Exhibition Review: Enchanted Dreams

1915 P100The new exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, ‘Enchanted Dreams: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of E. R. Hughes’ is the first ever exhibition entirely focused on Hughes’s work. Though some of his paintings, especially ‘Night with her Train of Stars’ (1912), are reasonably well-known, his work tends to be overlooked. BMAG own quite a few, but many more have been assembled here from far and wide, and the exhibition draws out aspects of his work which are not always obvious from the few one usually sees. Not to be confused with Arthur Hughes (his uncle), Edward Robert Hughes was also associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, having been brought up among his uncle’s Pre-Raphaelite friends, and these associations have clear implications for his work which are evident in the exhibition. There is a good effort at providing some of this Pre-Raphaelite context in some of the other works included in the exhibition, by Arthur Hughes (‘The Long Engagement’) and Simeon Solomon (‘Bacchus’), for example. Hughes is perhaps most famous for his ‘tCanzianiwilight’ paintings, of which more later, but his earliest known work, ‘Evensong’, already indicates his interest in the effect of twinkling lights in painting, and the shadows cast by light. Though this domestic scene is perhaps a little sentimental, even immature, it is still beautiful, and shows the promise of his work.

Hughes’s early career as a portrait painter is explored, demonstrating how his works are considerably more than pot-boilers: the double portraits of the Gray Hills, for example, are rich in every sense, depicting a well-fed, middle-aged wealthy couple, and yet in their debts to earlier styles of work, the richness of colour used and the evident complexity of the relationship between the couple, the painter and the viewer, these suggest a psychological intensity which a jobbing painter doesn’t usually manage. Similarly, those of children, such as ‘Dolly Francis’, are unsentimentalised, managing to both respect the conventions of Victorian portraiture of children whilst permitting the child her individuality, staring unsmiling at the viewer. Hughes’s influence on Estella Canziani is mentioned, with the portrait of a woman in mourning costume (right) on display: her portraits of figures in folk dress made on her European travels are a fascinating example of the art of an intrepid woman of the period.

Hughes_OhWhatsThatintheHollow_highresHughes’s engagement with literature also interests me. ‘Study for a Picture: Fra Lippo Lippi’ is a wonderful, red chalk portrait with a remarkable life to it, inspired by Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’. The realistic style advocated in the poem is echoed in the portrait, and the idiosyncratic and dramatic character of Browning’s monk shines through the eyes of Hughes’s work. Similarly, ‘Oh What’s that in the Hollow’ (left) is based on Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Amor Mundi’, reminding the reader/viewer of the transience of life, and that to neglect the spiritual aspects of life is to risk eternal damnation. The painting is peculiarly macabre, the figure clearly corpse-like, and overgrown with brambles and briar roses, indicating the continuation of the world in the face of human mortality.

“Oh what is that glides quickly where velvet flowers grow thickly,
   Their scent comes rich and sickly?”—“A scaled and hooded worm.”
“Oh what’s that in the hollow, so pale I quake to follow?”
   “Oh that’s a thin dead body which waits the eternal term.”ERHughes_MidsummersEve_lores

For many the highlight of the exhibition will be the ‘Blue Room’ of late watercolours, containing not only ‘Night with her Train of Stars’ but also ‘Midsummer’s Eve’ (right). Here, the majority of the paintings are in beautiful blue tones, with Hughes’s signature spots of light giving a dreamy, twilight feel to the whole room. Mostly painted in the early days of the twentieth century, the aesthetic approach of the paintings suggests, nostalgically, a  lost innocence in the years before the First World War. Though a few are ‘fairy pictures’, the exhibition as a whole indicates that Hughes is much more than a painter of sentimental fairies; his technical and emotional as well as aesthetic accomplishment is manifest in this exhibition which, finally, does him credit as an artist.

Incidentally, I attended the exhibition this week with a large number of students (I’ll blog about this another time!) who were equally drawn to Hughes’s work, in very different ways; they are writing creative responses to some of the paintings, which I’ll share on here in a few weeks’ time. There is also a fun ‘Fairy Glen’ for children visiting the exhibition!

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Exhibition Review: Swinburne at Balliol

Algernon Charles Swinbourne (1837-1909)At the weekend we visited a little exhibition at the Balliol College Historical Collections Centre, on Algernon Charles Swinburne, his time at Balliol and his life and work. It was only on for two days, but if you missed it you might like to get hold of a catalogue, which is very informative. If you don’t know much about Swinburne, or even if you do, it’s a great opportunity to find out more and see some wonderful documentation about his life. A poet and associate of the Pre-Raphaelites, I imagine he would be extremely shocked to find that he is now considered ‘one of Balliol’s most distinguished former students’; precocious and talented, the examinations register notes him as ‘Industrious but eccentric’ (which is definitely better than some of his peers, who bask in the glory of ‘Respectable but indolent’, ‘Weak, but satisfactory’ (really?!), and ‘Still very unsatisfactory’). I’m often struck by how many ‘great Victorians’ had rather uninteresting University careers, but Swinburne won prizes , founded ‘The Old Mortality Club’, and wrote many essays as well as beginning to write poetry. However, as he became increasingly interested in politics – he was later infamous for his republican and atheist views – his studies faltered, and eventually he went downfine_swinburne without taking his degree.

His associations with the Pre-Raphaelites included his close friendship with the painter William Bell Scott, who painted the portrait above, as well as William Morris, whom he met through mutual friends at Oxford, and later Burne-Jones and Rossetti. The exhibition explores these connections through manuscripts of poems (including one ‘To William Bell Scott’), and a copy of the wonderful Kelmscott Press edition of one of Swinburne’s most famous poems, ‘Atalanta in Calydon’, of which this exhibition marks the 150th anniversary. There are also copies of his collection A Century of Roundels with the roundels on the cover designed by Rossetti.

Swinburne-apeSwinburne remained attached to his tutor, Benjamin Jowett, reading over his work in draft form and eventually writing a fond essay in memorial of his tutor after Jowett’s death. Swinburne had holidayed with Jowett, and there are some fascinating letters (in illegible handwriting!) from Jowett to Florence Nightingale expressing concern about the quantities Swinburne was drinking. The exhibition makes a good case for the poet’s ongoing fondness for Oxford and Balliol despite the unsatisfactory conclusion of his degree, as well as indicating Swinburne’s poetic appropriations of the classical myths and forms he learned from Jowett. Swinburne became a highly successful poet, but he was seen as decadent (though, as the catalogue says, he perhaps write about ‘vice’ more than he practised it) and John Ruskin described ‘Atalanta at Calydon’ as ‘the grandest thing ever yet done by a youth – though he is a Demoniac youth’. His preoccupation with republicanism and the non-existence of God made him also a figure of suspicion, along with hints of other things even less acceptable to Victorian society, such as sex and flagellation (neither of which get much of a mention in the Balliol exhibition, for which I am thankful, as there is more than enough modern salaciousness about these aspects of his life). These nonconforming views were most apparent in his 1866 collection Poems and Ballads, dedicated to Burne-Jones, and the manuscripts of some of the poems which were on display were a delight.roundels

The Balliol collection leaves no doubt, then, that he was a genius, if an eccentric one. His ideas did not conform to their time, but his work still reads as radical, as well as beautiful, today. The final case shows some modern editions of Swinburne’s work, indicating an ongoing popularity not only with readers but with illustrators; these more recent works are works of art in themselves and a fitting legacy. The exhibition indicates Swinburne’s importance as a Victorian poet and his connectedness to Victorian public and literary life, as well as suggesting, rightly, how formative the Balliol years had been for him. The collection held by the College is remarkable and forms a wonderful resource for those working on Swinburne or certain aspects of Victorian poetry, and it was marvellous to have the opportunity to see so much of it on display. I’m shortly going to be reviewing the new Selected Swinburne edited by Alex Wong, and I will do so with a renewed enthusiasm for the poetry.

Before the beginning of years
There came to the making of man
Time with a gift of tears,
Grief with a glass that ran,
Pleasure with pain for leaven,
Summer with flowers that fell,
Remembrance fallen from heaven,
And Madness risen from hell,
Strength without hands to smite,
Love that endures for a breath;
Night, the shadow of light,
And Life, the shadow of death.

(From ‘Atalanta in Calydon’)

 

 

 

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

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The mysterious Emma Sandys

20140706-093540-pm-77740670.jpgWhile preparing for a recent lecture, I spent some time investigating Emma Sandys, the sister of the more famous Frederick. This is because one of her paintings, Lady holding a Rose, hangs on the wall at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, though it does not appear in their online catalogue and there is virtually no information about it. But I wanted to talk about it because I wanted to make sure that a woman was represented in my narrative, and not just as a model or ‘muse’. Consequently, I decided to explore a bit more widely, but discovered that the usual sources of information on Pre-Raphaelite women (Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn’s books – though I gather that more recent editions than mine contain more) barely mention Emma Sandys. In fact, there is hardly anything written about her at all – though she does have a very basic Wikipedia entry which tells me her dates (1843-1877), that she painted portraits, often in a medieval style, and may have shared a studio with the debauched Frederick.

Not a great deal to go on, then. I feel a research project coming on. It transpires that many of her paintings have only recently been attributed to her: they were previously considered to have been the work of her brother, and recent research (which I haven’t been able to find out much about) has led to a number of paintings (several of them owned by the National Trust) finally being acknowledged as the work of Emma rather than Frederick. This is a common problem in art hisElainetory, of course – that the default is that paintings were probably by men, though the last thirty years have seen considerable redressing of the balance.

Emma Sandys’ paintings are fascinating: her medievalism clearly owes a great deal to Pre-Raphaelitism, and she is keen on picturing women in a reverie, gazing wistfully out of the frame and away from the viewer. She captures women who are enclosed in their own worlds, and I rather like this. Her medieval aesthetic extends to several Arthurian-based paintings (as does her brother’s), including ‘Elaine’, owned by the National Trust. Elaine was the Maid of Astolat, who fell in love with Lancelot du Lac in the myths of Arthur. Her love was doomed to be unrequited, and Emma Sandys’ painting shows her dressed richly, gazing longingly and sadly as she waits for a love that will never be hers. Similar in concept is ‘Enid’, of which I haven’t been able to track down an image. Enid was the wife of Geraint, a knight of the court of King Arthur, whose relationship with her husband sours after a misunderstanding, and who is put to the test and proves her love and loyalty after many trials. These patient, enduring women Emma Sandysseem closely related to the unnamed ‘Lady holding a Rose’ at BMAG, and my (wild, but harmless) speculation is that this woman might be Guinevere herself, with Camelot in the background, pondering her difficult situation as she is torn between her love for her husband Arthur (represented by the honeysuckle, meaning loyalty in the Victorian language of flowers) and Lancelot, indicated by the roses, which stand for passion.

We know so little of Emma Sandys’ life that we have little more than speculation to go on, but I hope to find out more. If you have any suggestions, please get in touch!

 

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.

Contents:
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.

Pre-Raphaelite Talk in Birmingham

imageOn Saturday June 21st I will be giving a free lecture at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, on the Pre-Raphaelite collections. The talk is entitled ‘Pre-Raphaelitism and Poetry: Looking Back in Time’, and will last about half an hour. Birmingham has a wonderful collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, so do come along at 2.30 and join me.

We will explore how the Pre-Raphaelites engaged with literature and literary history to create a medieval aesthetic which fitted in with their artistic and literary ethos. We will look particularly at reworkings of Dante, and the PRB’s interest in Arthurian literature, focusing on the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alexander Munro and Ford Madox Brown, among others.

imageLiterature, especially poetry, was very important to the Pre-Raphaelites, who drew up a list of ‘Immortals’, which included many poets. Rossetti considered himself a poet first and a painter second at some stages of his life, though this is not how posterity remembers him. Inspired by the past, especially the Italian poet Dante, with whom the Rossetti family were fascinated, there are many artistic reworkings of earlier poets. Equally, the Pre-Raphaelite preoccupation with medievalism, which is especially clear in the work of William Morris, led to an interest in Arthurian literature (a wider Victorian interest, thinking of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King). These ideas and more will be explored in my talk.

This is one of several lectures organised by Dr Clara Dawson, Department of English, University of Birmingham. There is more information on the BMAG website here.