner but her cup holds poison that will end her life.  I love that Cleopatra replies that she should have stabbed Queen Eleanor while she had the chance.  It is interesting that the women complain that their beauty results in death, but the narrator falls in love with each of them, as if proving their point that they are not valued for themselves, but for their beauty.  It is almost as if a man may fight and earn his power but a woman is indiscriminately born with power that they cannot control fully.  Cleopatra seems the only one who played the game with the men and all she ends up with is a bite-mark and an afterlife devoid of men.

Now for a bit of biography: Lilian Agnes Lambert was born in Kingston upon Thames in 1895, daughter of a barrister who became a member of parliament.  In the 1901 census, the family was doing very nicely, thank you very much, and were living in Holland Park.  In 1923 she married Eric Bernard Pinder Davis, engineer for Shell-Mex and origami wizard, and the couple lived in Camden.  She seems to have been a bit of an all-rounder when it came to art and design.  She designed interiors for ocean liners such as Mauretania, where she designed a panel for the Tourist Class Smoking Room, as well as one for the children's playrooms.

Design for carpet in the Queen Mary, 1936
She also designed a carpet for the Queen Mary, launched in 1936, as well painting pictures for the dining room, using silver foil as well as paint in a floral design.  According to the Western Morning News and Daily Gazette, Davis invented the 'metal picture', 'using thin sheets of metal foil against a background of oil paint.'  As well as her book design, both inside and covers, she is probably best known for her work with Royal Doulton, Royal Worcester and Crown Staffordshire, designing tea services, dinner services and figures.

The above figure comes from the 1950s and is one of a series of cherubic oriental children riding sea creatures.  This one is called 'Joy Ride' and is available on Ebay should you fancy it.  She seems to have kept designing as long as people bought her work and finally died in 1973 on the sunny south coast at Worthing.  I especially like her work on Tennyson as she brings a modernity to a poem that was almost a century old at the time of her illustration, drawing on the fashion for Deco-fabulous glamour queens of the cinema.  The frustration of womanhood has a certain resonance after the First World War, with women inhabiting a world where a generation of men had gone to fight for them and been squandered while they could do nothing to prevent it.  Despite progress to the vote and the freedoms of the 1920s, there were some uncomfortable similarities between the bobbed-hair girl about town and the Victorian maiden, hence the popularity of Christina Rossetti's verse around the centenary of her birth.  

By reimagining a text from a previous century, Agnes Pinder Davis helped to show us that our ancestors were not so different, not so strange in their ways and we share far more with them than we care to acknowledge.  Plus I get another illustrated Tennyson for my shelf, so everyone's happy...