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’)





A Party at Lord Leighton’s House

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection. Dining Room, Leighton House Museum. Photo credit: Todd-White Photography

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection. Dining Room, Leighton House Museum.
Photo credit: Todd-White Photography

Last week saw the opening of the exhibition ‘A Victorian Obsession’ at Leighton House Museum, and I was pleased to be at the opening event, which felt like a party at Lord Leighton’s home. I wrote about the Museum when it opened after a wonderful refurbishment in 2010, and its interiors are so spectacular that it was a pleasure to visit it again. The exhibition, previously in Paris and Rome, is made up of 52 nineteenth century paintings from the collection of Juan Antonio Perez Simon, a Mexican businessman with a spectacular collection of art as well as an impressive private library.
If you want to read my full review of it, you’ll have to wait until it appears on the Journal of Victorian Culture Online,

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection. Lord Leighton’s bedroom, Leighton House Museum. Photo credit: Todd-White Photography

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection. Lord Leighton’s bedroom, Leighton House Museum.
Photo credit: Todd-White Photography

but I wanted to give a brief preview or taster, because this is something special, and it says a lot about Victorian art, too. These paintings have travelled a long way, but they include a few that were originally painted by Leighton in the house in which they were displayed, so this exhibition feels like a homecoming. It also feels somehow right, in a wider sense: the paintings are displayed in the rooms of the house in the way in which Leighton often displayed works of art, hung around the walls in a rather informal way, without too much information and without strictly demarcated ‘themes’ for each room. The amazing, exotic and colourful house provides a fitting setting for these works, which manifest a range of Pre-Raphaelite tendencies, and include painters such as Burne-Jones, Arthur Hughes, John Melhuish Strudwick, Rossetti, Millais and Alma-Tadema.

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection.Staircase, Leighton House Museum. Photo credit: Todd-White Photography

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection.Staircase, Leighton House Museum.
Photo credit: Todd-White Photography

What really struck me as I looked round the rooms is that the overall effect of the house and the paintings in display is the lens or filter that Victorian culture provided. Few of the paintings are of contemporary Victorian subjects; rather, there are myths – Eastern, Arthurian, classical – which are refigured through the nineteenth century painters’ gaze. The preoccupation with history, with narrative, with heroes and heroines, is created here by a range of artists in a very 19th century manner: despite the apparently ‘timeless’ subject matter, you wouldn’t mistake these for anything other than Pre-Raphaelite style Victorian paintings. I’ll examine this idea further in my longer review, but it’s worth noting that there are many beautiful paintings here which I’d never seen in the flesh before, including Waterhouse’s ‘The Crystal Ball’, Emma Sandys’s ‘Reverie’, Strudwick’s ‘Elaine’, and the enormous and captivating ‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’ by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (which appeared in a room scented with Jo Malone’s scent Red Roses!)
Every exhibition, every arrangement of paintings, somehow shows us something new about the paintings themselves, and the juxtaposition of house and art here indicates almost a decadent approach to myth, and to interiors as an extension of the art – or the art as an extension of the interior.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888. Oil on canvas. The Pérez Simón Collection, Mexico. In the Upper Perrin Gallery. A part of A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection at Leighton House Museum. Photo credit: Todd-White Photography

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888. Oil on canvas. The Pérez Simón Collection, Mexico. In the Upper Perrin Gallery. A part of A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection at Leighton House Museum. Photo credit: Todd-White Photography

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection. The Silk Room, Leighton House Museum. Photo credit: Todd-White Photography

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection. The Silk Room, Leighton House Museum.
Photo credit: Todd-White Photography

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.

Christina Rossetti’s Gothic

31XvJYSEdGL__I am very excited because my monograph, Christina Rossetti’s Gothic, is published today by Bloomsbury. This book has been a long time coming: it is based on my Ph.D. research, and has been through much rewriting, rethinking and editing to get to this stage. The process of turning a thesis into a book is often a confusing one, but ultimately it has been one that I have enjoyed and learned a lot from.

The book blurb says:

The poetry of Christina Rossetti is often described as ‘gothic’ and yet this term has rarely been examined in the specific case of Rossetti’s work. Based on new readings of the full range of her writings, from ‘Goblin Market’ to the devotional poems and prose works, this book explores Rossetti’s use of Gothic forms and images to consider her as a Gothic writer. Christina Rossetti’s Gothic analyses the poet’s use of the grotesque and the spectral and the Christian roots and Pre-Raphaelite influences of Rossetti’s deployment of Gothic tropes.

Contents: Introduction \ 1. The Spectrality of Rossettian Gothic \ 2. Early Influences: Rossetti and the Gothic of Maturin \ 3. ‘Goblin Market’ and Gothic \ 4. Rossetti, Ruskin and the Moral Grotesque \ 5. Shadows of Heaven: Rossetti’s Prose Works \ Bibliography \ Index.

I have worked on Rossetti for about six years now, and have been reading her poetry for much longer. The impetus behind my research was that so much criticism of her work considers her primarily as shadowed by the Pre-Raphaelites, or as a delicate, sentimental lady-poet whose work is rather sweet instead of fierce. ‘Goblin Market’ has attracted the most attention, of course, and that is quite a fierce p95d30/huch/1282/hk0122oem, but many of her other poems are read, or misread, as sentimental, and this is not the whole picture. Rossetti was very keen on Gothic novels as an adolescent, and these influence her early work directly, when she engages with the novels of Maturin in her poems, and then takes the aesthetics and tropes of Gothic forward into her later work, combining it with her Tractarian faith to create something quite unexpected. Ultimately, I argue in my book, Rossetti sees the world itself as Gothic, and Heaven as the ideal beyond it to which we should aim.

There are many excellent books on Rossetti available, from biographies to scholarly works which engage with particular aspects of her work, and I owe an enormous debt to these writers, though they are too numerous to name.

From my work on Rossetti springs my next project, on graveyard poetry, because through my work on Rossetti’s poetry I became interested in the interactions and relations between poetry and Gothic. I don’t think I can quite bring myself to leave Rossetti behind, however.

The book is available on Amazon.

Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market ‘

Since I am currently at the marvellous Gladstone’s Library writing a chapter on Christina Rossetti’s most famous poem, ‘Goblin Market’, I thought perhaps I should write about it here. First published in 1862, it’s her most anthologised and taught poem, not to mention her most popular (the other favourites are ‘In the Bleak Midwinter‘ and ‘Remember’ – this last most often read at funerals). So for readers and critics alike, ‘Goblin Market’ has come to be seen as emblematic of Rossetti’s oeuvre. This is misleading, in  my opinion – her other poems take very different approaches, use different poetic styles, and, most importantly, focus much more on Christianity, full of biblical references. However, there are two very good reasons why ‘Goblin Market’ has become so central to Rossetti’s work.

1. It’s good. Really good; it has an irregular style which doesn’t appeal to everyone (Ruskin didn’t like it), but there are passages which follow a regular rhythm which can almost be chanted, followed by passages of irregular rhythms, cross-rhymes and para-rhymes, which give the poem an interesting texture and make it appealing to read. The poem also has a plot, unusually: it tells a story, of two girls, Laura and Lizzie, who are tempted by enchanted fruit offered to them by goblins. Laura succumbs, and wastes away, seeming likely to die; Lizzie offers herself to the goblins, and eventually both girls are saved. The threat, the fear, the fall, and the happy, moral ending, have had a strong appeal for over a century. It also lends itself to illustrations: there have been lots, from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Arthur Rackham, to Kinuko Craft in Playboy in 1973 (yes, I know). It’s also been set to music several times, and dramatised.

2. It’s open to interpretation. This is the main reason it’s so popular with critics and lecturers: you can read it in so many different ways, and use it to illustrate a huge range of points about Victorian life and literature. Although Rossetti herself said that she ‘did not mean anything profound by this fairy tale – it is not a moral apologue’, that hasn’t stopped people reading a remarkable range of theories into it, some more far-fetched than others. Some of these (frequently overlapping) theories are:

  • It’s a metaphor for anorexia
  • It depicts covert lesbianism (and incest, for that matter)
  • It’s about the economy and the marketplace in Victorian Britain
  • It represents the Anglican Eucharist
  • It’s a critique of gender relations and demonstrates the importance of sisterhood
  • It’s a proto-feminist text
  • It’s based on events which occurred after Rossetti (hypothetically) nearly ran away with a married man
  • It absolves fallen women
  • It condemns fallen women
  • It warns girls not to become fallen women
  • It critiques patriarchal ideology
  • It supports patriarchal ideology
  • It’s an analogy for the Garden of Eden
  • It was inspired by John Polidori‘s The Vampyre (he was her uncle)
  • It’s just a children’s fairytale and means nothing

You can read the poem here if you want to make up your own mind about it!

The Rossettis in Wonderland

I have just written a review of The Rossettis in Wonderland: A Victorian Family History by Dinah Roe (Haus Publishing, 2011). I won’t write too much here as I don’t want to pre-empt my review (which will appear in the Autumn issue of The Review of the Pre-Raphaelite Society) but I have thoroughly enjoyed it and thought I would mention it on my blog. I am pretty familiar with the Rossetti family, having completed my Ph.D. on Christina Rossetti’s poetry (soon to appear in book form – watch this space!) However, Roe’s book offers a different kind of biography – one which draws on a wide range of sources and thus tells even the reader familiar with the subject some new things. I don’t even know where her information about what Uncle John Polidori said in a seance came from, for example, but I’m pleased to find out! (He was ‘not exactly’ enjoying the afterlife, as I recall). There is also a wealth of contextual information, which makes the book more informative and enjoyable.

Roe writes engagingly, with an eye for the kind of details, tragic, entertaining and everyday, which make biography an enjoyable art form. For example:

‘Things at Tudor House were taking a decidedly Gothic turn. Animals in Gabriel’s menagerie were turning sinister, like something out of his sister’s Goblin Market. The raven bit the head off the barn owl; the deerhound ripped up a servant’s dog; cats ate the rabbit … When the hedgehog turned up dead, Gabriel suspected foul play by the servants.’ (p. 244)

Without jumping to conclusions, as some other biographers have done (particularly about Christina’s love life), Roe presents us with the facts, combined with contextual detail and also sympathetically drawing on the painting and writing of the Rossetti siblings, including the frequently-neglected William and Maria. If you’re interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, whatever your knowledge of them, this is the book to read.