Tuesday 24 December 2019

Tuesday 24th December - Frank Holl, obviously

All hail the King of Sobvent!  I really couldn't do a month of misery without the marvellous and miserable art of the wonderful Frank Holl, creator of this...

A Doubtful Hope (1875) Frank Holl
This painting is what started my love of a proper miserable painting and introduced me to Frank Holl, a hero of despair, and the only painter who could really do justice to the finale of Sobvent.  I don't know who the medicine is for in A Doubtful Hope but I think you and I both know that everyone in that shop is doomed.  It's just a matter of time. Probably not much time.

Her First Born, Horsham Churchyard (1876)
Holl is responsible for some of the most depressing images of Victorian life you can possibly imagine.  Little coffins, sobbing mothers, and worthy, elderly country folk all feature in his art.  The grief of mothers is a particularly favourite theme of his.  Both A Doubtful Hope and Her First Born are about the struggle of motherhood, particularly for the working class and poor.  

Hush (1877)

Hushed (1877)
The roughness of the interiors in paintings such as Hush and the inevitable Hushed (I'm guessing that baby hasn't just drifted happily off for a little snooze) shows that the poor have the same lives as the rich but with absolutely no protection from the worst of life.  With a Frank Holl painting we know what is coming, but the protagonists don't - maybe Frank Holl is saying that the art-buying public should be able to spot the perils of being poor and should act on it.  If you have the money for a painting, you could be paying for a decent meal or medical attention for some of these people.

I am the Resurrection and the Life (The Village Funeral) (1872)
Another coffin and another sobbing family, although it is hard to see exactly who the dead body is, with the coffin at such an angle to us - is it the mother this time?  We are seeing a funeral procession led by a chap and a small girl, followed by a sobbing girl and other mourning villagers. I reckon it's the Mum who has popped off, which makes a change, although she might already be dead and it's another child.  Blimey, it's carnage in this village!

No Tidings from the Sea (1870)
Also, don't worry about Holl being overshadowed by such doom-mongers as Walter Langley, as Holl also did a miserable dead fisherman picture with No Tidings from the Sea, although to be honest, this one could be called anything as I'm not getting a strong fishy vibe from this - how about 'I flossed at the Christmas party, the shame!' or 'I posted a rant-y comment on the internet, but misspelled a word!' We all feel your pain, Love, whatever it might be.  Also, cheer up, just because there are no tidings, doesn't mean they are all drowned - the mobile signal might just be really bad where he is.  He's obviously just in the pub and every time you ring he gets his mates to do seagull noises.  

Ordered to the Front (1880)

Sorry, everyone wearing a skirt in this picture will be dead by tomorrow afternoon. Harsh but true.

Hope (1883)
Despair (1881)

Good old Holl, he never disappoints.  So many of the paintings just have no context, they are just moments of personal angst, possibly about stuff that happened ages ago but that is quite Christmas-y.  At this time of year, everything might be going excellently, but you suddenly miss people who just aren't there anymore.  The older I get, the further I get from the magic of childhood, more people are missing and more holes are in the smooth fabric of our happiness.  However, look what Holl did with these last two paintings - like Hush and Hushed, it would be easy to assume the order of these paintings is Hope then Despair but look at the dates.  Holl painted Despair first, then followed it with Hope and that is the message I would leave you with this Sobvent.  No matter how many magpies visit you, lionesses savage you or dogs look at you in a mournful manner, there is always hope.  Sure, the fisherman probably won't return from the sea, but he might. So, whilst Christmas can often be bittersweet, remember if Frank Holl can find hope, it's probably worth giving it a go yourself.

Have a very happy Christmas, my dears, and I will see you all in 2020.

Monday 23 December 2019

Monday 23rd December - The Last of the Garrison

Well, we are on the penultimate day of Sobvent and what a thoroughly miserable month it has been!  Splendid! I thought today I'd do the wonderfully depressing animal art of Briton Riviere, notably this one...

The Last of the Garrison (1875) Briton Riviere
My Nan would have absolutely loved this as she was a connoisseur of a wretched picture, having two sobbing gypsy children on her kitchen wall.  So, what we have here is the aftermath of a siege or battle in an important house.  The battle has done rather appalling things to the plasterwork and blown a door off its hinges (is that a cannonball hole?), but centre-stage is a lovely dog, having a little nap.  He is having a sleep, right? A nice little snooze on an unfortunate red stain on the floor... Never mind the absolute devastation and loss of life in the battle, someone shot the dog!  That is really going too far.  He was only a day away from retirement too! Sob!

Companions in Misfortune (1883)
Riviere is a repeat offender with his miserable pictures involving animals, especially dogs.  He did do a good dog, I'll give him that.  Out Landseer-ing Landseer in narrative scenes, he brings us treasures such as Companions in Misfortune where a small, miserable terrier is homeless with his worryingly gun-toting owner.  Yes, I think I'd look a bit shifty too with nothing but a massive shotgun to keep you warm.  Not the most comforting of thoughts.

His Only Friend (1871)
'I love you Rover,' says the little boy, 'you're my only friend.'
'I know other people,' thinks the dog, 'and if you tragically snuff it by this milestone, your feet are looking fairly delicious right now.'

The Last of the Crew (1883)
Here we have a fairly rare example of a polar explorer who did not eat the hunting dogs first, which really doesn't seem to have worked out for him, to be honest.  The dogs look fairly unimpressed, and I think they are eating the penultimate of the crew, but really, how did they think it would work out?  How did they think it was going to end when the chap had 'Doomed Polar Explorer' written on his business card?  When he's not paying attention, they will eat him and fashion a raft out of his many fur coats and sail to safety. Hurrah!

Sympathy (c.1878)
I really get the impression that Riviere did not find children cute or appealing, a sort of anti-Carroll, if you will.  He seems almost unable to paint a picture of a child without sneaking a dog into it.  I wonder if proud mothers took their cute little poppets along to Mr Riviere's studio in order to get them painted and he looked at them and frowned. 'Yes, yes, Mrs Ponsomby-Smythe, little Agatha is all very clever, but I'm just going to stick this terrier next to her because it will draw attention away from how homely she is. I'm doing you a favour, Love.'  I think, for Riviere, dogs had a way of expressing emotion very clearly, far more than humans.  I have a bit of a theory, which is completely spurious and fanciful, but I wonder if Riviere was on the autism spectrum.  I wonder if he felt the need for some clarity in the emotion of a piece and that animals are clear and honest in their feelings.  An animal cannot and would not hide or disguise emotion, but humans are tricksy and false.  For Riviere, the truth of the picture does not lay in the human but the animal.  As I said though, he might have just found children unappealing on their own, which is fair enough in a lot of cases.

Requiescat (1888)
Here we have a very noble dog praying for the rest of his dead master.  I wonder if that is the same dog as in the first painting?  Or a relative?  Did Riviere have regular dog models, I wonder, and if so, is this a whole new line in biography?  Maybe 2020 will be the year I become the leading light in animal biography of leading canine models of the 19th century.  It is a shamefully neglected field and I bet they knew loads of scandal...

See you on Christmas Eve for the last installment.

Sunday 22 December 2019

Sunday 22nd December - The Bride of Death

Today feels a bit like the calm before the storm.  I have biscuits and red cabbage to cook today (separately) but other than that, I'm trying to take it easy so that I don't make my back bad again.  I don't fancy spending Christmas in bed.  Actually, who am I kidding?  That sounds awesome...

The Bride of Death (1839) Thomas Jones Barker
Okay, I think fake-expiring, as we have already covered, is a little extreme, but rather than collapsing on the way to your relatives, do it in the comfort of your own bed, with bedside table and books within handy reach.  The husband is sobbing his heart up because he's realised he's not put his red cabbage on and the guests will be here in less than an hour.  Mrs Death is far too comfy on her prodigious amount of pillows and low-cut nightie to be getting up.  'Oh no, my Love, how will I carry on without you?' he sobs.  She replies 'Gas mark 2, and serve...snacks...(cough)...to...stall...' You know the moment he leaves the room she is picking up her book.  Sadly, I think that probably would be the only way I'd get any serious reading done this time of year.

Death the Bride (c.1894) Thomas Cooper Gotch
There really is a genre of brides who die, or young women who find their ideal bridegrooms in death, from Leonore via Tennyson's 'The May Queen' to any tragic lass who snuffs it while her husband sobs.  I don't know about you but I really get the impression that Victorians almost thought it was preferable for a woman to die rather than have sex.  Mind you, possibly that's what it's all about - Ruskin and Burne-Jones both had rather dubious views concerning the 'damage' all that conjugal unpleasantness had on girls.  I suppose it could be a conflation with the fear of death in child-birth that could claim a young wife just when the couple should be at their happiest.

Till Death Do Us Part (1910) Sigismund Goetze
Far preferable, apparently, is to go as a pair, and a nudey pair at that. In Goetze frankly peculiar image, a man and woman are going off together.  However, I'm not sure everything is well, as the man seems to be reaching into the ether, but the woman's hand has found a hard, unwelcoming surface.  She also has brought a wrap in case it's chilly in heaven.  I don't want to talk out of turn, but I don't think its a buy-one-get-one-free sort of deal.  There are definitely shades of Anna Lea Merritt's Love Locked Out about this.  Sorry Love, your name is not on the list, you're not coming in.

So I think our Bride of Death has the right idea.  She has a very comfy throw on the bed, I'm sure she has a strategically hidden packet of Hobnobs tucked under her pillow and that bedside table has books.  Her weeping husband will have to go and deal with the relatives in a minute, tearfully announcing that his poor wife cannot be disturbed as she is busy expiring.  In the meantime, she'll be getting a decent amount of reading done, and having a good snooze, all ready to make a miraculous recovery on Boxing Day, just after the in-laws leave...

See you tomorrow.

Saturday 21 December 2019

Saturday 21st December - Telegram

What a busy day!  I was catching up with my good friend and agent today, which was lovely, because there is nothing nicer than hearing the news from friends.  At Christmas, we get to catch up with so many people that we might not get to see throughout the year, via the Christmas card.  Some people however choose to update you in the fullest possible sense, via a round-robin.  Hmmm....

The Telegram (1894) Luisa Max-Ehrlerova
I'm sure the people who send round-robins mean them to be a lovely, life-affirming act of friendship, however, for the recipient, they can be very depressing.  It might be because in this country we are not always comfortable listing our achievements, let alone hearing a massive string of the achievements of others.  Look at the expression of the woman in today's picture - she has just read that her family friend's daughter is now taking grade 8 clarinet as well as competing at Olympic level in gymnastics and has recently won the Nobel prize for at least two things.  Our lass feels her greatest achievement this year is not killing her house plant.  She just reached the end of the first of eight pages of round-robin and that has been enough to make her reach for a pistol.  She hasn't even reached the bit about the Tuscan mini-break yet. I doubt she'll make it that far.

The Message (1890) Henry Scott Tuke
There is a rich artistic history of women getting crappy news by letter.  Mothers being informed of loved ones dying in wars, women being dumped by post.  You get the odd moment of a bloke learning of his wife's infidelity, most famously this one...

Past and Present, No.1 (1858) Augustus Leopold Egg
The letter in this case reads 'I saw your wife in Nandos with Gavin from Accounts.  They are definitely at it. Sincerely, A Friend', causing the wife to completely narf up the hand movements to YMCA, and divorce and destitution inevitably follow.  Of course there are many lovely paintings of love letters being exchanged and people getting thoroughly jolly letters but in art, the majority of news is bad.  Admittedly, not every lucky recipient of a tragic letter goes straight for the pistol - I mean, blimey, what on earth was in that letter?!  Egg's woman has just found out that she will be homeless and cast out to die in an alleyway and she's not reached for the pistol.  Let's not make a scene now, remember you're British.

Memories and Regrets (c.1874) Alfred Emile Stevens
Also, if you shoot yourself (or others) just because you get a sad letter, then you miss the opportunity of keeping that letter and wallowing in it again at a later date.  Just as we have many images of women getting miserable letters, we have even more images of them re-reading that letter at a later date in order to be miserable all over again. As we saw earlier in Sobvent, having a good grizzle over stuff that has already happened is almost a hobby of Victorian women.  Alfred Stevens brings us a reminiscing woman whose letter is so tragic her boobs have almost popped out of her corset.  That's the sign of a properly sad letter.  She has obviously sighed so deeply that her nipples almost got free.  Blimey, if you are going to reminisce, make sure you are wearing the correct underwear or else you leave yourself open to a whole raft of other issues. Get your grieving vest on before you even open that envelope. And before you open your Christmas cards, put all firearms and sharp objects away.  Just in case.

See you tomorrow.

Friday 20 December 2019

Friday 20th December - Death of a Wombat

Today is the last day of term for a lot of people, so I hope you have a good one because it's not a particularly inspiring morning here.  It's chilly and wet and my sciatica has returned with a vengeance.  I seemed to remember asking Father Christmas for a pony, but instead he seems to have delivered a right good kicking to my lower back, left knee and ankle.  I know a fair number of you are sufferers too and so you have my warmest wishes today that your hot water bottle remains true.  Well, I have strawberry jam to make so I best crack on with today's tear-jerker and it is extremely timely, what with today being Friday...

Death of a Wombat (1869) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The poem below the drawing reads:

I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet & fat
And tail-less, he was sure to die!

Goodness me, where to start with Rossetti...? Let's start with Wombat Friday, which it is of course today.  I can't believe it was almost six years ago that I wrote this defense of #WombatFriday and the participation of the National Trust with the shenanigans.  I'm more than delighted to reveal that, come February, there will be more wombat fun-and-games at a certain art gallery by the sea, but I'll tell you more about that next year.  May I wish you a merry Wombat Friday, but for now let's return to the misery.

The marvellous Raine Szramski in wombat action...
Oh Rossetti, you massive mess. It's not hard to see how complicated the whole relationship with the wombat is, not least because he called the wombat Topsy, the nickname of his best friend, whose wife he was also in love with.  It is assumed that Rossetti named the wombat after Morris, and that is more likely than not, however it is the sentiment behind such a naming that is very much open to debate.  Did he do it to mock Morris as Rossetti had it away with his wife?  Unlikely, because firstly Rossetti absolutely loved the wombat and Morris, and also had so many horrible medical complications that he wasn't capable of having it away with anyone, well, not physically.  Undeniably, Rossetti's relationship with Jane was an affair but let's not bring everyone's down-belows into it.

Mrs Morris and Wombat (c.1869) D G Rossetti
I think Rossetti's love for the wombat reflected his love for Morris, but if we know anything about Rossetti, we know he was an extremely complicated man who took drugs, thus making himself even more complicated. There is a moment in the wonderful The Love School where Rossetti is being an absolute treasure to his assembled friends but then Morris recites a poem to much acclaim and you see Rossetti's face change.  Like a petty, jealous sibling you can see him deciding to take the next opportunity to remind everyone who is the most important.  I also don't think he was fool enough to not realise he was like this and spent a good part of his later life trapped in a personal hell of both being appalling to others and knowing how appalling he was, but unable to help it.
The Invalid - Cheyne Walk 1869 (2017) Walton Ford
Also, I read a very interesting interpretation of the wombat death in Poetical Remains: Poet's Graves, Bodies and Books in the Nineteenth Century by Samantha Matthews.  Matthews suggests that Topsy's death, due to Rossetti's neglect and incapability to care properly for it, was reflective of Elizabeth Siddal's demise and so when Rossetti launched into his elaborate and wholehearted grief at the death of Top, who he had only owned for a few months, it was not about the wombat, but about Siddal.  In the poem below the image, a parody of Lalla Rookh (1817) by Thomas Moore, he seems to infer that such a pleasing and delightful creature was certain to die because it knew him. Goodness me, it's all about you, isn't it Rossetti?

I spent some time yesterday talking about how it's a fine balance to like the creations of people who turn out to be disappointing or damn-right loathesome.  I find it hard to loathe Rossetti, despite him not being a particularly wonderful human being, because it is so easy to pity him.  Yes, he was a rubbish husband, a laughable friend, and did absolutely nothing to protect Fanny Cornforth from his family after his death, despite how much care she took of him, but I find him guilty of cowardice and thoughtlessness rather than callousness.  He is the sort of person who takes no responsibility for his mistakes and is just the victim of everything.  If you look at the composition of today's image, it is not the wombat who is dead centre, if you excuse the phrase, it's bloody Rossetti.  The death of the wombat is all about him.  He really is the pinnacle of what I refer to as 'The Theatre of Me' for which he expects us all to be his audience. How exhausting.

Goblin Market illustration (1862) D G Rossetti
Despite being comic and ridiculous, today's picture is really sad because it is typical of the tragedy of one man's life.  Did he learn anything from Top's death? Absolutely not.  He went on to drive William Morris out of the country with his demands on their friendship.  Did he learn anything from Siddal's death?  No, flap all, and in fact this picture is just over a month after he had her dug up for the poems.  Of course, at the time Rossetti's utter disintegration was happening in the privacy of his social circle, but now we pick through it publicly. You could fill a Sobvent with the tragedy of Rossetti, but I'm just giving him one day.

See you tomorrow...

Thursday 19 December 2019

Thursday 19th December - The Death of Procris

Yesterday got a bit heavy, so I thought we'd have a break today with a straightforward death.  Hurrah!

The Death of Procris (1915) George Owen Wynne Apperley
We'll start with the image, as she looks a bit chilly.  Here we have the lovely Procris, and she has died in a pointless, perky and tragic manner.  She was the daughter of King Thingy of Athens and his lovely wife, Queen Whatsit.  Procris married Cephalus, a tricksy fellow, who goes off for 8 years to test his wife, then comes home in disguise to seduce her.  Well, he knows how to keep a marriage exciting and rather irritating.  None of that is particularly relevant to this image, though.  So Procris is convinced Cephalus is having an affair because he is out "hunting" so much.  One day she follows him and then jumps out of a bush in order to catch him with his lover.  Unfortunately, he really does just love hunting and accidentally shoots her because it is never wise to jump out at someone who is armed.

The Death of Procris by Piero di Cosimo (c.1468-1510)
Despite the difference in style and around 400 years, there are a lot of similarities between the version by Apperley and that by Piero di Cosimo, including the faithful hound, mourning at poor, nudey Procris' feet.   In Piero di Cosimo's version, a faun mourns for her, with his weird goaty legs.  I know, it's rude to stare at his little hoofy feet or fluffy ears, but there you go.  I really like his fluffy legs, they must be lovely and warm.  Anyhow, in Apperley's version, it is the trigger-happy husband who is regretting his life choices.  Now, I have a question - where are everyone's clothes? Do people normally go round hunting in the nude or surprising errant loved ones starkers?  It looks like quite clement weather in the earlier painting but in Apperley's version it looks a little chilly and grey.  I understand that if you want to sneak up on your husband, not having any clothes on might be an advantage because there would be no rustling or clumping shoes, but I feel that the drawbacks from crouching in a bush without your pants on might outweigh the benefits.

Self Portrait (c.1910)
I rather like Apperley's self portrait, it reminds me of Maxwell Armfield's young, fancy painting of himself.  He also makes me think of Aziraphale in Good Omens, and could definitely be played by a young Michael Sheen.  There is a very good page on him, again from a site about a location and the people connected to it.  In Apperley's case, it's Andalucia, and there is actually a statue to him in Granada.  This is all very different from his native Isle of Wight, but I suppose both places are nice and sunny, and popular in the summer with elderly British people who remember the 1950s very fondly.

Enriqueta (1923)

Apperley was expelled from art school, such a rebel, and left his first wife after becoming depressed after being found unfit for service in the First World War.  He left Britain for Spain, never to return.  His work available online is all very 'Sultry Spanish Lady', like the lovely Enriqueta here, which is nice but I actually prefer his fussy, young self portrait, being everso English and probably having crumpets for tea.  I like his scene of classical marital discord, but that landscape looks awfully uncomfortable to be crouching around on. It's okay for Procris, she's dead and can't complain about having all the rocks and twigs under her, but Cephalus has to be feeling that on his knees.  Serves him right, I guess, not least for going hunting naked.  Let that be a lesson to all of us.

See you tomorrow.

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Wednesday 18th December - Never Morning Wore to Evening...

Well here we are, and today is the last day I am going in to work before Christmas.  The rest of the week will be filled with making jam and chocolate things and mince pies for presents.  I also have woken up really wanting sticky gingerbread.  This does not bode well for my waistline this festive season.  Ho hum, on with the abject misery...

'Never Morning Wore to Evening but Some Heart did Break' (1894) Walter Langley
Right, I am pulling out the big guns now as we only have a week to go so here we have one of the supreme masters of misery art.  Good Birmingham lad, Walter Langley is probably best known for his Newlyn work, bringing that crisp Cornish air into scenes of fishermen and women, often highlighting the hard work and hardship they endured.  The scholarships he earned as a young man enabled him to lift himself and his family into the comfortable Victorian middle-class but used his art to highlight the lives of the working class.  There is always that gorgeous clarity of light in his art, that does not detract from the gorgeous levels of despair.  Look at how the light plays on the placid sea behind the women, but something awful has occurred.

This is so serious, she's put down her knitting...
The title is from Tennyson's In Memoriam A.H.H., an entire poem  dedicated to wallowing in grief, that caught the mood of the nation and the Queen after Prince Albert died.  The verse that our title comes from reads thus:

That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more:
Too common! Never morning wore
To Evening but some heart did break.

The poem continues with a rather pertinent example:

O mother, praying God will save
Thy sailor, - while thy head is bow'd,
His heavy-shotted hammock-shroud
Drops in his vast and wandering grave.

That's the spirit! At first look I thought this was a woman concerned or despairing over her husband, but equally it could be a young son who has gone to sea and is really not coming back.  The section of the poem highlights the awful commonplaceness of grief and how knowing that we are all in this together is absolutely no damn comfort at all.  It is tempting to want to share with someone your own tale of grief when they have been bereaved but Tennyson tells you to shut your face.  It's one of the things I love about Tennyson at his best, he is absolutely as unlike a Victorian as you can imagine.  In In Memoriam he is many things, and selfish and nihilistic is unexpectedly one of them.  For Tennyson, grief is the eternal tension between the personal and the inevitable - what's the point of loving people if they and/or you are just going to die?  In fact, just in the time it took you to read that, someone somewhere has just had their world and heart utterly smashed by losing the person who is essential to them.

For He Will See Them On Tonight (1870) Julia Margaret Cameron
In Memoriam is a hard read as it speaks of the eternal joke of our blissful existence right up to the moment when it all goes horribly wrong.  In For He Will See Them On Tonight, Julia Margaret Cameron gives us an innocent picture of a woman making herself pretty for a lover, but the quote comes from In Memoriam and that woman's husband or lover is already dead and will not be coming home.  He's already drowned in a ford or fallen off his horse or died in yet another pointless Victorian manner and there she is almost trying to summon him home with her preparations. 'Nice try, Sister,' says God, 'But his time was up.  Soz.'

Going back to the painting, the placidity of nature behind the utter devastation of the women I think speaks to the feeling of the poem.  Nature or God or whatever you want to call it doesn't reward  or punish with death, it just is.  There is no comfort in grief, and I think that is what the older woman knows; you just have to endure and get on with it, not least because if we stopped to comfort every bereaved person, no-one would ever get anything done because every second of the day, someone is being bereaved. Saying that, you go ahead and handle your grief in whatever way you want because it is yours and no-one has a say in what or how much you feel.  Grief is a monumental thing because it is that moment that you realise that all that we are stops, sometimes unbelievably abruptly.

This is all unimaginably grim but look, if ever there was a reason to know you are loved and that life, when it doesn't suck, is fabulous, then this is it.  If you wake up and find that you are not the women in this picture today, then celebrate, be kind to yourself and others.  Tickle a puppy.  Eat something amazing.  Have a good laugh because tomorrow we might all perish miserably at sea.

See you tomorrow.  Probably.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

Tuesday 17th December - A Random Shot

Flipping heck, I've got an awful one for you today, so I'll try and put off the inevitable for as long as I can.  So how are you all?  Well I hope, and not at all stressed by your Christmas shopping.  Personally, I am just trying not to eat too much food so that I still fit into my trousers come January...

Look, it's no good, we have to get on with it.  Brace!

A Random Shot (1848) Edwin Landseer
Rats.  Well, it's all gone wrong for Bambi, hasn't it?  This is all very grim and beautifully painted.  Obviously what we have here is a doe who has been killed and her little fawn trying to work out why Mummy is having a prolonged sit-down.  To be fair, I often have to have a prolonged sit-down and it's not because I've been callously gunned down in the sparkly snow, but because I've found the M&S food hall particularly gruelling. 

The Monarch of the Glen (1851)
Landseer is probably best known for this other massive, scotch-drinking deer who is very much alive and far less tragic.  As an animal painter and sculptor, he is also responsible for the lions in Trafalgar Square.  I find his work difficult as I am so familiar with it, it's easy to not realise how utterly breath-taking it is.  I suppose because we received it, especially post-1960s, as slightly kitsch, biscuit-tin-and-table-mat sort of art that we were bombarded with, especially in our grandparent's houses.  Although it is easy to anthropomorphize the emotions of some of Landseers animals, especially the sad dogs, we forget that Landseer is also responsible for reflecting the unbelievable majesty and borderline threat of nature, for example, these fellows...

Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864)
 I am slightly obsessed with polar bears and how terrifying they are.  I'm currently reading Dark Matter by Michelle Paver which is all polar exploration and terror.  Marvellous for this time of year.  Polar bears will eat you, make no mistake.  Mr Polar Bear thinks you are utterly delicious, which is oddly comforting on the days when you feel that no-one loves you.

Sorry, back to Bambi's Mum.  The title refers to a Walter Scott poem The Lord of the Isles, specifically Canto 5 v.18 

'-O! many a shaft at random sent, 
Finds mark the archer little meant! 
And many a word at random spoken, 
May sooth or wound a heart that's broken!' 

In the poem it refers to Ronald proving comfort to his page Amadine which sort of works but possibly not in the way he meant.  I suppose therefore Landseer is inferring that the hunter of the deer did not intend to kill the doe and in consequent probably kill off her fawn too.  Mind you, as we covered yesterday, hunting for funsies is massively stupid and especially if you want to split hairs about not wanting to kill one lot of animals over another.  In fact, I hope we have a repeat of yesterday's scene and just as the hunter comes over to have a bit of a lament over accidentally killing the wrong sort of deer, Bambi's mum jumps up and wrestles the hunter to the ground, delivering a right good mauling.  She then tag-teams in her friends the polar bears who have a few things to say about hunting for fun.  Bambi's Mum is thenceforth seen wearing a very fetching furry hat and no-one ever messes with her ever again, much like the end of Jon Klassen's marvellous  I Want My Hat Back (2011).  Now that is a damn fine book indeed.

See you tomorrow.

Monday 16 December 2019

Monday 16th December - J P Inverarity Mauled by a Lioness

Blimey, we really are cracking on with the month as I am now in the last week of term and I still have a lot of Christmas cooking to do.  Mind you, I am never too busy to bring you a truly dismal picture for your entertainment and so here is today's delightful offering...

J P Inverarity Mauled by a Lioness, Somaliland  (1901) George Fiddes Watt
Okay, I have another entry into the 'what on earth were they thinking?' collection.  Do you know what would look great above the mantle piece in the dining room?  Some bloke getting mauled by a lady lion. It seemed a bit of a random thing, especially as the poor chap seemed to be a bit dead - I mean, his pith helmet has fallen off - so it seemed a weird way to embellish a landscape image. 

J P Inverarity (no date) Andrew M Penny
With a bit of digging, I found some very odd accounts of being mauled by a lion, which seemed a bit of a hobby for Victorian gentlemen.  I wondered if this portrait was him as well. Recounted in the delightful tome A Book of Man Eaters by Reginald George Burton, Inverarity's encounter is rather grisly, yet the chap survived.  Apparently 'he felt none of the dreamy stupor described by Livingstone' (p.58), but in fact it felt like a massive lion was biting him.  I'm calling Livingstone out on that one, because if you get mauled by something I bet it bloody hurts, or else they wouldn't call it 'mauling', they would call it 'spirited tickling'.

Charles Jamrach's tiger gives a passing boy a lovely cuddle

In fact, Mr Inverarity escaped by pretending to be dead and the lioness got bored and wandered off after a quick maul.  His arm took most of the mauling, as shown in the painting.  He also goes on to say that lions like eating porcupines, quills and all.  Blimey, I bet they like to catch a nice juicy, soft human - less indigestion.  According to another account in Indian Courts and Character (1931), Inverarity was out hunting and wounded the lioness, but left her to be retrieved by the Somali boys he had taken with him.  The lioness was having none of that and decided to see how much Mr Inverarity liked it, which apparently was not at all.

Honestly, I've never really understood hunting for fun, it seems eminently stupid, but I guess it's part of the whole 'domination of the natural world' thing that the Victorians were into, together with the entitled nonsense of Empire.  I'm glad the lioness gave him a right good mauling but I doubt to taught him anything, sadly.  Mind you, as far as I am concerned, whenever I see this painting I will always think 'Go on, Lady Lion, you bite that idiot's arm off, serves him right!'

See you tomorrow...

Sunday 15 December 2019

Sunday 15th December - Burial of Lady Jane Swinburne

There are certain paintings that I end up thinking 'well, that's a tad niche', and today's painting is a case in point...

Burial of Lady Jane Swinburne (c.1896) Jane Adye Ram
Well, in home decoration I always think that a nice big painting of a funeral is essential.  It's not just any funeral either but that of Lady Jane Swinburne!  Mother of Algernon Swinburne - poet, friend of Rossetti and champion of sliding down banisters nude - and daughter of the 3rd Earl of Ashburnham, she was undoubtedly an important woman, but I'm not sure some people in black and a big pile of dirt make for a charming painting.  That is a massive pile of dirt, and I respect the realism in showing the logistics of getting someone six foot under.  There are the slide-y boards of getting the spoil-heap back in again.  In fact, there is a photograph of the very same scene, if you fancied a closer look...

Burial of Lady Jane Henrietta Swinburne from the National Portrait Gallery
Here we are again and it is very much the same scene, leading me to believe that Ram used this 'official' photograph as the basis of her painting.  I really like the ivy growing around the back of the boards and up the walls on either side. Lady Jane Swinburne was a woman of accomplishment and intelligence, according to various sources, and she seems to have been concerned for the health and wellbeing of her wayward eldest son, Algernon.  According to his Dictionary of National Biography entry, Algernon's removal from society in 1879 for the sake of his health was done with his mother's approval.

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1862) D G Rossetti
Hang on then, are we to infer that the importance of the painting is not that Lady Jane Swinburne was important but that her son is a bit of a celebrity?  Well that's galling, especially if you also consider all the shenanigans he got up to.  I suppose in a way, Lady Jane would have felt she had done a good job in keeping her eldest child not only alive but also that he was so well-respected that a picture of him at a funeral was of interest to the nation.  

Close up on Swinburne and his sisters at the graveside
Mind you, I wonder if that is the reason that the burial itself is not more glamorized - if the dead person is not the point, then there is no reason to make the mechanics of getting a body six foot underground look any less muddy than it is.  What we should be looking at is actually the dignified, mourning figure of Swinburne, pretty much dead centre (if you excuse the expression), without his swirl of red hair (which had dropped out by 1896).  He is the point of the painting and I suppose his celebrity is what made the burial of his mother interesting to people.  I'm sure there were people at the time saying 'I'm a massive Swinburne fan, I even got the painting of him at his Mum's funeral.' Now, is it just me that finds that a bit, well, rude?  The poor woman is dead and it's her funeral, yet we've managed to make it all about Algernon. Isn't that just typical?  It's like the fact that I am 'Lily's Mum' most of the time and people are often quite surprised when they find out I do writing too. As a mum, I absolutely love being Lily's Mum, she's ace, but there are occasions when maybe it should be all about you rather than the person you have given birth to/married/been slightly connected to. Truthfully this painting should therefore be called  Burial of Algernon's Mum, You Know, the Famous Writer Who Did Some Dodgy Stuff, Him, Well, His Mum's Died.  I Know, Very Sad.   

Mind you, that's quite a lot to fit on a painting label...

See you tomorrow.

Saturday 14 December 2019

Saturday 14th December - The Old Master

Blimey, in ten days it will be Christmas Eve! Where has the month gone?  Time flies when you're, well, obviously not having fun, maybe sobbing so much your face is all slimy?  Anyway, let's crack on with today...

The Old Master (1883) James Hayllar
Here we have a cheery scene of a funeral - the lady in the chair is the widow, her daughter behind her and the men in the room are, presumably, members of staff who have come to pay their respects.  The coffin, in the middle of the room, is open, a sheet covering the body.  There is a quiet dignity to the scene - leading you to believe that the dead man was beloved by all.  Well, I say that but the two men on the far right might be muttering to each other 'I just came to make sure the old sod was dead...'

The Lord is my Shepherd, or in this case, Gary...
No, I'm sure the dead chap was marvellous.  Just look at the shepherd-type person who has come to pay his respects, complete with smock.  That's some top quality, traditional mourning going on there.  It might be a reference to Psalm 23 'The Lord's My Shepherd'.  Is it like chimney sweeps at weddings? Is it lucky to have a shepherd at your funeral?  Well, obviously, at a funeral 'lucky' is a relative term, but I'm sure everyone feel lucky to have seen Gary the Shepherd at a party as he is a hilarious party animal.  Well, obviously not in this case - a time and a place, and all that...

 Plants on windowsills are always interesting in  pictures because they are rife with meaning.  I wonder if that is meant to be a geranium on the ledge?  They symbolize melancholy, which would fit.  Red geranium also symbolize good health, which is a tad ironic, given the circumstances.  Mind you, the departed might have been a man who enjoyed very good health, never happier than when he indulged in his favourite sport, nude hang-gliding.  That was how he died, unfortunately.  It also explains the sheet half way up the coffin.  Nevermind, he died doing what he loved.  Who could ask for more?

See you tomorrow...

Friday 13 December 2019

Friday 13th December - A Coronach in the Backwoods

Oh Lordy, it's Friday 13th, which does not bode well but might be just what we need for Sobvent.  Nothing like being unlucky and miserable, which leads me to today's offering...

A Coronach in the Backwoods (1859) George W Simson
Well, here we all are then.  For starters, a coronach is a vocal lament at a funeral or wake, or in this case the jolly wail of bagpipes.  It is traditional in the Highlands of Scotland and Ireland, and as is the way in the 19th century, Victorians were both absolutely fascinated with it but also tried to stamp it out.  What a contrary bunch the Victorians were.  That reminds me of the Victorians with all sorts of traditional practices such as country dances, and their attempts to catalogue and record such things, but melodies for the songs had been written down from the 18th century, because when burying someone you don't want to be searching around for a suitable tune.

I completely missed the body in this picture - I thought it was just an image of a man and woman at a graveside.  I then noticed how small the hole was - well, I thought, that's not a very large grave, you could barely fit a baby in there... oh, rats.  The couple have had to dig the little grave, the shovel is behind the man, and now the parents are responsible for burying their child.  I'm not sure if Simson is making a point about the rather 'uncivilized' nature of the people of Ireland and Scotland, that they are uncultured but they are closer to nature and the circle of life, which is grim and magnificently patronising.  Maybe he was just drawing attention to the sort of customs that the English were trying to put a stop to because they didn't understand them.

The jug and letter in front of the woman give me pause for thought.  Why bring a letter and a jug?  Also, in Highlands and Ireland burial tradition (apparently, not sure how reliable this is) a dog or cat at a funeral is really bad luck and beside our piper we have a jolly boarder collie.  So my conclusion is this - the 'grave' is actually symbolic, for someone who has been lost at sea or something, and the woman and her perfectly healthy baby will be burying the letter (which has the details of the death) and the jug (for some reason).  However, the presence of the cursed collie (the Collie of Doom, as I like to think) means they will all be dead before the year is out.

Whatever the truth behind this painting, it's not a jolly scene at all, and suitably unlucky (especially that sheepdog) for Friday 13th...

See you tomorrow.

Thursday 12 December 2019

Thursday 12th December - The Alarm

If you have read my blog over the years, you will know I have a soft spot for Victorian depictions of the English Civil War, which is why I am delighted to bring you today's image...

The Alarm (1867) Edward Hughes
Lawks! It's all going on here.  Lady Ponsonby was just sitting, listening to her daughter, the Honourable Sharon, belting out Whitesnake hits on her lute when soldiers have erupted into the house, carrying the mortally wounded Lord Ponsonby.  She barely has time to yell 'take your boots off if you are going upstairs, I've just hoovered up there!'  It's all gone a tad 'a pieta' in the lobby with the stricken cavalier being transported up the stairs to what undoubtedly be his death-bed.  The whole shebang is so alarming that the girl has dropped her lute.  The horror.

There is, of course, the chance that our wounded cavalier will survive, but seeing as Lady Ponsonby is already in black, I don't think there is much chance of that.  Also, didn't Lord Ponsonby get the memo that told us all cavaliers die in very beautiful ways?  Take for example this chap...

Spies of the Republic (1909) John Lomax
He is definitely not seeing the morning, but doesn't he look sexy?  Also, obviously, we have this delicious example...

The Wounded Cavalier (1856) William Shakespeare Burton
Good Lord, that's an attractive corpse. Not that today's cavalier is too shabby...

The Victorians, like me, loved the cavaliers because they were both wicked and honorable, regal and naughty, and they lost, so they can be very, very romantic about that too.  They are symptomatic of a system that was very wrong, hence the reason that we got rid of it all, but also had some redeeming features, which is why we brought it all back again. Sort of. 

The English Civil War resonates with us especially at the moment as we as a nation are in danger of being pushed to polar opposites, when in truth most people lurk in the middle, just with tiny nuances of difference.  Today is a day to remember that quite a lot of money is being spent to drive you towards making a decision based on fear - fear of being denied your voice in a political decision, fear of losing our beloved health service, fear of people who appear to hold you in contempt, fear of a bloke with a beard who makes his own jam and wants to take away any money you make.  It is all absolute nonsense and do you know what, they are all absolutely bloody terrified of you with your freedom to place a little cross in a box.  Maybe looking at the English Civil War today of all days is absolutely right, as this is what happens when people are made to feel like they have to side with either black or white when most of us feel like the world is shades of grey.  Whatever you vote today, use that vote to make the world less miserable because there should only be one person making you sob this month and that's me.

See you tomorrow...