Thursday, 20 July 2017

Review: Beauty in Thorns and Interview with Kate Forsyth

I have been most fortunate this month because Kate Forsyth, author of Bitter Greens, let me have a read of her new novel Beauty in Thorns.  I was very eager to read it because I have been talking to Kate for a while now about the lives and loves of Pre-Raphaelite muses and as the author of a novel about Pre-Raphaelite women I'm always delighted to find another book on the same subject. Kate has taken the familiar threads of the Pre-Raphaelite story and made a novel that spans the birth of the Brotherhood right to the end of the century, centering around the lives of the muses, wives and lovers of the artists.


This is a monumental piece of work.  Spanning fifty years and almost five hundred pages, Beauty in Thorns covers some familiar ground but in a way that will make you question everything you thought you knew about the Pre-Raphaelite women. Predominantly following the lives of Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Morris and Georgiana Burne-Jones, we trace them from childhood, through love and marriage (not necessarily with the same man), troubles, disillusionment and immortality.  

Elizabeth Siddal, Asleep (1850s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
It would be hard to see how a novelist could take scenes as ingrained in Pre-Raphaelite lore as Lizzie in the bath and make it new, but throughout her prose, Kate adds layers of character to these women, making them more than just the muses of their lovers, but as people with motivation, needs, desires and dreams.

Jane Morris (1873) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Taking the recurring theme and image of sleeping beauty, not only in Edward Burne-Jones monumental murals but also the lives of the women, Kate reveals girls awaiting princes, women having to allow men the active role in romance, and the fortunes of women who rebel against these constraints.  Not only are the women the unwilling heart of a passive fairytale, waiting in their bower for a prince, but also there is reflection on the other roles women take in such tales, cursing their own daughters to isolation through any transgressions of the mothers.

After reading Beauty in Thorns I was desperate to ask Kate about her journey from research to story, and I was lucky enough to ask her some questions...

Q. In Beauty in Thorns, both Ned Burne-Jones and Lizzie Siddal change their names on Rossetti's suggestion/demand.  Why do you think they allowed him that power and why do you think he needed it?

Elizabeth Siddal(l) (c.1860)
I think both Lizzie Siddal and Ned Burne-Jones admired Rossetti, and looked up to him. Rossetti was very aware of the importance of names in both shaping one’s sense of self-worth and in creating a persona for public consumption. He had changed his own name from Gabriel Charles Rossetti to Dante Gabriel Rossetti only a few years earlier.


Q. I think some readers will be shocked by how brutal Jane Morris' origins are portrayed - why did you give her such an unromantic back story?

Jane Morris, 1865
I think it is my job to be as truthful as possible about the lives of my characters, not to romanticise them.

Janey Burden was a slum girl. Her father worked as a groom in the stables of a busy inn in Oxford. Her mother was a laundress (when she could get work) and illiterate. Janey lived with her parents and brother and sister in a single room not much larger than one of the horses’ stalls. Her eldest sister died of tuberculosis when only a child.

It is known her father could be violent, as he was charged with assault on a neighbour. It is known they were destitute, because her father was unable to pay the parish poor rate. It is also known her mother and father’s relationship was troubled because her parents separated after Robbie Burden refused to pay for his wife’s debts.

Janey would, most probably, have gone to the local parish school till she was twelve, and then it is likely she would have worked as a laundress, seamstress, or scullery-maid. We don’t know, because she never spoke about her childhood.

La Belle Iseult (1858) William Morris
When John Mackail was writing his biography of her husband, William Morris, he wished to talk about Jane’s background. She refused to tell him anything or let him include a drawing of where she had once lived.

Mackail wrote angrily, ‘If Mrs. Morris feels ashamed of having lived in a little house among surroundings of extreme beauty before she married, all I can say is that such a feeling is to me unintelligible.’

Of course it was. He was a man, university educated, and born in a respectable middle-class family. He had no idea what it would be like to be a girl growing up in a rookery.

Victorian slums are notorious for their squalid living conditions. Janey lived in St Helen’s Passage for quite some time. In 1848, the passage was described in the following terms: ‘There are several very unwholesome dirt heaps, an exceedingly bad surface drain … a deep pit partly filled with solid matters and covered with a wooden trap door is situated close to a house, the inhabitant of which complained much of the smell arising from it.’

In the 1850s, the investigative journalist Henry Mayhew described similar slums in London as ‘wretched dens of infamy, brutality and vice’. Sexual exploitation, child labour, dirt, disease and drunkenness were all sides effects of such abject poverty, and Janey would have seen it all – and quite likely suffered it too.

One of the few things that is known about Janey’s childhood is that she gathered violets in the meadows and woods outside Oxford, most probably to sell on street corners.

Later, after she became engaged to William Morris, she was sent away to learn how to be a lady. She was taught how to enunciate properly and how to play the piano and embroider.

It is believed that Janey was the inspiration for the character of Anne Brown in Vernon Lee’s 1884 novel Miss Brown, which in its turn inspired George Bernard Shaw’s 1914 play Pygmalion, in which the flower seller Eliza Doolittle is plucked from the streets and taught how to speak and act, just as Jane Burden was by William Morris. Interestingly, Shaw was very close to the Morris family, living for some years in a ménage-a-trois with May Morris and her husband.

Rather than romanticising Jane Burden’s childhood, I felt it was important to show just what a tough and brutal life she must have had. The way that she transformed herself – teaching herself to speak Italian, reading widely, and creating beautiful pieces of textile art – is such a testament to her intelligence and strength of character.

A key source for me in imagining Janey’s childhood and adolescence was the essay, ‘Where Janey Used to Live’ by Margaret Fleming, published in The Journal of William Morris Studies (Winter 1981). Also useful was Jan Marsh’s dual biography Jane and May Morris: A Biographical Story 1839-1938 (1986), Jane Morris: The Burden of History by Wendy Parkins (2013) and London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopædia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work, by Henry Mayhew (1862).

Q. Traditional narratives have Rossetti and Lizzie's relationship as sexless but that isn't the case here.  What made you interpret them that way?

Early biographers of Dante Gabriel Rossetti did indeed argue that he and Lizzie Siddal never consummated their love before marriage, despite eleven years of close association including periods when Lizzie was essentially living with Gabriel in his lodgings. One of those biographers was his brother William Rossetti who was doing whatever he could to save Rossetti’s reputation from accusations he was a seducer and a philanderer.

Elizabeth Siddal as Delia (c.1860-2) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
These same biographers named Lizzie ‘frigid’, ‘wan’, ‘passive, ‘sluggish’, ‘inert’, ‘a melancholy doll’, ‘depressive’, ‘manipulative’ and ‘a hypochondriac.’ The best that was said of her was said she was ‘frail and sensitive’.

I utterly refute those readings of her character. You only need to look at her behaviour to see they are both untrue and unkind.

Right from the very beginning of her association with the Pre-Raphaelites, Lizzie showed her willingness to transcend rules. She agreed to model in the first place, despite the common assumption that artists’ models were all prostitutes. She posed with legs bared, in boys’ clothes, for Walter Deverell’s painting of ‘Twelfth Night’. She modelled for Rossetti in suggestive poses, her hair loose, dressed only in her chemise. She defied convention and moved out of her parents’ home, which was almost unheard of at the time. William Bell Scott caught her and Gabriel alone, reading poetry together, in the twilight, something which no good Victorian maiden would ever do. She slept at Gabriel’s apartment, and invited him into her hotel room. She wanted to be an artist herself, and drew and painted and wrote poetry in defiance of society’s strictures on such activities being unladylike.

Indeed, William Rossetti – the primary apologist of his brother - wrote: ‘He was an unconventional man, and she, if not so originally, became an unconventional woman ...’

Rossetti sitting for Elizabeth Siddal (1853) D G Rossetti
Most contemporary biographers of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal – including Lucinda Hawksley, Henrietta Garnett & Franny Moyle – agree with me. Hawksley (2004) says ‘I dispute that Lizzie continued to refuse him and believe they did have a sexual relationship before marriage.’ Moyle writes, in 2009, ‘he was undoubtedly her lover.’ Garnett, writing in 2012, says: ‘Most of their acquaintance took them to be lovers.’

Jan Marsh, one of the foremost Pre-Raphaelite scholars, is not so sure. She writes: ‘It has often been asserted, without evidence, that Gabriel and Lizzie were sexually intimate during the years of their ‘engagement’, or conversely, that Lizzie refused all physical relations until a wedding ring was on her finger. Neither seems to have been the case.’

She is absolutely right in that there is no concrete evidence one way or another. I would, however, point to Gabriel’s myriad drawings of Lizzie sleeping, reading, drawing and sewing, her hair loose on her shoulders, in déshabillé, to show the level of intimacy between them.

Not to mention his poetry. Gabriel’s sonnet ‘Known in Vain’ – written in the mid-1850s, soon after he met Lizzie – reads:

‘As two whose love, first foolish, widening scope, 
Knows suddenly, to music high and soft, 
The Holy of holies …’
         

Q. You offer a bravely visceral depiction of Lizzie's eating disorder.  Why was it important to show that side of her character so graphically?

Elizabeth Siddal (1854)
One of the difficulties of writing biographical fiction is that the author cannot sit on the sidelines, and say, ‘it is believed that …’ or ‘it is possible …’ A novelist needs to try and find the explanation that seems most likely, and then bring it to life on the page.

The possibility that Lizzie might have had an eating disorder was first suggested by Elaine Shafer in a 1985 essay, ‘The Bird in the Cage’.

However, it has never been closely examined as a probable cause for her troubling illnesses. Lucinda Hawksley, in 2004, writes: ‘Much of Lizzie’s ill health originated in her mind, stemming from her desire to receive attention and love.’

Lucinda Hawksley acknowledges that Lizzie may have had some kind of eating disorder, but then says that ‘it became common for her to emotionally blackmail (Gabriel) by refusing to eat.’
Anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders are mental illnesses with devastating physical consequences. They have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Eating disorders cannot, and must not, be dismissed as a form of emotional blackmail (even though they are commonly misunderstood in such a way).

The more I researched Lizzie’s life, the more convinced I became that she did have an eating disorder. Descriptions of her thinness and her inability to eat are constant in the letters and diaries of the PRB. A few examples:

In 1854, Ford Madox Brown writes in his diary that Lizzie was ‘thinner and more deathlike and more beautiful and more ragged than ever’.

In 1857, Gabriel wrote that she is ‘not better in health or eating anything to speak of’. This was the same year in which Lizzie refused to touch food for two weeks, resulting in her admission to the health spa in Matlock.

In 1861, he refers to her ‘unfortunate lack of appetite which keeps her mostly fasting and prevents her from gaining much strength.’

Then, at the inquest into her death in 1862, he told the court ‘she could not sleep at times nor take food’ (insomnia is a common side effect of anorexia).

Most striking is the visual evidence of Gabriel’s drawings and paintings which show her physically dwindling.

Nowadays, when we see a young woman wasting away, refusing food, or vomiting after meals, we would suspect anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. However, in the mid-19th century such pronounced emaciation was normally attributed to tuberculosis, commonly called ‘consumption’ because it seemed to consume the sufferer. 

The first medical identification of eating disorders was made in 1868 (six years after Lizzie’s death), when Sir William Gull, the Queen’s physician, delivered a paper describing a digestive disorder with no known cause, which he called ‘hysteric apepsia’ (apepsia means ‘without digestion’). In 1873 (eleven years after Lizzie’s death), Ernest-Charles Lasègue, a French physician, published a paper entitled De l’Anorexie Histerique which was the first real examination of the idea that the wasting away of these young women could be caused by self-starvation. It was not understood as a mental illness, however, but as a ‘maladie imaginaire’. Sir William Gull consequently undertook further investigation and coined the term ‘anorexia nervosa’.

If Lizzie was an anorectic, she and her family and friends would have had absolutely no idea what was wrong with her. Any ‘curious perversions of appetite’, as Lasègue named them, such as binge eating, secret eating, hoarding of food, purging, refusal of food, or food-related rituals, would have seemed, at best, a hysterical demand for attention.

It is my job, as a novelist, to bring Lizzie’s inner world to life. I have to show what it would have felt like, smelt like. I have to show the revulsion and confusion of those who loved her, and I have to show Lizzie’s own self-loathing and shame. Those scenes were difficult to write, and yet I feel passionately that they explain so much of the difficult emotional dynamic between Gabriel and Lizzie and others who knew her.

I think it utterly fascinating that Christina Rossetti wrote, on 24 December 1856 (in the midst of Gabriel and Lizzie’s early passion):

He feeds upon her face by day and night,
    And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
    Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
    Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.


Q. There is a distinct difference in the dynamic of Jane and Rossetti than has previously been portrayed (which I won't reveal here because of spoilers). How difficult is it getting to the truth of such a famous relationship?

Jane Morris (1873) D G Rossetti
Once again, I examined the psychology of the people involved and made decisions about what their background and behaviour revealed about their inner lives.

Jane Burden – like Lizzie Siddal – has been judged harshly by the male biographers of her famous husband. Wendy Parkins, in her fascinating feminist re-examination of her life, Jane Morris: The Burden of History (2013), believes she ‘has been burdened by a resilient stereotype attached to her name – the unfaithful wife, the melancholy invalid, the iconic siren – a limited characterisation.’

I agree with her. I found Janey Morris one of the most interesting women in the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood – fiercely intelligent, strong-willed, and free of conventional Victorian morality thanks to her wretched upbringing in the slums of Oxford.

I also believe that Dante Gabriel Rossetti has been unfairly cast as a libertine and a philanderer. Which is not to say that I believe him to be altogether free of sexual indiscretion; I simply do not believe he acted quite as carelessly and unkindly as many believe. He was clearly racked with guilt and remorse after Lizzie’s death, and he was, in his youth at least, idealistic and romantic.

Jan Marsh writes, in her dual biography of Janey and her daughter May, that the affair between Gabriel and the wife of one of his best friends ‘is less of a puzzle if it is admitted that Jane may herself have been ‘passionate, fascinating and determined’ rather than simply the object of another’s ardour. At the very least, she was eager and willing to develop the affair.’

Wendy Parkins also argues that the traditional view of Dante Gabriel Rossetti as seducer and Janey Morris as the seduced deprives her of any emotional agency. I believe this to be an untrue reading of the relationship between the two. Janey risked everything for her love for Gabriel, and I believe she did so joyously and determinedly.


Q. I love the way that certain situations echo the paintings, so I have to ask - do you have a favourite Pre-Raphaelite painting?


Oh, so many! It was so wonderful to spend such a long time scrutinising some of the most exquisite art ever created. My favourites include ‘Prosperina’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, where he painted Janey Morris as the goddess of spring, condemned to spend half of every year in the world of the dead; John Millais Everett’s painting of Lizzie Siddal as ‘Ophelia’; Rossetti’s painting of Lizzie as ‘Francesca da Rimini’ and ‘Beata Beatrix’; Edward Burne-Jones’s multitude of angels, and ‘Love in Ruins’ and ‘Merlin and Nimue’; and Jane Morris and her daughter May’s gorgeous embroideries. And – of course! The many ‘Sleeping Beauty’ drawings and paintings that Edward Burne-Jones painted over his lifetime, which give me the key narrative thread in Beauty in Thorns.

The Legend of Briar Rose (1885-90) Edward Burne-Jones
Many, many thanks to Kate for allowing me read an advance copy of her book and for answering my questions.  

At present, Beauty in Thorns has only been released in Australia but until it has a worldwide release, it is possible to get a copy through The Book Depository.

Friday, 14 July 2017

The Mysterious Miss Bunn

This is part blog post, part request for information, so bear with me.  Today we are looking at the career of artist and enamelist Miss Fanny Bunn...

Fairies Trinket Bowl (1921)
Some of you might remember an exhibition on women artists, held at the Russell-Cotes in 2014.  It was whilst finding objects for the show that Mr Walker (seen in red, above) found this glorious, luminous trinket bowl by an artist named Fanny Bunn. Well, that is just the best name ever.  Not a great deal of information was available on Miss Bunn at the time and so I always intended to look deeper and see what I could find...

Hill Top, West Bromwich - Bunn country...

Miss Fanny Bunn was born in the autumn of 1870 in West Bromwich, Staffordshire.  Her family was living at the time with her maternal grandfather, a grocer.  The family was young, and Levi and Emma Bunn had managed to have two daughters within two years of their marriage.  Levi's family business was coach-building, and his father Samuel had been a coachsmith before him.  However in 1850 Samuel, who lived at Hill Top, West Bromwich, had been declared bankrupt, which might explain why they were living with Emma's parents.  By later census returns it seems that Emma still served in her father's shop until her husband became comfortably off, financially speaking.

By 1881, Levi's occupation was listed as both book merchant and brass hinge maker.  They had moved to their own home in Walsall Street, West Bromwich and they were one of the few families on the street who kept a servant, 16 year old Elizabeth Campion.  Fanny and her slightly older sister Rebecca were at school, and when they left school, Fanny continued on to art school, to be specific the Birmingham Municipal School of Art.
The Legend of Sandalphon, the Angel of Prayer (1890-1900)

By 1891, the Bunn family fortunes were on a pretty even keel. They had moved to Beeches Road in West Bromwich, a very pleasant red-brick terrace of houses with gothic-arched windows.  Levi Bunn was listed as a Liberal Council candidate in the 1890s.  Fanny's work was winning awards - The Legend of Sandalphon was admitted to the National Art Competition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it was exhibited (this piece was stamped 'Examined South Kensington') from Birmingham. Sandalphon is an archangel responsible for protecting unborn children.  The weeping angels either side of the archangel do raise some questions about Fanny's experiences of pregnancy as this is not a happy picture.

The Victor (1904)
In 1904 she won the Princess of Wales scholarship of £25 for her piece entitled The Victor, now in the collections of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The enamel panel, reported in the London Daily News as 'well disposed, rich in colour' was somewhat dismissed by adding 'although the types of women looking down on the knight might have been more happily chosen.' Charming. However the Arts and Craft Magazine's coverage of the National Art Competition in 1904 praised her 'brilliant and harmonious' colouring of the scene and 'exquisite translucence of the enamels', lifting her work above the 'commonplace'.

Design for a Peacock (1901)
Seemingly aware that her name was not exactly a glamorously artistic one, Fanny Bunn briefly took on the pseudonym 'Peacock', which was also the subject of her prize winning design for an enamelled decorative panel in 1901.  She also won further awards, this time a gold medal and £25, for her enamelled panel of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, in 'rich tones of blue, violet and peacock' (as reported in East and South Devon Advertiser in 1902). This piece resides in the V&A, the very museum where it won the medal. The quality of her work and her prizes made her famous and brought her back to the Birmingham school as a teacher of enamelling in 1905.

Enamelled portrait of George Robertson Sinclair, organist at Hereford Cathedral
 Whilst most of Fanny's work is rarely on display these days, one piece is on constant show.  Her enamelled portrait of the organist and musical director at Hereford Cathedral, George Robertson Sinclair (d.1917) is on the wall of the cathedral if you fancy seeing it.  By 1911 census, Levi and his two daughters were still living at Beeches Road, Emma having died a decade before, just after the last census.  Fanny was listed as an artist but neither Rebecca or Levi worked, and they had a young maid to take care of the family.  The last that we know of Fanny's work is the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists Autumn Exhibition of 1921, where Case 2 in Gallery 3 held the trinket bowl entitled Fairies and a silver powder box Memory.

The Eve of St Agnes (no date)
That is all we know so far, although Fanny's Will from 1950 list more items which must be in someone's collection.  She left everything to her sister, who outlived her by five years, and amongst the pieces listed are an enamel plaque entitled Gloria in Excelsis, a panel in grisaille (which means shades of grey), a tripych of The Nativity, a portrait in limoges of 'Miss Simms' and a full length watercolour portrait of Rebecca. So where are all these pieces?  Over to you, my art detectives, do you know where any of these pieces are?  Do you own a Fanny Bunn original?  If so I'd love to hear from you!  Much like Meave Doggett (who you might remember from this blog post) Fanny just fades from view after the early 1920s but I'm hoping that her work continued, and her pieces are just waiting to be gathered into a marvellous retrospective.  Given how glorious the little trinket bowl is, that would be an amazing sight indeed...

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Get Thee to a Biographer!

You should by this point know what I'm like.  I really adore finding out about the waifs and strays of art history, finding those women who fall between the cracks and bringing their lives, well, to life because honestly everyone has an interesting life in one way or another.  Even if your moment under the artist's pencil (or even the artist) was brief, I bet something else happened in your life.  No-one only gets only one moment of interest.  So I have a little fact-heap of ladies I look into, finding out more about them until I have enough to bring you.  Imagine my delight when I set about researching two of Rossetti's models which had been somewhat overlooked - Would I find out that they had gone mad?  Did they have unexplained children? Have scandalous love affairs and appalling marriages?

In the past I have found out all of these things about Victorian models.  This time things were a little different.  This is the story of Agnes Manetti and Ada Vernon...

The Laurel (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Let's start with Agnes Manetti, because I've always found her a nice, larger-than-life character.  She was described by William Michael Rossetti as 'a Scotch woman in London, with a handsome pleasing face, more especially a fine profile.' So far, so good, but it doesn't last as he goes on to describe her as 'of no rigid virtue' and looking like Napoleon.  He knows how to flatter a girl, that one.  William Michael is not the most reliable of character witnesses, being a bit of a pig at times, but also he is usually recollecting much after the event, sometimes as much as 40 years, so I suppose I ought to forgive him.  But I don't.

Agnes Manetti (1862) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The problem is that we tend to take what people like William Michael say as gospel, which it should be as he was actually there.  However, he is a careless biographer of people he does not consider important and so the women who were mere fleeting fancies get the history applied to them that William Michael thinks appropriate.  When it comes to someone like Fanny Cornforth, his recollections are stronger because he loathed her so much.  With people like Agnes Manetti, he could probably barely remember her.  He certainly couldn't remember her surname.  Was he even thinking of her at the time?  When asked about Agnes in 1904, William Michael recalled that his brother's 'principle painting from her is named Monna Pomona'.

Monna Pomona (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
 Slight problem is that the model for the painting wasn't Agnes...

Okay, so enough of William Michael's nonsense, is there anyone who actual remembered her?  Gosh I wish there was a promiscuous slut-bag who fancied everyone and kept a diary...

Oh, George Price Boyce, how lovely to see you again!
My favourite hot Victorian diarist, George Price Boyce came to my rescue once more.  If you have never read his diary I thoroughly recommend it because George was a one for the ladies and made it his business to meet all the models, give them presents and feed them.  I appreciate a man who gives a girl breakfast, and so it was with Agnes Manetti.  In 1862, Boyce saw images of Agnes, who he referred to as 'Fatty Aggie M' when he visited Rossetti.  He seems to imply in his diary entry of October 22 1862 that Rossetti has been using Agnes as his 'Joan of Arc' even though William Michael identified the model as a 'Mrs Beyer'.  Anyway, in January of 1863, Agnes comes round to breakfast at Boyce's bachelor pad and he draws her then gives her 'a little Florentine mosaic brooch' which I'm sure isn't a euphemism.

La Castagnetta (1860s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Rossetti drew Agnes many times in a two year period, but only seemed to use her in a couple of paintings.  La Castagnetta is believed to be her, as is a watercolour of Sweet Tooth, an image of a girl eating fruit (which is one he repeated with Fanny Cornforth at this time too).

Sweet Tooth (watercolour) (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Aggie (Sweet Tooth) (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
There are a number of images of Fanny Cornforth eating and much is made of the link between these and her weight.  Possibly too, for someone called 'Fatty Aggie', there is a link being made between her sensual love of eating and her weight, also linked to sensuality.  Thinking about it, if Aggie is seen has a bit loose in her morals, as was Fanny, is there a link being made between fat, eating and debauchery.  Look at those grapes (or whatever they are) hanging out of her mouth!  Saucy wench!

The Hair Net (1862) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
So, to the research! Come on, with a name like Agnes Manetti, she won't be too hard to find....  So what do we know?  She was called Agnes, that we know as at least two people call her that, without speech-marks mostly, and she might have been Scottish, or 'Scotch' (a term which I think only applies to the drink, frankly).  I could not find an Agnes Manetti, but there are certainly a ton of Scottish Agneses (Agni?) in London in the 1860s.  Okay, so we'll start with Manetti, which was felt to be an odd name for a Scottish girl (discounting the Italian influx, obviously).  There we have more luck.  There are two gentlemen in London in 1861 with the surname 'Manetti'.  First of all we have Joseph, a Tuscan bank clerk (the best kind of bank clerk) who married first Frances (who died), then Martha, but neither wife was Scottish, let alone had 'Agnes' in their name.  On then to the fabulously named Raimondo Felix Manetti, a Spanish sculptor, who married Fanny Mills, a London girl.  They travelled about quite a bit by the look of them, so possibly they had come down from Scotland before settling in London, but Fanny was far too young, having only been in born in 1850.  No luck on any front there then, but I may have a suggestion about part of her name...


In March 1860 the journal The Scottish Gardener ran an article about 'The Manetti Bubble'.  The Manetti shrub rose was wildly popular, although not everyone was a fan, the article calling it 'fair at first sight, but the more we know of him the less we value him'.  It's hard to know how Agnes came by the surname but by Boyce's recollection of her, it appears she took it herself.  Could she have named herself after a type of popular Scottish rose?  It's tempting to wonder if she was called Agnes at all in that case because another shrub rose is the 'Agnes'.  Did she just name herself after roses?  As Boyce does not call her "Agnes" (in speech-marks), suggesting he knows it's a made up name (like he does with "Fanny"), I think we should believe she was called Agnes, but as for the surname, who can tell?  Rossetti was a lover of flowers and used them intelligently in his paintings so possibly he christened Wee Scottish Aggie after the rose she was. After all, as William Michael says she is beautiful in Monna Pomona.  Only that's not her.  That's Ada Vernon.  Damn it!

Ada Vernon (1863) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
See, there's another problem.  When two models look alike, who can tell which of them is the right model?  Enter stage left, Ada Vernon, the real model for Monna Pomona, and how do we know?  Because George Price Boyce fancied her.  Of course he did.  From his diary in February 1864, Rossetti 'has been painting on the drawing of "Ada" and the apple.  It is most exquisite.'  There is a letter to Ada from Rossetti, dated January 1864, postponing their meeting but asking her to come the next day 'as early as you can manage - and please come with your hair very nice indeed.'  Not only Monna Pomona has been misidentified as Agnes, but there is some doubt about The Laurel which has both women's names against it, depending where you look.  Both women were dark haired, dark eyed and beautiful.  Even less is reported on Ada Vernon, so we have no idea how rigid her morals were or where she apparently came from.  All we know is that she was going to marry a gentleman called Hemblen, according to the Rossetti Archive.  The above drawing was apparently given to her as a wedding present.  Apparently.  Okay, so Hemblen isn't a very common name, she'll be easy to find, right?

Ada Vernon (1863-5) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The above picture of Ada was part of a job lot that Boyce bought from Rossetti in 1865.  Something that caught my eye was the fact that Boyce put quotes around Ada's name the first time he spoke about her, which immediately put me on my guard.  First of all I searched for 'Hemblen' and variations and any marriages around that time to anyone with a name like Ada Vernon.  Lawks, nothing at all.  I also searched for Ada Vernon, again with not much hope, and certainly nothing that really fitted.  However there was a young man in Chelsea at that time, called Edmond Hamblen.  Sadly he ended his days without marrying Miss Vernon, and he was last seen in the 1901 census living with his widowed sister.  So what if Ada intended to marry but for some reason it just never happened?  Are there any unmarried Ada Vernons who might fit our bill?  Oddly, I was drawn to one who died in Croydon in 1917.  Ada Mary Vernon, born in 1842 in Worcestershire, had been an art needleworker.  It's not out of the question that she was in some way connected with the Morris family in the early 1860s, via embroidery, and that was where Rossetti found her.  I agree, it's tenuous...

Miss Ada Vernon, actress

Possibly a slightly more plausible explanation is Miss Ada Vernon, who was an actress, which might explain Boyce's quotation marks around her name.  Miss Vernon seemed a busy, if not successful actress in the early 1860s, mentioned in The Era for her portrayal of Mary in The Farmer's Story (November 1865).  She was given the review that 'with further practice [she] will probably be able to realise a serious situation more forcibly than at present.' Thank you, I think.  When reviewed for her role in The Rivals, Tatler felt she was 'excellent', but from the faint praise given by her many reviewers she was never really a threat to Ellen Terry.  She appears in Rossetti's art around the same period as Ruth Herbert, so possibly he met her through Ruth.  Who can tell?  What becomes clear is that neither Ada or Agnes had families who remembered, nor children who carried the story down. Neither of them were in Rossetti's life long enough to become ingrained in the stories, nor so they seem to have written their histories themselves.  Was Agnes one of the hundreds of Scottish girls, working in service in London who was given a pretty name to suit her face?  Was Ada an actress or an embroiderer?  Why didn't she marry Mr Hamblen?  Had things turned out differently I might have been the author of Hoots! The Fall and Rise of Agnes Manetti but some people get lost in time. 

Especially if you are a woman.  A childless woman. An unmarried woman. No-one will remember you.

Well, that's a jolly note to end on, but this is the lesson of Aggie and Ada. Childless, unmarried women leave no memories sadly, which is brutal but true. By 'childless' I mean a woman without any descendants, either theirs or step-children or even nephews and nieces. It's interesting who comes crawling out of the woodwork on anniversaries of artists births and deaths, with tales of their model relatives.  Reading the centenary pieces on Rossetti you'd think most of London had posed for him, some of them even after he had died.  It stems from family narratives, great aunt so-and-so telling the story of when Rossetti painted her, or when she let Boyce give her a mosaic brooch (my new favourite euphemism). If you have no access to the younger generation who will carry your flame you will just have to do it yourself.

For a Victorian model to be remembered it helps to have been memorable, and I don't just mean in the good way.  Irritate the hell out of the right people and they will hang onto that grudge forever.

Just ask that nut-throwing, illiterate, thieving prostitute, Fanny Cornforth.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Review: Mary Lobb from Cornwall to Kelmscott: A Life Revealed

You no doubt remember that a couple of weeks ago I did my post on Miss Mary Lobb. As a consequence, I had the pleasure of talking to the splendid people at Kelmscott and Simon Evans from the National Library of Wales about their new exhibition, Mary Lobb from Cornwall to Kelmscott: A Life Revealed.  Stop in the name of Lobb!


This is unsurprisingly the first exhibition on Miss Lobb considering the bad press she had received over the years.  It is an absolute delight that she is getting the reassessment she so richly deserved. This all stemmed from an incredible discovery of the archive at the National Library of Wales of the many items that had arrived when Miss Lobb died.  Not only were there personal items from the Lobb family but also many revealing items relating to Kelmscott, her home for over 20 years...

Kelmscott Manor
I think the problem has previously been that all that was known of Miss Lobb is almost entirely connected to May, so it was hard to see her beyond that two-dimensional lesbian-lady-in-sensible-shoes that has made her the butt of jokes.  What this exhibition succeeds in doing is showing Mary before May, the unstoppable Miss Lobb, large-locomotive-loving, steam-roller-driving, dog-cuddling powerhouse. A big, powerful, confident woman who takes no nonsense from anyone?  Miss Lobb, your time has come!

May and Mary, a dynamic duo
By showing us more layers of Lobb, it is easier to get a more complete picture of the woman who turned May Morris' life around.  An utter revelation is a small oil painting by Miss Lobb, a modernist sunset reminiscent of Paul Nash.  These are juxtaposed with May Morris' own watercolours, showing how chalk-and-cheese the pair were but somehow they worked together.

Camping with Mary and May
Much is made of their travels; rough camping in the middle of nowhere, their 'flat' in Reykavik, photographs of the pair smiling in front of their tent. Compare those photos with images at the end of Jane Morris' life, with May sat on the floor at her mother's feet, subdued, and you can see how much of a difference Miss Lobb made.  There are photos of their friends, their goats, their little trap.  The animals that seem to populate Kelmscott in the 1920s must have come in with Miss Lobb who cared so much for her horses she patented shoe coverings that protected the hoof from debris.  I'm a great believer in the life-affirming joy animals bring to life (speaking as someone with a front room filled with chicks I hatched at Easter) and Miss Lobb seems to agree with me.  One of my favourite photographs is Mary and May showing off their goats, which is about as far from the rather studious, overshadowed, unlucky-in-love Mary Morris as it is possible to get.

Miss Lobb and friends (both two- and four-legged)
This is both an important and fascinating exhibition and I thoroughly urge you to go and see it this summer.  Miss Lobb has for too long been seen as May's folly, a cartoon, manish brute of a woman, swearing, drinking and brandishing a gun at anyone who came to near to her beloved May.  What is revealed is this funny, caring, uncompromising woman who loved May and made her life worth living.  Once you understand how much these two women brought to each other's lives you'll never see Kelmscott as a place of melancholy and thwarted love again.  All I am saying is give Lobb a chance...

To learn more, visit Kelmscott's page for their exhibition here.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Nil Desperandum!

Flipping heck, life is grim at the mo, isn't it? It's all a rubbish swiss roll of terroism and elections, far too many politicians on the telly spouting nonsense and it's frankly disturbing going anywhere near social media because it leaves you in no doubt that people are awful.  I'm so glad we're not people.  Anyway, in order to cheer us all up I thought I'd find us some lovely pictures of Victorian despair...

Disappointed Love (1821) Francis Danby
I've always been partial to this painting; it seems to depict a Jane Austen heroine sobbing in a wood.  Did she chose the wrong bonnet? Did she forget the words to 'The British Grenadier' at an inopportune moment and therefore ruin her marriage chances? Did she trust a red coat?  Never trust a red coat! Looking on the bright side, the Empire-line gown is enormously flattering during pregnancy.  I'm also worried about grass stains.  White is so unforgiving, although I don't suppose she can wear it any more.  Moving on.

Disappointment (1879) John Haynes-Williams
It's always disappointment to find that your friends have not shown the same commitment to the tapas evening as you have.  It's hard to imagine what this finely dressed young lady has to be disappointed about, unless someone has just loudly announced that their granny has the same net curtains in her downstairs loo as this lass has round her shoulder.  How mortifying!

Off (1899) Edmund Blair Leighton
Let's be honest, most disappointments come from romantic entanglements (and dry chocolate cake).  I especially like Blair Leighton's take on an ended love affair, although I think he missed the 'Sod' from the above title (or pick your own appropriate word).  The jilted chap has thrown his roses on the floor and stomped off leaving our lass to consider how much better she could do.  Pretty girl like you, I'm sure you can get a bloke in a nicer coat and some night white stockings.  She also seems to be sat on something that looks like a massive tombola drum which I'm worried will roll her unexpectedly into the stream when she least expects it.  As well, such is love.

Proposal (The Rivals) (1880) Axel Kulle
Well, what's going on here? Two chaps seem to be vying for a young lady's hand and I don't think it's hard to see which one is going home disappointedr.  I wonder if that is her Mum in the doorway with her hands on her hips.  The choice is either a man in long boots with his own brolly, or a chap in socks and clogs. I think we know why the chap in the middle looks so disappointed; boots and brolly always wins.

The Shepherd's Suit Rejected (1867) William Vandyke Patten
Another chap disappointed in love, this shepherd sobs behind his beloved as she sits awkwardly pretending it's not happening.  Pull yourself together love, that's just not dignified.  When even your dog is judging you, it's probably time to reassess your behaviour.  I think the woman should take a leaf out of the sheep's book and move away quickly and discretely.

Wedding Cards, Jilted (1854) John Everett Millais
Do you think the person who sent the wedding card to this poor lass really didn't know that her bounder of a fiancee had buggered off? I'm not so sure but that might just be because I know the sort of people who'd love all that. 'Congratulations on your happy day! What's that? Bob ran off with your sister? And your cousin? Oh, deary me, what a pity. Tell me more...'  I just hope she got to keep all the presents.

Broken Engagement (1860) George Bernard O'Neill
Sorry Grandma, there is just no cheering up this poor young lady since her beloved fiancee, 'Cheating Ratbastard' ran off with 'That Trollop Sandra' and left her to sit around in the parlour in a brown dress. Obviously, when she pulls herself together she will write them eversuch a lovely note of congratulations and won't mention how she hopes his fruit withers on the vine, if you know what I mean.  Never mind Love, you can do much better.

Oh! That a Dream so Sweet (1872) John Everett Millais

To give it its full title, the above is Oh! That a Dream so Sweet, so Long Enjoy'd, Should be so Sadly, Cruelly Destroy'd, from Thomas Moore's Lalla-Rookh, and the lady in this picture is thinking of beloved but very aware that she is rather alone. From the title, it does sound like she has become another victim of a jilting boyfriend and a dream 'so sweet' of being respectably married has been 'cruelly destroyed'.

The Affront (1905) Antonio Piatti
Obviously, some people take a dumping better than others.  This lass is not taking it at all well and is even putting her finger in her ear in order not to hear the bad news. If you can't see your boyfriend or hear him then he can't possibly be dumping you.  It only makes sense.

The Unfulfilled Wish (1899) Julius Leblanc Stewart
I threw a coin into the wishing well and when that didn't work I threw in all my clothes.  Now, had my wish been to be naked in public I would be sorted.  If my wish had been not to be embarrassed in front of my neighbours, I might be out of luck. The girl in the picture appears quite disappointed with the outcome, so maybe she's realised that she's thrown away her shoes and the path back home is rather gravelly.  Ouch. I bet her car keys were in her pocket too.

Such is Life (1885) Weedon Grossmith
It does feel like we are getting the empty end of the cracker at present, but like the little girl in this picture we should just check there is nothing for us.  You never know, there might be a paper hat or one of those fortune telling fish.  Either way, despair not Gentle Reader, as there is still a fair amount of good in the world.  If your ratbag of a fiancee has jilted you, you were probably better off without him or her. If you have thrown all your clothes down a well, at least you'll get an even tan. Whilst there are still good books, good friends and moist cake in the world, then there are still reasons for hope and joy.  Until the election is over, I think I will keep a steady supply of the last one to hand...

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Hopelessly Vieux Jeu!

This is a bit of a combination of a few of ideas I had for blog posts, related closely so I could mash them together into one.  It concerns one of my favourite authors, Agatha Christie, and the role Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art plays in her novels and how they are interpreted.  


At first glance, you wouldn't think Agatha Christie had any relevance in a conversation about Victorian art. A Golden Age queen, her novels are decidedly modern, reflecting a world after first one then another world war, and filled with skittish women, world-weary men, and murders galore. However, the more you read her novels, the more her Victorian roots show.  Take for example, the short story 'Miss Marple tells a Story', where Miss Jane Marple tells her nephew Raymond (a novelist) and his girlfriend Joan (a modern artist) all about how she solved a murder that was brought to her by her solicitor and the accused man (husband of the deceased).  I won't spoil the plot for you, but when Miss Marple wants to explain how she isn't as 'up-to-date' as her companions she says 'I am hopelessly Victorian. I admire Mr Alma Tadema and Mr Frederick Leighton and I suppose to you they are hopelessly vieux jeu.'  Miss Marple is the archetypal maiden aunt, born around the 1870s (as she appears to be a woman of 50-60 in her first appearance in 1927, and grows older up to the 1950s).  Jane Marple expresses many examples of what it meant to be a Victorian, for example in 'Greenshaw's Folly', Miss Marple says 'When I was a girl Inspector, nobody ever mentioned the word stomach', together with admonishments that a lady would never be over-emotional in public.  I especially love her inability to talk frankly about what litmus paper is used for, in 'The Blue Geranium', even though she knows from experience of being a nurse.  She is shrewd but always finds a way of being delicate about matters of bodily fluids.


As you will know from this blog post I wrote on Agatha Christie and Burne-Jones, the Pre-Raphaelites are mentioned in an exchange between Edmund, the only Communist in the village, and the object of his affection Phillipa.  It is a bit of a puzzler as we now would not refer to the Pre-Raphaelites as 'jolly' and 'slangy' (however much Desperate Romantics tried to convince us otherwise), but there are other instances of Christie using Burne-Jones in description.  In Hercule Poirot's Christmas, one of the characters is described as having a face that had 'the mild quality of a Burne-Jones knight. It was somehow not very real.'  That, to me, is a very satisfying description of someone that I can visualize immediately, but does presuppose her audience knew what a Burne-Jones knight looked like.  Mind you, in 1938, possibly they all still did...

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884) Edward Burne-Jones
Still on the subject of Burne-Jones (and moving neatly into Tennyson), one of my favourite Christie novels is The Body in the Library where Jane Marple sums up a relationship between a dead good-time girl and her rich, old benefactor as being like King Cophetua and the beggar maid.  It's that moment in the book where you are forced to reappraise the relationship between poor Ruby Keene and Conway Jefferson, which up to that point you see only in terms of a gold digger and her sugar daddy.  Christie returned to Tennyson again, not just with Marple but also with that famous detective, Hercule Poirot...


In the 1948 novel Taken at the Flood, the tension of a family is ramped up by the arrival of a mysterious stranger, calling himself 'Enoch Arden'.  Every good Tennyson reader would immediately get the reference to the poem, where a man believed dead returns to his wife.  Seeing as the wife of this gentleman has since married a very rich man and inherited the lot on his death, Mr Arden's arrival is not what you call a minor event, and murderous japes ensue. The same device is used in Christie's short story 'While the Light Lasts', again with Mr Arden making a timely return.  However, possibly the best know reference to Tennyson in Christie's work has to be The Mirror Crack'd...


A murder at a village fete in the grounds of the home of a Hollywood star causes a fair amount of interest in St Mary Mead, not least because the star, Marina Greg gets a funny look on her face shortly before the unfortunate event.  As Dolly Bantry recalls:
 "'She had a kind of frozen look,'said Mrs Bantry, struggling with words, 'as if she had seen something that - oh dear me, how hard it is to describe things. Do you remember the Lady of Shalott? The mirror crack'd from side to side, 'The doom has come upon me,' cried the Lady of Shalott.  Well, that's what she looked like. People laugh at Tennyson nowadays, but the Lady of Shalott always thrilled me when I was young, and it still does.'"
In all honesty, this was probably my first introduction to Tennyson, watching Angela Lansbury consider the poem in the 1980 film adaptation, then later in 1992, the far superior Joan Hickson do the same (although Elizabeth Taylor was born to play Marina Greg).  Imagine my delight then when I searched for a copy of the book and found this...


Here we enter the other part of today's blogpost, the cover art of Tom Adams, who created the most amazing images for Christie's novels from 1962 until the 1980s.  He used Pre-Raphaelite not only overtly like the above cover, but in more subtle ways.  Beginning with this 1962 novel, Adams stated that he used the Waterhouse sketch at Falmouth Art Gallery rather than the finished oil.  Later, when asked to do a larger version of the cover, he used the final oil, together with a few other Ladies you might recognise...

The Mirror Crack'd (Sammer Gallery Edition)

When looking at Adam's covers, I see a lot of intentional and possibly unintentional 'Ophelias'.  The most obvious of these is probably the unlucky victim in A Caribbean Mystery...


Tom Adams admitted he had borrowed a little from Millais in the catalogue of his work, Tom Adams Uncovered.  The murdered woman floating in the rather flowery Caribbean has the look of Lizzie Siddal more than the character she is meant to portray.

UK edition

US edition

Although the unfortunate Girl Guide is strangled in a boat house, on Adams' covers she is far more picturesquely sprawled in a meadow or on the jetty.  The top cover is the UK edition, where Marlene seems to have been strangled in the actual folly, which he corrected for the American cover.

US edition

UK edition

 Although not overtly based on a Pre-Raphaelite woman, I find the figure of Betty Barnard on The ABC Murders cover is very romantic, possibly even Knopff-ian.  The top, US version of the cover has the gothic, screaming seagull rather than the unnerving expression on the UK corpse.  The UK cover has Betty lounging around on the beach like a palid Venus, gazing out at us with vacant, dead eyes. Taken in comparison with John William Waterhouse's Ophelia (1889) for example, it is a marvellous twist on the erotic female figure.


A Victorian art reference I would not have noticed without prompting is the dog on the front of Elephants Can Remember.  Whilst it is a homage to this Edwin Landseer...

There's No Place Like Home (1840)
... Adams claims it is also an echo of this work...

The Scapegoat (1854) William Holman Hunt
It is a sort of reverse echo, as the dog holds the key to a double suicide and is the only one to survive the 'sacrifice'.  The realism of Adams' backgrounds very much reflects the aspirations of the PRB and I love the way Adams places macabre and unexpected items in very English landscapes, often with details such as stones and flowers accurately realised. I find it interesting that while the country was trying to shake off the 'slangy', 'jolly', old fashioned Pre-Raphaelites, by referencing them in the covers, Adams tapped into the burgeoning revival of the 1960s that reformed Victorian art back into fashion.  In many ways I find this akin to, and in perfect sympathy with, Christies own subversion of contemporary prejudices.  When Miss Marple says how 'old fashioned' her tastes are in comparison to her nephew's sordid books and Joan's paintings of lumpy people and sad vases, Christie is obviously having a cheeky dig at modern tastes.  More than that though, by making Miss Marple favour Victorian art it aligns high intelligence, common sense and goodness with nineteenth century art.  She might be hopelessly vieux jeu but she's never wrong.  By contrast, the modern-types, such as her nephew and, memorably, the modern artist Basil Blake in The Body in the Library, are well meaning but foolish and mistaken on many things. Maybe Christie was commenting on the fashion to dismiss the tastes of those that came before us as irrelevant. Art of previous generations should not be dismissed, much as Miss Marple is often dismissed by naive police officers as 'just a little old lady.' Miss Marple's taste in art is just another facet of her 'old lady' persona, but by making that old lady sharper than everyone in Scotland Yard, possibly Christie is making a comment on how we should never dismiss anything just because it is old-fashioned.

If it's good enough for Jane Marple, it's good enough for me.

Agatha Christie (1977) Tom Adams