Friday 24 December 2021

Friday 24th December - Violet and Gold


Violet and Gold (1905-6) John Lavery
            John Ainsworth stood before the portrait of his wife in silence.  It had been half an hour since his friend Meredith Lewis, the artist, had left and all the pretence of smiles, back-slaps and laughs had slipped into a look of puzzlement as he regarded the piece he had commissioned. Violet would be delighted at the change in their friend, no doubt, his spirits seemed more on an even keel, his tone lighter, but when she saw the painting surely, she too would say what he could not help but think right now. A slight hush of skirts in the doorway announced her presence and he turned to see Violet swish into the room. She gave her husband a smile before coming to stand beside him before the display easel that held the painting of her they had awaited for months. In paint, she was dressed in a gold-black shot silk jacket from which the white billows of sleeves foamed before being snatched in at the wrists.  Her expression was intelligent, calm and perceptive and her arm rested on a small black and white bull terrier who looked attentively out at the viewer. The light caught her golden wedding ring as her hand rested on her hip and the golden tag on the dog’s collar.
            Her one word was a mixture of surprise and something that sounded like guilt. To her husband’s amazement she briefly chuckled. Ainsworth relaxed into a laugh too, rubbing a hand across his chin before shaking his head with humour. Violet took his arm and swayed against it with a grin.
            ‘Well, look, it’s a lovely portrait,’ she laughed, adding, ‘Was Meredith pleased?’
            ‘Oh, yes, very much so, and refused the fee I gave him.’ He waved his hand as Violet opened her mouth, scandalised. ‘I paid him, don’t concern yourself, he shall not starve on our account. Least-ways, not before New Year when he is coming to dinner.’
Violet smiled, content, and regarded the painting again with an air of satisfaction.  Her husband watched her, waiting for the comment he had expected all afternoon, but she didn’t offer it, so he did.
            ‘Lewis looked better than I have seen him all year, certainly better than the Summer when I really felt – well, let’s not dwell on that – but this seems to have given him some relief from his troubles.  We can only hope that the relief remains for a while, if it can’t be permanent.  I like the man, it was a shame to see him so…’ Ainsworth paused as his wife’s hand tightened on his arm with nervous agreement. He nodded, then added, ‘Anyway, he was so pleased with the portrait - and rightly so, you look charming – he was so pleased that, well, I didn’t like to say…’
            Violet grinned, then looked back at the canvas at the little black and white dog. ‘No, quite right,’ she agreed.
            John glanced at his wife, then joined her gazing at the little black and white face, ‘I didn’t like to say, we don’t own a dog…’
            Four months before, Meredith Lewis had been shown into the spacious drawing room of the exclusive Portman Square home of Mr and Mrs John Ainsworth. The man who had shown him into the room had done so under orders, that was absolutely obvious from the expression on his face and the look up and down he had received on delivery to the drawing room.  He was left unwillingly, and Lewis wondered if the staff were in fear of losing valuables.  He caught his reflection in the mirror and grimaced.  The year had been unkind and cold, with aborted commissions hounding him and a dwindling bank balance driving him to seek more work he did not feel capable to complete. He clutched the edge of his canvas bag, feeling the ripple of pencils moving inside, as if to escape. This commission too, he just knew would end the same way, in excuses and avoidance. A mounting sense of panic filled him and he wondered if this time he could just dispense with the meeting and go straight to the avoidance. Too late, as at the door appeared the smiling form of Mrs Ainsworth, who glided into the room in a glow of golden silks and warmth. He backed up sharply, colliding with a low table and almost tumbling.
            ‘Goodness, are you alright?’ she exclaimed and he wondered if it would be bad manners to hurl himself from a window into the street.
            ‘Quite alright,’ he blustered, and took the proffered hand of greeting stiffly.
            ‘It has been an absolute age since we have seen each other, but I know your work, of course.’ Mrs Ainsworth drew him to the window, a dangerous temptation, but also to a collection of ornate chairs with large curved arms and backs. He sat mutely, as her voice chimed on in a practised manner, ‘I should have realised that as you were at school with my brother, you would have known John then too.’
            Lewis nodded, ‘Briefly.’
            She waited for more detail but once more he lapsed into retreating silence. She gave a brisk nod, and started again.
            ‘Well, then, I heard from Andrew – my brother currently up in Scotland, his wife is from those parts – well, anyway, I heard from him that you had seen each other in York…’ She trailed off and looked to him for confirmation.
            ‘Briefly,’ Lewis repeated, and felt a momentary wince as he touched the sharp edge of socialising. He had known this woman when she was fifteen, a hushed little presence in his friend’s house, watching them from a window as they played tennis on the lawn, a pair of large dark eyes at the dinner table. Her brother had teased Lewis about her, and she had flushed with mortification. She had been awkward and he had liked her. She was barely recognisable now. He felt his hands tighten on his bag.
            ‘My husband has explained that he wishes for you to paint me?’
            ‘Good.’ She paused for more again, but he felt unable and sunk further back as she began to look flustered as if she was pulling at different chords to see which would pull him to her. He felt, and had felt for over a year, detached. She gave her fine golden skirt a brush, with staged self-consciousness. ‘Will this do for the painting?’ she asked, tilting her head and almost flirting now. He held back the desire to sigh and look around for a means to escape.
            ‘I meant to explain to your husband –‘ he began but she stopped him with a brief clap of her hands and she stood suddenly, taking him by surprise.
            ‘Splendid,’ she continued, and gestured to the scrolled arm of the chair as the light caught the golden tones in the carving. ‘I thought I might stand here, in the light if that suits you?’
            He nodded, not replying There is as good as anywhere for a picture I will abandon by supper time tomorrow and from his canvas bag he drew out a small sketch book. As he flipped back the pages and drew out a stump of a pencil, Mrs Lewis gave a forced smile of victory before settling into her pose, her hand on her hip and her hand on the arm of the chair.  He didn’t miss the brief uncertain frown that played across her forehead for a moment as she watched him, then her gaze found neutral space and they began.
            She remained still and silent for longer than he felt able to work, so for the last half an hour he merely moved the pencil over the same patch, pretending to work and wishing the time to be over. She broke her pose with a look of gratification and a humorous stretch before exclaiming ‘Tea!’ with such zeal that he jumped, lost in a fog of his own thoughts.  She hurried away and he sat for a moment, exhausted by the effort of doing this again. The silence and solitude was welcome, only for it to be for nothing when at his feet, a small bull terrier appeared.  She sat down heavily, half on one of his shoes, and looked up at him expectantly. For a moment, artist and dog regarded each other before Lewis gave a gentle shove with his shoe.  The dog was jogged but was not moved and remained sat there, her head slowly titling as her brown eyes tried to make sense of him. He reached down to the black collar to a small golden disc, turning it in his fingers.
            ‘Sixer?’ he murmured, and the dog made a small noise of recognition, before shuffling a little closer to him.  Lewis put down his pencil and pad on the table to his side and leaned forward, his chin on his hands. ‘I have nothing for you, little one, go and find your mistress if you are after food.’
Sixer stood, made a grumbling noise of discontent and then jumped beside him on an adjoining chair.  The bulldog rested a slightly mournful face on the arm where moments before Mrs Ainsworth had leaned.  Again, a grumpy whinge erupted, followed by a little bark. Lewis sat back, a frown covering a slight smile.
            ‘Well, look, you seem a nice girl, Sixer, but I’m not the company you are after. Go on along and find the kitchens.’ He waved a hand of dismissal which Sixer regarded but did not move.  His hand reached over to move her but rested on the warm, hard dome of her skull, her thumb moving down the white stripe that led to her nose. Sixer sat very still and allowed the hand to stroke the velvet of her head for a moment, before hastily licking her companion and bolting from the room. Moments later, Mrs Ainsworth appeared with a maid carrying a tray and Lewis allowed his patroness to pour him tea and feed him cake while he considered the feel of warm velvet in the palm of his hand. He didn’t even refuse when she offered to pose again tomorrow, and found he actually wanted to return.
            ‘Listen, Sixer,’ Lewis began as the sturdy form appeared by his foot the following afternoon, ‘Are you even meant to be in here? I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.’
            Sixer gave a huff, followed by an unexpectedly explosive sneeze which involved her headbutting his foot painfully.  She looked as surprised as him, but clambered into the chair again to rest her head on the arm. This time, Lewis gave her head a brief rub, then reached for his pad and pencil as Sixer regarded him with glinting eyes. ‘Yes, well, keep still, rum ‘un.’ He murmured as he drew the outline of the skull, the curve to the nose, the white flash across her snout. Sixer sat quietly, watching as he drew, occasionally tilting her head in question.  He waved his pencil at her and her head straightened.             
‘Now, keep still, I can’t have you moving. Do not tell anyone but you are actually the first thing I’ve actually wanted to draw for around two years.’ Sixer gave a questioning grumble and straightened, her ears tipping back a little. Lewis looked up into a pair of offended eyes. ‘What? Oh, sorry,’ he allowed, turning back to the drawing, ‘person, you are the first person I have wanted to draw. Does that suit you better?’ The ears cocked forward again, and she opened her mouth showing a dark pink tongue. ‘Yes, well, people are not suiting me just now, so don’t be in a rush to join them.  I’d rather your company than theirs.’
            In a slow movement, Sixer placed her paws up on the arm of the chair, stretched, her tail rigid and her stumpy nose raised, before placing all four paws up on the arm and sitting there as if on a pedestal. Lewis gave a laugh at the pose of the little dog, and flipped back another page to hastily draw her, but a noise alerted her to the approach of the tea-tray and she jumped down, before bolting for the door again. Lewis watched her with a smile that lingered as his hostess appeared, leading the tray.  She paused briefly as he met her smile with his, unexpected and relaxed. To his annoyance, she seemed to take the credit for his cheer, but as he closed his pad, an idea came to him. Before he could speak, Mrs Ainsworth was proffering a cup of tea.
            ‘Are you making progress to your satisfaction?’ she asked, cheerily.
            ‘I will be ready to paint soon I think,’ he replied, surprising himself. ‘I was wondering if you would be agreeable to me adding a small detail. I think that it would enhance the work, and it has certainly-’
            She cut him off, unexpectedly sharply, although her words were agreeable, ‘You must do as you see best, you are the artist, this must be your vision.’
            ‘Yes, but,’ he began, refusing the cake offered by the maid as he tried to explain, ‘I really wanted to add-’
            ‘Meredith,’ she interrupted again, dismissing the maid efficiently, ‘it is your choice entirely. I trust you.’
            He sat back, for a moment gripped by the threat of giggles as he imagined making sturdy Sixer the object of the portrait with Violet, excuse me Mrs Ainsworth, the esteemed, young hostess somewhere in the background. He nodded, and then grinned, helping himself to cake.
            ‘Sixer, please sit up, you shall not appear in the painting at all if you insist on flopping about like a baggage!’ Lewis wagged the end of the pencil at the sprawling bull terrier who wiggled on her back in rebellion. He poked her side with the end of it and she furiously struggled to get up and seize her tormentor, almost rolling from the sofa in her exertion. Lewis sat back, laughing, and she sat up looking almost offended at his mirth. He placed the paper and pencil down for a moment, looking at the golden-brown eyes of his companion.  She climbed on the arm, then stepped across to the arm of his chair. Lewis raised a hand to her head, scuffing the velvet back and forth.  Over she stepped, then on to his lap where they remained for a while in silence.  The light outside was dimming and looking out of the wide window, he could see bare fingers of trees reaching into a blushed sky in the square. After a while, he spoke again, close to the soft fold of ear.
            ‘There will come a day, soon, when I will not come here.  The painting will actually be finished and that will be that.’
            Sixer leaned against him for a moment, then grumbled.
            ‘Four months ago, I did not really wish to live anymore.’
            Lewis said the words in a matter-of-fact manner and artist and dog watched the light fade over the square in silence, his hand occasionally stroking her forelegs and crisp fold of her ear. Sixer turned her face to him in an unspoken question and he gave a weak smile.
            ‘We’ll see,’ he replied.
            ‘So, has Violet offered any explanation?’ Sir George Crosby, Violet’s father enquired as he and John Ainsworth regarded the painting as it almost glittered in the lights of their evening party. 
            ‘None, and it’s such a fine-looking pup that people assume we have a dog somewhere and that it is Vi’s pride and joy.’ Ainsworth replied, frowning. Sir George leaned forward with a conspiratorial whisper.
            ‘Odd thing is, it looks just like Flora, a little bulldog that we had when Violet was a child.  She doted on that dog, they could barely be parted when Violet’s mother, well, when she passed.’ Sir George paused, looking again at the painting, a frown briefly creasing his features. ‘Curious coincidence, but possibly Violet said something?’
            ‘It’s possible,’ agreed Ainsworth, mainly to close the matter, as he looked across the room to his wife.
             The murmured pleasure of the guests as they viewed it swelled the room and Violet watched Lewis sip wine while three different women, all very wealthy, attempted to extract a promise from him to paint them. He nodded to her and she glided over to rescue him.
            ‘May I borrow you for a moment, I believe someone has a technical question for you, Mr Lewis,’ she breezed, and he felt his arm taken and he was spirited from the women gracefully and gratefully.
            ‘My thanks,’ he whispered, and she beamed as she walked him through to the dining room where the painting was displayed.
            ‘The thanks are all ours, it is a fine portrait,’ she replied as her husband drew up to them.
            ‘My wonderful Vi looks positively golden,’ added Ainsworth. A complicated series of looks passed between husband and wife before Ainsworth patted Lewis on the back fondly and retreated into the party.  In front of the picture, Mrs Ainsworth and Mr Lewis both looked at the portrait but not at the stately figure of Violet, but of Sixer, sturdy but noble.
            ‘Your guests are surprised you have a dog,’ he finally admitted, and Violet looked away smiling broadly.
            ‘Ah well,’ she replied, and squeezed his arm. Glancing around swiftly she looked back at Sixer and added in a low voice, ‘I have always found the company of dogs to be very soothing in times of despair. Do you remember Flora?’
            A bolt of memory flourished in his face and his eyes widened.
            ‘But, her collar said…’
            Violet laughed, ‘That’s not Flora. She has been gone for almost twenty years. Sixer is what is left of the warmth and joy that a dog can give you when you really need it.’ She squeezed his arm but continued to look at the dog in the portrait. ‘Sometimes, life alters without your hand to change it. Things that were easy become impossible, damaging, frightening. Maybe, just then, that warm companionship is just what is needed. I can’t think of anything else I wanted.’ He looked at her, and she shrugged. ‘Pain never lessens, but somethings allow you to see the breadth of it without feeling quite so afraid.’
            They stood together in silence, just for a moment more, but she patted his arm and left him in front of his work. Moments later, Ainsworth appeared in the doorway, stopping abruptly as he found only Lewis.
            ‘Oh, I was in search of Vi, I thought she was with you.’
            ‘Gone back into the fray, just now,’ Lewis replied, and his slightly harassed friend disappeared back into the throng. In the peace of the dining room, Lewis heard the soft tap of claws on floorboards and he sat down on a dining chair, waiting. Sixer’s warm, velvet head nudged under this outstretched hand, and he smiled.

Thursday 23 December 2021

Thursday 23rd December - Uncertainty

 I can't sleep so this post is being started in the middle of the night.  To be honest, I have an awful lot of stuff to achieve in the next 24 hours and so it's probably not a bad thing to be cracking on with this before I have to walk the dog, start preparing and baking various things to eat and clean the house from top to bottom.  Blossom doesn't seem to care very much about any of these concerns and is currently next to me, asleep...

Yes, yes, a fat lot of help you're going to be, don't let me disturb you.  I'll just get on with today's image...

Uncertainty (1878) Arthur Hughes

Arthur Hughes did a good dog.  I actually have three of his hounds today, but this picture was the least familiar, so I thought I'd start with it. Reading the notes from its sale at Sotheby's, it states that this is a painting of a girl waiting while her suitor asks her father if he can marry her. Contemporary accounts go on about how the girl is all modesty and maidenhood, awaiting the outcome of the meeting, however I have some questions, chiefly why is it called Uncertainty? If our young lady is such a passive pawn of her own future, awaiting the menfolk to tell her what's happening next, why is she having any thoughts, let alone negative ones, about her role in all this? Also, what's that in the chair?

Are they her gloves or his? They match the colour of our girl's dress and so I'd be tempted to think they are hers, especially as the chap talking to her father seems to have things in his hands, like a hat and a whip. Why then are the gloves just left on the chair? They remind me of the discarded glove in this picture...

The Awakening Conscience (1853) William Holman Hunt

To be fair, whenever I see an abandoned glove, I always go straight to The Awakening Conscience.  I wonder if our lass in the hallway is also having an awakening moment as she doesn't look at all certain about stuff.  The dog is looking up at her in solidarity, and is widely supposed to represent loyalty as in this much more famous Hughes painting...

The Long Engagement (1854-9) Arthur Hughes

That is the shiny spaniel of loyalty and faithfulness, expressing the emotion that even though your engagement is unfeasibly long, you'll hang in there because you are such good people. That really isn't the vibe I'm getting off the hound in Uncertainty. I don't think that dog is hers, I think it belongs to the man asking to marry her.  I also think that in his hand, the man is carrying a dog whip. The look that is passing between the dog and the girl is 'Run!' because I don't think she will have a very good time of it. It's not that I'm not an old romantic, far from it, but if she married him, she'll end up like those gloves, excluded and discarded. You are right to be uncertain, Modest Maiden, I'd take the dog and leg it.

Friends (c.1900) Arthur Hughes
The pose in Uncertainty is linked to the pose in Friends and I like to think this is a picture of our lass after she made a run for it with the dog and now they live happily together in a little house with a lovely garden and no-one owns a dog whip. Well, that's a jolly way to end but I have one more picture from Mr Hughes which deserves a special mention for being just too gorgeous...

A Passing Cloud (1908) Arthur Hughes

Again, we have a young lady in a salmon dress who seems to be having a moment, but look at that red setter! That is one of the most gorgeous dogs in art, but I might be biased as I grew up in the 1970s and 80s when they were extremely fashionable. Even Sindy had one...

Well, not my Sindy as mine had inherited my brother's Action Man boxer guard dog, which looked incredibly threatening rather than effortlessly stylish. Also, when she walked him in the park, she didn't take a pram, she borrowed Action Man's 1972 Scorpion Tank. It was a devil to park but the green brought out her eyes. I digress.

What A Passing Cloud and Uncertainty have in common for me is that they both offer the girl a form of escape.  The dog in Uncertainty is a hound, built for running.  This is no lap dog, but a creature who can exit at speed.  Similarly, in A Passing Cloud, the window is open.  Whatever is ailing the poor lass by the really gorgeous fireplace, she could be out that window in no time and away. I'm not saying running away with a dog is the best answer, but given the options for a Victorian woman, it's not a bad one.

I'll see you tomorrow for our final post of this Blogvent...

Wednesday 22 December 2021

Wednesday 22nd December - Katie Lewis

 Goodness, it is awfully close to Christmas now, isn't it? I'm off to see the Louis Wain exhibition, because nothing says Christmas like psychedelic cats. Before I go, I have time to bring you this little poppet and her dog...

Katie Lewis (1886) Edward Burne-Jones

Twenty-one years ago, this little darling came up at auction and so there is some in-depth information in the Christies catalogue. I love this picture because, unlike other portraits of children of the era, it probably reflects what little Katie looked like most of the time. Of course, it's laden with meaning, what with the apple, the book and that little tiny dog. By the look of the provenance, it actually remained in the family until 1995, passed from Katie's father the eminent solicitor Sir George Lewis to his widow, to Katie and then to her (possibly great) niece Elizabeth Wansborough. It was Elizabeth's posthumous sale that released it from the family in 90s.  I remember seeing it first at the big Burne-Jones exhibition in Birmingham around the millennium and thinking it was absolutely delightful, cute without being cloying and reminded me of being a young bookworm myself.

I'm sure that we've all got a copy of this on our bookshelves somewhere. Burne-Jones's little illustrated letters to his child-friend Katie are absolute gems, feature many escapades involving the painter and his many objects of humour, including himself and Katie...

The drawing above was accompanied by a note requesting that little Katie meet him at the station when he visited, with a donkey, and that he would like apricot jam with his breakfast.  Katie would have been around 6 years old at the time of the letter, so the illustrations of the game little girl taking on ridiculously adult tasks have a 'Giles' quality which is very appealing. Katie kept all of the letters in an album which she bequeathed to the British Museum shortly before her death, in 1960.

Sir George Lewis (1896) John Singer Sargent

Katie came from an interesting family.  Her father was George Lewis, a solicitor so gifted at defending rich, illustrious and artistic clients that it earned him his knighthood from a very grateful King. He was so famous, he got name-checked in a Sherlock Holmes story, which is very swish and makes you suspect he knew exactly where all the skeletons were closeted...

Mrs George Lewis (Elizabeth Eberstadt) (1892) John Singer Sargent

George's first wife died shortly after giving birth to their daughter, Alice. Katie was born to Elizabeth, the second wife who also posed not only for Sargent but also in a far less formal portrait, for Burne-Jones...

Portrait of Lady Lewis (1881) Edward Burne-Jones

I wonder if this portrait is connected to the one of Katie and I also wonder if it reflects how the artist saw the two of them.  In Lady Lewis's portrait, she is curled in a chair, looking down at a tiny lizard.  Her pose has been described as fearful, obviously expressed in humour by the artist. In Katie's portrait, the little girl is reading George and the Dragon with a very intense expression as if it was an instruction manual.  There is no doubt that Katie is ready, willing and able to take on a dragon, whereas her mother retreats from a tiny lizard. Burne-Jones wrote also to Lady Lewis, but she burnt his letters after his death so the content of them can only be imagined. They certainly did not get donated to the British Museum...

Studies for the Portrait of Katie Lewis

There are a couple of pencil sketches that were made in preparation for the portrait, and neither contain a dog. Interestingly, the dog is not a elegant hound, but a quick, fluffy little pup, still for a moment, just like Katie.  As a young woman, Oscar Wilde described how 'her fascinating villainy touched my artistic soul' and she frightened the life out of Burne-Jones, the Lewis's house-guest, with her boisterous affection. 

I am very disappointed that Katie never wrote her memoirs as she met some of the most fascinating men and women of the early twentieth century and was apparently lively, intelligent and witty.  Interestingly, Burne-Jones hung on to this portrait of her until she was 19 years old, when he finally gave it to the family.  Possibly, despite being terrified by her, he was too attached to the memory of that little girl to want to part with her. I can definitely see why.

See you tomorrow.

Tuesday 21 December 2021

Tuesday 21st December - Marco on the Breakfast Table

 It's the shortest day which means that after today I'll be looking at seed catalogues and looking forward to longer, warmer days.  I'm not a huge fan of summer but there is something about the present darkness and the damp that makes me long for long summer days. Anyway, let's crack on with today's dog so we can all go back to bed and hibernate...

Marco on the Breakfast table (1893) Charles Burton Barber

Dog on the table! He's a cheeky little chap, isn't he? This is Marco, Queen Victoria's little Pomeranian, pictured in the Queen's sitting room at Windsor Castle. This wonderful painting is part of the Royal Collection and you can see why it was beloved by the Queen. Victoria had bought little Marco in Florence in 1888, along with the beautiful Gina, possibly from the same litter...

It was reported in the papers that Queen Victoria had fallen for little Pomeranians, which reminded her of dogs kept by Queen Charlotte, her grandmother.  Of all her Poms, she loved Marco the best and both Marco and Gina won many prizes in dog shows as well as starting a fashion for the little dogs. At one point Queen Vic owned 35 of the little fluff balls! When she died, one of her Poms, Turi, was by her bedside. There is a lovely article on Royal Poms here.

Queen Victoria and Turi (c.1895)

Obviously in Marco's five years of Royal life, he had not learned any table manners.  He is standing on a letter (let's hope it's not important) and there are violets and primroses on the table. As we have seen from a previous post, in the language of flowers, primroses mean 'I can't live without you', expressing exactly how much the Queen loved her animals and found comfort in their presence. The violets have the meaning of fidelity, which is a good dog quality, as they are faithful to a fault.  Violets were also Queen Vic's favourite flower, as explained by this lovely article, possibly emphasising how Marco was her favourite dog. 

Topsy, Sally, Scamp, Quiz, Minnie, May and the puppy of Quiz and Minnie (1877)

Barber was seen by his contemporaries as the equal of Landseer, who is better known today, probably because of The Monarch of the Glen and it's boozy associations. To Queen Victoria, he was a safe pair of hands who painted her animals for 25 years.  Her little herd of Pugs are both delightful but also interesting if you look at their appearance. Those Pugs have noses! I think it is Sally and Scamp at the back seen in profile and the brachycephalic (one of my favourite words) skull shape is definitely not as flat as it is now and it is only 150 years ago.

Snowball, Marco and Janey (1879)

Standing on the breakfast table was not the only modelling gig that Marco had.  He also appeared with fellow royal pets Snowball and Janey, possibly modelled at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. There are so many different dogs shown in the Royal Collections that you get a picture of a Queen who found solace in her furry friends.  Possibly that's why she wanted to have breakfast with Marco as he was at least quiet, didn't ask her difficult questions about being Queen. He just seems happy to stamp over the flowers and post while eyeing up your boiled eggs.  Who could ask more than that?

See you tomorrow.

Monday 20 December 2021

Monday 20th December - Isabella

 Well, we really are on the downhill slope now and tomorrow is the shortest day!  It's all sunny days after that, all the way to summer.  Okay, I'm being a little optimistic but as it is dark as the underside of the crow outside at the moment I'm looking for the positives right now. In that spirit, I have two of the nicest dogs in art for you today...

Isabella (1848-49) John Everett Millais

We're back with Millais again as he does do a  decent dog. Before I get on to the dogs, can we take a moment to appreciate how good the hawk is? 

I mean, sure, he seems to be using a dove's feather to tickle his own feet but I'm sure that came from his friend, Dovey, who gave it to him as a present.  He certainly hasn't eaten a dove, and is using a quill to pick the bits of dove out of his beak.  Moving on...

The dogs have always been the aspect of this picture that I love the most. There are two and one often gets over looked but in a painting that drips in tension, I find the peril of both to be compelling and far more expressive of the danger the lovers are in than the humans. Let's start with the one being kicked...

The expression on the dog's face shows that she is taking things far more seriously than anyone else. Is she looking at us? She's leaning so hard against Isabella's skirt, away from the kicking foot, that she is almost falling over. She's got what is known as 'wall eye' which actually not the correct term as 'wall eye' refers to a disease that affects the eye, but people used it when I was growing up to refer to when you can see the whites of an animal's eyes, indicating that they are afraid to turn their heads but can't not look at something that frightens them. Blossom has seizures and when she is in the midst and can't turn her head she swivels her eyes round like that, it's very odd to see as normally you don't see much white, if any...

Dog face!
Anyway, back to the dog being kicked, and I find the smoothness of her coat absolutely echoes the smooth white leg kicking at her. The brother who is being Freudian with the nutcrackers is like a snarling dog, yet neither of the dogs in the picture are vicious, in fact quite the opposite.  The dogs seem to represent our lovers, docile and unwary, unprotected against the violence coming their way. The chair dog especially puts me on edge...

I can't cope with how this dog is about to get a chair stamped on him and he doesn't know yet. Somehow the cracking of the nuts and the imminent cracking of the dogs legs are audibly linked in my mind when I look at that.  It's such a visual tension that's unbearable. The claw-feet are so menacing against his little greyhound legs which look so spindle-y. He's all tucked up and asleep, it's horrifying.

 Looking at the preparatory sketches, this particularly striking element was never in Millais' plan...

The chair dog is barely in this version, just roughly sketched behind the kicking brother.  The main action is the brother kicking the leaning dog, this time in boots.  His apparent lack of footwear in the oil painting does disturb me, but then it doesn't look like anyone is wearing shoes in the oil.  I find that very strange.  In the drawing you can see that the brother is absolutely fixated on tormenting the dog, not really paying attention to Isabella or Lorenzo.  In the oil, his face is so screwed up and dark, it's hard to see exactly what he is looking at, but it is assumed his nut-cracking fury is aimed at his sister. 

In this drawing, the chair dog is present but the chair is not leaning and so the sleeping hound (who is a bit of a chonker, as my daughter would say) is not threatened in any way.  Again, it's all about the brother and the leaning dog. Is it meant to express that the brother is taking out his anger with his sister on her dog? In the finished oil painting, there is no doubt that the coiled-spring brother is aiming his anger at his sister, the dog is just collateral damage, getting in the way.  In the drawings, it really does seem to be about the brother and the dog. I suppose it is meant to express his cruelty which will lead to him killing Lorenzo, but it's all a bit odd. Takes all sorts I guess...

Catch you tomorrow for the shortest day...

Sunday 19 December 2021

Sunday 19th December - The Order of Release, 1746

 Sunday is meant to be the day of rest but I have a fridge to clean out and Lily wants to try out her new roller skates, so no rest for the wicked.  On with today's image...

The Order of Release, 1746 (1853) John Everett Millais

That is a very beautiful dog.  I mean, the rest of the painting isn't too shabby either, but that is a glorious dog. Sure, those are some exquisitely executed baby feet, but that dog has fur you could sink your fingers into.

He is a silky chap with a sprightly tail. He obviously is there to represent loyalty and faithfulness and all that malarkey, but also as it is a collie, to represent the man's former life - a shepherd, a farmer, a husband and father - before he took off soldiering and getting himself locked up.  It is a balance between ideals and realities, of what you should risk for bigger pictures and what is sacrificed.  Interestingly, in this essay the tartans worn by the husband and the baby are identified as Gordon and Drummond, which raises some questions about the emotions and actions.  The husband wears the Gordon tartan, but for the Jacobite uprising in 1745, Clan Gordon  were split with Cosmo Gordon, the 3rd Duke, supporting the English, whereas his brother Lord Lewis Gordon raised two Jacobite regiments against them. Clan Drummond, whose tartan the baby is wrapped in and is suggested to be the wife's clan, were fully Jacobite, slaughtered at Culloden and paid dearly for their rebellion. The husband's clan was split, showing the conflict of interest, but he fought, risking his and his family's future.  The wife's clan had no such conflict and were punished, but she is at the prison, reassembling her family in the face of a battle, picking up peaces and keeping going.

When I look at the painting, the wife's face is the only one I see in total and she is not only the focal point of the image but also the one doing all the work.  She is carrying a baby, handing over a get-out-of-jail-free card and grabbing her husband.   The dog, the baby and the wife all have no shoes, the men on the have shoes. I wonder if it is suggesting that whatever big picture conflict is being fought, life goes on for women as it has to - children need feeding, farms need running, husbands need getting out of jail, or else what is all the fighting for and what will he be coming home to?

You know I am a sucker for the meaning of flowers and falling form the baby's hand are primroses, suggesting it is Spring, and the husband is a prisoner from the April battle at Culloden. Primroses symbolise youth and love, which explains why the baby has them in his little hand, but also 'I can't live without you', the youthful impetuousness of love.  However, an awful lot of those flowers are on the floor.  Possibly, with those flowers behind her, that youthful idealism is behind the woman now, but she still is devoted and loyal to her husband, whom she is fetching. Love is greater than flowers, love is bare-foot prison breaks.

A few of the commentaries suggest that as Millais replaced a monetary ransom for the simple note in the picture, that the wife had paid her husband's way out of prison some other way, if you know what I mean. To me, that reflects the fact that people don't like the fact that the woman is sorting it out on her own.  I don't know what she has done in order to get that bit of paper, possibly just shown up with a screaming baby (it's how we got an estate agent to give us the keys to our new house in double quick time.  Lily has an impressive lung capacity), either way, that's not the point of the picture. The point for me is that life can be brutal and rubbish at time and the best you can do is keep going. If you are my loved ones, I will always come and get you from prison and Blossom is on hand to help get you out.

See? Who could resist that?

See you tomorrow.

Saturday 18 December 2021

Saturday 18th December - The Lantern-Maker's Courtship

 Blimey, school has broken up, I'm not in the office again until next year and so things are beginning to look a lot like Christmas! It's Saturday morning and so I'm taking it a little easy before we deliver some presents this afternoon. I also need to write a shopping list for Christmas food at some point as I'm doing an early raid on the supermarket during the week, then battening down the hatches. Whatever you are up to today, take care out there.  Right, on with today's picture...

The Lantern-Maker's Courtship (1854-60) William Holman Hunt

This is probably a very familiar painting to you, one of Hunt's Holy Land-inspired scenes showing everyday life in the East. A young lantern-maker is sitting outside the workshop and is attempting to woo a young lady by trying to have a feel of her face.  In response to this encounter, the girl has popped her foot.  Is this the international sign of cute romance? You can even get decorations for your wedding cake with the popped foot...

Why is that a thing? I'm puzzled.  Also, I have a few questions about why it's cute that he's fondling her face through her veil but I'm letting that go for now because I want to talk about how cute that dog is...

That is a very good boy indeed.  The wonderfully touchable fur has such depth and layers.  Even though we can't see his face, we know he's a noble looking chap. Is the fact that we can't see the dog's face connected to the fact that the young lady is veiled? Both of their faces are hidden but both also have to put up with the lantern-maker's nonsense.  The dog is asleep next to our bare-foot lothario's shoes keeping well out of the palaver that is going on above him. I bet he sees it all the time.  The lantern-maker has shiny lamps, girls like shiny lamps.

Steering away from the 'courtship' for a moment (and as far as I'm concerned, rubbing your hand on some poor girl's chops is not courtship, for goodness sake), apart from the very lovely dog, the other thing that always catches my eye is what's going on it the background...

There is a western chap in a top hat on a donkey. The camel has a look of surprise which frankly I share and the gentleman has a whip in his hand which it looks like he's using against another chap.  What on earth is going on back there?! It can't be too loud or I'm sure the dog would be interested.  Blossom gets involved in all noise and rumpus.  Possibly again, the dog has seen far too many embarrassing foreigners and can't be bothered to react to yet another one. The dog has a right idea.  May you too be as relaxed as the lantern-maker's dog today and I'll catch you tomorrow...

Friday 17 December 2021

Friday 17th December - Turning Point

 Today's picture is a bit of a puzzler, which is just what I like...

Turning Point (1873) Alexander Johnston

Oh hello, what's occurring here then? A chap stands looking out at us with a befuddled expression as a young woman holds his hat and a little moppet clutches a dog.  Outside, his nefarious friends look through the window. Let's take this a bit at a time...

This appears to be a family group.  The wife seems very respectably dressed, although her black attire suggests a death.  The child is a bit rougher in dress, the strap broken on her bodice and her feet bare. She is holding a little black terrier.  The husband in the centre, appealed to on either side, looks out at us with his hands in his pockets.  Is his expression despair, anger, sulkiness? His wife is holding on to his collar as she pleads with him. Lawks, he was just popping out for a bit...

At the window, we have some proper dodgy types.  I think these are the husband's friends who are trying to tempt him out on the town. Seeing as his child has no shoes, I think his gesture of putting his hands in his pockets implies he is running out of money because of his naughty ways. I am reminded of my favourite children's book - I thoroughly endorse this for Christmas, as it is hilarious reading - called Mr Pusskins...

A quick plot summary is as follows - Mr Pusskins, a spoilt ginger cat, gets fed up of being the sole spark of joy in his owner, Emily's life and so runs off his the Pesky Cat Gang, who let him get up to all sorts of mischief...

Yes, yes, life without Emily was indeed such naughty fun, until all the Pesky Cat Gang bugger off somewhere else and leave Mr Pusskins tired, alone and miserable, regretting that he had left the comfort of Emily's lap.


Damn straight, Mr Pusskins.  He then goes crawling back to Emily via a puzzling telephone call which raises many questions such as how did he dial, and where exactly did he get the money for a phone box from, how did she know where to find him? We read this book out at Lily's 2nd birthday to all the parents because it is impossible not to see it's based on an ex-boyfriend who really didn't appreciate how good he had it. A thoroughly wonderful book. Anyway, I can see the chap in our painting looking like he wants to go out with his mates and sing on a fence while possibly drunk or high on cat nip, or something. He is at the turning point which might be financial or moral or both. It's not good.

The discarded handkerchief on the floor is a disquieting note of red, pick up in the flower on the window sill.  The waistcoat and the curtain echo it in a deeper shade.  I wonder if it is meant to symbolise blood?  Is there a threat of violence if he goes out?  Will he not be returning, as hinted at in the widow's weaves the lady is wearing? And what is the letter on the chair? It isn't the reason for the mourning as there is no black border on the paper. Might it be the reason the man is going out on the rampage?

The table behind is set with a very demure tea scene, with cake or a bun of some sort, a teapot and a cup in its saucer. I wonder if the tipped cup is significant.  Blimey, everything seems to be significant! 

Up in the rafters is a tatty basket, possibly used to bring the puppy home. It symbolises domestic matters but it is looking a bit battered and beaten, unsurprisingly. If the little dog symbolises faithfulness and loyalty, the method it was brought into the house is looking a little worse for wear and honestly doesn't look like it could hold anything.

So what do we think is going to happen?  Is loyalty going to win out and will our chap stay home or is he off with his very own pesky cat gang? Will our grumpy looking chap stay with his incredibly pale wife or blow the housekeeping on fast gin and strong women? What was in that letter?  I have so many questions but I guess we shall never know if his turning point was for better or worse.

See you tomorrow.