Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Review: Art & Soul Catalogue

If you are unable to get to Exeter this Spring to see Art & Soul: Victorians and the Gothic (website here), then I may have a solution for you.  The lovely people at Samson & Co have sent me a catalogue of the exhibition, and here is my review...


I hadn't really thought about it, but if you use the words 'medieval' or 'gothic', then you probably aren't using them in the same way as a Victorian.  In fact, after the advent of the film Pulp Fiction, to 'get medieval' on someone implies a swift and brutal end, and saying that someone or something is gothic is more to do with black nail varnish than arched windows. 

Before Thomas Dudley Fosbroke coined the term 'Medieval' in 1817, the period between the 5th and 15th century was known unimaginably as 'the Middle Ages', that is the bit between 'bye bye Romans *sniff*' and 'it's all got a bit Tudor-y'.  That in itself got split when the early part of the Middle Ages became known as the Dark Ages.  Nobody liked the Dark Ages.  Gothic was used not specifically to describe the Germanic tribes that had migrated north in the 5th and 6th century (as the Romans had used it), but to describe culture in the Middle Ages, then the heavy typeface and architecture in the 19th century.

Page from 1865 manuscript of Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Victorians loved history in a similar way to us, but for them the chance to own it through image and word was a novelty.  The Victorian year was filled with anniversaries of battles, coronations, executions, and books on all time periods filled the shelves of libraries everywhere.  This wasn't just a time of knowledge and learning, it was also an expression of the intense anxiety about the future.  If learning about history told them anything it was that not even the best society in the past was safe from destruction and steps forward in science showed how species, like nations, could vanish.  There was a move to protect the history of the nation with groups like The Society of Antiquaries and SPAB, plus an effort to collect folk traditions and songs.  Public galleries opened and a taste for images of the past, brought vividly to life, could be seen by everyone.  The imagination began to run scared from the present and the furthest it could go back was the Medieval period.  It was the first British period to be fully documented and had an aura of a pastoral golden age.  Even Gothic architecture was seen as more organic, more in touch with nature and not a product of the scary industrial world.

The Funeral of a Viking Frank Bernard Dicksee

Industrialisation had revolutionised the lives of ordinary people but in the generations after, it began to be seen as a cause of a loss of craftsmanship, pollution, bad housing, dangerous machinery, poor health and generally not improving the lot of workers.  During the 1840s, the 'hungry 40s' as they were known due to food shortages, the Medieval period was seen as a time of a more natural way of life and bountiful food. As a flipside of that, do you think our nostalgia for rationing in the 1940s and 50s is an expression of our obese society now?
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at the Bal Costume, 12 May 1842 Edwin Landseer

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (or The Parting) William Theed
 No-one was safe from this nostalgia, even if you were Queen.  Victoria and Albert embraced the medievalism which fitted with her Germanic roots and they were portrayed in art and sculpture as the perfect Medieval couple.  Even a spot of Viking heritage was reflected in Alexandra of Denmark, thereafter Princess Alexandra after her marriage to Albert Edward.  Tennyson described her as the 'daughter of the vanished Vikings'.  Again, it's interesting how the use of that word has changed.  Viking now tends to be more complex than the rape 'n' pillage stereotype, although the splendid recent tv series lobs in more violence than trading, but for the Victorians, the Vikings were noble warriors, reflected in romantic adventures by writer like Walter Scott and Charlotte Mary Yonge.

Ellen Terry in King Arthur

It would be impossible to talk about the Medieval without talking about King Arthur.  Not actually a king, but promoted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th century History of the Kings of Britain, then compounded by Mallory in his 15th century Morte d'Arthur which added round table, grail and Arthur's death to the existing legend of wizards and magic swords.  The pinnacle of this king-worship has to be Joseph Comyns Carr's play King Arthur of 1895, produced by Henry Irving, music by Arthur Sullivan and sets and costunes by Edward Burne-Jones.  A veritable who's who in artistic Britain, it's source material was Idylls of the Kings by a man who carries quite a bit of responsibility for the Arthurmania, Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

The Lady of Shalott (1894) John William Waterhouse

Oh, Tennyson, you've got a lot to answer for, not least the Elaine of Astolat variation, The Lady of Shalott.  Between 1862 and 1913 more than 26 paintings on the subject were exhibited and people had been inspired to create pictures and illustrations both before and after that main period.  For the Victorians, Tennyson and others inspired by the Medieval maidens were both supporting and challenging the sexual status quo; the women were maidens in distress, separated from society in towers, waiting to be rescued by daring men, but they were also sexual transgressors, destiny-seizing creators of art sacrificing their lives to be free.

King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, from the Tristram and Isolde stained glass panels, designed by William Morris (1862)
 Craftsmanship was re-embraced by Morris and Co who mixed Medieval designs with the desire to bring the 'joy' back to the workplace by removing industrial drudgery.  The firm produced furniture, tapestries and stained glass panels.  Morris was also responsible for the Kelmscott Press bringing a level of craftsmanship to book production hot on the heels of the industry's ability to mass produce.

Lord Eglinton dressed as the Lord of the Tournament (1840) Edward Corbould

Gothic and Medieval crept into every aspect of Victorian life, from the designs of the Houses of Parliament down to what your face looked like.  One of my favourite influences of medievalism is the notion expressed in the catalogue that the Victorian beard was a by-product of the fashion for Anglo-Saxon chic.  Beards were not fashionable in the 1830s and 40s but grew in popularity, coupled with some extreme fashion for armour, as worn at the 1839 Eglington Tournament. How we think of the Victorians to cultural products which we regard as being typical of the era are all infused with the cultural influences and historical aspersions of the thousand years that became the Medieval period. However you look at it, the two are arguably inseparable and change the way you look at the period and possibly reassess our own.

The catalogue by Joanne Parker and Corinna Wagner is beautifully written and richly illustrated.  Without knowing it, sometimes we forget exactly how pivotal the notion of Medieval is to the Victorians, both in fact and developed fantasy.  It shaped and changed society, expressed an interest in the past and their terror at the present and future.  In many ways it made me reflect on our current concerns with the past and how we are not so very different from our Victorian forebears.

To buy the catalogue look here (UK) or here (US)...

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Selfie

It has been mentioned to me on a few occasions that I am rather prone to change my profile picture regularly.  For reasons numerous and complicated I seem to have a compulsion to take and change my pictures, but part of it is that I am rather accomplished at the art of the self-portrait or the 'selfie'. It's all to do with angle and lighting (thank you Kim Kardashian) and by manipulating these I can give you an impression of what I am like.  In real life, I am a little awkward, talk either too loudly or too quiet, cannot express myself as well as I can in type, but in the silent, static image I can control what you think of me.  Well, sort of.

Me in 2008, at the beginning of my selfie habit
Me, a couple of weeks ago
A self portrait is the ultimate act of persona control - it enables the viewed to set the message for the viewer.  For an artist it has an added dimension - it also says 'look how good I am at my art'.  In a heady mix of personal image and display of talent, the self portrait tells us a lot about the artist and their world...

John Everett Millais (1847)

J E Millais in 1883
Before and after Pre-Raphaelitism, we have the most successful of the Brotherhood, with two of his self portraits.  Eager, young and vivid, young Millais holds his palette and looks to us in readiness.  Older Millais stands still for us to admire him.  There is a connection in the way Young Millais looks at us, directly at his audience, his customers.  He needs to connect with us, not just artistically.  You could cynically say he wants to be recognised, needs to see our response, needs us to feel a connection so that we will buy his work.  Older Millais slips into shadow, is a man being looked at and does not need to be assured of our interest.  He already knows it.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Good Lord!)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1861)
The two self portraits by Rossetti are often the subject of very academic discussion about whether or not he was ever 'really that hot' (technical term) or whether the later portrait was more honest. In his youthful portrait, he looks romantic, Byron-esque, appropriate.  In his later picture, he looks serious, adult, possibly befitting his new role as husband and serious artist/poet.

Rossetti's self portraits give the impression of a more private audience than Millais was expecting.  Possibly the sketch-quality of Rossetti's portraits gave the impression that he intended the pictures for an intimate circle, as mementos of him.  Millais', especially the latter image, are public pictures, an official image of the artist.

Ford Madox Brown (1877)
The semiotics of self-presentation are complex.  It can go beyond 'here is my palette, here's how I paint' to incorporating a background hinting at style, influence, taste.

Frederic Leighton (1880)
Sometimes people are so famous they do not need clues.  Possibly the most famous artist of his era appears in Doctor of Civil Law robes, his Royal Academy presidential medal just seen.  The classical frieze behind him hints at his artistic nature, his style and leanings.  In the 1888 portrait by G F Watts, Leighton appears in similar dress but a palette and brushes are beside him.  Possibly as the above painting was a self-portrait, Leighton felt it would be superfluous to include the tools of his trade.

Ralph Headley (1895)
The act of painting, the method and skill is most amply expressed in Headley's self-portrait of 1895.  The vase which holds his brushes, together with his hat and gloves shows his taste.  The mirror is a pseudo-honest way of showing how the portrait was achieved but also is a clever trick.  You the viewer are stood where the artist should be.  We are both admiring his work while holding his place.  It is sly humour and we share the joke.

Lovis Corinth (1914)
Like Leighton, Corinth does not need to tell you he is a painter.  At first I wondered if this was a comment on war due to the date but there are earlier images of him in armour.  It is a comment on Corinth as the man, the knight, the protector.  He is a man in archaeic dress but his painting style is erring on the modern.  He is a contradiction, a statement.  This, however, is not the most provocative self portrait that Corinth painted...

Self Portrait with his wife and a glass of champagne (1902)
Potentially uncomfortable at dinner parties, the Corinths leave little to the imagination about their lifestyle.  The champagne glass echoes the breast clasped in his other hand, his model and his drink both acting as pleasures in the artists life.  Behind is not an easel, but a table of food and drink.  The Corinths are about the good life and their intimacy involves the viewer in a rather startling manner.

Elizabeth Siddal (1853-4)
Speaking as a woman (hello, where are we going with this?) image today is a precarious balance of attractiveness and competence, both seemingly and worryingly distinct from each other.  Maybe it was ever thus and maybe so for men too, but you wonder if there was that choice to be made for women artists.  Should you show your best side, or should you be more than honest, possibly brutal?  Comparing Siddal's portraits by her lover, which are kinder, softer to her own image of herself, it is possible to see it is the same woman but she has exaggerated her palour, her hooded eyes, the starkness of her expression. It is how she sees herself, a self assessment without compromise or flattery. Is it about her as worker rather than her as muse?

Sarah Harrison (1900)
Given that this is a period where women artists were still considered 'hobbyists' it is perhaps unsurprising that they would add more gravity to their image, reflecting the struggle to be taken seriously; a woman who appears with the tools of her trade, ready, able and serious in her task.  There is no frivolity, no pandering to vanity in Harrison's self portrait above.  It's not that she isn't a good looking woman, it's just if you compare for example Leighton's magnificence with Harrison's subtle richness, the emphasis is on the sharpness rather than the attractiveness of the subject.

Zinaida Serebrjakova (1909)
Entitled Self Portrait at the Dressing Table, Serebrjakova demonstrates that it was possible for a female artist to exploit a muse cliche and show herself combing her hair in underwear.  Reminiscent of Rossetti's women in the 1860s, the artist appears with the accoutrements of feminine charm, but she is a mirror image, signified by the candle on the left hand side.  The artist has painted herself as an impossible reflection.  Unlike Headley who seems to be caught in the act of painting himself, Serebrjakova is preening, possibly as a comment on what society expects her to be doing in a mirror rather than what she actually was doing. Whether this contradiction was caught by her audience is another matter.  It might just be that Serebrjakova knew a picture of her in her underwear would sell possibly better than one of her looking studious.

Alvin Coburn (1905)
With the advent of photographic self portraits, the notion that the camera was the medium of unartistic truth was shed almost as soon as it was assumed.  By the turn of the twentieth century, artists such as Coburn, above, could present themselves as avante garde young men, just as much as an artist like Maxwell Armfield...

Maxwell Armfield (1901)
Armfield's portrait has gone beyond just one man's self portrait to encompass all young men of his artistic leanings.  More than any other selfie I have seen, Armfield is not only himself in his tempera vision, he is all men of that aesthetic, sensitive beauty with pink bows, flowers in wine glasses and the beauty of decorative art surrounding them.  He is a man, he is an art movement and he is only 20 years old.

The nuanced difference between portraiture and self portraiture may be slight at times.  If someone has a say in what image is taken of them, is shown of them, then in a way the only difference becomes the display of talent.  A self portrait is control of image, a parcelling up of what people will get from you.  Are you serious?  Are you precise?  Are you a big letch and a drinker?  All can be shown.  The colour, the shadow, the background, dress, undress - all tell you something of the person you are buying into either ideologically or literally.  With Armfield you are buying an aesthetic young man with dandyish tendencies, with Leighton you are buying the establishment.  So what do I want you to buy into with my image?


I'm not sure, but it will probably be different next week....

Monday, 12 January 2015

A Captive Audience

Imagine being a Victorian artist's model for a moment.  You must be asked to do some odd things, pose in some strange ways, but I'm guessing there were three words that were guaranteed to make a poor girl groan...
I'm painting Andromeda!

Andromeda (1869) Gustave Doré
Bare behinds, chains, rocks, scaly beasts, none of it hints at a comfortable working environment.  In some ways it's unsurprising that this Greek myth princess drew so many admiring glances in 19th century art as she offered a perfect opportunity to show a princess in dire danger without a stitch on.  Actually, it's not just the Victorians who fancied a bit of sea-beast action, as Andromeda appeared in art of the 16th century, not to mention ancient world mosaics and art. The more things change, the more they stay the same and some things (when they are to do with nudey wenches) really do not change...

Andromeda Chained to a Rock (1874) Henri Pierre Picou
Andromeda was the daughter of an ancient Greek King and boastful Queen who said her daughter was more beautiful than the sea nymphs.  Well, this hacked off Poseidon, Sea God, who sent Cetus, his big fish monster, to attack the coastal community until Andromeda was fed to him.  Perseus, on his way home from killing Medusa, happened upon the maiden and sea-monster and turned one to stone and made off with the other.  Everyone likes a happy ending, and in theory she had a nice garden ornament out of the whole ordeal, which is a bonus.

It is a moment of the story filled with some highly desirable artistic features.  You have a girls, sea and a big sea-beast of vague description. Picou has gone with a dragon-y, goblin-y thing, crawling out of the foamy brine towards the kneeling Andromeda (unless she just stops at the knees), while Perseus seems to bungee into view with his gorgon head. Andromeda has gone with the classic hip-pop that all the boys like, plus the total nudity (which I gather is quite popular with boys too).  I feel I ought to say something about her lack of body hair but we'll come to that.  She was chained to the rock for ease of snacking I suppose, with only a badly fitting cloak to stop chaffing.  If you are about to be bitten in two, I suppose a little scuffed-up bum is the least of your worries.

Perseus and Andromeda (1929) Robert Anning Bell
Comfy cloak-pillow has been provided for Bell's princess, and the sea seems rather tame.  In fact I wouldn't mind dabbling my toes in that beautiful sea.  Plus no chains!  Come on, if you had to be left out for the sea-beast, there are worse way to goes than a coordinated cloak/ties/lipstick ensemble.  Perseus again seems to be lobbed into view brandishing his magic head.  I wonder if there are some discreetely forgotten stories of princesses on the way home where he lurched into view shouting 'Don't look at the Gorgon head!'
'What Gorgon he--'
Whoops...

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) Gustave Moreau
Moreau's crowned and draped princess looks a bit bored as floaty Perseus and a proper dragon scrap it out in the background.  Moreau painted out the copy of Vogue that's on her knee, honest.  When you've quite finished, chaps, I'm right over here, just sitting.  Really, take your time.  Oh, you've brought a head that can turn things into rock?  That's great because I can't get enough rock.
She looks the least distressed and the most unimpressed of any Andromeda I've seen.  

The Doom Fulfilled Edward Burne-Jones
I love this picture, I get quite overcome in Southampton Art Gallery's Perseus room.  I don't know if it's the wonderful girl-bottom or the handsome chap with a giant snake between his legs (I am so sorry) but this is a picture that makes me happy.  I love the blue of the dragon and hero - how exactly is the dragon-snake holding that pose out of the water?  I love that Perseus is so bad-ass that he's not even bothering to get his Gorgon head out, just gets out his big sword, while she with the arse-dimples looks on.  Burne-Jones even smoothed out the rock where she had to stand.  There's a man who treats his princess sacrifice right.

Captive Andromeda (1876) Arthur Hill
Popping that hip and looking all kinds of saucy, Andromeda is definitely posing for the artist: 'Deary me, I'm all naked and imperiled. Won't a handsome chap swoop down and save me?' I know your sort, Hill's Andromeda, you attention seeking hussy.  

It is interesting looking through the princesses, seeing which artist is showing full frontal and which disguise what they could not show.  To modern eyes, the smooth-moulded lady area seems weird and more perverse than if they had shown her more realistically blessed.  The artists who either turned her to the side or caught her drapery mid-tumble do not draw attention to that which is not there.  

Andromeda Sarah Hill
A side-on Andromeda, resigned to doom on her rock has pathos without being obviously titillating.  Compared with Arthur Hill's nipples-and-knees, Sarah Hill's princess anxiously catches her foot behind her ankle and waits.  Only the slightest ripple is visible around the base of her rock, hinting that the beast is on its way but not quickly enough to put her out of her misery.

Perseus and Andromeda (1891) Frederic Leighton
It isn't out of the realm of possibility that she'd be able to keep the drapery around her lower regions while in distress and that is what Leighton shows us.  Leighton has given a bit of thought to this, showing the dragon crouching over the captive princess (oh, peril!) while Perseus rides in on his sky-horse (no bungee!) and Andromeda manages to remain fairly decent.  Classy bloke, Leighton.  Note the curve of the cowering dragon reflected in the curve of the princess, her hair mirroring the tail which drapes her opposite side.

If painting Andromeda decently seemed a challenge, imagine how difficult it must have been to keep her modest in 3D...

Perseus and Andromeda (1894) Henry Fehr
Just to the right of Tate Britain's entrance stands this delicious pile of mythological Jenga.  Poor old Andromeda is on the bottom of the heap, squashed by scale-y dragon thing and on top is Perseus.  There is a model who suffered for someone else's art.  There seems to be a fair amount of leg crossing and keeping our knees together in this pile-up.  Classical jeopardy is all very well but no-one needs to be flashing their moo to the art-going public.

Andromeda (1869) Edward Poynter
If I have a favourite Andromeda, it has to be this one from Poynter.  It would be worth being eaten by a dragon if you get to look this fine.  The colour of her hair and the wonderful storm-sea shade of her wrap.  That drapery, whipping around her foreshadowing the beast that is on its way.  It is beautiful, dramatic, breathtaking in the shape of the sea, the shades of red and green. She is not hamming up the moment, she is there and she is scared, the dragon has nothing to do with it.  Something is coming and she already has her eyes shut: that's how scary the sea beast is.  It's always better when you don't see the monster because your imagination will always provide something far more frightening than  anything you are shown.

Andromeda (detail) (1851) John Bell
Andromeda gave artists a nice legitimate reason to show nipples and frontage, all in the name of Classics.  If you think about it, there is no reason why the poor lass needs to be naked, in fact, if I was being fed to a dragon I'd want to go in wearing armour or at least a bra with a nasty underwire.  Don't make it easy for Mr Sea-Beast!  Also chains, she needed to be chained there, apparently.  Sometimes not just chained up a bit but with arms above her head (so uplifting).  Oh you naughty Victorians!  However, all that turbulent sea gave a perfect excuse for some red hair, gorgeously offset with acres of creamy skin. The problem with Andromeda, not unique in art of the era but seemingly a particular problem for maidens with their arms chained above their heads, is what to do with the lady-areas. The traditional solution is the smooth, doll-mould of a pelvis which must have seemed both attractive and appropriate to a contemporary audience but just serves to highlight the opinion we have of Victorians as sexually repressed weirdos. That seems a shame because any era that can bring us something as glorious as Poynter's Andromeda can't be all bad...

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Endless Night

Welcome to 2015, my lovely readers and what a splendid year it should prove to be!  There are a veritable bevy of gorgeous exhibitions littering the horizon, including one this autumn on the artist Edward Robert Hughes.  Probably better known as 'The Other Hughes', he is best known for late Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite influenced works, including this one...

Night with her Train of Stars E R Hughes
Dark hair and dress, Night flutters through the sky, shushing a baby who scatters poppies into the air, which turn into a flight of golden birds.  All is movement, travel, but on silent wings, and cherubs cling to the folds of her dress.  I can't quite work out her wings, it is as if another figure of equal size to her travels behind her, just out of our sight.

Night and Sleep Evelyn de Morgan
It is not unusual for Night to travel with a companion; de Morgan shows us two androgynous figures, swirling through the sky.  Night leads Sleep, shelters them, while Sleep rains down poppies, symbol of both dreams and death.  The sky is not dark, but Night seems to be holding up a cloak that symbolises the night sky and both have closed eyes.  I love the echoes in the figures, the girdle and the shoes, the cloak held by night and the robe worn by sleep.  Night leads us, protects us and we are powerless but to echo its movement.

The Spirit of the Night Constance Phillott
More often than not, Night is a woman and there is a feeling of protection, of a mother tucking in her children to sleep.  Because of the darkness, the deep colouring of the robes, there is also a slight hint of threat. Night covers and smothers, Night renders us unconscious and the poppies speak both of dreams and death.  The bats that fly Phillott's Night are not comforting or protective and she looks like Death, rather than Night, about to engulf the slumbering young woman.

Night and Sleep (1894) Simeon Solomon
When Night and Sleep appear together, they can appear like lovers.  Solomon's images of Sleep and Dreams often have them intertwined, echoing lovers in the night, bound by darkness.  Possibly the safety of the dark can enable love, allowed by Society or otherwise, to express what cannot be looked upon in the light of day, expressed and explored.  Night can allow things to happen, things to be seen that would otherwise not be approved of.

Night (1885) Heinrich Faust
Moon Nymph Luis Falero
The sexuality of Night, Night as a saucy nymph, is expressed in works such as the ones above.  Again I have to call for a full exhibition of Falero's work because it is delicious.  Night as wanton streaker, her skin glowing like the moon, her hair as dark as the night sky, is the flipside of Night as Mother.  This is not a woman who wants to tuck you up and she certainly doesn't seem to want any sleep.  The presence of bats reflects the animalistic nature of Night, unruly, somewhat demonic but irresistible.

Night Edward Burne-Jones

Night Wilfred Gabriel de Glehn
When not enticing the viewer to nocturnal orgies, Night can appear as a solitary, almost lonely figure.  Night can be a time when we feel alone, that all other people are absent from our landscape and we travel friendless and unaided.  Burne-Jones' Night floats, her face turned away, unaware of our presence and de Glehn's figure closes her eyes, her arms protectively across herself.  Night is often a time for worry, the unending roll of thought which is devoid of light or hope.  Night sees no company, no help, she travels alone.  In the endless stasis of the night, we feel vulnerable like de Glehn's figure, yet completely alone.  There is no threat, nor any company, in the landscape of the night, so why do we feel so afraid? Possibly it is the darkness, disguising the things we fear, the eternal anticipation of attack as they remain unseen, untackled.  All we need to do is wait for morning, and all can be revealed and relieved.

Dawn Frank Dicksee
 Night, for once almost recognisably male, is driven from his position by the glory of Dawn, who seems a nice girl if a little ostentatious. There is nothing dynamic about Night who looks, for want of a better word, sad, weary, and just trundling off down from the hill.  Dawn seems to be shouting 'Ta Dah!' in a golden triumph of rebirth, but the figures echo each other, her swirl of scarf becoming Night's mists.

On the Wings of Morning E R Hughes
So back to Hughes, and the coming of the dawn over the landscape of night.  Dawn is winged, like Night and her confetti of birds shower from her pastel wings and the blush of the clouds. Below her, bats of night turn to birds of day.  Her face is definitely one of triumph, day over night, life over death, hope over despair.  She, like Night, is alone, but she is flying towards something, bringing with her the day in all its golden splendor. 

We are past the shortest day of the year and although our nights are long, Spring is coming. 
Sleep well, dear readers.

Night (19th Century) Unknown American Photographer

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Wives and Other Martyrs

In 1851, John Everett Millais painted the bridal portrait of possibly the archetypal perfect Victorian wife.  She was Emily Andrews, and her face is a frozen moment of attentive bliss.  She is neat, sweet and waiting.  Her husband, the poet Coventry Patmore, wrote that 'a rapture of submission lifts her life into celestial rest' for her in her role of wife and this is her face...

Mrs Coventry Patmore (1851)  J E Millais
Modestly and naturally adorned, the only piece of frippery is a raspberry ribbon.  Compared with John Brett's image of her five years later, Millais managed to capture the image of Coventry Patmore's 'Angel in the House' as well as the inspiration for it.  Emily looks at us directly, but there is no challenge, there is just trust and waiting. Brett makes her look dignified and somewhat seductive but detached, Millias makes her look patiently interested in her adored audience.

Mrs Poventry Patmore (1856) John Brett
What Millias seemed to comprehend was that when it came to painting a wife it was not only a perceived social ideal that was required but also the notions of the husband, the primary audience. How did this impact on the portrayal of his own wife and furthermore, how did it affect his portrayal of wives as characters in his scenes?

Effie Ruskin (1853) J E Millais
 Of course when Millais started to paint the woman who was to be his wife, she was already someone else's wife.  It is easy to buy into the story that his pictures of her are tinged with longing and unrequited adoration, but what strikes me most about the Glenfinlas series is an adoption of domesticity, of insertion into an intimate sphere.  Naturally, Effie appears in the pictures performing wifely duties as Millais was at the time staying within their home, but he was only a visitor and she was performing the duties, albeit on the surface, for another man.  Again, Millais uses pink and flowers to adorn this perfect woman in an otherwise darkened scene.  In Millais eyes, the wife is the light in the darkness, the darkness in this case her marriage, her husband.

Effie Millais (1873-4)
The Highland Lassie (1854)
When Millais painted her again in 1873, it had been almost twenty years of wedded bliss since the picture before, and this would be his last portrait of her.  She is direct in her gaze still, and much is made of her commanding finger resting on the cover of the Cornhill Magazine.  She is pointing to the picture of a thresher, possibly hinting at how she felt life had treated her in order to get her to such a comfortable position.  Sitting with a fat cushion at her back, she is a woman, formidable and completely detached from the almost 'little girl' image of twenty years before.  Compared to The Highland Lassie, she is a woman of experience, which holds some irony if you think that in 1854 she was at the tail end of a tumultuous early life including the death of most of her siblings and the disaster of her marriage.  Twenty years of peace had given her eight children and a husband who understood her, but also insomnia and the knowledge that her position in society would never be what it should be.

If Millais managed to infuse his portraits of Effie with such depth of feeling, it is unsurprising that his paintings where she acts as a model treated her with similar levels of respect.  In The Order of Release 1746, she is the barefoot deliverance for a Jacobite soldier, a stoic point of rest for man and child.  The cloaking that drapes her gives her a goddess appearance that holds her apart from the tartan and ginger-haired man and child, but her hold on the pair, whilst delivering the titular order, ties her to them.  She is woman as heroine, who has succeeded on a small scale to free a Scottish man from English tyranny.

The Order of Release 1746 (1852-3)
It is unsurprising that within the three years between meeting Effie and marrying her, Millais would return again and again to the subject of marriage and the effect of the wrong husband on a wife.  In pen and ink sketches, Millais explored the subject of marital folly for a private audience of himself and his family.

Married for Rank (1853)
Within a series, reminiscent of Hogarth's Marriage-a-la-Mode of the previous century, Millais' Married for... sketches reflected how he saw the ills of society driving people into unhappy marriage.  In Married for Rank, the couple are bowed to, but not liked, the young woman on the arm of a wizened old man.  She is proud and dripping with jewels.  She displays her ring to the young wounded officer to her right, who touches it and looks at her sadly.  It is an unusual piece as Millais lays the blame firmly at the woman's feet.  The old man doesn't look unpleasant or evil, unlike the arrogance in the head-tilt of the woman.  In Married for Money a companion piece, it is a spurned woman who is forced to watch the one she loves on the arm of another.  Although not alone in his depiction of a regrettable marriage, it is a subject not readily considered exactly what Millais made of the motivation of the object of his affections in her marriage to Ruskin.

A Ghost Appearing at a Wedding Ceremony (1853-4)
As with Speak! Speak! (1894), the subject of the above sketch is the undying nature of love, but with the more negative connotations.  In the later painting, a man is held accountable in his bed by the vision of his bride, possibly hinting that he had been sexually unfaithful to his deceased wife, where as the woman in the earlier sketch is held accountable before God.  If Millais is exploring the theme of everlasting, eternal attachment to another, this was an unfortunate, if unsurprising moment to have such beliefs.  As his intended attempted to free herself from one husband, the young artist hints that people can never be freed, however much they wish it.

The Race Meeting (1853)

Retribution (1854)
Possibly less surprising are the pictures of women suffering due to the follies of their husbands.  In The Race Meeting the wife dissolves in tears of shame as her drunken wretch of a husband is finally caught by the bookies. In an irony of a crucified man, the husband spreads his arms innocently as the carriage is literally besieged.  In his hat is a 'Derby doll', a little figure worn at the races, who echoes his martyred form while its twin sits in a wine glass unable to escape.  In the corner, hidden in shadow, a child sucks on a chicken leg, unable to comprehend or control her greed.  The man is that child, uncomprehending in the face of his excesses or his comeuppance.

Retribution's husband has at least the grace to look ashamed when faced with his wrong-doing.  The seated woman has just married the gentleman, their discarded hats and flowers beside them, when they are brought face-to-face with his first wife and two children.  One wife points to the ring of her predecessor as the woman pleads with her husband to be acknowledged.  This husband has managed to ruin two wives, a fate that Effie Millais fought when she intervened with Rose La Touche's mother.  In Millais' world, husbands have the power of destruction, and women are the unsuspecting victims.

Married for Love (1853)
Untarnished love existed, for all the pitfalls and horror of the social constraints and aspirations.  The adoration between curate and his wife is expressed in their eye contact, their touch.  He writes on the Trinity, which could also refer to husband, wife and child.  The map behind her is the British Isles, the globe is in the foreground but the couple exist for each other and their domestic space, even the church is removed from them, suggesting that the truest expression of God is through their good and authentic love.  It is possible to see the domestic portraits of Effie in this scene, the Angel in the house which Millais fervently wished was his own.  When finally the couple were united, his penultimate picture of his new wife, and the last in which she would be a model rather than the subject, showed her in the centre of the home.

Peace Concluded 1856 (1856)
Painted in the year of the birth of their first child, a year after their marriage, Peace Concluded 1856 showed a contemporary home, and a scene of domestic peace and security.  The wounded soldier reads of the peace in the Crimean as he holds his halo-haired wife.  The daughter in the left holds a dove and watched the audience with an expectant face.  Finally, marriage could mean the end of hostilities and the security within the loving home.  Just as his first image of Effie as the Jacobite wife lifted her beyond the role to a goddess of release, then his last painting she 'acted' in shows her as the Madonna of the home, endless in her landscape of red velvet skirt and there to cradle her beleaguered husband. If Millais had felt tired and wounded by the fight to get his bride, he could finally find peace in the arms of his love.


Happy New Year, readers of The Kissed Mouth and I wish you all a merry night and a bright end to 2014.  I'll see you all next year....