Exhibition review: ‘Beyond Ophelia’


Curator Hannah Squire

Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton is hosting an exhibition devoted to the art and poetry of Elizabeth Siddall, and, shockingly, it’s only the second exhibition to focus exclusively on Siddall. I’ve been writing about Siddall for a while now (my book My Ladys Soul: The Poetry of Elizabeth Siddall will be published in June) and while her face is familiar to many, her work less so, particularly her poetry, though her life exerts a great fascination. This exhibition makes a good attempt at redressing the balance, then: although information about Siddall’s life and Pre-Raphaelite connections is there, the focus is on her as an artist and poet. And Wightwick is the perfect place for it: they hold the second-largest collection of Siddall’s works (the first being the Ashmolean).

2018 is proving to be a year for celebrating women’s achievements, often against all odds, given that it is 100 years since women were able to vote (though this was not on equal terms until 1928). The Manders, who built Wightwick and collected Pre-Raphaelite 28276572_10154975470041315_6622862564304738970_nand Arts and Crafts works with which to furnish it, were also keen suffragists, and one room of the house is currently set up for a Suffragette meeting. Siddall’s achievements as an artist, limited by her early death and all too often viewed as dependent on her more famous husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, are appropriately celebrated, then. Wightwick’s collection of 12 works by Siddall are on display in the beautiful Daisy Room, framed for the first time, along with other works no longer in the collection but loaned for the exhibition. This offers a genuinely unique opportunity to consider Siddall’s work as a body (though of course there are many other works), but there is plenty here to give you a feel for her skill as an artist, with her expressive and evocative pencil drawings, 28279682_10154975470241315_2380485743337476893_nand two small and beautiful oils, St Agnes’ Eve and The Haunted Wood (above).

I’m delighted to see that the exhibition also includes some of Siddall’s poetry. A few of her poems are beautifully printed and hung on the walls alongside her artworks, and I hope that this will encourage visitors to explore her under-appreciated poetry. It’s a particular pleasure that some lines appear on the walls above the wallpaper, drawing the eye. Her work as an artist and poet, in the complex gendered environment of the nineteenth-century cultural sphere, is outlined in exhibition boards, and visitors are encouraged to see Siddall as a creator of serious art in her own right – something which, despite three decades of serious critical work on her art, and less sustained but still significant work on her poetry, is still overlooked. Both the art and the poetry demonstrates Siddall’s engagement with her cultural milieu: her illustrations for poems and ballads, and the influence of these works and forms on her own writing, bear out her deep consideration – and transformation – of other works of art.

This is a small exhibition, but it is beautiful, and the room with its fireplace and gorgeous wallpaper feels intimate and cosy. It is open from March 1st until December 24th, 2018, so there is no excuse not to go and see it! Siddall is so often remembered as the model for Millais’s Ophelia, and it is encouraging to see this exhibition encouraging us to go ‘beyond Ophelia’.



Pre-Raphaelite Masculinities

imageAfter several years of hard work, I’m delighted to say that Pre-Raphaelite Masculinities: Constructions of Masculinity in Art and Literature, edited by myself and Amelia Yeates, will be published by Ashgate very shortly. With excellent contributors and taking an innovative approach to Pre-Raphaelitism, we are really excited about this book!

Drawing on recent theoretical developments in gender and men’s studies, Pre-Raphaelite Masculinities shows how the ideas and models of masculinity were constructed in the work of artists and writers associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Paying particular attention to the representation of non-normative or alternative masculinities, the contributors take up the multiple versions of masculinity in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings and poetry, masculine violence in William Morris’s late romances, nineteenth-century masculinity and the medical narrative in Ford Madox Brown’s Cromwell on His Farm, accusations of ‘perversion’ directed at Edward Burne-Jones’s work, performative masculinity and William Bell Scott’s frescoes, the representations of masculinity in Pre-Raphaelite illustration, aspects of male chastity in poetry and art, Tannhäuser as a model for Victorian manhood, and masculinity and British imperialism in Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World. Taken together, these essays demonstrate the far-reaching effects of the plurality of masculinities that pervade the art and literature of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Introduction: Pre-Raphaelite masculinities in context, Amelia Yeates and Serena Trowbridge;
‘How grew such presence from man’s shameful swarm’: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Victorian masculinity, Jay D. Sloan;
William Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung and the parameters of manliness, Ingrid Hanson;
The hallucination of the real: Pre-Raphaelite vision as a crisis of Romantic masculinity, Gavin Budge;
Health and manliness in the reception of Edward Burne-Jones’s work, Amelia Yeates;
Marginal masculinities? Regional and gender borders in William Bell Scott’s Wallington scheme, Rosemary Mitchell;
Interpreting masculinity: Pre-Raphaelite illustration and the Works of Tennyson, Christina Rossetti and Trollope, Simon Cooke;
‘Me, who ride alone’: male chastity in Pre-Raphaelite poetry and art, Dinah Roe;
In praise of Venus: Victorian masculinity and Tannhäuser as aesthetic hero, Sally-Anne Huxtable;
Christianity, masculinity, imperialism: The Light of the World and colonial contexts of display, Eleanor Fraser Stansbie;
Afterword, Colin Cruise;
Bibliography; Index.

Find out more or buy it here.

Finding Fanny (Cornforth)

220px-Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Fair_RosamundThe Pre-Raphaelite Society recently enjoyed an entertaining lecture by Kirsty Stonell Walker on her research on Fanny Cornforth. Kirsty’s book Stunner: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth is currently the only biography of Fanny, muse and mistress of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and in it Kirsty rescues Fanny from her undeservedly bad reputation. Kirsty explained that it would once have been inconceivable that Fanny would have been researched and discussed in an academic context: she was seen as the sordid side of Rossetti, the woman people preferred to gloss over. Kirsty explained why Fanny was branded a liar and thief (neither likely to be true), as well as illiterate (though there are extant letters from her in a rather nice copperplate). Moreover, the famous image of the prostitute spitting nutshells at men in the Strand to attract their attention is simply untrue: Kirsty’s research demonstrates that at the time this was meant to have happened, Fanny, then a Sussex girl called Sarah Cox, was visiting her aunt in St John’s Wood, and while she did meet Rossetti, it was he who approached her, pulling her hair down and declaring that he had to paint her (which does sound found-1854quite Rossetti-like). Anyway, Kirsty claims to have tried attracting men by spitting nutshells at them, and says it doesn’t work.

Fanny’s life as a model and muse for the Pre-Raphaelites is coloured by the ‘keynote’ image of Rossetti’s paintinFound (right), in which the repentant fallen woman turns her face away from her abandoned lover; but despite the connotations of the painting it sounds as though Fanny herself was not only unrepentant but also rather fun. When Rossetti began to use her less as a model, this was likely to have been because her face became less ‘saleable’, and indeed she was quickly replaced with the less earthy, more aetheticised Alexa Wilding. But Fanny, undaunted, married and became landlady of a pub, though she returned frequently to Rossetti (often with her husband), looking after him in his late illnesses.

Fanny’s story is rather a sad one, though – one senses that though the Pre-Raphaelite years with Rossetti in the 1860s were golden, after Rossetti’s death she was treated badly by the Rossetti family who saw her as lacking respectability. However, she still held her own, 220px-Fanny_Cornforth_Hughes_1863mounting her own Rossetti retrospective based on paintings and drawings he had given her (rivalling the exhibition approved by the family), and eventually vanishing from all the records by 1905, so that we have no idea where and how she died. Yet before she died, she corresponded with and met Samuel Bancroft Jr, Pre-Raphaelite collector and wealthy American businessman, who was the only person to ask Fanny about her life, about Rossetti and his work, and her part in his artistic and personal life. Her letters to him are in the Delaware archive, and remain the only real source of Fanny’s own views about her life as a Pre-Raphaelite muse.

A Christina Rossetti Letter

Rossetti1I was recently offered the opportunity to have a sneak preview at a previously unpublished letter by Christina Rossetti, which had been in the Samuel Looker archive acquired by the Richard Jefferies Society, and did a little bit of detective work!

The letter is signed by Christina Rossetti and certainly appears to me to be authentic. The handwriting and signature are certainly hers; she was usually fairly formal in her letters and signed herself “Christina G. Rossetti” even to her family. The way in which her writing slopes off at the edge of the page is also characteristic, as is the tone of the letter.

The letter is from 56 Euston Square, where Christina Rossetti moved in June 1867, along with her mother, sister, brother William and aunts Eliza and Charlotte Polidori. It is dated February 6th, with no year given. However, she invites the Madox Browns to visit on Thursday 13th February, and this date fell on a Thursday in 1868. I can confidently say that the letter was written in 1868, since The Letters of Christina Rossetti, ed. Antony H. Harrison, contains other letters which shed light on this. The first of these reads as follows:

56 Euston Square, N.W.

3rd February

Dear Mr Browning

We hope that one or two of our friends will be with us on Thursday evening the 13th (8 o’clock), and proud and pleased we should be if you especially would accept the welcome and our cup of tea.

Pray accept this with my Mother’s compliments and believe me

Sincerely yours

Christina G. Rossetti

An answer, please.

The Rossettis’ acquaintance with Robert Browning was slight, but clearly sufficient for an invitation such as this to be issued. According to Jan Marsh’s biography, Christina Rossetti: A Literary Life, Browning did indeed visit the Rossettis early in 1868, so it seems probable that he accepted this invitation.

The MS for the Browning letter is at Princeton, and Harrison glosses it, noting that Janet Camp Troxell, in her 1937 book Three Rossettis: Unpublished Letters to and from Dante Gabriel, Christina, William dates it to 1873, though Rossetti was then ‘too ill to be socialising’ (Harrison, p. 306). Philip Kelley, in his edition of the Brownings’ correspondence, dates it to 1868, which seems more likely.

The other two relevant letters are as follows:

56 Euston Square, N.W.

Saturday, 8th [February]

Dear Mr Leifchild

My Mother joins me in hoping that you will give us and a few of our friends the pleasure of your company to tea next Thursday (13th) at 8 o’clock.

Pray favour us with a reply and believe me

Sincerely yours

Christina G. Rossetti

56 Euston Square, N.W.

Saturday, 8th [February]

Dear Miss Leifchild

I heard such a good account of your health not very long ago, that I venture to hope you will give us the pleasure of your company to tea next Thursday 13th (8 o’clock) if you are disengaged. Pray accept my Mother’s compliments, make mine to your sisters and believe me

Very truly yours

Christina G. Rossetti

An answer, please.

Henry Leifchild was a sculptor who exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and was well-known to the Pre-Raphaelites. Clearly Rossetti was also on good terms with his sister, to whom the second letter is addressed. I would like to think that there are other letters out there, waiting to be found, inviting other people to the Rossetti soirée. We have no reason to suppose it did not go ahead. There is a letter to Miss Leifchild regretting her absence due to ill-health, but this does not seem to refer to the same event as it is marked ‘Tuesday’ and refers to ‘yesterday’.

The letter, of course, is addressed to Mrs (Emma) Madox Brown and refers to her step-daughter, Lucy. Lucy and Christina were Rossetti2fairly friendly at the time, although Angela Thirlwell suggests in William and Lucy: The Other Rossettis that after Lucy’s marriage to William Michael Rossetti in 1874, their relationship was more polite than friendly.

The reference to ‘canvassing letters’ is obscure. Rossetti was strongly anti-vivisectionist and also contributed to charities for children, the poor and disabled, yet there are no letters around this time which suggest she was in any way ‘canvassing’. Of course, Lucy was strongly pro-suffrage, an early feminist who signed petitions for the vote, but it is highly unlikely that Rossetti, who we know declined to sign such a petition, would have been canvassing for such a cause.

A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2013 Review of the Pre-Raphaelite Society. With many thanks to The Richard Jefferies Society.


versatilebloggernominationsI’m very pleased that Thrill Seeking Behavior has nominated me for a ‘Versatile Blogger’ award. It’s great to know that there are people out there who are reading my posts and enjoying them, just as I am reading and enjoying theirs, so thank you very much! In order to accept the award, you must:

1.Display the award logo on your blog.
2. Thank and link back to the person who nominated you.
3. State 7 things about yourself.
4. Nominate 15 other bloggers for this award.
5. Notify these bloggers of the nominations by linking back to one of their specific blog posts so they get notified back.

I think this is a great idea, since it gives me the opportunity to thank the bloggers whose writing I enjoy, and also to pass on their details to readers of this blog. So, here are my nominations; please visit these lovely blogs:

The Kissed Mouth: This is a great blog for all things Pre-Raphaelite, and I particularly enjoy the irreverent take on Victorian art and literature, such as Swinburne, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll.

Diary of a Vintage Girl: I’ve been following this blog for ages, basically because I love the 1940s clothes and hair. And also, quite often,  there’s cake as well!

Artistic Dress: This blog is based on research on the subject of aesthetic dress, and includes gems such as Floppy but Manly.

The Library Ninja: This is a new blog which promises to be very interesting, reviewing children’s and young adult books such as those by Michael Morpurgo.

Bead Flowers: I must admit, I am not a beader, but this blogger is a very good friend of mine and she writes some very interesting posts about creativity, motivation and other things besides beading.

Art and Architecture mainly: there are some fascinating posts on here on a variety of subjects including, of course, art and architecture, but also history (see this one, for example) and museums.

The Purl Bee: Probably my favourite craft blog – there are always good ideas on here. One of my favourites is these felt roses.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood: I love this. Especially Wombat Fridays.

Vagabond Baking: I am not much of a baker. But how could you not want to bake (and eat) these?!

Looking Glasses at Odd Corners: This is a research blog, and there is always something interesting to read about Amber’s research, such as her post on the idea of home and the uncanny.

Journal of Victorian Culture Online: This is cheating slightly, as I write guest posts for JVC Online. However, they have an amazing range of posts from different academics, including book, film and TV reviews, research posts and conference reports. Posts such as The Humanities, the Victorians, and Impact address important questions for university English departments and Victorian studies in particular.

Pre-Raphaelites in the City: Another great Pre-Raphaelite blog. Excellent analysis of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Winter: My Secret’.

Bookgaga: Literary blog, always introduces me to something new. Feel the book love

Ysolda: This blog is basically knitting porn. There are so many lovely ideas, patterns, and cosy chats along the way! I love these knitted cuffs.

Stuck in a Book: The title says it all. I like the idea of being stuck in a book, and there are all kinds of bookish ideas, reviews and inspirations here. Have a look at The Library at Night.

I am also supposed to post seven things about myself. You will probably have gathered many things about me from my choice of blog reading, whether rightly or wrongly, so I shall keep this brief:

I am slightly obsessive about old things. Anything pre-1950 is better than modern stuff, especially if it’s furniture.

I tend to get poetry on the brain the way normal people get music on the brain (although I do that too).william_bad_resoltion

I have a small son whom I refer to as Fatso. This isn’t unkind because he is small and doesn’t understand what I’m saying.

My favourite books are probably Richmal Crompton’s Just William series. Or Paddington. The night before my PhD viva, I read Paddington.

My phone ringtone is Transvision Vamp, Revolution Baby.

I write best when listening to opera.

I am writing this looking out of my bedroom window over fields and trees and a beautiful sunset. This makes me happy.


Victorian Other Worlds

OtherWorldsLast week I attended a conference on ‘Victorian Other Worlds’ at King’s College London (where I did my undergraduate degree). Annoyingly, I couldn’t stay all day, so was only there for the first keynote and the first panel (where I gave a paper on Christina Rossetti’s Sing-Song). The keynote lecture was on ‘Pre-Raphaelite Other Worlds’, by Dr John Holmes of the University of Reading, and I found it very thought-provoking. He began with a quotation from Ruskin’s The Art of England, which moves Pre-Raphaelitism from realism into other worlds. His premise was that realism, or ‘truth’, in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites is created in ‘other worlds’, as I will briefly explain.

John began by looking at Holman Hunt, whose travels in Palestine and related paintings seem to give him access to a specific ‘truth’: Hunt is known for being obsessed with a reality in representing nature, geology, human figures, botany, history, architectural details, etc. His serious research combined with his desire for authenticity in his work  provides his paintings with what John terms an ‘imaginative transformation’: accuracy may be at a premium, but so too is symbolism and artistic integrity. Through a trajectory of Hunt’s paintings, beginning with ‘The Scapegoat’, it was suggested that Hunt takes the viewer of his paintings into another world, one which is remote and exotic, but actually exists. However, these Eastern paintings, from ‘The Shadow of Death’ to ‘The William_Holman_Hunt_-_The_Triumph_of_the_InnocentsScapegoat’ to  ‘The Triumph of the Innocents’ (described as ‘repulsive’!) not only display truth to nature, they also show another, higher truth: Hunt’s faith means that they are also true in a Christian sense. Such paintings require a viewer’s imaginative and spiritual engagement and an understanding of typological symbolism in order to fully enter into Hunt’s ‘other world’.

Next was the ‘other world’ of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s medieval poems. John discussed ballads with the same premise, that of the wronged and fallen woman: ‘The Bride’s Prelude’, ‘Stratton Water’, ‘Sister Helen’, ‘Rose Mary’ and ‘Eden Bower’. In the first two of these, the family of the betrayed woman uses violence to re-establish the social order, and the women and their situations are carefully described with a psychological realism which acts upon thVesper_BJe reader. However, the medieval setting of the poems permits a social critique which was relevant in the nineteenth century, but, by appearing removed from its time by the historical setting, was outspoken in a way which a contemporary poem might not be. The second two poems have a similar premise, but here the supernatural is involved: in ‘Sister Helen’, for example, the destruction of the social code is represented in the violent end of an individual. Finally, in ‘Eden Bower’, the Fall in Eden is rewritten, depicting the seduction of the snake by Lilith, who takes its form and becomes responsible for the Fall. Again, the poem is in a medieval style which provides the necessary distance to place it in another world and yet also subtly critique moral codes of the nineteenth century.

Lastly, we looked at Burne-Jones’s other worlds, which in many ways appear to be purely aesthetic (for example, ‘Vesper’). These other worlds of Burne-Jones are biblical, Arthurian or mythological, yet they also represent stillness and melancholy and beauty, 52more interested in form than in action. As the wonderful cartoons by Burne-Jones (right) suggest, entering another world through painting isn’t possible; one simply ends up on the other side, disgruntled. John suggests that for Burne-Jones, then, other worlds don’t offer escape, but rather respite: a moment of calm and beauty: what he finds in his painting is what is absent in the ‘real’ world: tranquility – what Ezra Pound calls ‘The fourth: the dimension of stillness’.