Victorian Masquerade

NPG D8157; Queen Victoria possibly by and possibly after Louis HagheA very small exhibition, ‘Victorian Masquerade’,  in the National Portrait Gallery explores the Victorian middle- and upper-class interest in fancy dress. Dressing up was popular for balls and parties among the well-to-do, particularly on a historical theme (thus perhaps offering people the chance to show off their knowledge as well as their wealth), and, as this exhibition shows, alongside this interest in  masquerades grew the concept of the ‘fancy portrait’, paintings or photographs which show the sitter in costume, perhaps with suitable props and against an appropriate backdrop. After all, if you’re going to go to all that trouble, one might as well record it for posterity. For example, the image on the left, from the NPG collection, shows Queen Victoria (yes, it really is) in the 1840s, in the dress of the eighteenth-century French court.NPG P79; Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt by David Wilkie Wynfield

The display discusses the case of Victoria and Albert first, looking at the way they used fancy dress to ‘adopt an alternative persona’ and ‘experiment with their royal identity’ when dressed as Queen Philippa of Hainault and Edward III. (I love that these costumes were modelled on tomb effigies, but include a nod to Victorian corsetry!) The medievalism so beloved of the Victorians is here, as well as the sense of continuity in the royal line. It all makes sense and is, if a little staid, quite appealing. The craziness comes later: I really want to understand and appreciate, seriously, the portraits by David NPG x131224; Walter Crane as Cimabue by Sir Emery WalkerWilkie Wynfield of John Everett Millais as Dante, and Holman Hunt in medieval dress, likewise Emery Walker’s photograph of Walter Crane as Cimabue. These medieval, idealised, literary characters are bound to appeal to such eminent Victorians, and yet I find it hard to take them seriously, all the more because the expressions on their faces suggest that they take it very seriously indeed. And in my mind, fancy dress is not something to be done with a straight face, but perhaps it was different then.


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’.

Edward Robert Hughes

220px-Edward_Robert_Hughes_-_Midsummer_Eve_(1908c)Edward Robert Hughes (1851 – 1914) is one of the painters whose works are more familiar than his name. Paintings such as Midsummer’s Eve, a chocolate box painting which no doubt adorns many souvenirs, and the beautiful Night with her Train of Stars, are familiar when Hughes’s name isn’t. He was, in fact, the nephew of Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes, and devoted his life to the art of the PRB. This and much more I learned from a fascinating lecture on E.R. Hughes by Victoria Osborne for the Pre-Raphaelite Society, based on the research she is doing for Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery’s exhibition on Hughes which is scheduled for Autumn 2014, the year of Hughes’s centenary. The lecture was entitled ‘One of the very last votaries of the Pre‑Raphaelite Brotherhood: E.R. Hughes and the Death of Pre‑Raphaelitism’, and examined how the influence of the PRB shaped the life and artistic vision of Hughes. On his death, critics seemed prepared to declare the Pre-Raphaelitism died with him, with a sub-text of ‘about time, too’, as though the Brotherhood’s ideals had outlasted their usefulness. Victoria suggested that Hughes might be seen as an early European Symbolist as well as a belated Pre-Raphaelite, though, which raises some interesting questions. The overall view, however, seems to be that Hughes might have been a better painter without his devotion to the PRB, whichnight with her train of stars was strengthened by his time spent as Holman Hunt’s studio assistant at a time when the venerable painter was nearly blind. The idea that Pre-Raphaelitism could just die out, and be worthless, is perhaps due to the date of Hughes’s death. In 1914, the world was rapidly changing: not only was war imminent, but this was the period of fierce Modernism, of Wyndham Lewis’s Blast! and Pound’s ‘Make it new’. Narrative, literary, finely detailed images such as Hughes produced were bound to seem old-fashioned, one might argue, and yet in some there is a more modern approach to form and colour than one might expect.

One of my favourite, though macabre, paintings by Hughes is (of course) inspired by one of Christina Rossetti’s poems, ‘Amor hughes_e6Mundi’ (‘Love of the World’). The painting is an unusual subject for Hughes, though the roses have been linked to Burne-Jones’s ‘Briar Rose’ series, while the form of the painting, critics think, echoes Millais’s Ophelia. The painting takes the lines ‘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’ as its title. There is something quite disturbing about the emaciated face with its blank eyes, but it is, in its way, a Gothic memento mori just as Rossetti’s poems are, aestheticising beautiful death whilst simultaneously providing a warning. It is this combination of beauty, style and form, colour, the Gothic and the religious, as well as the literary and the highly aestheticised, that seems to me the apotheosis of Hughes’s Pre-Raphaelitism.

Victoria’s MPhil thesis is on E.R. Hughes, and is well worth a read: it’s available online here.

Ruskin and Pre-Raphaelitism

The Pre-Raphaelite Society AGM this year was followed by the Founder’s Day lecture, given by Professor Robert Hewison, writer, academic, critic and Ruskin expert. Like Ruskin, Professor Hewison has held the post of Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, and his lecture for the Pre-Raphaelite Society was on ‘A New and Noble School in England’: Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites. Of course, Ruskin’s support for the PRB is well-known, but, as the lecture explained, it was not as straightforward an affair as one might imagine. Hewison emphasised that Ruskin was not involved in the inception of the Brotherhood, nor directly responsible for inspiring them, though his books did prove significant, particularly for Holman Hunt, and Ruskin’s description of the typological symbolism of Tintoretto in Modern Painters may have been especially important. Given Ruskin’s passion for the work of Turner, the very different oeuvre of the PRB may seem an unlikely style to have touched him so strongly. Yet Turner did not welcome Ruskin’s promotion and interpretation of his work: with both the PRB and the Gothic Revival, however, Ruskin was able, as an established critic, to intervene, promote the work he saw as worthwhile, and steer them in a more Protestant direction. Moreover, he was not only in a position to help the PRB at a turning-point in the Brotherhood’s work, but also offered financial patronage; Hewison suggests that what Ruskin gained from this was not only the altruistic ends of helping the Brotherhood, but, for himself, companionship.

Ruskin’s 1851 pamphlet in support of Pre-Raphaelitism relates as much to the work of Turner as to that of the PRB, yet it draws a number of parallels. Hewison suggests that the PRB’s adherence to ‘facts’ – or ‘truth to nature’ – was particularly significant in the Brotherhood’s appeal for Ruskin; for example, though he may have deplored the evident Catholicism of Collinson’s painting ‘Convent Thoughts (above left), he also admired the botanical accuracy of the garden. What particularly struck me about Hewison’s lecture, however, was the parallels he drew between Turner and the PRB, especially Millais. While Turner’s paintings seem revolutionary and modern, representing nature in a way far distant from the PRB’s paintings, what the PRB did was also revolutionary (or ‘avant-garde’, as the Tate exhibition suggests): they depict not only the natural world in realistic style, but approach the modern world and its issues in a way at once relevant to the period and also eternal, unconfined by rules, time or society. What the PRB did, as Hewison demonstrated in a close reading of Hunt’s ‘The Awakening Conscience’, was not only to reproduce faithfully the world as they saw it, but to use a symbolic realism: a realism which relates to another world of ideas, embuing the world of nature and of Victorian society with an emotional dimension. It is this approach, combining a depiction of the natural world with a symbolic, emotional language, ‘reflecting a new, materialistic world view’, that offers the link between the PRB and Turner which Ruskin saw. Naturalism, such as can be seen in Brett and Inchbold, is therefore never enough, and Turner remained a ‘touchstone’ for the PRB and for Ruskin.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde

The long-awaited Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Tate Britain has been open nearly a week, and it’s very busy. People are clearly flocking to see it, and the newspapers and the internet are buzzing with views, reviews and comments. Turns out quite a lot of people don’t much like the Pre-Raphaelites, but I don’t suppose that will affect the numbers of visitors to this blockbuster show. And some of the negative reviews have been a delight: Waldemar Januszczak in the Sunday Times calls the PRB ‘demented wife-swappers’ (ok, fair enough) who are ‘bonkers’ (yes, at least some of them) whose paintings centre on ‘ridiculous plot lines’ (true, but then that’s mostly to do with their literary roots, and applies to most Victorians anyway). Obviously, I am interested in/really like the Pre-Raphaelites, so I don’t need convincing of their artistic merit. From that point of view, this exhibition can’t fail, for me and so many of my friends and colleagues, because it is simply the biggest Pre-Raphaelite exhibition we’ve ever been to (I think I did go to the 1984 one, but was too young to remember it). For anyone with an interest in Pre-Raphaelitism, this exhibition is as unmissable as you would expect it to be – it contains many (although not all) of the major works of Pre-Raphaelite art; and a huge range of paintings and drawings are included, alongside sculpture, photography and furniture. This exhibition specifically set out to be inclusive in the way that earlier exhibitions were not, covering a range of media as well as drawing on more women artists, for example, and overall in this it is fairly successful.

Like some other reviewers, I do have a few issues with the arrangement of the exhibition. Little is made of the ‘avant-garde’ label: although the introductory blurb says that the PRB were ‘both historical and contemporary in their approach’, it fails to elaborate on how their work was ‘essentially modern’, and I remain unconvinced (although it looks like the catalogue provides more detail). There is very little background on the Brotherhood, although there are some portraits in the first room, and little on how they came together or what they believed. The biggest issue for me, though, is the thematic arrangement of the works: the themes (Origins, History, Nature, Salvation, Beauty, Paradise and Mythologies) seem to fit so many Pre-Raphaelite paintings that they become almost meaningless. It’s difficult to tell why Holman Hunt’s portrait of patron Thomas Fairbairn appears in ‘Salvation’, for example, or why Millais’s beautiful ‘Chill October’ is in ‘Mythologies’ along with Burne-Jones’s Perseus cycle. Despite these anomalies, though, the extent of the exhibition is vast, and the delight of room after room of beautiful colours and lively images is hardly dimmed by this arrangement. It may, however, prove off-putting to those less familiar with the development of Pre-Raphaelitism, and, dull though it may seem, personally I would probably have preferred a chronological, cumulative developmental arrangement.

There are so many highlights, and so many beautiful paintings, rarely-seen gems and old favourites that it is difficult to give more than a very brief overview. Millais’s ‘Mariana’ (right; which I chose as my favourite painting for #PRBDay) is always a delight – the glowing colours, the medievalism combined with the realism – it is Tennyson’s poem come to life, for me, and I love it. Rossetti’s ‘The Blue Bower’ (above left) seems emblematic of High Pre-Raphaelitism: the woman (Fanny Cornforth – the Elephant, and she is surprisingly large!), the colours, the style, the blue and white background – this is Rossetti at his most sensual, florid, and irresistible, almost verging on the hallucinatory. It is marvellous to see pieces I hadn’t seen before, or for a while: I loved Alexander Munro’s Dante-inspired sculptures, and Deverell’s ‘Twelfth Night’; and Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry’ (left) is an old favourite, with its medieval, structured outline and depiction of the literary figures important to the Brotherhood. The exhibition certainly demonstrates the extent of the PRB’s engagement with literature: Dante, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, as well as a range of other myths.

I also particularly enjoyed seeing some of Elizabeth Siddal’s paintings, set alongside Rossetti’s medieval series. Though this juxtaposition makes it clear that Siddal’s art is both more naive than Rossetti’s, and also clearly modelled upon his work, nonetheless I think Siddal comes out of it well: her work does bear scrutiny and demonstrably deserves more attention than it usually receives (though I am not sure that I agree with the gallery label that says that her ‘work pushed the boundaries of PRB practice’ – how?) For those legions of Siddal fans, this alone will provide a real delight.

The last two rooms provide particular joys: ‘Paradise’ is full of Morris’s designs – stained glass, wardrobes, the sublime Bird and Peacock carpet, and of course the lovely Kelmscott bed. ‘Mythologies’ contains Burne-Jones’s Perseus cycle, which I always think I shouldn’t like (gratuitous naked women again, monochromatic, gesturing towards Aestheticism despite its narrative strand) but somehow I find the paintings irresistible; I think it’s to do with their form, the way Burne-Jones plays with lines, figures, shapes and shades. The exhibition closes, of course, with the magisterial presence of ‘Astarte Syriaca’, watching over the visitors with a disdainful eye. In the end, the paintings transcend their setting, their juxtaposition, their arrangements, and visitors to the show will love or hate the PRB just as visitors to galleries have always done. Everyone should have an opinion, though, so I thoroughly recommend a visit – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Love and Death at BMAG

While some of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s Pre-Raphaelite paintings enjoy a holiday at Tate Britain’s Pre-Raph blockbuster, eleven Victorian paintings have visited from the Tate collection, which, combined with some of BMAG’s drawings, form ‘Love and Death: Victorian Paintings from Tate’. Two rooms of exhibits make up the show, and include paintings, drawings, sculptures and bronzes from a range of Victorian paintings from Alma-Tadema to Burne-Jones, Leighton to Albert Moore. The show covers a surprising range, but the centrepiece is undoubtedly Waterhouse’s ‘Lady of Shalott’ (which came third in the #PRBDay vote). As always, this painting demands that everyone look at it: I always think Waterhouse’s Lady is a bit of an attention-seeker. She might look miserable, but she wants us all to see how hard-done-by she is. Still, it is impossible not to feel as though we are there with her (presumably the viewer is standing waist-deep in the river) watching her despair as the light of day dies away on the horizon. There are also other Shalotts here (has there ever been a Shalott exhibition? It could fill an exhibition hall easily): Gaskin’s lovely sketch in which the lovely lines of the Burne-Jonesian figure express a deep mournfulness; Rossetti’s drawing (left) as an illustration for the Moxon Tennyson; and, most famous of the illustrative Shalotts, Thompson’s version of William Holman Hunt’s Shalott (right). ‘The Lady of Shalott’ embodies the ‘love and death’ theme of the exhibition, and many visitors will attend just for this. It seemed to me, though, that another, more important theme emerges: that of the use of classical myth and the influence of the ancient world which fascinated the Victorian painters.

The love and death of the exhibition is most vividly seen in the lives of classical mythology. From major high-Victorian paintings such as Alma-Tadema’s painting of ‘A Favourite Custom’ and ‘Autumn’, Moore’s classically-draped ‘Dreamers’, Sandys’ ‘The Boy Martyr’ and ‘Medea’, to minor (but interesting) drawings such as Poynter’s sketch for ‘Nausicaa’ and Crane’s ‘Greek Maidens’, this is a very classical exhibition indeed. Waterhouse’s ‘St Eulalia’, a painting I cannot like, is one of many paintings which imagines classical and/or mythologised women, who feature heavily here, from Circe to Psyche, Morgan le Fay to Waterhouse’s sorceress of ‘The Magic Circle’. I was particualrly taken with Alma-Tadema’s ‘Pheidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon’, a painting which imagines the very first viewers of what we have come to know as the Elgin Marbles. These would have been displayed in the British Museum and provided a classical influence for many painters of the period; this painting of the paintings in situ, as new, fresh, being seen at a private view, perhaps in the same way as this painting itself, is pleasingly self-referential and theoretical as well as being, to my mind, an aesthetically interesting painting.  Mostly, however, the classical paintings demonstrate how a realist style was often combined with an imagined subject, and show us a lot about how the Victorians glamourised the ancient world, and altered it to suit themselves. This last is particularly apparent in the way in which the paintings tend to feature many gratuitous nudes – acceptable because they represent imaginary, long-ago women.

The exhibition includes, therefore, a range of paintings and drawings which tell a story, or capture a moment in (the Victorian perception of) classical life.  However, as realist-style High Victorian art gave way to aestheticism, art for art’s sake, and paintings which are simply beautiful, full of tonalities and flowing draperies, particularly in the work of Albert Moore; his ‘Dreamers’ is here accompanied by ‘Sapphires’, and, in the same vein, is Leighton’s ‘Lieder ohne Worte’. These paintings are subjectless (though Moore’s are also classical in tone and appearance), an exercise in beauty which departs from earlier Victorian painting. Prhaps my favourite painting here, however, is Watts’s ‘The All-Pervading’: ambiguous, beautiful in its deep, rich colours, and swooping lines, as well as its symbolist meanings. This is the kind of painting to lose oneself in. You can read more about Watts’s vision of the cosmos in this and other paintings here.