Friday, 17 March 2017

Joy is of the Will that Labours

At this happy intersection between Women's History Month and St Patrick's Day, it seemed only right and proper that I did a post today on an Irish woman.  I've wanted to do this post for a while as it neatly demonstrates the problem of women's history and the probable reasoning why women are often passed over when histories are written.  This is the story of Meave O'Byrne Doggett.

The Harbour at 'Kingstown' (Dun Laoghaire), Dublin
Born in Blackrock, a suburb of Dublin, Meave was the eldest daughter of William O'Byrne, a school inspector, and his American wife, Mary. Siblings Una, Brenda, Mona and Barry followed, but not swiftly.  By the time Barry, the youngest (and I'm guessing longed-for son) arrived in 1899, Meave Esther Magdalina O'Byrne was an art student in her mid teens.  In the 1901 census, the family had moved to Dun Laoghaire (or Kingstown, as it was known then), and were wealthy enough to afford a cook and a maid and nurse for the younger children.  They also had a lodger, Francis Doggett, a mechanical engineer apprentice, born in India.  The O'Byrne's were Roman Catholic and Francis was Church of England, which only proves that whilst we cared enough to note these things it didn't stop us living under the same roof.  Francis was apprenticed to Great Southern and Western Railway, at Inchicore, Dublin as an 'improver' while attending the Technical School.  I'll come back to Mr Doggett presently...

In the Life Modelling Room at the Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin
Meave attended the Metropolitan School of Art as a teacher in training.  She was taught under such luminaries as Percy Oswald Reeves and Alice Jacobs, and was awarded the Bronze Medal for Design Outline in a Historic Style and for her 'Celtic Interlacing'.  She was mentioned in the 'Every Woman's Encyclopedia' in the section on 'Where to Study' (c.1910):
"In the arts of enamelling and metal work the Dublin school is well known throughout the world, and here again the women students are specially successful. Some of the best enamel workers among the students are Miss K. Fox, Miss E. Symes, Miss E. Luke, Miss Meave O'Byrne, Miss E. Johnstone, Miss N. O'Kelly, Miss M. Doran, and Miss D. Allen. The two latter are now executing commissions in their own studios."
The Designing Room at the Metropolitan School of Art
 The Metropolitan School of Art had been the Royal Dublin Society's Schools of Drawing, established 1746, renamed in 1877.  In the Headmaster's report of 1907, it was the school's aim 'not only to provide instruction in drawing, painting, modeling and design to all students, but also to make workmen better workmen, and to educate the public in art matters and to create a more extended taste in all kinds of art...'  Classes in subjects like stained glass and enamelling became an aspect of the curriculum just as Meave joined the school, and her artistic output reflects this, together with more traditional medium and textile work.

Percy Oswald Reeves instructing students in enamelling
Percy Oswald Reeves joined the school at around the same time as Meave and taught her metalwork and enamel.  For textile work, she had the botanical artist, Alice Jacob.  Successful in her own life time, Jacob is really only remembered for her floral illustrations now, but she was primarily a lace designer, supplying a variety of linen firms with designs that incorporated botanical motifs.  She also worked with other textiles and was a strong proponent of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement, demonstrated by the output of her students.

Lace Fan (c.1900) Alice Jacob
Dendrobium Acuminatum (1910) Alice Jacob
Percy Oswald Reeves again is an artist who has slipped into obscurity in this country, yet his work with the Arts and Craft movement was very influential, for example The Virgin Mary (left) and the utterly astonishing War Memorial in All Saints Grangegorman Parish Church, Dublin.  Born in Birmingham and trained at Birmingham School of Art, Reeves listed himself as a Buddist in the 1911 census.  Mind you, Alice Jacob was a Quaker so Dublin seems to have been a far more religiously cosmopolitan place in the early years of the twentieth century than I ignorantly believed.  No wonder such amazing art came out of it.

When Reeves wrote an article for the Studio magazine in 1918, he mentioned Meave and her work in relation to the Arts and Craft movement in Ireland.  By featuring her pendent, The Water Lily, he affirmed her place as one of Ireland's important craftsmen, and it was also under his and Jacob's tutelage that Meave's work appeared in the Irish International Exhibition of 1907.

The Water Lily (c.1905-18)
So, what do we know of her art?  The reason I became interested in her work was that three other pieces (as well as The Water Lily) were donated to the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery collection (by Meave herself) and I was asked to do some research.  The pieces dated from her time at the Metropolitan School of Art and are utterly beautiful.  Firstly, we have The Sundial...

The Sundial (1909-11)
Created with limoges enamel on copper, The Sundial depicts a fairy stretched out along the arm of a sundial, indicating the hour.  She holds a dandelion clock which is shedding its seeds as if to emphasize the passing of time and the briefness of existence.  Whilst on the surface it is a very decorative piece, it holds a far deeper message than at first glance, hinted at by the solemn expression on the fairy's face.  Those dandelion heads behind her are shedding at quite a rate...

The Spirit of the Rain Cloud (1909-11)
In comparison, The Spirit of the Rain Cloud seems a far simpler affair.  The rather Symbolist sprite pours water from its spirit-y bowl and forms a glittering rainbow at its feet.  The fae figure this time is a far more androgynous being, formed of light and cloud, whose sole job it seems is to skip around the heavens with its rainbow holdall and bowl, pouring out glitter.  However, the title does not mention rainbows, only rain clouds and I am left wondering if the meaning of the work is that the two go together if you look for it: in order to have the rainbow, you have to have the rain, and that beauty is valued more because it comes out of darkness.  That same darkness carries that beauty within in, it is the very spirit of it, they are indistinguishable, one and the same.  For fear of sounding like a motivational poster, I shall move on.

The Lady Shinain at the Well of Knowledge (1905-15)
Possibly the best known of Meave's work is one I've featured here before.  The Lady Shinain (or Sionann) was the granddaughter of the Irish sea god Lir.  She went to Connla's Well to receive wisdom, or to catch the salmon of wisdom.  This made her the wisest person on earth but only briefly as her presence made the well burst and drown her.  Shinain was the goddess of the river and the resultant flood became the river Shannon, and the goddess' 'dissolving' into the water provided blessings and fertility for all.  Again, enamelled on copper, it is a stunning piece of work around the size of a piece of A4 paper.  Its message that women will always be prevented from achieving greatness yet enriching the fields in which they work is perhaps coincidental but nontheless accurate.

Here's where I have a request:  it would be splendid if you knew of the whereabouts of any other pieces by Meave, so if you own one or work in a museum that has one, please get in touch.  We know that she created other pieces, not least because some were included in the Irish International Exhibition of 1907...

The queue at Limerick Railway Station to board for the Exhibition
In 1907, Ireland still was part of the United Kingdom but the work for Home Rule took many forms.  An interest in improving trading led to the Irish International Exhibition, where the best work of the country's craftspeople could be seen.  There were separate pavilions for British and Irish goods, reflecting the distance that was growing, although the movement would wait another 15 years before Home Rule.  Meave had several works in the exhibition: a stencilled chiffon scarf (created under Alice Jacobs), an enamelled copper bowl (created under Percy Reeves), a hand mirror with leather panels and a leather case (both again under Alice Jacobs).  All of these items were actually lent to the exhibition by the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (DATI) which implies that they owned her work.  Meave had won book prizes from DATI in 1905 for studies of plant form and designs based on flowering plants, presumably under the teaching of Alice Jacob.
Darlington Ladies Training College, Vans Terrace, Darlington (1898)
After she graduated as a teacher, Meave's first post seems to have been at the Darlington Ladies Training College, where she is recorded as being on the 1911 census.  Her posting there cannot have been for a long time as she was off to Canada in July of 1911 to display her works in the Royal Canadian Academy of Art.  In the 1912 exhibition catalogue, Meave is listed as showing The Lady Shinain, The Sunbeam, The Spirit of the Rain Cloud and a triptych entitled St Columcille.  Furthering her artistic reputation wasn't the only thing she managed while over in Canada; on 12 July 1911, Meave married Francis Hamilton Doggett, former lodger and mechanical engineer, in Winnipeg.

At the outbreak of war, Meave did not return home immediately.  She travelled to Boston and from 10 April to 1 May held an exhibition of enamel work, before she and Francis returned to Dublin just over four years after their wedding.  Francis became a lieutenant in the Royal Army Ordnance Corp, with the No.1 Heavy Ordnance Mobile Workshop in France.  Meave returned to school attending the Metropolitan free of charge so it is possible she also worked as a teacher.  In the summer of 1917, as a member of the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland, she exhibited at the 5th Exhibition of Irish Arts and Crafts which showed at Dublin, Belfast and Cork.  Francis returned from the War in 1918 and became a Freemason in Dublin, as well as a registered mechanical engineer with the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, and Meave studied until 1919.  Then something unexpected happened.

In 1920, Meave Esther Magdalen Doggett became a registered physiotherapist and masseuse.  As far as we know, she never produced another piece of art after this date.  She and Francis moved from Dublin to Cavendish Avenue in Sidcup, to a rather lovely bay-windowed semi without even a hint of Celtic Revivalism.  The couple then moved to Boundstone near Farnham, again a very well-appointed area.  The couple might have moved to be nearer Francis' family who had retired to Surrey, but after Francis' father died in 1938, the couple moved again, to Bournemouth, where Francis died in 1966.  It was possibly this event that caused Meave to visit the Russell-Cotes and donate the four pieces still in her possession.  She died just two years after her husband, in 1968, but in her final years she left a small collection of Celtic magic in an unsuspecting gallery overlooking the sea.

The reason I find Meave's story so poignant is the unanswered question of if and why she stopped producing art.  In some ways it could be that she felt all the art she had in her had been expressed and she felt more joy in assisting people back to health.  The end of her work seems so sudden, just after her return to the classroom and the mention in the Studio, but we shall never know unless Meave left record of what happened to quell her artistic will.  The couple moved from her native Dublin to Surrey, so you could argue that she left her art in Dublin, fed by the goddess in the river Shannon, but her years abroad in North America did nothing to stifle her artistic spirit, so why should Sidcup?  Maybe in the life of a busy married woman there just wasn't room for art.  Although she married in 1911, many years of that first decade together were spent either travelling or apart from her husband due to War.  Maybe the life of a respectable married woman did not lend itself to enamelled works of gem-like glory.  Often it is easy to blame the appearance of children, who eat all spare time along with their dinner, for the stifling of women's creative lives, but the Doggetts had no offspring.  It remains a mystery but an all too familiar one.  Whilst Meave's work is beautiful, it is easy to forget that this is her student work and her apparent ceasing deprives us of her growth, her maturity.  If The Lady Shinain is her bud, imagine what her bloom would have been. There were, and arguably still are, more forces pushing women to remain in the feminine sphere of providing, not creating, and unless women fight the daily barrier that stops us stepping further, we will only get one month dedicated to our contribution to history.  

Let's catch the salmon and flood the year.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Disrupt the Narrative

Today marks the anniversary of Fanny Cornforth's death in 1909, at Graylingwell Asylum in West Sussex. I was trying to think of some aspect of Fanny's life that I haven't already gone on about, but I thought I'd go for the bigger picture.  This is a post about why Fanny Cornforth is a lesson for all historians, especially those who write biographies...

Fair Rosamund (1861) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
When I started researching Fanny Cornforth, back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, I did it because I wanted to know why someone who was seemingly loathed by so many people was so beloved by Rossetti.  Not only that, but in most of the books I read in pursuit of her, I was continuously told that she had no real value.  The quote I use the most is from Paull F. Baum's book of Rossetti's letters to Fanny (notice how there is only one letter from her, thus underlining her passive role in the story), that Fanny had no meaning other than in the narrative of Rossetti and his life.  It is unsurprising that Baum, writing in the 1940s would take this view as it is entirely the view he was meant to have.  Even within both Rossetti and Fanny's life time, people such as William Michael Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and William Bell Scott were trying to shake off the tenacious Fanny.  During DGR's breakdown of the early 1870s, the three men corresponded over how to pay her off, how to 'clear off all Fanny claims' (quoted in both W E Fredeman's article on Rossetti of 1971 and the essential Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Jan Marsh). Fanny was not meant to be part of Rossetti's life after her role of model ceased with The Blue Bower, so her continuance in his life beyond that point was something to be erased...

The Blue Bower (1865)
Had Fanny actually ceased to matter in 1865 then Stunner: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth would have been a much shorter book, but it wasn't just me that dragged Fanny on longer than William Michael wanted her to exist.  His brother was partly to blame too...

Fanny Cornforth (1868)
The trouble starts in 1868, when Rossetti produced this pastel portrait of Fanny.  Seeing as she had dropped off his model 'lazy susan' in 1865, after he scrubbed her out of Lady Lilith (and arguably both Venus Verticordia and Monna Vanna  too), her sudden reappearance in art three years later causes biographers some troubles.  The canonical narrative given for Rossetti's art is this woman...

Elizabeth Siddal (1854)
...followed by her...

Fanny Cornforth (sketch for Fair Rosamund) (1861)

...with a little bit of her...

Alexa Wilding (Sketch for Regina Cordium) (1866)
...but then mostly her...

La Donna Della Finestra (Jane Morris) (1879)
If you will cast your minds back to this post from this time last year, then I covered how biographers within Fanny's life treated her.  Spoiler alert: not well, on the whole.  Whilst reading those biographies, it was evident that the writers felt conflicted over Alexa Wilding - how can she inhabit so many of Rossetti's visions during 'the Reign of Jane', which is agreed to have lasted from around 1868 to the end of his life.  Poor old Alexa is quite easy to jettison from the narrative because firstly, as far as we know, and ignoring what I suggested for A Curl of Copper and Pearl, Alexa did not play a big part in Rossetti's personal life.  Also, she kind of looks like Jane, apparently, and so I have seen great swathes of Rossetti's paintings on the internet where you'd think he only had the one model, who I like to call 'Fanjalezzi'.  Damn, that girl is in everything...

Seriously Rossetti, when you pull this sort of thing, you only have yourself to blame...
Jane with red hair in Mrs William Morris (1870)
As if to prove my point, there is a website that will superimpose your face onto a famous painting and offer to turn you into 'the Pre-Raphaelite red haired model'.  That'll be Fanny, then.  Even though she was blonde. Okay, strawberry-blonde. Anyway, I digress.

So, Rossetti had a moment of madness where he resurrected his past muse in that 1868 pastel.  Well, how do we explain that? Well, he was beginning to lose his eyesight and some of his marbles so maybe he was under the illusion that Fanny was young and pretty again.  After all, as stated in the 200 catalogue for The Blue Bower: Rossetti in the 1860s - 'This pretty vignette gives his rather stodgy housekeeper, now in her mid-thirties, something of the mysterious allure of a gypsy.' Mid-thirties?  Heavens, it's a miracle she was allowed out without a bag on her head.  So we can write it off as an aberration, a moment of madness.  After all she was 'stodgy' by this point and no-one wants to see that.  Plus he was far too busy digging up his wife and having it away with other people's wives to be bothering with Fanny.

Well, that's okay then.  Glad he didn't complicate matters by doing it again...

Woman with a Fan (1870)
Oh for goodness sake.  Right, so why did he return to Fanny in 1870?  Mentioned in both Marillier and Fred Stephens' early biographies of Rossetti, this is not seen as a problem.  He just drew a pretty girl, which he was good at.  Fred Stephens makes some remark about the hands being too big.  You can understand the problems that trying to reintroduce Fanny into Rossetti's narrative caused.  Within the narrative, Rossetti started his love affair with Jane Morris as early as 1865, but certainly could be raised to the status of 'obsession' (according to a recent exhibition) by the late 1860s, and in 1870 Rossetti painted her as Donna Della Finestra and La Donna Della Fiamma.  There was no need for Fanny to raise her head so the picture is often written off as a flattery piece, a pay off for Fanny to sell.  It's not meant to say anything about the artist's on-going relationship with the model, so that aspect of it is often brushed over and we move on the endless swathes of Jane that filled the last dozen years of his life.  Yes, Alexa was there but just to vary it up a bit.  He loved Jane and so therefore no other face would do.

Fanny Cornforth (1874)
Oh, now, you are doing it on purpose Rossetti!  Fresh from all manner of romantic shenanigans at Kelmscott, Rossetti produced this pastel of a seemingly nude (or topless) Fanny Cornforth, in her late 30s.  The  general dismissal of this picture as being, again, a flattery piece, is more of a reflection on the commentator who do not believe that a woman in her 30s should be seen as attractive, apparently.  There is an odd mixture of comments about how Fanny could not possibly have looked like this in 1874 because doesn't everyone say she was fat?  Also, Rossetti's in love with Jane therefore can't also fancy a bit of old Fanny on the side.

Fanny Cornforth (1874)
Strangely, commentators feel they are on firmer ground with the image of Fanny clothed from 1874 because then words like 'matronly' (again, thank you to The Blue Bower catalogue) can be used.  Again, it is the consensus of the critics that the image is not sexy therefore Rossetti cannot have intended it as sexy.  Oddly, we never have this conversation about the myriad images of Jane which are arguably overtly threatening (such as Astarte Syriaca).  No matter how complicated Rossetti's images of Jane become, we never question his desire for her, but somehow it is beyond our ken to imagine he fancied a woman of 39.

Fanny Cornforth (1874)
Damn it, Rossetti, stop drawing Fanny Cornforth! The third pastel definitely brings matters to a head because to draw one's ex-mistress once is a mistake, to do it twice is unfortunate, but three times makes it look like you are doing it on purpose.  The theory that he made these pastels to give Fanny something she could sell is slightly undermined by the fact that she hung onto them until Fairfax Murray sold them through to Birmingham Art Gallery when she finally had to start selling off her collections in order to eat.  Not only that, we're not even sure that she owned the last one at all. Despite the lack of information, biographers feel comfortable in assigning emotions, desires, motivations and general thought-processes to five works of art that span 6 years.  By 1874, Fanny was financially independent of Rossetti to a level she hadn't achieved in the rest of their relationship.  Timothy Hughes had died and she had taken up with Mr Schott, running the Rose Inn and attempting to remain secure after Rossetti dumped her then attempted to reinstate her.  there are powerful arguments for how these pictures are gifts of love between two people who have been through quite a lot together, rather than little more than a gift voucher.  As much as Fanny ever relied on Rossetti for money, he completely relied on her for his drugs, his paint, and levels of understanding that his friends and family found it difficult to give. 

But then that doesn't fit in the narrative.  Therein lies the moral of today's post.

It's okay to disrupt the narrative.  It's okay to think people are more complex than we would like them to be.  I have no clue about how all Rossetti's women fit together (if you excuse the phrase) but then I suspect he didn't either.  It's not that we want an easy story, but possibly sometimes the sheer messed-up complexity of people make telling any sort of accurate narrative impossible, therefore as biographers we have to chose a path.  In many ways life is easy for me because when I started writing about Fanny (and about Mary Hillier) the narrative path placed down for them was entirely dependent on another person and so I can easily stray, meander, offer alternatives and generally disrupt the narrative because I am giving you a whole person rather than the shadow that is required for someone else's story.  With people like Rossetti, it is patently impossible to pick apart the truth because we have endless accounts of what he said and what he did and people's interpretation of all that, not to mention his art, and none of it follows a single, simple path.  Don't try and force a narrative where there might not be one, and embrace the terrible mess people's lives get into.

After all, it's what made me interested in Fanny Cornforth in the first place.


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Whispering in the Ear of Eternity

Here's a quick post as part of my research around Julia Margaret Cameron's maid and model, Mary Hillier.  I hope to include brief bio-sketches of other models who appear with her in Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs, but you know me, sometimes my 'brief' ends up getting longer and longer, so here is the slightly longer version of what will end up in my book.  Here is the story of the Keown family...

Kate and Thomas Keown (1864) Julia Margaret Cameron
Once upon a time there was a brave solider called Thomas James Keown.  He was born in Plymouth, Devon, in 1823.  Just before his 17th birthday, Thomas joined the Royal Artillery as a driver.  As this was 1840, it obviously didn't mean motor vehicles, but it meant he was the equivalent of a 'private' and his job was to drive the horses who pulled the guns. He fought in the Crimean War from 1853, under Colonel Edward Charles Warde CB, who had known Thomas since the beginning of his military career.  It was under Warde's command that Thomas volunteered and accompanied a spiking party (disabling the enemy guns by means of driving metal spikes into the touchholes, or other damaging things, very dangerous work) in the assault on the Redan in June of 1855. For his 'long and meritorious services and good conduct', he was awarded a silver medal and £10 (around £850 in today's money).  The Colonel arranged for his family to drive Mrs Keown up to the Fort to see her husband decorated, and the Colonel 'shook him warmly by the hand and expressed a wish that he might long live to wear it.'

The Attack on the Redan (1899) Robert Hillingford
Thomas was wounded as a result of his action, at the Siege of Sebastopol, probably in the Autumn of 1855 and was sent back to England to recover.  Seeing as he had spent so much of his life abroad, it might be that it was on his return to England he met the woman he would marry just a year later.  Sarah Hendry was the daughter of a Gunner in the Royal Artillery, from Woolwich in Kent and the couple were married in Plumstead, Kent in 1856.  When Thomas had recovered, he was promoted to Master Gunner and placed in charge of Redoubt Fort in Freshwater.  Their first child Kate was born just 10 months after their marriage.

Kate Keown (1864)
Kate was followed in fairly quick succession by Louisa (1858), Elizabeth (1860), Alice (1861), Percy (1864) and Mabel (1868).  In many ways the Keown family, although a generation younger, established themselves at Freshwater around the same time as the Camerons, less than half a mile away at Dimbola Lodge.  When Julia Margaret Cameron's eyes turned to potential models for her photographic ventures she didn't have to look far...

Elizabeth Keown, Annie Philpot and Unknown Child (1864)
Although not the subject of her first image (that honour goes to Annie Philpot), the Keown sisters, Kate, Elizabeth, Louisa and Alice were perfectly placed to appear in her first year of photographs.  Four year old Elizabeth appeared with Annie Philpot in the above image, both Alice and Elizabeth appeared with Mary Hillier in Long Suffering and Kate and Louisa appeared in solo studies.

Long Suffering (Elizabeth Keown, Mary Hillier, Alice Keown)
Percy joined the family in the summer of 1864 and became the baby in many Biblical scenes...

La Madonna Riposata, Resting in Hope (Mary Hillier, Percy Keown) (1864)
Interestingly, as far as I can tell, Mabel, born in 1868, was never the subject of a Cameron photograph, but this might be for many reasons.  By that point, Cameron's aesthetic was moving away from babies and Madonna scenes, growing with her subjects in many ways.  Also, after 1865, Percy doesn't appear very much, replaced by Cameron's grandson Archie.  Louisa also doesn't appear again, but for a difference reason.

'Loulou' Louisa Keown (1864)
We only have potentially one Cameron photograph of little Louisa Keown.  Six years old and blurred, her tiny face gazes out at us.  In the Spring of 1865, Louisa died and was buried at All Saints in Freshwater, eventually alongside Lady Tennyson, Prinsep family members and Mary Hillier.  It is a complicated matter, Victorians, death and photography, because convention makes us believe that the Victorians were so keen to have their loved ones recorded on film that they would prop them up, post-mortem, for the chance of an image.  With just such opportunities just down the road, it is interesting that Mabel Keown does not seem to appear in any of Mrs Cameron's photographs, even though her other sisters continued their modelling careers.  Possibly it was too painful for Louisa's parents to see their lost child frozen in an image.  After all, how can we explain Cameron's recording of the death of adopted daughter Adeline Clogstoun but not of her own beloved daughter, Julia Norman, who died two years later?

The Whisper of the Muse (Elizabeth, G F Watts, Kate) (1865)
What we are left with are Elizabeth, Kate and Alice as they grow up. Seemingly the three sisters continued to pose through the loss of their sister, but in reality there might have been a gap of a year or more between their sittings, but after the death of Louisa, the three little muses suddenly seem to mature. Possibly as a response to this Cameron entitled one dark shot of Kate Keown Grief in 1866.  It is easy to read the effect of the bereavement on them in their suddenly more adult faces but equally the girls were growing rapidly towards young adulthood.

Minstrel Group (Mary Ryan, Kate, Elizabeth) (1866)
Alice doesn't appear as often as her sisters, but makes a very striking appearance in a later picture, as a young novice by the side of the disgraced Queen Guinevere, played by Mrs Hardinge.

The Little Novice with Queen Guinevere in the Holy House at Almesbury (1874)

The person I find most interesting in terms of maturity is Kate.  Whilst much is made of Cameron's treatment of Mary Hillier or May Prinsep, her recording of one little girl's passage to womanhood often goes unmentioned.  Kate Keown's work as a child is archetypally Julia Margaret Cameron and her imagery of children.  However, by 1868, you can notice a change in the child.

Study of Cenci (1868)
A revisiting of a 1866 study featuring May Prinsep (left), the 11 year old Kate has taken on the role of woman.  There is a slight irony in choosing the girl who she first pictured on her father's knee to portray the patricidal 16th century heroine, but there is more of the adult in Kate's study gaze than the winsome muse who whispered in Watts' ear.

Kate's face changes so subtly between years but more than any other model, she evolves before our eyes in the photographs.  At 13, she posed for The Snowdrop, 10 years before Rossetti used the same device on a portrait of Jane Morris entitled Blanzifiore.  The same year she is pictured in possibly the most elegant and striking of her pictures, simply entitled Group where she leans against Mary Hillier, who gazes away in noble profile.

The Snowdrop (1870-2)

Group (1870)
The same year as her younger sister posed as a nun, 17 year old Kate posed for one of her last images, the very adult The Twilight Hour, with an unknown man, one of the 'courting' photographs of Cameron's later years.

The Twilight Hour (1874)
Kate has grown from the infant innocently kissing her sisters and other local children to a woman in the midst of a failed romance (the theme of The Twilight Hour comes from Adam Bede by George Eliot).  She is one of the few models who manages to fill both the roles Cameron desired in her photographs - cherubic child and beautiful young woman.

Kate Keown Reading  (1867)
After the Camerons moved away, life went on for the Keowns.  Kate married a granite merchant from Cornwall, Bernard Freeman, and ended up living back in the West Country where her father had come from.  They had no children but by the 1911 census the couple were living in a property called 'Beachview' with a cook and a housemaid. She died in 1922, aged 65.

Paul and Virginia (Freddy Gould and Elizabeth) (1865)

Elizabeth, or 'Topsy' as she was also known, married in 1879 to an army schoolmaster called William Douglas.  She became a colonial wife, and a mother to two daughters, born in India.  When the family retired back to Surrey they played host to brother Percy for a short while.  She outlived all but one of her siblings, dying in 1952, aged 92.

Light and Love (Percy, Mary Hillier)  (1865)
Percy became third mate on the SS Tartar, a Royal Mail steam ship that seems to have travelled swiftly between South Africa and Southampton.  He received his second and first mate certificate by 1887 and travelled as far as Australia.  By the 1901 census, however, Percy is living with sister Elizabeth, at 'Pendennis' in Weybridge, Surrey.  On the far right of the form one word starkly presents his fortunes - 'paralysed'.  I can't begin to imagine what exactly befell him but a few months later he was dead, aged 36.

Hosanna (Alice, Marys Kellaway, Ryan and Hillier) (1865)
Alice married Henry Johnson, a surgeon (and son of a surgeon).  Henry was a military man, holding the rank of Captain and decorated for his work in India while his wife and child remained at his family home in Hampshire.  They joined him in Africa for the 1911 census but Henry died in 1918 in South Africa leaving his wife less than £2,000.  Alice and daughter Gladys returned to England and lived long lives, Alice outliving her siblings to die in 1959, aged 98.  

The Turtle Doves (Alice and Elizabeth) (1864)
It seems incredible to think that little Alice almost lived long enough to see a century pass since her first image by Mrs Cameron.  She also almost lived long enough to see the 1960s and the whole rediscovery of Victorian art where images of utter innocence like the one above would be viewed with suspicion or cynicism of such saccharine. It is tempting to think of the halcyon days of Freshwater as another age, far removed from ours but sometimes the Victorian age is so close to us, it is almost possible to hear it whisper...

Friday, 10 February 2017

Review: Victorians Undone

This will be a review of two halves.  I have very much been looking forward to reading Victorians Undone by Kathryn Hughes, mainly because it promised to have a chapter on Fanny Cornforth (and I get a mention, thank you muchly), but I am left feeling conflicted.  I will try and tackle this by giving you what I liked and what I didn't like.  Let's start with the positives...


This is an eminently readable book.  Hughes has a marvellous turn of phrase and tells a marvellous story.  The book is made up of five 'case studies' (some of which contain more than one personality) which cover what is often missed out of biography.  She is funny, interesting, filled with facts and obviously has read a great deal around her subjects.  In the introduction she says that the book is the result of many years in archives gathering the bits of history that people don't like to mention. Whether it is George Eliot's wondering if size matters, or the age old problem of men and their beards, there are certainly some things in this book that you will probably never have heard before...

Queen Victoria laughing
(she wouldn't laugh if she knew what we know...)
The strength of this book is that, more than any book I have read for a very long time, it has made me think until my head hurt.  Everyone I have come into contact with this week has had to put up with me getting their opinion on what exactly makes biography.  That is what this book fundamentally questions - what should a biography contain?  Having written one (with another on the way), this is a fascinating conundrum. Should biography contain all information about a person?  And what information is relevant? Do you need to know how a person spoke?  Or smelt?  It is Hughes' premises that no true biography of a person is complete without you knowing exactly what it would be like to be in the same room with them, and for some of them you best hope that room comes with a window. And air freshener.

Dickens' beard (and Charles Dickens)
There is definitely something to be said for giving a more rounded, 'unofficial' account of a person's life if it reveals things about them.  With the great and the good there is always the danger that you might only be told what is, well, great and good.  When the biographies are written by friends, by the people who know them best, then there will always be an onus to show the subject in the best light, and concentrate on why that person is worthy of biography.  You might not feel it's necessary to include stories of how, for example, Darwin couldn't stop farting. Now, is that relevant?  To his work, perhaps not, but to the man and his life?  That's a different matter.

Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron
(who had probably opened the window, or blamed it on the dog)
However, that leads me to possibly the main challenge I felt with the book.  What does it offer to us to know about Darwin's little (or big) problem?  Lytton Strachey is credited as being a proponent of this 'warts and all' style of biography with his work on Victorians, but his reason was arguably not so much to enlighten but to mock and diminish.  There is a danger of belittling, unintentionally perhaps, the subject and of undermining their achievements.  It's a difficult balance to strike and for many reasons it was easy for me as all the bad stuff was already known about Fanny (there is nothing you haven't heard already in the chapter on Fanny and Rossetti) and so I think reducing her down to 'a mouth' is really just continuing the job done by all of Rossetti's biographers who saw her as little other.

Tennyson's secret.  You don't want to know.  Or maybe you do.
In my opinion (and my issues with this book are just my opinions rather than a fault with the book) I would rather see the stuff about Fanny that is not known, so in that way I agree with Kathryn Hughes, that true biography sees a person as a rounded human being.  For Fanny (and actually for most of the subjects I am attracted to), it meant digging for the good, the clever, the things that made her memorable for the best reasons.  There had to be goodness (for want of a better word) that kept her in Rossetti's life and so the revelations in Stunner were that Fanny was clever, funny and deeply caring. I showed you the good in a person who others would dismiss as worthless (often for valid reasons).  That, I agree, is proper biography.  However, I'm not sure how I feel about it going the other way.  Take Tennyson, for example.  I now know stuff about Tennyson I wish I didn't and actually don't want to repeat.  It doesn't add anything to how I read his poetry, but it will always be in my mind when I think about the man, and it is not at all pleasant.  It's truthful and accurate, but does it add anything useful (again for want of a better word)? What I now know doesn't affect how I view him as a good man, a clever man, a man who loved and was loved, who deserves my admiration as a poet and a human being. However (I seem to use that word a lot in this review), it does add a dimension on how I view his relationship with his wife and his close friends.  But does that matter? Rats, I don't know.

Fanny's mouth.  Or not.
 I've always thought Rossetti put his lips on all his women (in all senses of the words)
See, this is my problem and possibly the genius of the book.  It makes me question what biography should be and as a biographer, this is difficult stuff.  It is absolutely the role of a biographer to tell the reader something they don't know, but how far down that road should you go?  What Kathryn Hughes reveals in her book by way of demonstration of the nooks, crannies and crevices of Victorians is not for the faint-hearted (or anyone eating), but I don't know how I feel about it.  She writes persuasive and engaging stories of smells, fears and invasive medical examinations, but I just don't know if I feel this level of biography is justified and what sure and certain conclusions can be drawn from it.  But then, that's just me, and you might not have a problem knowing about Darwin's wind (poor Darwin) and feel it adds to your understanding of the man on the £10 note.

To sum up, this is a book that has made me consider my role in biography at far too great a length. It's a well-written book, with some great illustrations, but I would love to have had a bibliography at the back.  Hughes states that everything in the book has been the result of many years in archives, so maybe she only read primary evidence, which is very noble of her...

The not so sweet case of Sweet F(anny) A(dams)...
This is definitely a book that you won't have read before because it is many biographies in one.  As you can tell by this rather rambling review, despite my reticence about the contents, the premise has kept me occupied all week.  I'll be over on my Facebook page if you want to discuss this with me and I'll be happy to talk it over with you.

Victorians Undone by Kathryn Hughes is available now from all good bookshops and also on Audible, although I'm not sure it's better having someone saying some of this stuff out loud...