Monday 31 October 2016

Review: The Last Days of Leda Grey

My grandmother was born in the very early years of the 20th century.  I didn't really know her very well as I was the late baby of her youngest daughter and she spoke in a thick Wiltshire accent, often in dialect.  What I knew of her was based on her appearance and what I was given when she died.  Both things pointed to the fact that Grandma Daisy had been a bit of a flapper.  She had her black hair bobbed in the 1920s and had remained with the same hairstyle until the day she died.  She also had a secret passion for the talkies, revealed by two massive books all about the early days of cinema that were given to me after her death in the early 1990s.  

Well, I'm glad you asked. All this is a rambling explanation of one of the reasons why I particularly enjoyed The Last Days of Leda Grey, the new novel by Essie Fox...

The story begins with a newspaper report of a fire at the home of Leda Grey, an elderly woman with a secret.  Actually, she has a few secrets and the man who wants to discover them, Ed Peters, is a journalist with issues of his own.  His journey to White Cliff House is far more of an odyssey than he could imagine.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea Georges Melies
 Set in the 1970s, Leda Grey tells her own strange story in memoir and film to the eager young journalist. Leda's own journey is from childhood through brutal bereavement into the arms of film-making visionary Charles Beauvois.  Her troubled brother Theo is able to resist the pull better than his sister but is equally a victim of Beauvois seductive talent.  It is Leda who is the star though, and is slowly moulded into the femme fatales that Beauvois envisages...

Theda Bara, actress, and her friend...
There is a wonderful tension between young, passionate Leda who is drawn into the wonderful imaginary worlds of the films, and old, fragile Leda, hiding from her nightmares and clinging to Ed who she hopes can bring her back into the real world.

Theda! (and her snake-y headress)
Leda Grey is such a compelling character, desperate for a little glamour and a little love.  In Beauvois she sees a way of claiming both but finds the man and his films are more dangerous than she could know. I found the relationship between Leda and Ed very touching as they mirrored each others circumstance and found unlikely soulmates in their solitude.  Their odd relationship provided what the other lacked and ultimately makes the ending even more unsettling.

Ali Babar and the Forty Thieves (1902)
I didn't really know very much about Edwardian cinema before this book but now want to know more.  I had seen some Georges Melies and things like Metropolis but now want to see more of the source material for Beauvois' fevered visions.  The films described in script form in the book are so vivid you can see them unfold, leading to the shocking moments in the climax of the book.

I can't tell you any more because I'll want to tell you everything but right at the beginning in the newspaper report of the fire at Leda's home it says that some other human remains were found after the blaze. I now need to immediately re-read the whole book. The difference between young Leda, so full of life and optimism and the Leda Ed encounters, a shut-in as broken as the house she haunts, is just so moving and it is as much a book about legacy and memory as it is about early movies.  Will Leda be remembered in the end?  The giant glass house filled with the rotting sets is a perfect symbol of Leda's existence, desperately hanging on until someone comes to reveal her, yet horrified at what she has become.  By the end of the book Ed understands her all too well...

Betty Blythe in She (1926)
I read this book in two sittings so be prepared to lose a day or two while you visit Leda and hear her amazing story.  It is a great book and it is impossible not to want to gallop to the end and reveal all of Leda's secrets. Really, I can't say anymore without giving stuff away.  Really.  Argh, I really want to tell you.  Just read it.  You'll love it.

The Last Days of Leda Grey is out on the 3rd November and is available to buy from Amazon (UK) (USA) and all great bookshops.

Sunday 30 October 2016

If They Are So Clever, Why Are They Dead?

I warn you now, this is a rambling post borne out of a week of thought.  I can't promise you any answers but possibly writing out the happenings of the last week here might make a bit of sense of it for me at least...

'Dear Ms Walker, be so good as to kindly burn in Hell...'

In the middle of the night last weekend, I was the recipient of several messages complaining about one of my posts.  The person who tried to leave angry comments on the blog found themselves thwarted by my comment approval system and therefore the comments left got angrier and angrier.  They claim I lied, that I had made things up that I was slandering (or is it libeling?) the artist in question.  Now, you should know by now that I spend an awful lot of time and effort researching my work and actually I hadn't written anything particularly revelatory.  Anyone could have read the same on many different websites or in the probate records in question.  However, the complainant claimed to be a descendant of the artist and felt very strongly that the incidents in the artist's life were untrue, damaging and hurtful.

Me, after receiving criticism
This isn't the first time I have come across some one who feels very passionately about their interest and unfortunately it is not the first time that I have received very nasty and threatening emails because I have written something that someone who regards themselves as the expert doesn't agree with.  I stand by my research and can only imagine that the websites I read in my preparation were braver than I in defying my correspondent.  As the person in question seemed so enraged by my work and as I had no wish to ever hear from the party ever again and I'm a massive coward, I took down my post.  Then I started thinking about the things we say about dead celebrities...

Jane Morris as La Pia, the unhappy wife of an awful husband.  Because she was.  Apparently.

Should the truth always trump discretion?  My knee-jerk reaction is obviously to say yes, truth will out and helps us understand people and their motivations.  However, pause for a moment to imagine a future when everything in your life is revealed.  Would you want that? Would you agree that moments of regret you hold secret should be brought forth as evidence to something or other?  Even things you don't regret but just don't have any relevance to what you do, what would you feel about that? Maybe we should follow Roland Barthes, literary theorist, and divorce author/artist from their work (see Death of the Author).  What effect does our biographical reading of art and literature have on our understanding of those that make it and how far should we go?

Rossetti's cartoon of the thieving elephant for Fanny, nicknamed 'Elephant'...

Back in 2011 I wrote a blogpost on the myths surrounding Fanny Cornforth.  For years people had been writing that Fanny was an illiterate, thieving, lying prostitute.  Turns out most, if not all, of those things are not true, or at least not the full truth.  Furthermore, for the most part people talking about Fanny Cornforth were actually talking about Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Her character was a reflection on his; what difference can be seen between his choice to love a lying, illiterate prostitute or his loving a country woman who was just a bit tenacious in her love? Also, while we're on the subject, what should we read in to the fact she died in an asylum?

Ophelia (1851-2) John Everett Millais

I have lost count of how many times I have winced when someone casually states that Elizabeth Siddal killed herself.  She may have killed herself but equally she may have just taken the drugs by accident.  What's the difference? Our reading of suicidal Siddal plays well with our image of her as Ophelia, it fits the narrative of a doomed heroine. Is it wrong of us to hold Elizabeth Siddal up as a martyr for women who love too much, who are consumed by their art and become  a victim of their own passion.  If that strikes a chord within us, is it wrong to find solace, to find kinship with someone who we make a connection with?  Is there harm in seeing an aspect of ourselves in another? Undoubtedly Elizabeth Siddal was unhappy, was caused unhappiness by an uncaring and careless husband and found an outlet in her art and poetry.  Arguably those moments of unhappiness probably led to thoughts of death. The problem becomes when that is all we see of her and she is reduced to the woman in the bath tub.

Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell.  Sort of.
What about when investigation becomes speculation? The above photograph is quite common on the internet and is a complete fake (and not a very good one) but seeing as we are constantly told that Lewis Carroll was a pedophile, this photograph fits the narrative. It completely colours our response to his work and makes everything tainted.  What evidence do we have that it is true?  None.  We have a man who was socially awkward, who could communicate well with children and had a collecting mania for images of little girls. That's not the only Lewis Carroll rumour that irritates me...

Alice in Wonderland poster, 1967
Apparently, Alice in Wonderland is all about drugs.  It took the clever folks of the 1960s to realise this and for ever more you can't mention Alice without some wise soul saying 'Of course they were all on drugs.' Well, no. Well, maybe some of them.  But not Lewis Carroll because he was too busy staring improperly at little girls.  Apparently.

John Ruskin in a lady's garden. My apologies.

And don't get me started on John Ruskin.

So maybe my angered correspondent was correct, saying that personal details are not up for discussion because no-one can ever see in the darkness of another's soul, let alone one who has been dead for a century.  It does seem to lead to some very spurious lines of inquiry and dead ends, not to mention distracting from the genius that brought these people to our attention in the first place.  

Fanny Cornforth (1907)
However, without a bit of digging, it would be impossible to right the wrongs done to people in the past.  Fanny would forever be the illiterate thieving tart that her accusers decided she was which is deeply unfair.  Something that really seemed to bother my own personal critic was that I had said that one person in her story had died in an asylum (listed in his probate record) and that another had killed herself (listed in subsequent newspaper reports).  For my critic there seemed to be a stigma about both things, where as I attached no judgement to either.  Suicide is such a complex issue (even when it seems straightforward) that it would be impossible to say why someone would do it let alone be stupid enough to blame them for their action.  As for asylums, I think we would all agree that actually being mad would put you in a minority in a Victorian asylum, but if the person had problems with mental illness I'd hardly be the first person to throw stones.

Fact/Fiction/Opinion - take your pick...
So, in rambling conclusion, biographical research and speculation are both essential and unnecessary.  I'm glad we cleared that up.  Seriously, it's an unwinnable fight because it both casts light and confusion on your subject.  Not only that, for some people certain facts are unpalatable because of their own personal feelings. I think it is salient to consider how speculation, however well-founded and well-intentioned, can offend and no matter how long ago your subject passed away there will be people who feel passionately about the sanctity of the subject.  When your subject is long-dead, it seems easy for us to speculate on their sexuality, criminality or insanity because they are hardly likely to take issue and prove us wrong. However in this hyper-connected world where people can find you at the touch of a button, there will always be someone who will take issue if they don't like you saying that Dickens wore a dress every Sunday or Tennyson was a founder member of Black Lace.

Be sure of your facts, be confident of your work, but remember that people, both dead and alive, deserve respect and understanding.

Monday 17 October 2016

Raising the Spirits of a Weary Traveller...

The New Forest is a lovely place to visit.  Despite its name, there is very little in the way of actual forest, but sweeping swathes of pink heathland, spreading out to the sea.  Dappled and piebald ponies wander willy-nilly, oblivious to cars, and there are wonderful old pubs at every turn.  It is also a nightmare during summer months, queuing to get through tiny villages, hot cars filled with anxious sightseers agitating their sat-nav for a better route, a quicker route, in fact any damn route than the one they, and everyone else in the sodding world, is on.  But of all the wonders and surprises that the South Coast of England affords, a tiny art gallery inside a railway station is possibly the most delightful...

Brockenhurst got its railway station in the late 1850s and took in such routes as Passford Water and Milking Pound Bottom.  It also cut the journey time to London down to 4 hours.  It was eagerly and gratefully embraced by a rural community that obvious always felt it was going places.  Today, Brokenhurst (or 'Brock, Darling' as it is known by the fashionable young 'uns) is a wealthy, artisan-bakery kind of place, and its railway station is remarkably busy and quite big.  You often have to change there to get to Bournemouth and down to Lymington for the ferry to the Isle of Wight.  Ah, the Isle of Wight - you might see where this is going...

Helmut Gernsheim (1962) Ida Kar
This rather dapper looking chap is Helmut Gernsheim, a name that will be very familiar to anyone who has read about Julia Margaret Cameron.  Gernsheim was an art historian who had a special interest in photography and he and his wife Alison amassed a vast collection of early photographs, especially works by reasonably unknown (at that time) artists like Cameron and Lewis Carroll.  There is a lovely story of what is supposed to have triggered this passion.  Whilst travelling across the south of England, Gernsheim found himself caught in bad weather and took shelter in the waiting room at Brokenhurst.  He could not believe his eyes...

"While waiting I was suddenly struck by familiar faces gazing down from the walls.  To my astonishment I found no fewer than eleven autographed portraits of famous Victorians by Julia Margaret Cameron.  I must admit that I was rather puzzled to see these photographs decorating a dingy railway waiting room, of all places, but a moment later I came across the surprising explanation inscribed on one or two of the photographs.
 This gallery of the great men of our age is presented to this room by Mrs Cameron in grateful memory of this being the spot where she first met one of her sons after a long absence of four years in Ceylon. 11th November 1871."
Obviously I wanted to go and have a look...

 In defense of Brockenhurst Railway Station, these days it is not dingy at all.  Small and busy, the ticket office has the plates from two steam trains over the two windows, very appropriately labelled 'Freshwater' and 'Farringford', the trains that took passengers down to the Isle of Wight ferry.  In Gernsheim's notes he says that the original photographs were removed to head office at Waterloo Station in the 1930s but that copies were there when the book was published in the 1970s.  I don't know how hopeful I felt as we investigated, but lo and behold on either side are two wall mounted cabinets with the prints inside.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, at Brockenhurst Station
A little label in the cabinet reads 'These photographs are very careful copies of the original photographs by Mrs JULIA MARGARET CAMERON and were bequeathed to this station.  The originals, which were fast fading away, are retained carefully by the Headquarters of SOUTHERN RAILWAY.'  As a side note, I have tried to find where the photographs are now held, but no-one has any idea in head office, which is a great shame.

Massive beards of the New Forest - No.1: Henry Taylor

The prints are beautiful quality and the cabinets are nice if a little retro, but they don't detract from the images. They are kept behind locked sliding doors and I must thank the staff for having the patience to unlock the cabinets for me, so I could take the pictures.

Artist's impression of a JMC photograph
For some reason, one of the photographs, presumably Beatrice Cenci (May Prinsep) (1866) (left), was missing from the reproductions and instead a print of a drawing of it appears in its place.  I'd love to know why - maybe the original had become too faded by the time of their replacement, so a drawing had to be done instead.  It's a very spirited attempt, but I wonder why it wasn't just left out.  Maybe it was felt that Mrs Cameron had left a 'collection' and that should be respected as a vision that should remain intact.  As it is, what is May Prinsep doing in a collection of 'great men' (Cameron's own words)? I have a theory that Cameron often used the word 'men' in terms of 'person', in the old sense of the word.  There is a blog I keep meaning to writing on Cameron's tricksy language, but when it came to 'men', I don't think she meant it to exclude women too.

Everyone's favourite Dirty Monk!
It is impossible not to feel the same delight as Gernsheim at the sight of the Cameron photographs in such an unusual setting.  Many of the faces that grace the walls are possibly unknown to the average traveller these days, not because we are a bunch of numpties, but because people like this aren't exactly everyday celebs...

If you can name this man, I'll be very impressed...
So, if you find yourself in Brockenhurst with a few minutes to spare, make your way over to the ticket office by the Italian restaurant and the car park.  There, behind some pot plants and leaflet holders are the collection of images Cameron left in gratitude to the place her son returned to her.  I often think of Cameron's art as a replacement for her children, to fill that creative, nurturing piece of her life when her nest emptied.  It is therefore appropriate that she left some of her 'children' in the place where she welcomed back her beloved son and created a haven of Victorian art in a bustling world.

(The chap is Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Winchester, in case you were wondering.  I'm sure you all knew that though, you clever bunch.)

Monday 10 October 2016


Hello everyone and this is just a quick post to ask for your help. 

Back in the Spring of last year I told you all about Fanny Cornforth's final years and finding her grave in Chichester Graveyard.  Fanny had died in Graylingwell Asylum and was buried in a common grave.  As she shared her plot with other people it was impossible to have a stone for her without the agreement of the families of the other people in with her, all of which was impossible. 

Fanny's grave at Chichester
Now, during the Graylingwell Project, I worked with Sarah Rance-Riley on Fanny's life in Graylingwell Asylum and now Sarah has started a GoFundMe page to purchase a bench to be placed by Fanny's grave so people can sit and remember her in the peaceful atmosphere of the cemetery.

This is a lovely project and I am so happy to be involved.  It is hoped that the bench can be installed for 9th April next year.  As many of you will know that is the date of Rossetti's death and in the eyes of many of his contemporaries it should have been the day that Fanny was wiped from Pre-Raphaelite history.  I think it is wonderfully and wickedly fitting that we should unveil the memorial to her on that day.

To donate money to the project please visit Sarah's funding page and I shall keep you updated on progress!

Friday 7 October 2016

Massive Scrubber

One of the many problems with modern life is that it is so easy to take for granted the modern inventions that make our existence so easy.  The moment one of them packs up, however, you have to re-learn skills that our grannies took in their stride.  Thus, I found myself up to my elbows in hot soapy water, scrubbing and wringing heavy, grumpy clothing after the door seal on our washing machine broke last weekend.  All is not lost because the new one is being fitted on Monday but until then I have to scrub and knead and wring and hang all the washing for the family.  It is exhausting.  I now really, really want a mangle.  Anyway, all this time in hot water  made me think about Victorian images of Laundresses...

Gossip (1885) John William Waterhouse
I'm not sure I actually thought laundry was going to be fun, but I thought there would be some pleasant old-fashioned jollity to be had, as displayed in Gossip above.  As it turned out, the amount of time I spent in the garden pinning heavy, wet washing out to drip meant I did find out more than was strictly necessary about my neighbours.  Yikes.  I must learn to peg-out faster...

Washerwomen in the morning at Quimperle Fritz Thaulow
Possibly the mistake I made was to do the washing in the kitchen sink.  A far more communal way to do it is in the local river.  I admit I don't have a local river (other than when the drains are up) but there is a duckpond nearby with only a modest number of rats.  I could have merrily bonded with my neighbours as we scrubbed together.

Washerwomen by the River (1860) Paul Gauguin
See, that is definitely the way forward, everyone is at it.  Plus I'll get one of those hats to wear.

Venetians (1885) Samuel Fildes
Glorious, and a jolly nice way to meet our neighbours.  Although, saying that, I do know a bit too much about our neighbour and I'm not sure I want to discuss it with her.  Plus, all these rivers are crystal clear and sparkly and not that sort of muddy, funny smelling green colour that the duck pond is.  Plus, none of them have the rats, which I do not believe would assist me in my washing.  On to plan B then...

Le Linge (1875) Edouard Manet
If my fellow residents can't be relied on for communal laundry, maybe I should get my daughter Lily-Rose to assist me, as shown by Manet above.  How utterly delightful it would be for the pair of us to wash clothes in our colourful garden in the sparkly sunshine.  Only now it's autumn it all looks a little Somme-ish out there, and my daughter isn't small and cute anymore, she tall and reasonably belligerent if I was to suggest a fun game of wash-all-the-clothes. Now, if I suggested that she washed a large bucket of puppies in the back garden she'd be out there like a shot.  Her own pants?  Not so keen.

Women doing laundry through a hole in the ice (1891) Jahn Ekenaes
Still it could be worse.  It's only autumn, the weather is still mercifully quite warm and we have had some blustery, sunny days that have made my life a little easier.  I have yet to break the ice on the duckpond to scrub my husband's socks.  There would have to be a discussion before that took place.  I mean really, laundry is hard enough without having to cut holes in ice. I bet the little boy is thinking 'when I get home I'm finding out how long it will take to walk to Spain...'

Washing Day (1906) William Russell Flint
Being without a washing machine has made me really appreciate just how much logical planning has to go into washing otherwise.  We have never owned a tumble dryer, but we have air dryers and radiators, so drying clothes on wet days was never much of a problem, however washing them in the sink, then rinsing, then wringing out, that's a whole different matter.  Without a mangle you will never get enough water out of a garment and so outdoor drying is necessary unless you want wet floors.  That means at least 10 hours of dry, warmish weather, preferably breezy, just to get it sort of damp rather than dripping.  Then it takes another day inside to dry off.  I have found myself prioritising items of clothing, like school uniform, socks, knickers, and wondering if things like cardigans can last a day or two longer than I'd normally give them.

A Woman's Work (1912) John Sloan

 Mind you, there is enormous satisfaction in doing something the old fashioned way, and just for a moment feeling like you have not become a useless 21st century person.  All this is firmly in the knowledge that it is a temporary measure, obviously.  I have no aspiration to become like my grandmother who held down a full time job and had to do all the housework too. 

Laundresses Marie Petiet
I should at this point admit one thing.  I am not, and have never been, an ironer.  I will merrily scrub away, but the only time I iron anything is (a) party dress or (b) when I'm sewing seams.  Otherwise, I am constantly in an ensemble of jersey.  I don't have the motivation to iron pillowcases.  I am duly ashamed of myself.

The Laundress (1916) Robert Henri
There is a sort of glamorous in domestic labour captured in art.  Like Communist posters of workers and farmers, the laundresses of Victorian art have a nobility in their work.  These are not feeble women, looking pretty and whimsome (apart possibly from Fildes' bunch).  Instead they are strong, capable women, hard at work.  I have a few questions about why they are often pictured from behind, although I'm sure I can guess the answers, but images such as Henri's magnificent Laundress above makes even the most mundane task seem a little more beautiful.  If I was being optimistic about artist representation for a moment, I would argue that these images show how there was perceived beauty in usefulness.  These artists showed that there was as much, if not more beauty in a woman working with a purpose, than in a society portrait.  These are women too busy to sit down to be painted, but when they are portraits, there is nothing sexualised about them.  There is dignity in their work and in themselves. It might not have been the reality, but it is a positive image none the less.

Roll on Monday...