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’.



Hunting the Pre-Raphaelites at Lanhydrock

NT; (c) Lanhydrock; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI am a fairly regular visitor to Lanhydrock, an impressive Jacobean house near Truro, owned by the National Trust. However, while the house is 17th century originally, much of the house was rebuilt and redesigned, with new furniture, after a serious fire in 1881. Lord Robartes instructed architects to reconstruct the house along its original lines, keeping the traditional features of the house as well as imposing a segregation by gender, age and class on its inhabitants. The architects instructed were James MacLaren and Richard Coad; the latter was a Cornishman who had worked on Lanhydrock previously, and was supervised by George Gilbert Scott. He went into partnership with his previous apprentice, MacLaren, whose work was closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement and whose work was to influence Rennie Mackintosh. There is much of Lanhydrock that manifests the influence of the pair; a Pugin wallpaper, Morris-inspired papers (and a spectacular green gilt ‘Sunflower’ paper which is modern but perfectly in keeping with Skilbeck, Clement Oswald, 1865-1954; Saint Luke Writing His Gospel at the Dictation of the Virgin Marythe tone of the house). The Smoking Room has a wonderful Arts and Crafts chimney piece, dated 1883, and other small details such as Minton tiles demonstrate the incorporation of and enthusiasm for this late-Victorian aesthetic. As the guidebook notes, much of the house’s interior was influenced by Charles Eastlake, an architect trained by Philip Hardwick and a strong advocate for Morris’s medieval style. Eastlake’s book A History of the Gothic Revival (1872) has clear implications for Lanhydrock’s furnishings, and it is fascinating to see how such manuals of style influenced the creation of rooms such as those found here.

Smoking room

The paintings found throughout the house are often family portraits, many by outstanding painters of their day, such as Gainsborough and Joseph Wright of Derby. What particularly caught my eye, though, were works which were often less prominently displayed, but which suggest to me that someone in the house, perhaps StrudwickLord Robartes or his wife, had a particular interest in the style of painting produced by the Pre-Raphaelites. On the whole the paintings don’t include the big names of the PRB; there are no Rossettis or Burne-Joneses here, but the aesthetic is unmistakeable. There are a number of works which are untitled and for whom the artist and date are unknown, which in their colour and subject matter suggest a Pre-Raphaelite influence, and others where it is clearer. The Madonna with Attendant Angels (1901) by John Melhuish Strudwick is one of the best examples of this; Strudwick had worked as an assistant to Burne-Jones and Spencer Stanhope, and the influence of this is very clear. The painting is striking if somewhat overblown, known also as Virgin and Child, with glowing gold leaf halo; it was bought for the house by Michael Trinick, the Trust’s regional director, who perhaps had himself a penchant for Pre-Raphaelitism. Another, more obscure example, is A Girl with a Violin (1884-1896) by Henry Harewood Robinson, a St Ives based artist whose other interest was music. A young woman with long red hair in a green medieval style dress contemplatively plays a violin, surrounded by lilies; though little seems to be known of the artist the clearly implies an emulation of Pre-Raphaelite subject matter and use of Lawrance, C. E.; Pancolour; the painting was given to the family by the artist’s widow. Similarly, a head of Pan (1889) by the unknown C E Lawrance recalls Simeon Solomon’s poised and beautiful heads of young men; this appears to have been in the Robartes collection.

The house has a print of Millais’s infamous Bubbles, as well as two of Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, though I don’t think either are on display, and many of the works do have a religious themes, which is unsurprising for a devout family. A painting entitled The Nativity (date unknown) is unassumingly monogrammed EP, for Evelyn Pickering, later Evelyn de Morgan, whose work, along with her husband William’s, is well-known for its Pre-Raphaelite style. This work is a beautiful, subtle monochrome work in chalk and charcoal, with the angels’ faces clearly recalling the work of Burne-Jones. Another religious painting is St Luke writing his Gospel at the Dictation of the Virgin Mary (1892by Clement Oswald Skilbeck (1865-1954), whose name I didn’t know The Nativitybut whose work again appears influenced by the PRB; he was a friend of Morris and Burne-Jones, it seems, and the jewel colours of his painting, the hyper-real style coupled with the medievalised aesthetic demonstrate their influence. This, however, is one of the paintings which was bought by the National Trust in the 1970s rather than originating with the family.

The house, and its contents, are a late Victorian gem. Though much was lost in the fire, the beautiful restoration of the house and its contents captures the late Victorian aesthetic and its preoccupation with beauty, colour, morality and faith in a remarkable way. And, although this is beyond the remit of this post, it also tells us a lot about a Victorian and Edwardian way of life, in the remarkably well preserved servants quarters, the artefacts of everyday life in an enormous house, and the effective way in which the house is set up so you might believe the family could come back at any moment.


Pre-Raphaelite Women at Wightwick Manor

20160611_153955_resizedAt the weekend we visited one of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite places: Wightwick Manor, a National Trust property on the outskirts of Wolverhampton. It’s a wonderful Arts & Crafts house begun in 1887 by local businessman Theodore Mander, founded on principals learned from the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, and particularly inspired by Oscar Wilde’s lecture ‘The House Beautiful’, which Mander attended and took notes on. Wilde’s ideas, drawn from Morris and Ruskin, centred around beauty and pleasure (and occasional utility); Wightwick embodies these in the most dramatic and appealing way possible. The Manders family went on to collect Pre-St Agnes EveRaphaelite works well into the twentieth century, now augmented and displayed by the National Trust, and the house is an absolute feast of Pre-Raphaelite and Arts & Crafts works of art, furnishings, fabrics and decoration. They also cultivated the acquaintance of several Pre-Raphaelite descendants, and had some very exciting tea parties there.

Many of the works they own aren’t on display (though I was thrilled to have a private view of 9 Elizabeth Siddall drawings), but the rich collections includes Rossettis, Millais’s, Burne-Jones and many more. What really strikes me, though, is what a fabulous collection of the work of women Pre-Raphaelites is here. All too many galleries and exhibitions have few women Pre-Raphaelites on show, but here, there are some corkers: Siddall’s St Agnes Eve (right) – one of my favourite paintings – and The Haunted Wood are here, as well as Emma Sandys’ Elaine (left), one of several works attributed to Emma Elaine_Sandysmore recently, having previously thought to be the work of her brother. Lucy Madox Brown’s The Tomb Scene from Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Act V: sc.3) is on display – probably her best work; and Evelyn de Morgan’s other-worldly The Mourners – a 1917 response to war in a very Pre-Raphaelite style – is also here. There are also two wonderful images of Christina Rossetti, both by her brother Dante Gabriel, but my favourite is the cartoon ‘Christina Georgina Rossetti in a Tantrum and destroying the Contents of a Room’; it beautifully undermines everything we expect about the apparently demure poet.

There are some wonderful works by William and Evelyn de Morgan, including some beautiful tiles, and the Trust is fundraising to be able to provide an exhibition space for the De Morgan Foundation (find out more here). There are also Kelmscott Press books and a large number of other books and works on paper. I’m excited to see that the full collections of works at Wightwick Manor can be explored online – I shall be spending some time on this! Wightwick Manor © National Trust

The immersive Pre-Raphaelite experience is what makes Wightwick unique. The information and the helpful room stewards means that one can quickly being to understand the life that the Manders family, across generations, lived here as serious art collectors, but simply to look around is to begin to see how the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic plays out: the richness of colour, texture, detail, pattern, is overwhelming, but somehow quickly settles in one’s mind as the colours and organic, natural shapes are drawn together in the décor. Many will find it too much, perhaps, but for me it is a wonderful mixture of the medieval and the late-Victorian: harmony and beauty prevail.

For those who have children with them, the dressing-up box and the nursery with games which can be played were a huge bonus; I wouldn’t have had nearly so much time to explore without those to distract my son! The beautiful Edwardian gardens would have been more of a draw if it hadn’t been raining so hard, but a quick game of hide-and-seek still took place.


Victorian Gothic at Knightshayes

P1000886On the way back from holiday, we stopped at Knightshayes, a National Trust-owned house which appeals to me in every way. It’s a wonderful example of Gothic Revival architecture,designed by William Burges. The house has a complex history of design which makes it particularly interesting: Burges was commissioned to design the house in 1869 by Sir John Heathcoat Amory, and completed the exterior by 1874. Burges, inspired by Pugin’s work and writing, and eccentric friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, was deeply immersed in the medieval aesthetic, which manifested itself in a European-influenced form of Gothic in his Burgesbuildings. (As you can see from the photographs, he was so medievalised he even had the costume). He was friends with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who wrote of him:

There’s a babyish party named Burges,

Who from infancy scarcely emerges.

If you had not been told,

He’s disgracefully old,

You would offer a bull’s eye to Burges.

P1000892All this suggests that there was something unrestrained and perhaps difficult to work with about Burges, and certainly this seems to have been the case for the Heathcoat Amory family. Though the designs he made for the interior look marvellous to me, the high Victorian Gothic interiors were too much for the more conservative family, who consequently sacked Burges and brought in John Dibblee Crace,whose family worked with royalty (and on the Houses of Parliament) and were thus considered likely to be more respectable interior decorators. They were wrong; what Heathcoat Amory wanted was a solid, respectable, traditional house to establish himself as a country gentleman, and this fashionable, colourful (the less charitable mighP1000865t say garish) form of décor didn’t suit. From 1889 onwards, the house was transformed as patterned ceilings were covered up, fireplaces and panelling removed, and so on. Luckily, nothing was thrown away, but it was mostly chucked carelessly into cellars and basements. Eventually, the process of restoration of Gothic design (re-Gothicising?) began, and late in the 20th century was completed.

The house has had an interesting history: it has remarkable 20th century gardens, as well as having housed a family descended from a factory owner (apparently an excellent employer) who, along with his descendants, shaped the area in which they lived. It also served as a military hospital in the First World War and a rest home for servicemen in the Second. But to visit it now, P1000864with its remarkable woodcarvings, its quotations from Chaucer and inscriptions of different kinds, its stylised patterns on wallpaper and furnishings, it seems to echo William Morris’s home at Red House, built in 1860 by Philip Webb but with interiors by Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which is perhaps less Gothic but equally medieval and decorative, adhering to similar principals.P1000869P1000868



The sublime Gothic landscape

IMG_1280While I tend to find a bit of Gothic in everything, sometimes it stares you in the face, and onIMG_1288 a recent visit to the landscape gardens at Stowe I felt as though I was walking back into the eighteenth century. The grounds are run by the National Trust, while Stowe School occupies the house and surrounding buildings. From the 1730s Stowe was renowned for its gardens, with visitors coming from all over the world to see them, but in the 1740s ‘Capability’ Brown, at the beginning of his career, was appointed to redesign the grounds, and though some of the original features (such as the temple) were kept, the more formal aspects of the garden vanished, with the idea of ‘landscape’ taking over.

Viscount Cobham, the man responsible for taking on the young Brown to reshape his gardens, was part of the beginning of a revolution in taste, of which Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House was a part. Instead of the formal gardens with neat flowerbeds and rows of strictly planted trees, the fashion was for something more exotic, thrilling and sublime. TheIMG_1285 sublime is key here: though Edmund Burke’s On the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) wasn’t published until a decade later, the thinking behind it was forming. Burke wrote that ‘The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature … is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.’ In a socially acceptable way, this is what such gardens did. Stowe is designed so that with every corner turned, another surprise awaits the walker; temples, grottos, statues, lakes – all is laid before us so that entertainment and amazement accompany every step. Some of the surprises come with a frisson of Gothic terror, too: imagine the grotto, for example, with its waterfall and cavernous space, in the twilight, and it is the perfect setting for Mrs IMG_1287Radcliffe’s novels.

In 1748, William Gilpin wrote an imaginary dialogue between two (classically-named!) visitors to Stowe, which emphasises just these points:

‘Polypth. Yes, indeed, I think the Ruin a great Addition to the Beauty of the Lake. There is something so vastly picturesque, and pleasing to the Imagination in such Objects, that they are a great Addition to every Landskip. And yet perhaps it would be hard to assign a reason, why we are more taken with Prospects of this ruinous kind, than with Views of Plenty and Prosperity in their greatest Perfection: Benevolence and Good-nature, methinks, are more concerned in the latter kind.

Calloph. Yes: but cannot you make a distinction between natural and moral Beauties? Our social Affections undoubtedly find their Enjoyment the most compleat when they contemplate, a Country smiling in the midst of Plenty, where Houses are well-built, Plantations regular, and every thing the most commodious and useful. But such Regularity and Exactness excites no manner of Pleasure in the Imagination, unless they are made use of to contrast with something of an opposite kind. The Fancy is struck by Nature alone; and if Art does any thing more than improve her, we think she grows IMG_1284impertinent, and wish she had left off a little sooner. Thus a regular Building perhaps gives very little pleasure; and yet a fine Rock, beautifully set off in Ciaro-obscuro, and garnished with flourishing Bushes, Ivy, and dead Branches, may afford us a great deal; and a ragged Ruin, with venerable old Oaks, and Pines nodding over it, may perhaps please the Fancy yet more than either of the other two Objects. – Yon old Hermitage, situated in the midst of this delightful Wilderness, has an exceeding good Effect: it is of the romantick Kind; and Beauties of this sort, where a probable Nature is not exceeded, are generally pleasing.’

IMG_1310The sublime is an intrinsic part of the Gothic because it provokes both pain and pleasure, as Burke wrote, and because it encourages the mind to wander in the direction of the soul, and to expand our thinking. Kant wrote that  ‘Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt’. The gardens are arranged so that it feels as though one could walk forever: every turn offers a new prospect, and the thoughts do indeed wander along different paths as you go. The Gothic revival features at Stowe in buildings including a Gothic temple, which I understand one can stay in, alongside classical temples, statues, columns and the marvellous Palladian Bridge.

So this garden, like a few others of the period, features the Gothic – a carefully cultivated wildness which appealed to the emotions – and the classical, a more ordered and symmetrical style, reminiscent of distant places and cultures. The potential clash of cultures adds to the appeal of the place, I thinIMG_1313k. Timothy Mowl points out in Gentlemen Gardeners that Brown’s work at Stowe in fact offers ‘a three-in-hand of the classical, the Gothic and the Chinese.’ There is another element, however, which really interested me: the seven statues of Anglo-Saxon deities, sculpted by Rysbrack. In a clearing, where one might usually expect to see statues of classical origin, such as Athena or Neptune, we see now-obscure English deities (from whom the days of the week are derived) who seem to assert Englishness over the classical and Gothic elements of the gardens. It’s been suggested that this was a strong Whig assertion of British nationalism at a time when this was on the rise – perhaps not only politically motivated but also part of a rise in romantic nationalism, as a nostalgia for England’s history grew – something which IMG_1281the Gothic novel often played upon. In fact the political aspects of the garden are fascinating; Viscount Cobham used the grounds as a vehicle for expressing his contempt for his political rivals.

I was overwhelmed with the beauty and the planning of the gardens: whether a visitor takes a short or a long walk, it is all laid out for convenience and enjoyment. The map alone gives an idea of the delights in store: The Temple of Ancient Virtue, The Sleeping Wood, Circle of the Dancing Faun, Congreve’s Monument, Season’s Fountain, and Captain Grenville’s Column, to mention just a few. It’s easy to see why Viscount Cobham’s gardens were so popular with his many visitors (apparently Catherine of Russia enjoyed them so much that she copied them in the grounds of Catherine’s Palace near St Petersburg).

There is a fascinating poem by Gilbert West, written in 1832, which celebrates Stowe and many of the aspects which were not disturbed by Brown. A great deal more information on Stowe can be found here, and the National Trust page for Stowe is here.


A church in the best possible taste

photo 5Croome Court is a National Trust property not far from Worcester, and one I particularly enjoy visiting because of the variety of things to see there, including the Neo-Palladian house, designed by Capability Brown and visited by several monarchs (and once occupied by Hare Krishnas, surprisingly). The grounds are beautiful and extensive (also designed by Brown) and including follies and a grotto (I do like a nice grotto, though this one lacks a hermit, sadly). The site was used as a secret airbase (RAF Defford) during the Second World War, and the buildings that remain from this period in its history are now the visitors’ centre and canteen.

What particularly caught my attention last time I visited, though, was the Church of St Mary Magdalene, no longer in use, but in a good state of repair (due to the Churches Conservation Trust, who have restored it ‘in the spirit of’ Adam’s original design) and remarkable in many ways. An earlier building on the site was knocked down to make way for this building, designed by Capability Brown and with an interior by Robert Adam. What appphoto 2eals to me is that it is a fantastic example of Gothic Revival architecture. Completed in 1763, this church represents the first wave of Gothic architecture in England, around the same time that Walpole was doing up his ‘little cottage’ at Strawberry Hill as a Gothic castle, inspired by the soaring ecclesiastical buildings of early Europe. The decor, the shapes of the windows and the church furniture, the elaborate monuments and the muted colour scheme all reek of a Gothic aesthetic. Nikolaus Pevsner, a font of all architectural knowledge fondly referred to by my father as ‘Uncle Nick’,  in Buildings of Worcestershire, says:

‘The church, as originally planned by Brown, 1758, was to be classical, with tetrastyle portico. As built it is medievalizing: one of the most serious of the early Gothic Revival outside, one of the most beautiful within. With its W[est] tower and large E[ast] window, it must have looked perfectly convincing from the house as well as the road.’

He goephoto 3s on to say that ‘Adam’s interior is pure Georgian Gothic’, though one does wonder how much he approves given that he talks about the ‘monuments choking it within’ as well as the unusually long chancel. There are, indeed, many monuments; in fact, they are the reason the chancel is long, because the family monuments from the previous, demolished church are there alongside other, more recent ones, and the effect is of a mausoleum in the best possible (if slightly cramped) taste. The monuments tend towards the sculptural, reminding visitors of the money and pomp which underpinned the building of this elegant church. It is impressive, and of its time in a historically and culturally fascinating way, but one suspects it had less to do with glorifying God than with elevating the Earls of Coventry, the residents of Croome Court, for whom, as Pevsner suggests, it was mainly an ‘eye-catcher’ for their landscape.

photo 1