Friday 14 April 2023

Telling Tales (Again!)

 Hello again and for my third post of the week I just wanted to give you a bit of an update on my exhibition 'Telling Tales' which is all about Victorian narrative art.  It finished its run at the Russell-Cotes in March and has opened in Southampton!

Many thanks to the ever-patient Mr Walker for the photographs of the new venue. For those of you who haven't visited the art gallery in Southampton, it is a very different space to the Russell-Cotes in Bournemouth.  As you can see from the image, it is a bright, airy modern gallery which was exciting to hang in.  

Spread over two rooms, it follows the three subjects we had before - Love and Loss, Beasts and Babies and Gods and Generals and we have borrowed many of the wonderful Russell-Cotes paintings that appeared in the original show but we have some new pictures especially for the Southampton exhibition from their collection. Here are a couple of the new paintings and why I am so delighted to have them...

I Cannot Play Alone (1881) Mary Drew
At first glance, this sulky little moppet seems to be pouting because she is unable to entertain herself, however the painting and the artist tell very interesting stories.  The title comes from a poem by Felicia Hemans ('The Child's First Grief') and the reason the little girl cannot play is hinted at by her black dress.  Yes, she is mourning her brother, her previous playmate and cannot understand why her life continues without him while there are reminders of everything they shared everywhere...

Oh! call my brother back to me!
    I cannot play alone;
The summer comes with flower and bee—
    Where is my brother gone?

“The butterfly is glancing bright
    Across the sunbeam’s track;
I care not now to chase its flight—
    Oh! call my brother back!

“The flowers run wild the—flowers we sow’d
    Around our garden tree;
Our vine is drooping with its load—
    Oh! call him back to me!”

*sob!* Crikey, I think it is especially poignant that the litle girl wants to play badminton, a game you really cannot play on your own, which makes her loss particularly painful.

I was really interested in Mary Drew (1857-1934) who appears to have been a very popular child portraitist in her time but is mostly forgotten now with this painting being the only one on ArtUK, therefore the only oil in public hands. I will delve deeper into her life at some point but in the meantime I have contacted English Heritage as her cottage, called 'Drew Cottage' after her occupation of it, is listed and I added her connection to it the listing.  

Another new painting is one with a very local connection...

The Casualty List (1903) Leonard Skeats

I was so pleased that I could use this piece in the second leg of the show as it is a marvellous moment of narrative art.  The group of women in the cottage are washing clothes but one has paused to read the casualty list from the Boer War.  I think we can guess by her expression that it is not good news, or maybe the physical effort of reading through the dead every day to see if your loved one is there has just taken a terrible toll on her?  While I had the massive painting of Major Allan Wilson at the Shangani in the Russell-Cotes run of the exhibition, the toll of colonial war on women left at home is rarely shown.  I would love to gather together any paintings that explored the experience of these women in Victorian and Edwardian life, before the mass mobilisation of the World Wars.  I can only think of Byam Shaw's Last Year Things Were Greener but will seek out more and please comment any you can think of.  Leonard Skeats painting is very moving as you see her friends notice the woman's distress and what makes it very special to the Southampton show is that it was painted in Eling, on the west of Southampton.  The Art Gallery have a few pieces of his work as he was a local chap and it is all interesting but there is something about the claustrophobic nature of The Casualty List that makes it feel very immediate and real.

You can find more information about the exhibition here and it is running until July.  I will be doing some talks and tours, so will set up a tab on the top of the page to add events to so you can come and see me in person! 

Wednesday 12 April 2023

Review: Elizabeth Siddal: Her Story by Jan Marsh

 Further to what I was saying yesterday, we not only have a swanky new catalogue to go with The Rossettis exhibition at the Tate, but also we have a brand new biography of Elizabeth Siddal from Jan Marsh...

Now, I was fortunate to have been sent a pdf copy of the forthcoming book which is due out any moment now from Pallas Athene so my review is about the contents rather than including details of the physical book but I've had books from Pallas Athene before and they do a lovely job. On with the review!
Photo of Elizabeth Siddal (c.1860s)

Arguably, in the last decade, we have moved from seeing Elizabeth Siddal as a muse to seeing her as maker. In fact, I would boldly assert that the shift in our perspective of her (as an audience, rather than you and me specifically) is breath-taking and something I can only dream about accomplishing with Fanny. For Miss Siddal, the two images of her, as model and painter/poet, are so well defined it is easy to see why people cling to the more tragic version of her, drug-taking, bath-bothering, abused wife rather than the woman of such agency that it lifted her to an artist who exhibited internationally.  Speaking as a biographer of 'colourful' women, it's the colourful bits that persist.  Where we start with Jan Marsh's new book is one of my favourite phrases - What is it that we actually know to be true?

Sketch for Ophelia (1851) John Everett Millais

So, where to start? Well, actually what has been told to us over the years is by people who are writing their own narratives.  Obviously, I know that to be true of Fanny but to my shame I never really thought about it with Elizabeth Siddal.  Starting with her iconic discovery in the hat shop - Really?  Do we know that to be true? Apparently not. That's rather mind blowing in itself...

Elizabeth Siddal (1854) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

When you start dismantling the narrative, you are left with the facts such as she was a painter, Ruskin was her patron, she went to France, she studied in Sheffield and wrote powerful poetry.  She also found herself on uncertain ground with her erstwhile lover who replaced her and moved his art style on then returned.  Much is made of her health and habits but not much is said of her strength and once you put into context the events that happened around her and what she dealt with, it is impressive she accomplished as much as she did. I am left wondering why on earth she loved Rossetti, arguably she could have had a more settled, sucessful life without him. 

St Agnes' Eve (1854) Elizabeth Siddal

Split into sections entitled 'Model', 'Studio' and on to the places she visited or studied and her marriage and death, this is both a simple telling of her life story and also a bold challenge to the many myths of Miss Siddal. While undoubtedly tragic things happened in her life, it is hard to find people who write about her without presenting her as a victim.  Would we feel the same way, and speak the same way about 'poor Lizzie' if she had died in childbirth like Joanna Boyce or merely lived a long life beside a philandering husband, like Georgie Burne-Jones.  We do not prefix either of those women as 'tragic' so why Elizabeth Siddal?

A lock of Elizabeth Siddal's hair

I very much like this book and it will be a refreshing resource for those wishing to see both the narratives and the facts in one pocket sized book.  At around 150 pages, it is a quick read but it does not beat around the bush and has little time for meandering into supposition.  It is illustrated throughout and written in a thoroughly engaging manner which makes it the perfect companion to the new exhibition at the Tate.  

Long may we challenge the narrative!

Tuesday 11 April 2023

Review: The Rossettis at Tate Britain

 It's been a bit of a month, hence the peace and quiet you have enjoyed from my rambling. However, a lot has gone on in the meantime, so I have to do a flurry of posts on three different exhibitions and a book!  I also turned 50, which is painful.  Let's move on because first up is possibly the most hotly anticipated exhibition of the year, The Rossettis!

The Rossettis!  At Tate Britain!

I was lucky enough to attend the private view for this exhibition on my birthday, which made the whole 50 thing a lot less wretched and meant I got to spend the evening in the company of some marvellous chums (both on canvas and in real life) with my partner in crime, Miss Holman...

So what is the exhibition about? Well, obviously it's about the Rossetti family, but most pertinently Dante Gabriel, Christina and Elizabeth (a Rossetti by marriage). Now, William Michael and Lucy (another Rossetti by marriage) also get a look-in, as do the other members of the Rossetti clan, but honestly, it's about Gabriel, Liz and Chrissy.  And Fanny.  I'll come to that in a bit...

How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival... (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Haunted Wood (1856) Elizabeth Siddal

Let's start at the beginning, and the beginning is actually poetry.  As you enter the first room of the exhibition, there are spots on the floor where you can stand and hear the Rossetti poetry being murmured to you (if you aren't at a rather rambunctious opening that is).  I think as a nation, we have rather forgotten how much we love poetry and value poets, which is odd as we love songs (which are just sing-y poems).  However, the fame that both the Rossetti siblings found as poets still has a punch, with Christina especially reminding us what a powerful poet she was and how influential and inspirational, not least to her brother.  In turn, we have her poem 'In an Artist's Studio' which speaks of the 'one face' that looks out of the canvases and it is hard not to apply that as a criticism to her brother's works. Into all this comes Elizabeth Siddal (whether you give her one 'l' or two is an entire conversation in itself).  Her career and progression is placed in the context of the Rossetti family and it is joyful to see her works on display in such a grouping as it makes sense of her contribution and why, even as late as the 1940s, she was considered such a prominent Pre-Raphaelite. I think we can now agree that Miss Siddal has found her place in the narrative and it is marvellous to see.  Almost as marvellous as this room...

Lawks, but I gasped! That astonishing wallpaper is the realisation of a design by Rossetti and it takes your breath away. However, the object I was most intent on stealing has to be that painted piece...

You know me, I've always been one for a sizeable cabinet, and this beauty is the work of Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, Val Prinsep, John Seddon and Rossetti from 1861.  I was especially drawn to this panel, I wonder why...

Yes, Fanny.  I was so excited when I heard that Fanny was going to get a hearing in the great Rossetti story. As I have banged on about for the last thirty years, Fanny is a difficult one to slot into any dignified story without making everything messy but there is a marvellous amount of slotting (in an artistic sense) here, as Fanny explains a few things about Rossetti which aren't otherwise apparent.  That leads me to Found...

Found (1854-1882) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Found (1870s) Rossetti and Henry Treffry Dunn

Just as a side note, you have no doubt seen the predicatably awful review from Jonathan Jones in the Guardian and it was his comments on Found and Fanny that made me snigger the hardest. He sneeringly points out that Rossetti was rubbish because he kept painting Found with Fanny looking 'sensual' (more tea, Vicar?) which completely undermines the meaning of the piece.  Yes, Love, that's the point or did you not notice that it was unfinished?  Dear me, it must be awful to have to feel superior to everything all the time. How exhausting, poor lamb.  Anyway, Fanny is really looking splendid in this section, with her face gracing Bocca Baciata, Fazio's Mistress and Fair Rosamund.  I won't rhapsodise too much but the fact that Fanny is included and makes the Rossetti narrative messy is a joy to me. In this context, Fanny represents growth and change, none of it easy, and she leads us through to the glorious room of colour, that heralds Rossetti's golden years of oils and pastels - now I know the pastel era isn't there for good reasons, what with his health declining and everything, but that man was good with chalk...

Ligeia Siren (1873) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Blimey, Alexa! There are some gorgeous pieces in the long room of Rossetti's canvases and Alexa Wilding becomes the face of this period, although obviously Mrs Morris is present too...

Jane Morris (1868) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

There is a feeling of both simplicity and concern in the final few room, beautifully illustrated by the final room which has a wall projection of Ken Russell's Dante's Inferno.  The regular, beautiful works that represent the last 10-15 years of Rossetti's life mask the crisis he was undergoing, but seen together you notice the way he shows Jane, which is different to how he sees Alexa. Do I read too much in because of what we now know about his chloral addiction?  It's impossible not to but in his cascade of full-lipped beauties it is not hard to see him looking for someone, or being haunted by someone.  It is very moving indeed.

Monna Pomona (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
(Miss Holman's favourite)

I was always going to love it, and you will too.  It's a different way of looking at a talented family and makes you appreciate how much of their work we enjoy, without having to bring too much biography into it.  The lightness of touch on that front will probably relieve many and does mean you can look at the works without being overly worried about who was sleeping with whom or taking what drug at the time. The deep dives into things like 'Goblin Market' and The Beloved add real depth to the show and you leave very happy (or in our case, going back through about three times because things mesh together so beautifully you end up revisiting pieces with a variety of perspectives.)  You have until the end of September thank goodness, so I think a long summer of Rossetti goodness is on the cards for us all.Obviously, there is a catalogue for the show, although it's actually a book of essays on the subjects raised rather than a straight reproduction of the show in book form, which is smashing and offers longevity to the work. With essays by such people as Jan Marsh (on Elizabeth Siddal), Wendy Parkins (on Jane Morris) and Dinah Roe (on Christina Rossetti), it is a collection of new looks at familiar subjects and is a fascinating and beautifully illustrated read. I bought the £30 paperback as I had to carry it home on the train and it is corking.

So, I will be back tomorrow with another Rossetti-related review, but I'm actually sure that I'm preaching to the choir with this one and if you are able, you'll be there.  And you won't be disappointed.