Sunshine and music at Elgar’s Birthplace

Edward_ElgarI’ve always had a passion for the music of Edward Elgar, and living in Worcestershire where he was born there are clearly many others who share this enthusiasm. So on a sunny Saturday we decided it was time we visited the Elgar Birthplace Museum, in Broadheath not far from Worcester. In addition to the picturesque cottage where Elgar was born in 1857, there is now a visitor centre containing items belonging to Elgar, including a drum he had as a child, his violin, and several manuscripts. (An excellent audio guide accompanies this, though due to having a three-year-old with me I didn’t get to listen to all of it!)Though the Elgar family lived there for less than three years after the birth of Edward, the composer visited the village frequently, often staying on a local farm, and retained a deep affection for the place throughout his life. His family owned a music shop in Worcester, where the young Elgar learned a great deal about music, composition and playing, and became determined to follow a career in music.

It seems that Elgar felt his roots in the Worcestershire countryside were important, and elements of this are always present IMG_1761in his music, so to visit his place of birth feels significant, as if we can access a particular aspect of what made him the man – and composer – he became. When choosing a title in 1931, he chose First Baronet of Broadheath, an indication of the place’s lasting place in his mind. In a letter to a friend (quoted on the Museum’s website), he wrote:

So you have been to Broadheath. I fear you did not find the cottage – it is nearer the clump of Scotch firs – I can smell them now – in the hot sun. Oh! how cruel that I was not there – there’s nothing between that infancy & now and I want to see it.

The cottage, then, is a tranquil spot, with a beautiful cottage garden as well as the Jubilee Family Garden, where my son happily played the outdoor instruments for a while. The cottage itself is fascinating as a period piece, even aside from its illustrious IMG_1752connections; quite small, perhaps, for a growing family, but a perfect example of its time and filled with objects which both make it feel like a family home – some furniture, for example, including curtains which once hung in other houses Elgar lived in – and also a piano from the Elgar music shop, as well as Elgar’s HMV gramophone. I was interested to see the range of hobbies Elgar pursued as a man – as well as being an avid reader, he played golf, cycled, did woodwork, and pursued chemistry; his friend W H Reed said that Elgar used to ‘ease the burden of his destiny as a composer by pretending to be a chemist’!

I also found a Pre-Raphaelite connection which intrigued me: Elgar’s friend (to whom the letter quoted above was written), Alice, Lady Stuart of Wortley, was the daughter of Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. Alice was a close friend of the composer and influenced and inspired his compositions, particularly the 1910 violin concerto, ‘Windflower’. In the house hangs an engraving of Millais’s portrait of John Henry IMG_1750Newman, whose poem ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ was orchestrated by Elgar; the engraving was given to Elgar by Alice.

I’m always drawn to places where people whose work I love were born, or lived; this is no exception. Though many of the rooms of the cottage contain exhibition items rather than furniture, somehow there is still a lovely sense of it as a home, and from all the windows the views remind me of the beauty of the county. There is a room guide with information about each room and its exhibits on the website if you’re interested, and I recommend the Museum for a visit!

Listen to ‘Pomp and Circumstance March No 1’ here: 

or better still, the Cello Concerto in E Minor Op 85: 



RubyOn holiday this year I visited the lovely Penlee House Gallery, hoping to see one of their (relatively) recent acquisitions: Ruby, by Thomas Cooper Gotch. Sadly it wasn’t on display, but I did buy a lovely postcard of it, and hope to see it next time I’m there. The gallery bought it with help from the Art Fund back in 2012. They already (I believe) have Gotch’s Girl in a Cornish Garden, a painting which cements his Newlyn School credentials as an artist, but Gotch changed his ideas and style of painting after some travelling: though he was instrumental in the founding of the Newlyn Gallery and very much a ‘plein air’ painter in the Newlyn style, he later became influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and began to paint in the rich colours and crisp lines of the PRB.

Ruby (c. 1909) is unusual in many ways. Gotch’s paintings tend to include a lot of children (such as the celestial Alleluia, in Tate Britain) and he paints them in jewel-like colours which make give the viewer the uncanny feeling that a child is standing in front of them. But Ruby (based on a local Cornish girl) is more than that: she is red-haired, like other Pre-Raphaelite women, and she is also scarlet-cheeked and clad in a crimson cloak – the painting, against a dull grey background, flames out like a beacon. As a redhead myself, I knowThomas_Cooper_Gotch_-_Alleluia_1896 there are assumptions that redheads shouldn’t wear red, but this little girl is deliberately defying it: she looks as though she has just been running through fields, with her tangled curls and bright face. In fact, Gotch painted Ruby Bone (who was about two) in response to a bet that he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – paint a red-head in red clothes (the Art Fund give more information on this here).

Although Gotch is not a particularly prominent painter, his work is easily recognisable. From the glorious, celestial, if somewhat uncanny children (most famously, The Child Enthroned) to his more Gothic imaginings (such as Death the Bride), his work demonstrates how different schools of art may collide and produce something entirely unexpected and often quite thrilling.



Not writing about Shakespeare

imageI have realised that I avoid Shakespeare. I read his plays, and watch them when I get the chance, and I’m not disputing his significance, but I feel somehow that I haven’t anything to say about his work, so I don’t tend to write about or teach him (apart from a few sonnets). This year marks 450 years since his birth, though, and I am reading a lot about him in the press and on the internet (and am looking forward to reading 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare after reading about it in the TLS). All this is making me ponder why I avoid him when I don’t subscribe to the old chestnut that ‘everything has been said’ about his work; after all, every reader and every theatregoer experiences a different Shakespeare, and every age reinvents him for their own ends, social, political and artistic. Anyway, it’s impossible to avoid Shakespeare; even if you’ve never read a word of his, our language is so saturated with expressions of his devising that he is inescapable (see here for a list!) It is Shakespeare’s language – resonant, evocative, witty, dramatic – for which he is so widely loved; his plots tend to come from other sources (I spent hours with Geoffrey of Monmouth reading up on the original ‘King Leir’ while I was doing my A-imagelevels), and the outline of the narrative would thus often have been familiar to theatre-goers of the time. Shakespeare’s genius, then, is to use language to construct characters and situations which have us by the throat even when we know what happens. I’ve seen numerous productions of King Lear, yet every time I am on the edge of my seat, illogically hoping that Cordelia will not die.

And there is still fresh research. The TLS has recently reviewed William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays, ed. Bate and Rasmussen, which offers new ways of looking at plays that Shakespeare might have had something to do with, but which imagecannot be wholly attributed to him. We still don’t know everything about the man and his work, nor will we ever, but that is no reason to stop trying.

Another fruitful and fascinating aspect of Shakespeare studies is the reception studies approach. How did the Victorians read Shakespeare, for example? They saw some of his work as unsuitable for family reading, so an expurgated version was produced by Thomas Bowdler (hence the word ‘bowdlerised’). We know they responded to his plays and characters creatively, in poems and paintings, for example, such as Tennyson’s poem ‘Mariana‘ (based on Measure for Measure), and the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the same subject, particularly by Millais (this is probably my favourite Pre-Raphaelite painting).

Tennyson takes the abandoned Mariana of Shakespeare’s play and rewrites her as a melancholy Englishwoman longing for her lover to return. I sometimes teach this poem as a way of looking at the trapped position of many women of the period, condemned to a monotonous, wistful existence in which life seems to happen away from them. The poem also aestheticises women’s sadness, making it a beautiful spectacle, and this is also what Millais’s painting does – but it does more than that: Millais’s Mariana is not just a spectacle of beautiful sadness, she is also a real woman, who stretches languorously as she stands up from her sewing. This was considered shocking by many of Millais’s contemporaries, who saw a sexual resonance in imageMariana’s pose.
These are small examples of how Shakespeare has been reinvented. And we continue to do this. I’ve seen some wonderful modern productions of Shakespeare’s plays; I don’t really like ones that attempt to change Shakespeare’s language, because I can’t really see the point of this, but the wonderful adaptability and ‘relevance’ (horrible word) of his work is all the more apparent in productions such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet
(which I saw at 19 and loved), and the 1993 Royal Court Theatre’s production of King Lear set before and during the Great War (contrasting the power of the old with the gullibility or manipulation of the young). Read Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty First Century for more on this! I’m not an expert on how we reinvent Shakespeare, or even why, but am intrigued by how any one writer can have had such a far reaching influence. That is certainly something we should be celebrating, this and every year, and means that no-one with an interest in literature, popular culture, art, history or even social studies can afford to ignore him.

Janey Morris: Pre-Raphaelite Muse

20140411-105236 pm.jpg

2014 marks the centenary of Jane Morris’s death, and to mark this the National Portrait Gallery have a small exhibition devoted to images of Janey. This includes photographs and paintings of her friends and family, including a marvellous, though unsmiling, photographic portrait of the Morris and Burne-Jones families which gives a real sense of how closely the families were entwined (and explains why the children were described as ‘medieval brutes’). The images of May and Jenny, the Morris children, are appealing but they are in many ways only a shadow of their more dramatic mother: the star images here are the late photographs of Jane by Emery Walker.

These are a series taken in 1898 at Kelmscott. Georgiana Burne- Jones described Jane at this stage as ‘still a splendid looking creature’, and so she is – serious, dramatic, melancholy, she is pictured here in profile (still that strong line of her earlier image) and straight on, facing down the camera with a challenging stare. In one, she gazes slightly past the camera, as if she has lost interest and is thinking about something more important – what to have for dinner, perhaps…
I’m slightly dubious about the decision to use the affectionate diminutive Janey in the title of the exhibit – though Morris and others called her this, it seems a little patronising (and not something we do for all historical figures). Although small, though, this exhibition is worth a look: I can’t say it added to my knowledge of Jane Morris, but I left feeling as though I had encountered the woman herself and seen something mysterious in her eyes.

20140411-110157 pm.jpg20140411-110204 pm.jpg

You can read more about Jane Morris at the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood site.

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.

Celebrating 25 years of the Pre-Raphaelite Society

OpheliaThe Pre-Raphaelites are everywhere at the moment – on hoardings, on TV, in books and magazines, it seems as though we have revived our love affair with the decadent colours and lush imagery of the Victorian painters – and even those who hate them (and there are plenty who do) still seem to find them interesting. If you are a fan, you may be a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Society, which is celebrating 25 years of existence this year. The Society aims to promote the study of and interest in Pre-Raphaelitism, and is an international society with members all over the world. It’s open to everyone – there are members who are just interested, to serious collectors and academics, so the aim is to cater for everyone. The society holds a series of lectures in Birmingham (details of which are here) as well as trips to places or exhibitions of Pre-Raphaelite interest.

In 25 years, the society has changed a great deal in some ways – such as the style and content of the journal, the Review – and not at all in others. The ‘mission statement’ of the society is its guiding principal:

The Pre-Raphaelite Society is dedicated to the celebration of the mood and style of art which Ruskin recognised and preserved by his writings, and to the observation of its wide-ranging influence. In co-operation with societies of similar aims world-wide, it seeks to commemorate Pre-Raphaelite ideals by means of meetings, conferences, discussions, publications and correspondence, and to draw attention to significant scholastic work in this field. First and foremost, however, it is a society in which individuals can come together to enjoy the images and explore the personalities of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers through the medium of fine art, the appreciation of good design and the excellence of the traditional arts.

I joined the society in 1998, as a postgraduate student writing on The Germ, the Pre-Raphaelite magazine, and in 2004 I took over as rossetti_2327293beditor of The Review, which I (mostly) very much enjoy. I find it fascinating to see ways in which modern scholars are reinterpreting works which were out of favour for much of the twentieth century, and, from the rehabilitation of Millais’s reputation to the growth of interest in women Pre-Raphaelite artists, the landscape has changed considerably since the society’s founding.

We are celebrating the founding of the society, and indeed the founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, on Sunday 8th September with #PRBDay on Twitter. Please come and vote for your favourite Pre-Raph painting, by tweeting it to us @PreRaphSoc. I will be counting votes and posting Pre-Raph quotes and links all day, and look forward to meeting some of you virtually then. Last year’s winner was Millais’s Ophelia (top image), and I’m looking forward to finding out which painting will win this year.

lorenzoIf you are not a member of the society but are interested in Pre-Raphaelite art, please do think about joining us. You can join online here, and membership is a very reasonable £14, or £10 concessions. Benefits of membership include:

  • Receipt of The Review the Society’s principal publication, published three times a year and dated Spring, Summer and Autumn. The Review contains articles, book reviews, illustrations and “Notes and Queries”, and offers the opportunity for all members who are interested in research and writing to contribute in a very satisfying way to the Society’s life.
  • Receipt of PRS US: The Pre-Raphaelite Society Newsletter of the United States. Published three times a year, this illustrated bulletin of American news and activities includes such features as “Pre-Raphaelites Online”, “Events” and “The American Collections”, in addition to short historical articles.
  • Receipt of notices of all meetings and visits; and also, of occasional newsletters.
  • Free admission to the Annual General Meeting, which is held in Birmingham on a Saturday morning in late October and which includes a lecture following the business session.
  • The opportunity, for modest charges, to attend other lectures and to join coach trips to galleries, museums and places of interest around the country. (Members can, of course, make their own travel arrangements and meet coach parties at particular destinations.)

Also, we are very nice, friendly people who look forward to welcoming you to the Pre-Raphaelite Society!