Wednesday 21 June 2017

Get Thee to a Biographer!

You should by this point know what I'm like.  I really adore finding out about the waifs and strays of art history, finding those women who fall between the cracks and bringing their lives, well, to life because honestly everyone has an interesting life in one way or another.  Even if your moment under the artist's pencil (or even the artist) was brief, I bet something else happened in your life.  No-one only gets only one moment of interest.  So I have a little fact-heap of ladies I look into, finding out more about them until I have enough to bring you.  Imagine my delight when I set about researching two of Rossetti's models which had been somewhat overlooked - Would I find out that they had gone mad?  Did they have unexplained children? Have scandalous love affairs and appalling marriages?

In the past I have found out all of these things about Victorian models.  This time things were a little different.  This is the story of Agnes Manetti and Ada Vernon...

The Laurel (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Let's start with Agnes Manetti, because I've always found her a nice, larger-than-life character.  She was described by William Michael Rossetti as 'a Scotch woman in London, with a handsome pleasing face, more especially a fine profile.' So far, so good, but it doesn't last as he goes on to describe her as 'of no rigid virtue' and looking like Napoleon.  He knows how to flatter a girl, that one.  William Michael is not the most reliable of character witnesses, being a bit of a pig at times, but also he is usually recollecting much after the event, sometimes as much as 40 years, so I suppose I ought to forgive him.  But I don't.

Agnes Manetti (1862) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The problem is that we tend to take what people like William Michael say as gospel, which it should be as he was actually there.  However, he is a careless biographer of people he does not consider important and so the women who were mere fleeting fancies get the history applied to them that William Michael thinks appropriate.  When it comes to someone like Fanny Cornforth, his recollections are stronger because he loathed her so much.  With people like Agnes Manetti, he could probably barely remember her.  He certainly couldn't remember her surname.  Was he even thinking of her at the time?  When asked about Agnes in 1904, William Michael recalled that his brother's 'principle painting from her is named Monna Pomona'.

Monna Pomona (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
 Slight problem is that the model for the painting wasn't Agnes...

Okay, so enough of William Michael's nonsense, is there anyone who actual remembered her?  Gosh I wish there was a promiscuous slut-bag who fancied everyone and kept a diary...

Oh, George Price Boyce, how lovely to see you again!
My favourite hot Victorian diarist, George Price Boyce came to my rescue once more.  If you have never read his diary I thoroughly recommend it because George was a one for the ladies and made it his business to meet all the models, give them presents and feed them.  I appreciate a man who gives a girl breakfast, and so it was with Agnes Manetti.  In 1862, Boyce saw images of Agnes, who he referred to as 'Fatty Aggie M' when he visited Rossetti.  He seems to imply in his diary entry of October 22 1862 that Rossetti has been using Agnes as his 'Joan of Arc' even though William Michael identified the model as a 'Mrs Beyer'.  Anyway, in January of 1863, Agnes comes round to breakfast at Boyce's bachelor pad and he draws her then gives her 'a little Florentine mosaic brooch' which I'm sure isn't a euphemism.

La Castagnetta (1860s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Rossetti drew Agnes many times in a two year period, but only seemed to use her in a couple of paintings.  La Castagnetta is believed to be her, as is a watercolour of Sweet Tooth, an image of a girl eating fruit (which is one he repeated with Fanny Cornforth at this time too).

Sweet Tooth (watercolour) (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Aggie (Sweet Tooth) (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
There are a number of images of Fanny Cornforth eating and much is made of the link between these and her weight.  Possibly too, for someone called 'Fatty Aggie', there is a link being made between her sensual love of eating and her weight, also linked to sensuality.  Thinking about it, if Aggie is seen has a bit loose in her morals, as was Fanny, is there a link being made between fat, eating and debauchery.  Look at those grapes (or whatever they are) hanging out of her mouth!  Saucy wench!

The Hair Net (1862) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
So, to the research! Come on, with a name like Agnes Manetti, she won't be too hard to find....  So what do we know?  She was called Agnes, that we know as at least two people call her that, without speech-marks mostly, and she might have been Scottish, or 'Scotch' (a term which I think only applies to the drink, frankly).  I could not find an Agnes Manetti, but there are certainly a ton of Scottish Agneses (Agni?) in London in the 1860s.  Okay, so we'll start with Manetti, which was felt to be an odd name for a Scottish girl (discounting the Italian influx, obviously).  There we have more luck.  There are two gentlemen in London in 1861 with the surname 'Manetti'.  First of all we have Joseph, a Tuscan bank clerk (the best kind of bank clerk) who married first Frances (who died), then Martha, but neither wife was Scottish, let alone had 'Agnes' in their name.  On then to the fabulously named Raimondo Felix Manetti, a Spanish sculptor, who married Fanny Mills, a London girl.  They travelled about quite a bit by the look of them, so possibly they had come down from Scotland before settling in London, but Fanny was far too young, having only been in born in 1850.  No luck on any front there then, but I may have a suggestion about part of her name...

In March 1860 the journal The Scottish Gardener ran an article about 'The Manetti Bubble'.  The Manetti shrub rose was wildly popular, although not everyone was a fan, the article calling it 'fair at first sight, but the more we know of him the less we value him'.  It's hard to know how Agnes came by the surname but by Boyce's recollection of her, it appears she took it herself.  Could she have named herself after a type of popular Scottish rose?  It's tempting to wonder if she was called Agnes at all in that case because another shrub rose is the 'Agnes'.  Did she just name herself after roses?  As Boyce does not call her "Agnes" (in speech-marks), suggesting he knows it's a made up name (like he does with "Fanny"), I think we should believe she was called Agnes, but as for the surname, who can tell?  Rossetti was a lover of flowers and used them intelligently in his paintings so possibly he christened Wee Scottish Aggie after the rose she was. After all, as William Michael says she is beautiful in Monna Pomona.  Only that's not her.  That's Ada Vernon.  Damn it!

Ada Vernon (1863) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
See, there's another problem.  When two models look alike, who can tell which of them is the right model?  Enter stage left, Ada Vernon, the real model for Monna Pomona, and how do we know?  Because George Price Boyce fancied her.  Of course he did.  From his diary in February 1864, Rossetti 'has been painting on the drawing of "Ada" and the apple.  It is most exquisite.'  There is a letter to Ada from Rossetti, dated January 1864, postponing their meeting but asking her to come the next day 'as early as you can manage - and please come with your hair very nice indeed.'  Not only Monna Pomona has been misidentified as Agnes, but there is some doubt about The Laurel which has both women's names against it, depending where you look.  Both women were dark haired, dark eyed and beautiful.  Even less is reported on Ada Vernon, so we have no idea how rigid her morals were or where she apparently came from.  All we know is that she was going to marry a gentleman called Hemblen, according to the Rossetti Archive.  The above drawing was apparently given to her as a wedding present.  Apparently.  Okay, so Hemblen isn't a very common name, she'll be easy to find, right?

Ada Vernon (1863-5) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The above picture of Ada was part of a job lot that Boyce bought from Rossetti in 1865.  Something that caught my eye was the fact that Boyce put quotes around Ada's name the first time he spoke about her, which immediately put me on my guard.  First of all I searched for 'Hemblen' and variations and any marriages around that time to anyone with a name like Ada Vernon.  Lawks, nothing at all.  I also searched for Ada Vernon, again with not much hope, and certainly nothing that really fitted.  However there was a young man in Chelsea at that time, called Edmond Hamblen.  Sadly he ended his days without marrying Miss Vernon, and he was last seen in the 1901 census living with his widowed sister.  So what if Ada intended to marry but for some reason it just never happened?  Are there any unmarried Ada Vernons who might fit our bill?  Oddly, I was drawn to one who died in Croydon in 1917.  Ada Mary Vernon, born in 1842 in Worcestershire, had been an art needleworker.  It's not out of the question that she was in some way connected with the Morris family in the early 1860s, via embroidery, and that was where Rossetti found her.  I agree, it's tenuous...

Miss Ada Vernon, actress

Possibly a slightly more plausible explanation is Miss Ada Vernon, who was an actress, which might explain Boyce's quotation marks around her name.  Miss Vernon seemed a busy, if not successful actress in the early 1860s, mentioned in The Era for her portrayal of Mary in The Farmer's Story (November 1865).  She was given the review that 'with further practice [she] will probably be able to realise a serious situation more forcibly than at present.' Thank you, I think.  When reviewed for her role in The Rivals, Tatler felt she was 'excellent', but from the faint praise given by her many reviewers she was never really a threat to Ellen Terry.  She appears in Rossetti's art around the same period as Ruth Herbert, so possibly he met her through Ruth.  Who can tell?  What becomes clear is that neither Ada or Agnes had families who remembered, nor children who carried the story down. Neither of them were in Rossetti's life long enough to become ingrained in the stories, nor so they seem to have written their histories themselves.  Was Agnes one of the hundreds of Scottish girls, working in service in London who was given a pretty name to suit her face?  Was Ada an actress or an embroiderer?  Why didn't she marry Mr Hamblen?  Had things turned out differently I might have been the author of Hoots! The Fall and Rise of Agnes Manetti but some people get lost in time. 

Especially if you are a woman.  A childless woman. An unmarried woman. No-one will remember you.

Well, that's a jolly note to end on, but this is the lesson of Aggie and Ada. Childless, unmarried women leave no memories sadly, which is brutal but true. By 'childless' I mean a woman without any descendants, either theirs or step-children or even nephews and nieces. It's interesting who comes crawling out of the woodwork on anniversaries of artists births and deaths, with tales of their model relatives.  Reading the centenary pieces on Rossetti you'd think most of London had posed for him, some of them even after he had died.  It stems from family narratives, great aunt so-and-so telling the story of when Rossetti painted her, or when she let Boyce give her a mosaic brooch (my new favourite euphemism). If you have no access to the younger generation who will carry your flame you will just have to do it yourself.

For a Victorian model to be remembered it helps to have been memorable, and I don't just mean in the good way.  Irritate the hell out of the right people and they will hang onto that grudge forever.

Just ask that nut-throwing, illiterate, thieving prostitute, Fanny Cornforth.

Sunday 11 June 2017

Review: Mary Lobb from Cornwall to Kelmscott: A Life Revealed

You no doubt remember that a couple of weeks ago I did my post on Miss Mary Lobb. As a consequence, I had the pleasure of talking to the splendid people at Kelmscott and Simon Evans from the National Library of Wales about their new exhibition, Mary Lobb from Cornwall to Kelmscott: A Life Revealed.  Stop in the name of Lobb!

This is unsurprisingly the first exhibition on Miss Lobb considering the bad press she had received over the years.  It is an absolute delight that she is getting the reassessment she so richly deserved. This all stemmed from an incredible discovery of the archive at the National Library of Wales of the many items that had arrived when Miss Lobb died.  Not only were there personal items from the Lobb family but also many revealing items relating to Kelmscott, her home for over 20 years...

Kelmscott Manor
I think the problem has previously been that all that was known of Miss Lobb is almost entirely connected to May, so it was hard to see her beyond that two-dimensional lesbian-lady-in-sensible-shoes that has made her the butt of jokes.  What this exhibition succeeds in doing is showing Mary before May, the unstoppable Miss Lobb, large-locomotive-loving, steam-roller-driving, dog-cuddling powerhouse. A big, powerful, confident woman who takes no nonsense from anyone?  Miss Lobb, your time has come!

May and Mary, a dynamic duo
By showing us more layers of Lobb, it is easier to get a more complete picture of the woman who turned May Morris' life around.  An utter revelation is a small oil painting by Miss Lobb, a modernist sunset reminiscent of Paul Nash.  These are juxtaposed with May Morris' own watercolours, showing how chalk-and-cheese the pair were but somehow they worked together.

Camping with Mary and May
Much is made of their travels; rough camping in the middle of nowhere, their 'flat' in Reykavik, photographs of the pair smiling in front of their tent. Compare those photos with images at the end of Jane Morris' life, with May sat on the floor at her mother's feet, subdued, and you can see how much of a difference Miss Lobb made.  There are photos of their friends, their goats, their little trap.  The animals that seem to populate Kelmscott in the 1920s must have come in with Miss Lobb who cared so much for her horses she patented shoe coverings that protected the hoof from debris.  I'm a great believer in the life-affirming joy animals bring to life (speaking as someone with a front room filled with chicks I hatched at Easter) and Miss Lobb seems to agree with me.  One of my favourite photographs is Mary and May showing off their goats, which is about as far from the rather studious, overshadowed, unlucky-in-love Mary Morris as it is possible to get.

Miss Lobb and friends (both two- and four-legged)
This is both an important and fascinating exhibition and I thoroughly urge you to go and see it this summer.  Miss Lobb has for too long been seen as May's folly, a cartoon, manish brute of a woman, swearing, drinking and brandishing a gun at anyone who came to near to her beloved May.  What is revealed is this funny, caring, uncompromising woman who loved May and made her life worth living.  Once you understand how much these two women brought to each other's lives you'll never see Kelmscott as a place of melancholy and thwarted love again.  All I am saying is give Lobb a chance...

To learn more, visit Kelmscott's page for their exhibition here.

Tuesday 6 June 2017

Nil Desperandum!

Flipping heck, life is grim at the mo, isn't it? It's all a rubbish swiss roll of terroism and elections, far too many politicians on the telly spouting nonsense and it's frankly disturbing going anywhere near social media because it leaves you in no doubt that people are awful.  I'm so glad we're not people.  Anyway, in order to cheer us all up I thought I'd find us some lovely pictures of Victorian despair...

Disappointed Love (1821) Francis Danby
I've always been partial to this painting; it seems to depict a Jane Austen heroine sobbing in a wood.  Did she chose the wrong bonnet? Did she forget the words to 'The British Grenadier' at an inopportune moment and therefore ruin her marriage chances? Did she trust a red coat?  Never trust a red coat! Looking on the bright side, the Empire-line gown is enormously flattering during pregnancy.  I'm also worried about grass stains.  White is so unforgiving, although I don't suppose she can wear it any more.  Moving on.

Disappointment (1879) John Haynes-Williams
It's always disappointment to find that your friends have not shown the same commitment to the tapas evening as you have.  It's hard to imagine what this finely dressed young lady has to be disappointed about, unless someone has just loudly announced that their granny has the same net curtains in her downstairs loo as this lass has round her shoulder.  How mortifying!

Off (1899) Edmund Blair Leighton
Let's be honest, most disappointments come from romantic entanglements (and dry chocolate cake).  I especially like Blair Leighton's take on an ended love affair, although I think he missed the 'Sod' from the above title (or pick your own appropriate word).  The jilted chap has thrown his roses on the floor and stomped off leaving our lass to consider how much better she could do.  Pretty girl like you, I'm sure you can get a bloke in a nicer coat and some night white stockings.  She also seems to be sat on something that looks like a massive tombola drum which I'm worried will roll her unexpectedly into the stream when she least expects it.  As well, such is love.

Proposal (The Rivals) (1880) Axel Kulle
Well, what's going on here? Two chaps seem to be vying for a young lady's hand and I don't think it's hard to see which one is going home disappointedr.  I wonder if that is her Mum in the doorway with her hands on her hips.  The choice is either a man in long boots with his own brolly, or a chap in socks and clogs. I think we know why the chap in the middle looks so disappointed; boots and brolly always wins.

The Shepherd's Suit Rejected (1867) William Vandyke Patten
Another chap disappointed in love, this shepherd sobs behind his beloved as she sits awkwardly pretending it's not happening.  Pull yourself together love, that's just not dignified.  When even your dog is judging you, it's probably time to reassess your behaviour.  I think the woman should take a leaf out of the sheep's book and move away quickly and discretely.

Wedding Cards, Jilted (1854) John Everett Millais
Do you think the person who sent the wedding card to this poor lass really didn't know that her bounder of a fiancee had buggered off? I'm not so sure but that might just be because I know the sort of people who'd love all that. 'Congratulations on your happy day! What's that? Bob ran off with your sister? And your cousin? Oh, deary me, what a pity. Tell me more...'  I just hope she got to keep all the presents.

Broken Engagement (1860) George Bernard O'Neill
Sorry Grandma, there is just no cheering up this poor young lady since her beloved fiancee, 'Cheating Ratbastard' ran off with 'That Trollop Sandra' and left her to sit around in the parlour in a brown dress. Obviously, when she pulls herself together she will write them eversuch a lovely note of congratulations and won't mention how she hopes his fruit withers on the vine, if you know what I mean.  Never mind Love, you can do much better.

Oh! That a Dream so Sweet (1872) John Everett Millais

To give it its full title, the above is Oh! That a Dream so Sweet, so Long Enjoy'd, Should be so Sadly, Cruelly Destroy'd, from Thomas Moore's Lalla-Rookh, and the lady in this picture is thinking of beloved but very aware that she is rather alone. From the title, it does sound like she has become another victim of a jilting boyfriend and a dream 'so sweet' of being respectably married has been 'cruelly destroyed'.

The Affront (1905) Antonio Piatti
Obviously, some people take a dumping better than others.  This lass is not taking it at all well and is even putting her finger in her ear in order not to hear the bad news. If you can't see your boyfriend or hear him then he can't possibly be dumping you.  It only makes sense.

The Unfulfilled Wish (1899) Julius Leblanc Stewart
I threw a coin into the wishing well and when that didn't work I threw in all my clothes.  Now, had my wish been to be naked in public I would be sorted.  If my wish had been not to be embarrassed in front of my neighbours, I might be out of luck. The girl in the picture appears quite disappointed with the outcome, so maybe she's realised that she's thrown away her shoes and the path back home is rather gravelly.  Ouch. I bet her car keys were in her pocket too.

Such is Life (1885) Weedon Grossmith
It does feel like we are getting the empty end of the cracker at present, but like the little girl in this picture we should just check there is nothing for us.  You never know, there might be a paper hat or one of those fortune telling fish.  Either way, despair not Gentle Reader, as there is still a fair amount of good in the world.  If your ratbag of a fiancee has jilted you, you were probably better off without him or her. If you have thrown all your clothes down a well, at least you'll get an even tan. Whilst there are still good books, good friends and moist cake in the world, then there are still reasons for hope and joy.  Until the election is over, I think I will keep a steady supply of the last one to hand...