Friday, 1 July 2022

Exhibition Review: Modern Pre-Raphaelite Visionaries

 I have to admit that before yesterday, I had never been to Leamington Spa. What drew me there was a new exhibition intriguingly entitled 'Modern Pre-Raphaelite Visionaries: British Art 1880-1930'. I was suitably curious as the term 'Pre-Raphaelite' is so hotly debated beyond the Brotherhood, but I'm a firm believer in the thread of Pre-Raphaelitism that continues to run today so I took myself off to Leamington...


I don't know what I was expecting but Leamington Spa Museum and Art Gallery reminds me of many different ones I've been to - the local history gallery and the large open gallery where you accommodate classes of fidgeting school children.  However, it has a sneakily beautiful art collection, including a treasure trove of works by Frederick Cayley Robinson. Tucked at the back of the local history gallery is the temporary exhibition gallery and here Cayley Robinson is definitely the star of the show. I was left with an impression that it could almost have been a show about him alone but his name is not yet famous enough to draw people, so he is shown amongst his peers. Placing him in context makes some very interesting comparisons - all the artists in the show obviously draw their inspiration from the Pre-Raphs but 30-80 years after the initial spark of 1848 brings in all sorts of other themes and inspirations.

Close of the Day (no date) Frederick Cayley Robinson

Cayley Robinson is probably not a name that is instantly conjured when you are asked to name Pre-Raphaelite artists but you'd definitely recognise some of his work which is in places like the Tate and the Walker Art Gallery. Leamington Spa have some beautiful examples and have borrowed more so that his work is peppered throughout the show. One of his most striking examples is the poster image for the exhibition...

In a Wood So Green (1893) Frederick Cayley Robinson

You can almost smell the green of that wood, it's so saturated.  The touches of gold on the girl and the knight illuminate the darkness of it and it becomes a magical picture. That essential link between Symbolism and Pre-Raphaelite sensibility is so strong towards the end of the century and gleefully detonates that notion I was taught at University, that the Pre-Raphaelites were a cul-de-sac of art, going nowhere and leading to nothing. I was instantly taken back to my trip to Brussels last Autumn and seeing the Fin-de-Siècle Museum. The threads of Pre-Raphaelitism ran through to the twentieth century without us even noticing it seems, finding a place in Symbolism, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and all the other names we give to the work that flirted with the end of the century.


That's not to say there isn't a bit of Pre-Raphaelite OG present in the mix. Rossetti is here to show the seed, with images such as this charming double hang of Roman de la Rose (1864) and How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival Were Fed with the Sanct Grael; but Sir Percival's Sister Died by the Way (1864) (there is a whole lot going on it that painting). The Rossetti that really surprised me, mainly because it looked so contemporary alongside the Symbolism, was this one...

Damsel of the Sanct Grael (1857) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The narrow starkness of the figure in this 1857 watercolour is so startlingly modern, I was taken aback. The beauty of the exhibition is that it pairs works like this one with Arthur Hacker's Annunciation...

The Annunciation (1892) Arthur Hacker

Bear in mind that the Hacker is huge, heading for 3 metres in her frame, the powdery dream-like quality of the girl seemed almost old fashioned in style compared to the little vibrant stick-woman with her golden cup, which was painted over 30 years before. I think what I will take from the exhibition is that the idea of an concept's progression is not linear or simple. What is Pre-Raphaelitism? It is Madonnas and gold and forests and sharp focus and soft focus and absolutely nothing but beauty. I can see why people argue so much about what it is...

Women!

As time moves on, it's good to see the women artists appear as part of the narrative without there having to be a 'special lady section'. Another awesome double hang featured Christiana Herringham, a name that is familiar thanks to Mary Lago's 1996 book on her, but I can't remember seeing her featured in an exhibition of this sort before. Her cloud of Butterflies, Dragonflies and Damselflies in watercolour and gouache was a hurricane study of nature. Obviously, Evelyn De Morgan was there, with images such as Evening Star Over the Sea (1910-1914) and highlighted the influence of Spiritualism on the artists.

The Polar Star (1920) William Shackleton

This is a wonderful exhibition, which tours to the Watts Gallery in the autumn, filled with unexpected treasures and familiar friends. The moving of the Pre-Raphaelite narrative away from the 1850s and 1860s means that we can get away from Rossetti's love life and look at the work of those who took the things that inspired the original Pre-Raphaelites and brought their own sensibilities and techniques to them. It is interesting to see the likes of De Morgan, who I am very familiar with, alongside May Hart Patridge's tiny enamel...

Enamel Plaque (c.1904) May Hart Partridge

Both women were working at the same time from the same well-spring but it such different ways for different results. The exhibition is a glorious combination of artists united in intangible inspiration to glorious effect. I think the image I will take away, the one I have thought about the most over the last 24 hours is this one...

The Bridge (1905) Frederick Cayley Robinson
Who are they? What an odd framing of the image with the women almost lost from view, but the blonde lady looks directly at us and she looks sad, or is it annoyed? Or does she have a secret? Her friend is Maria Zambaco as far as I can see. I thought it was Dante and Beatrice but the man is too old. Is it Dante remembering meeting Beatrice and Monna Vanna? It is such a beautiful, mysterious image, I can't help asking questions and imagining a story.

The exhibition is beautiful and haunting, with some unusual and little-seen works. Even better, there is an accompanying catalogue, with essays by Jan Marsh, Elizabeth Prettejohn and Colin Cruise among others. It's a great read and glossily presented with good reproductions. Get yourself over to Leamington Spa this summer and treat yourself to a catalogue as well. It is very much worth it.

Further information about the exhibition can be found here.

Friday, 24 June 2022

Review: Muse

I have been considering the role of the muse recently.  It is a much contested term these days, with people reclaiming the women who were the inspiration for (predominantly) male artists as people in their own right who existed beyond the canvas (shock, horror!). I remember one of the early post on this blog was discussing the difference between a portrait and a picture and the same could be applied to the role of muse - how much of the role of a muse is absolutely nothing to do with the muse? It is in this frame of mind I read Muse: Uncovering the hidden figures behind art history's masterpieces by Ruth Millington...


Beautifully illustrated by Dina Razin, Muse explores the many aspects and relationships that make up 'muse-hood'. From family to self to fellow artists of all sorts, together with lovers, situations and causes, what propels one human being to be so inspired by another that they create art around them and what does it tell us about people and the nature of art?

Juan de Pareja (1650) Diego Velazquez

We begin with the startling story of a seventeenth century slave who became a painter after being freed by one of Spain's most famous artists.  Velazquez's enslaved studio assistant, Juan de Pareja inspired this portrait, done the year that Velazquez signed the papers that would eventually free him. There is an uncomfortable tension in viewing this captive man in a formal portrait that seems to elevate him, yet his sleeve is ripped. I would argue that a portrait does not make a muse, but maybe it is the injustice of de Pareja's state that is the inspiration.  The subject of the piece is the man, the inspiration is man's condition, the theft of his life in slavery.

The Kiss (1908) Gustav Klimt

I found the section on Emilie Floge raised a very interesting point about the relationship between artist and muse - do they always have to be lovers? If you accidentally get inspired by someone are you contractually obliged to leap into bed with them (asking for a friend, obviously)? Famously, Emilie and Gustav weren't lovers, just really, really close, yet some of the pictures she inspired were sexual - one title The Kiss was exhibited under in 1908 was The Lovers. Do we judge the artist/muse relationship if they are not constantly having it away? Does it somehow lessen its impact for us? In the case of Picasso and Dora Maar, his 'weeping woman', do we value their relationship more because of the passion that produced the work, despite the emotional trauma that is seeming to be inflicted?  Hang on, how do we know that Dora Maar was so very emotional? Is it only because of the art? How much of a muse is the projection of the artist and how much do we as consumers of the byproduct of inspiration take the artist's vision as the truth?

Ophelia (1851-2) John Everett Millais

The reason Muse attracted me was the inclusion of Elizabeth Siddal, and it raises an interesting question about detachment of persona, as impressed by the artist upon her, from herself.  I do wonder if Millais had painted Lizzie roaring with laughter as a happy, sane character then maybe our view of her would be different but somehow the fragrance of doom follows poor Miss Siddal around until we are almost unsurprised to hear that she killed herself.  Or didn't, but then that doesn't fit in with the narrative that the artworks of her seem to tell. That's before we start on her own poetry and how we believe that reflected her.  I wonder if Sylvia Plath wrote the poetry of Pam Ayres would we still see tragic undertones in 'Oh, I Wish I'd Looked After Me Teeth'?

Christina Olson (1947) Andrew Wyeth

I really loved the inclusion in Muse of Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth (Christina's World hangs above my bed as I lovingly carried that poster home all the way from MoMA). The attempts to not only show Christina, who often doesn't face us at all, but looks away far beyond the tradition aversion of the female gaze, but also the limitation of her life due to her disability are powerful. Growing up feeling that my life was very small and confined, I felt an instant affinity with Christina's World and Wyeth's attempt to show disability feels factual yet emotional. Christina's enclosure is as much mental as it is physical - she is held to her home both willingly and without hope of escape.  Without knowing that Christina had Charcot-Marie Tooth disease, a degenerative muscle condition, Christina's confinement seems as much as a muse to Wyeth as the woman herself, and that truth of condition, be it physical, mental or societal restriction, reaches people and touches them as it touched Wyeth.

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) Lucian Freud

The muses range from the ancient to modern, from Siddal to Grace Jones and all points in between. I think a perfect point is the wondrous Sue Tilley, famous for having a well-deserved kip on Lucian Freud's sofa. The problem with the word 'muse' is that it tends to draw ideas of waft-y little whispers of women who exist only to be painted and possibly have exploitative sex with artists.  This book reminds us that not only are the men and women who inspired art real people, often with actual jobs and lives separate from hanging about in a studio with their boobs out, but the term has become reductive and unhelpful. Artists are inspired by many things  - not just a pretty face, but also a talent, a spirit, a situation - and much of what we see on the canvas is as much to do with the artist as it is the subject. I would argue that most, if not all, artists use themselves as muse to a greater or lesser extent (as I wrote about here), not just people like Frida Kahlo or Artemesia Gentileschi. 

Fanny Cornforth (1860s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The artist's responsibility towards the muse is nicely summed up on the chapter about David Hockney and Peter Schlesinger, who is famous for being the young man in the pool.  Hockney drew Peter reading, reclining and in all manners like Rossetti drew his muses in their off-duty moments.  As a muse, are you ever off-duty? Isn't that really the decision of the artist as your muse-iness exists in the mind of the creator.  Muse ends on a manifesto for Muses everywhere which includes some rules that should ensure an equal muse-artist relationship. I will joyously uphold the research and acknowledgement of all sorts of muses, and celebrate what the muse brings to the life of the artist, and I think it is helpful to be aware that the 'muse' and the person are quite different. Just as a model who plays a part in a painting should never be assumed to be that person, then portraits of that person should be approached with caution lest we project emotions upon them that might not be there. Just because Rossetti showed Lizzie with her eyes downcast does not mean that she was sad, only that he might have perceived her as thus. 

Cara Delevingne (2016) Jonathan Yeo

While there was a period of articles decrying the muse, there still are people, okay, mainly women, who are designated muses. What Ruth Millington shows us in Muse is that inspiration comes in forms that are as individual as the people who seek inspiration and there is nothing you can do to stop people being inspired by others.  That's a beautiful thing, and yes, an awful lot of it is arguably about fancying someone, but that's not all it is because life is not that basic.  What we should stop doing is projecting romance upon unhealthy relationships or expect all inspiration to look the same. I really enjoyed occasionally yelling things at the long suffering Mr Walker, like 'Is there a difference between inspiration, muse and subject?' (yes, of course there is, but where do you draw the line etc etc) and the pen and ink portraits of each of the muses at the beginning of the chapters are perfect and I wish there had been more. It's a great summer read and I thoroughly recommend it.

Friday, 17 June 2022

From Joy to Shirley Temple

During the flurry of research that happened writing Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang, I was delighted to acquire a quite magnificent book entitled Women Painters of the World From the Time of Caterina Vigri (1413-1463) to Rosa Bonheur and the Present Day. That's quite a mouthful so it's normally just known as Women Painters of the World...


This did not cost me very much money from eBay and in fact can be downloaded for free from Archive.org, which is my favourite price of all.  Anyway, all this rambling leads me to this picture, which is the frontispiece...

Joy and the Labourer (1901) Mary Young Hunter

The little scroll at the bottom reads:
TAKE JOY HOME
AND MAKE A PLACE IN THINE OWN HEART FOR HER
AND GIVE HER TIME TO GROW AND CHERISH HER!
THEN WILL SHE COME AND OFTEN SING TO THEE
WHEN THOU ART WORKING IN THE FURROWS! AY,
OR WEEDING IN THE SACRED HOUR OF DAWN.
IT IS A COMELY FASHION TO BE GLAD
JOY IS THE GRACE WE SAY TO GOD

This verse came from The Christian Science Journal in 1898 and obviously inspired Mary Young Hunter to create the tabeau of Joy, as a little singing girl, warbling to the working man in his furrow. He might look beaten and exhausted but he has taken time to nurture joy as he tends to his land (or the land of others) and so his work won't break him. It is a very joyous picture indeed and the little girl reminds me of my beautiful niece when she was younger. The Christian sentiment behind it has overtones of 'working class people get their rewards in heaven' which is all very Victorian, but I also get a hint that there is a little bit of that working chap that will remain forever his, that he has a reserve of strength that he needs to cope with how bloody awful life can be. I might be reading too much into this but I would go on to say that the verse and picture are saying that working people have the ability to nurture joy and know God in the way that the feckless, idle rich do not because they do not know how to grow and nurture.  That might link back to the whole camels and eyes of needles business, but I digress.  Mary Young Hunter was not in Girl Gang (when I write a sequel, she might well appear) but I was left wondering who on earth could have painted such a strange image. As it turns out, the journey takes us from New Zealand to Hollywood via the Clyde...

Mary, c.1899

Starting in New Zealand, Mary Towgood (as she was in the beginning) was born in Napier in the Spring of 1872. Her father, Edward was from Glamorgan in Wales, where his father had been a solicitor.  What inspired Edward to become a sheep farmer in New Zealand isn't exactly clear, but then it's what the Lamprey family do in Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh, so it must have been a viable option for those with money. Edward married Edith Tylee, a Napier girl, in 1869 and their four daughters arrived speedily afterwards.  Eldest daughter Edith Ethel was born six months after their marriage (I'm saying nothing), followed by Mary in 1872, Alice in 1874 and Stephanie in 1877. However, their sheep-filled happiness was short lived, as Edward died in 1882, aged only 45. It is unclear whether or not the family had returned at that point as some report his death in London, others in New Zealand and others in Wales. Whatever the location, in the later 1880s, Edith and her young daughters found themselves in England.

The Shrine (early 1900s) Mary Young Hunter

In a newspaper interview many years later, Mary claimed to have been too young when she left New Zealand to remember anything but her departure from Wellington - the purple half circle of hills and the waves crashing on the shore at Napier.  Seeing as she was 10 when her father died, the journey must have come fairly hard on the heels of that, or else the circumstances around their departure were so traumatic as to obliterate all that came before. Young Mary found herself at school in Bath, followed by a few years on the continent, finishing her education before returning to London to start art school.

John Young Hunter, 1899

Mary found herself at the South Kensington Cope and Nichol School of Painting in Pelham Street, a place known for preparing young artists for the Royal Academy.  On to the Royal Academy Miss Towgood duly went, and Mary did exceptionally well, coming away with four medals, including one for a model of a bust from life in 1895.  She also met John Young Hunter, a Glaswegian artist obsessed with the Wild West... 

The Old Santa Fe Trail (c.1920) John Young Hunter

John was the son of Colin Hunter, a Scottish seascape artist and close friend of John Singer Sargent. Colin called his eldest daughter 'Colina' which is magnificent because he had two sons to pass his name on to but no, his daughter got it.  The family lived on Melbury Road, with neighbours like Marcus Stone and Frederic Leighton, in a very arty part of society indeed. Apparently Colin debated with friends whether it was better to send John to Paris or to the Royal Academy for his artistic training. The RA won out and it was probably at this impressionable age that John saw the Buffalo Bill Wild West show and it had a profound effect on him, leading to things like this...

Self Portrait No.1  (1920) John Young Hunter

Well, there you go.  Anyway, all that is still in the future as to begin with John and Mary were both devoted to more romantic schools of art.  When they married in 1899, Mary took John's middle name as part of her name, become Mary Young Hunter.  The couple travelled to Florence where they had a studio and then returned to England via Germany and Belgium.  On their return the couple finally settled at Giffords Hall in Suffolk (now a vineyard!) where they lived from 1903 to 1909.  The building itself provided inspiration to the couple as this tender portrait of Mary by John shows...

Musings by Giffords' Fireside (1903) John Young Hunter

When 'The Studio' hailed the couple as 'new Pre-Raphaelites', it was not hard to see why as they had risen to fame swiftly with some beautiful and familiar works...

My Lady's Garden (1899) John Young Hunter

The Flagmender (c.1900) John Young Hunter

John's work was grand and dense in colour and pattern where as Mary's seems airy by comparison...

Dreaming by a Pond (1903) Mary Young Hunter

Mind you, that's not to say she couldn't be deep...

Seekers: 'Where shall Wisdom be Found?' (1902) Mary Young Hunter

I love a 'problem' picture and this one reminded me of this one by Oswald Moser...

Folly and Learning Often Dwell Together (no date) Oswald Moser

Mary's picture asks which of the two figures do you think has grasped wisdom? Spoiler alert, it's obviously the bare-footed poppet on the floor as she has avoided the endless battle of not having enough bookcases by avoiding that whole reading business altogether. While Moser's picture post-dates Mary's (and might have been inspired by it, as it was a very popular image, reproduced in the Christmas edition of The Graphic), there are a few of Mary's paintings which seem to draw the wellspring of their inspiration from the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers.

The Bow in the Cloud (1906) Mary Young Hunter

The Blind Girl (1856) John Everett Millais

Okay, it's not a mystery where Mary took inspiration for her picture, but I noticed in the very splendid Pyms Gallery catalogue on the Young Hunters from 2000 also cited this picture too...

Hard Times (1886) Hubert von Herkomer

While Herkomer's family is realist, Mary's mother is looking towards the rainbow as if acknowledging a sign from God. For Herkomer's group there is a long road ahead, but for Mary's, the clouds have parted and peace and better times have broken out. Then there is this...

The Denial (1901) Mary Young Hunter

Her rendition of the meeting between Dante and Beatrice is very reminiscent of predecessors such as...

Dante and Beatrice (1883) Henry Holiday

Holiday wanted his depiction of the scene to be accurate, and so travelled to Florence for research and so I wonder if Mary did likewise while she was in Italy.  Her figure of Beatrice was much admired in the newspapers, with The Scotsman reporting 'None would say her Beatrice clothed in white samite walking by the side of the Arno with her attendant maidens and guard is not a sufficiently dignified and haughty personage.' I'm sure that was what she was going for...



The couple's daughter Gabrielle was born in 1905 but this did not seem to slow down Mary's industry.  In 1907, the couple collaborated on the book The Clyde, producing illustrations for descriptions by Neil Munroe, but increasingly Mary began to seek out children to paint, possible inspired by Gabrielle. One of her most famous images from this period also harks back to an earlier piece...

Once Upon a Time (1909) Mary Young Hunter

I was instantly reminded of this...

Alice in Wonderland (1879) George Leslie Dunlop

Despite being a settled family of painters, Mary and John still travelled. After an introduction from Colin Hunter's friend Singer Sargent, Mary became friends with Alice and Claude Monet and the group travelled to Venice, despite Monet being in a bad mood because everything was too beautiful. I wonder if the couple's travels are a hint that they were not truly settled in England, so when they sailed to America in 1913 it was not a surprise. They were sailing away as successful and respected artists, as John had great success in 1912 Royal Academy exhibition with Vanity Fair (even though many magazine's puzzlingly listed it as by Mary...)

Vanity Fair (1911) John Young Hunter

According to a biography of Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy art patron in Taos, New Mexico, the couple arrived in Taos and looked to settle in a place that had no artistic preconceptions for them. They had travelled around North America, exhibiting in places such as Minneapolis in 1916, and staying for a while in New York where John kept a studio for the rest of his life, but possibly the heat and artistic community of New Mexico drew them south. They bought a piece of land next to Mabel's and built a double studio for John (now 'Jack' to his America friends it seems) and Mary, with two bedrooms above. They worked on the building of the house themselves, bringing in Native American workmen, who fascinated John and possibly even modelled for his new 'Western' art. John's new art found a ready audience looking for romantic images of the Wild West, and his paintings such as The Old Santa Fe Trail became railway posters for the Santa Fe Railway Company. Mary increasingly seemed defined by her images of little girls and in a Country Life  article on the couple, she was referred to as a painter of children, but 'no less accomplished in her portraiture if their elders'. On the couple's visits to England, Mary received commissions of some fairly influential subjects...

Little Moppets!

The winsome pair above are Lady Margaret Frances Ann Vane-Tempest-Stewart and her sister Lady helen Maglona Vane-Tempest-Stewart, painted in 1914. This is so very Victorian, with obvious reference to Millais's moppet pictures and back further to Joshua Reynold's work.  Compare this with Phyllis, produced in tempera, gold leaf on gesso panels in the late 1920s...

Phyllis (c.1929) Mary Young Hunter

So what had occasioned this change in style? Unfortunately, after building their studio house in Taos, John began to romance Mabel Dodge Luhan's secretary, Eve Renz Schroeer and divorced Mary. When he wrote his memoir, Reviewing the Years, he neglected to mention Mary or Gabrielle.  His transformation into a new American artist was complete. All contact between the couple seems to have broken down and when, later in life, Mary attempted to contact John to work on one final piece of art together, a portrait of their grandchild, Eve apparently blocked it.

Clair (c.1929) Mary Young Hunter

Although she kept ties with the community at Taos, Mary moved to Carmel in California.  Gabrielle had married young and then divorcedin the early 1920s, only to meet Edward Kuster, a musician and patron of the arts in Carmel.  According to her very touching obituary in the Carmel Pine Cone newspaper after her death in 1978, Gabrielle had been visiting her mother with her son 'Shim', and fell in love with both Carmel and Mr Kuster, remaining in the community to create the Theatre of the Golden Bough.

Shirley Temple (1935-8) Mary Young Hunter

Mary Hunter Young lived her life quietly by the sea in California, writing children's book which have seemingly slipped into obscurity.  It is therefore appropriate that the woman so often dismissed as a children's portraitist should create a portrait of one of the most famous children of the 20th century.  Although it would be hard to say 'Shirley Temple' and 'Pre-Raphaelite' in the same sentence, this work in tempera manages to join the tempera revival artists of the Pre-Raphaelite following all the way to works like this one by Peter Blake, one of the Ruralists who were in turn inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites...

Alice in Wonderland (1970) Peter Blake

Mary died in Carmel in 1947, and after the death of her husband in 1961, Gabrielle came to live in her mother's beautiful yellow purpose-built house and lived out her life as a bright light in her Californian home. 

A Quiet Moment (early 1900s) Mary Young Hunter

If we take into account the body of work that Mary Young Hunter left, her connection with Monet and Shirley Temple, her books, her use of tempera on the cusp of the revival in America in the 1930s and her startlingly beautiful early works, why do we not know her better? I promise I won't end every post with the words 'Let's have a retrospective!' but blimey, she is well overdue.

Friday, 10 June 2022

Review: How We Might Live: At Home with Jane and William Morris

 There is an absolute joy in wallowing in a wonderful new book, meeting old friends and seeing things in a different light, which is why I have been eagerly awaiting the publication of Suzanne Fagence Cooper's new biography of William and Jane Morris, How We Might Live...


You might think that as a couple neither of the Morrises are exactly short on biography, but what has been missing, arguably, is seeing them as a functioning couple. Indeed, one thing we have been told over the years is exactly the opposite, that they did not love each other, both were miserable - he was bullish and she was sulky. I've always been #TeamWilliam, mainly because biography of Fanny tended to be lost in the gushing over Jane that started almost as soon as Rossetti died. However, if we have learned anything, then it is definitely to not believe a damn word anyone else tells you about a person if they have a blatant ulterior  motive (Yes, I'm looking at you, Hall Caine). 

Also, yesterday afternoon about 5pm, I suddenly realised that William Morris was autistic. Yes, I will back that up, but let's crack on...

Mrs William Morris (1858) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

There are many reasons why I absolutely loved this book, but I'll start with just how enjoyable it is to read. The tone is friendly, packed with knowledge and easy to read. The Morrises are referred to as William and Jane, which immediately invests you in their lives,and their world is where we will be for a mighty 536 pages. While I am sure by now we know that Jane was not just the passive observer of her own life, I was still surprised by her laughter, which was 'unforgettable' and exactly how active she was in the creation and management of her life, art and legacy. It is also shocking to see how the interpretation of others is still taken as gospel when it comes to how she felt about the men in her life, but I'll come to how much I want to slap Wilfrid Scawen Blunt in a bit (You can also read about how much I loathe him here). This book takes us through their lives, step by step so you can see the journey, understand the steps they took and appreciate for yourself that Jane and William Morris were extraordinary for so many reasons, but utterly relatable in ways that we just don't give them credit for. 

William Morris (1880) Emery Walker

Starting with William, he had read all of Walter Scott by 7 years old, which is incredible, but that wasn't the most interesting thing I took away. As a child, he preferred the calm of girls to the rough and tumble of boys. His vivid memories of childhood involve sensory recall - 'To this day, when I smell a may-tree I think of going to bed by daylight.' His intellect, his tempers and melt downs that involved beating his own head and destroying work, the social difficulties, inability to full acknowledge the needs of others above his singlemindedness, his endless energy on his own projects and even the curious way he walked, all discussed in the book, lead me to believe that William was on the autism spectrum, which is something I hadn't really considered until now. The comorbidity of autism with epilepsy might also provide an explanation of Jenny's condition, but beyond that, understanding the neurodivergence of such a familiar figure gives such a different view of their life. As someone on the spectrum myself, I also absolutely loved the sensory nature of the book - the smell of things, the feel and sound of fabric - which is so evocative of place and person that it is impossible not to immerse yourself. I also liked the placing of Morris in time - the detail that he was taking his entrance exams in 1852 just as the Pre-Raphaelites were gathering momentum gives you context to see what he would be entering into in a matter of years.

La Belle Iseult (1858) William Morris

But what of Jane? There is a silence over Jane's life before that fateful meeting with the artists in the theatre, and as frustrating as that is, it is also part of the story, as it was orchestrated and controlled by Jane herself. It is interesting to see the contrast between William and his good friend Edward Burne-Jones in terms of wealth, but it is another step again for Jane. She appears from the streets of Oxford, from too-small rooms, outbreaks of cholera and little money, to become a queen for a group of young men, one of whom had his own suit of armour and pony as a child. And she married him.

The Morris marriage will always be a matter for discussion, mainly because of the lack of scandal it seems to have generated. What I appreciated in How We Might Live is acknowledging the difficulty in Jane's position as well as William's. I think it is well past time we stopped romanticising Rossetti's obsession with Jane and discuss how much his mental illness impacted all their lives. That is not to say that she did not love him, and they did not have an affair, but the nature of their affair, William's escape to Iceland and Rossetti's own behaviour need to be looked at without rose-tinted glasses, which I think is done accurately here. It is also a joy to read an account of William being beloved by his family, being the storyteller, the craftsman, the adventurer, not just the cuckold to Rossetti's Casanova.  It's impossible not to see who comes out of this the happier man with the better life and it is refreshing not to see obsession romanticised. We possibly need to be reminded on a regular basis that the Jane who exists on Rossetti's canvas is his invention and beyond her control. Which leads me to a huge part of the story...

The Blue Silk Dress (1868) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

How do we know that William and Jane Morris had a miserable marriage? Because Wilfrid Scawen Blunt said she told him so.  This is the same man who slept with Jane in order to feel closer to Rossetti so I'm happy to ignore his nonsense, thank you very much, however this does raise an interesting point.  William Morris was an Eminent Victorian (TM) and so much written about.  The couple's friends and admirers were not backward in writing their views on both him and her and so what we end up with is a tapestry of other people's opinions, much of which if we think about it, is unrealistic and missing the point that both Jane and William were human beings, able to experience dodgy marriage spells, mid-life crisis and attraction to other people without it completely defining their entire lives. We can possibly say that there were times in the Morris marriage which were not happy, but that does not equate to an unhappy marriage. On the contrary, throughout even the unhappy patches of their marriage, the couple care about each other - when Morris escapes to Iceland, Jane frets that she has not heard from him. How We Might Live shows us that it is possible to love two people at the same time and that not all love is the same. It's interesting that even though the Burne-Jones marriage takes many turns no-one ever claims that they were miserable and had a loveless marriage. Is the difference Rossetti?

Kelmscott Manor 1905, May, Jane, Jenny and Ada Peerless, Jenny's nurse

We follow the Morris family from place to place, experiencing their lives in that time and place, until we end up at Kelmscott at the end of Jane's life. Her obituary acknowledged that 'only her intimate friends knew the kindliness, the good sense and the girlish love of fun, which remained until the end of her life.' This nod towards the myth making that both Jane and William suffered from is backed up by a visit to the elderly Jane by the poet Richard Le Gallienne who could not cope with being given a jar of homemade jam by the goddess of Rossetti's imagining.  This brought me right back to a similar statement from Swinburne after Morris proposed marriage to Jane, over half a century before - 'The idea of marrying her is insane. To kiss her feet is the utmost men should dream of doing.' 

The M's at Ems (1869) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The blessing of How We Might Live is that it takes us through the stages of a marriage and of two lives with such precision that you can absolutely see the myths obscuring the truths. It seems a shame that we should have to be so vigorously reminded that the Morrises had an extraordinary life together, for all the challenges and sorrows. Jane left origins of poverty and found life experiences that would have been well beyond her grasp.  She had influence and impact that mean we feel we know her over a century after her death. The book is a marvel for the senses, from the smell of jasmine and the feel of silk to the taste of hot pot and marmalade, both of which are included in the recipes passed from Jane to May Morris. This is a warm hug of a book, filled with wisdom and heart, and as William Morris would say 'O my word! So very, very gorgeous!'

How We Might Live is available now from all fine bookshops and from the publisher.