Sunday, 1 January 2012

No Country for Old Women

Happy New Year, Lovelies.

A little while back, I had an interesting discussion over on that there Facebook about the appearence, or lack of, older women in Pre-Raphaelite art.  I was already thinking about a similar post, about how we can compare the photographic image and the painted image of Stunners, especially as they grew older, thinking especially of Jane Morris.  As I thought about this post, I thought 'well, I could use...ummmm....oh dear...'

Are there any older women in Pre-Raphaelite paintings?

Ironically at the start, you can find them...

Isabella (1849) J E Millais
Christ in the House of this Parents (1849-50) J E Millais
Good old Millais, he had no fear of chucking in his Mum to bring up the average age.  Actually, neither did Rossetti...

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-9) D G Rossetti
1849 was obviously a good year to be an artist's Mum.  It seems that when they were young men, the subjects they chose were quite inclusive.  Much in the same vein as traditional 'history' genre painting, the moments captured in the above pictures are naturalistic, despite their unnatural narratives.  The models were members of their own families, to add to the tension between fantastic story and domestic veneer.  However, look at the imagery and characters that the Pre-Raphaelites were drawn to: Ophelia, The Lady of Shalott, Arthurian Legend, Medieval Maidens.  Many of the women are caught in a moment of their youth, some of them die young, which imbues them with their heroine status.  There are precious few old women in the majority of their works because the subjects do not call for them.

Now, here is where I struck a thorn.  What was I looking for exactly?  The above pictures are of, excuse me, 'older' women, in fact the lady in Isabella, sat next to Lorenzo is quite elderly, but what I was interested to find was pictures of glamorous, 'stunner' pictures of women over 40.  Before I start, can I just point out that I find it very difficult to judge people's age these days and find actresses who I assume to be about my age (because they play parts that seem contemporary with me in film) are actually about 20.  So with Google search open I went in search of that glamorous women, middle aged and above.

Portraiture seems a safe place to start.  If you consider that by the time you have earned enough money and status to be able to commission a portrait of yourself or your wife, you have to be knocking on a bit, I felt sure I would be able to find the women I was after (if you know what I mean).

Mrs Coventry Patmore (1851) J E Millais
Oh, Mrs Coventry Patmore, with your glossy spaniel hair and pink bow, you must be what I seek!  I know your husband is a gentleman of age, shall we say, he has an enormous moustache...oh wait a moment, that's his official photo from later in his life.  Mrs Coventry was born in 1824 and therefore is 27.  Blimey, she was only 36 when she died, so inadvertently she is 'middle aged' in this picture.  Sorry, Mrs Coventry, and also I'm sorry that no-one knows your name is Emily and that you didn't look like a spaniel.  Hang on...

Emily Honoria Patmore
That's better.  Love the shawl.

Fair enough, how about Holman Hunt?  Surely he can provide me with an older woman (sorry, again, that sounded wrong, but you know what I mean)...

Fanny Holman Hunt (1866-68) William Holman Hunt
Now, she looks very regal and stately in this image, but hang on, she died at 33.  Damn it, she was dead before he finished this.  Fine, how about Edith, the other sister.  He married her later, and so she must have been older...

Edith Holman Hunt, you know, the other one (1880)
Ha!  Now, this is over a decade later and so Edith would have been....Fanny's much younger sister, therefore 34 in this picture.  Really? What is wrong with you all?

I'll have to move outside the PRB (shallow bunch) to find a proper 'older woman looking glam' picture.  Enter Evelyn de Morgan...
Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund (1905) Evelyn de Morgan
Granted, she's evil, but Queen Eleanor does seem to be somewhat older than the youthful and doomed Fair Rosamund. Nice, if disturbing.  I think de Morgan shows us the most convincing image of an older stunner, by using an existing stunner and waiting until she got older...

Jane Morris (1904) Evelyn de Morgan
.I think Jane must be about 65 here, and it is a preparatory sketch for a picture about the cruelty of time...

The Hourglass (1905) Evelyn de Morgan
Looking as regal and imperious as ever, Jane doesn't seem to have altered since her heyday.  Despite the grey hairs, her sad beauty is still intact and the audience's response is the same to The Hourglass as it would be to  La Belle Iseult from almost 50 years previously.  I have a problem though, and that is that Jane looks so sad, all the damn time, and she looks so miserable about being old.  Did no-one portray a middle aged woman as a stunner?

Excuse me, Rossetti wishes to have a word, although I can't imagine what that word would be...after all, his models were young, and when they got older he replaced them with Alexa Wilding who was a teenager when he discovered her in the 1860s...Oh, I see.  He wanted me to show you this...

Astarte Syriaca (1877-8)
Jane Morris was the same age as me when she became this glorious goddess.  Now that is impressive, as I feel about 104 this morning after falling down a muddy hill yesterday (don't ask).  So, Rossetti gives us a woman on the verge of 40 as a statuesque Deity, resplendent in her robes.  He also gave us Regina Cordium...

Regina Cordium (1861)
No, not that one, Elizabeth was barely 30 here...

Regina Cordium (1866)
No, not that one either, Alexa was in her late teens, for heaven sake...

Regina Cordium (1861)
This is the one: Ellen Heaton, patron of the PRB, posed for it at the age of 45.  Granted, it's not the most convincing stunner I've ever seen, but as portraits go, Rossetti went for glamour rather than dignity, for which I have to smile.  When Millais did a portrait of Isabelle Elder, he chose a more traditional image...

High necked dress? Book?  Basket of flowers?  Check!
So I rather like that Rossetti went with 'sexpot' rather than 'stately' as it is unexpected and completely uncalled for, if you know what I mean.  Instead of wearing a high-necked dress, she's going for a 'naked but for beads' look, and why not?  

To sum up, for the most part Pre-Raphaelitism is not a natural pasture for women over 30, the subjects did not call for them and the subsequent artists joining the cause carried on the medieval maidens and Shakespeare heroines, rather than find anything different.  Rossetti, due to his obsessions and shamelessness, brings us an older stunner, a middle-aged woman still this side of 'matron', but the lack of other images is not wholly the fault of the PRB.  I find it difficult to guess ages because looking 'mature' was often to be aspired to, and in many cases a by-product of life.  Christina Rossetti seems to have looked the same for most of her adult life, making it hard to gauge her age in any of her brother's portraits...

Christina Rossetti (1877) D G Rossetti
This is Christina at 47, but equally she looked like this in most of his images, a dark, deep poetess of incredible feeling and intellect.  Maybe the lack of older stunners is to do with the fact that after a certain age, women wished to have a more dignified persona, that playing the 'beauty' was not enough and possibly not dignified or desirable.  Herein we find another argument point: should we judge the artists or the models for aspiring to beauty or choosing to 'reject' it in favour of dignity?  How old is too old to be donning the coral beads and little else?  Should Ellen Heaton have chosen the more dignified route or was she right to be the oldest stunner?  I have no answers because, God knows, this argument is as relevant today as it was then.  We are utterly obsessed with youth now, maintaining it, regaining it.  I'm as guilty as anyone, I apply face cream, I won't wear certain things that I now deem too young for me.  In the school playground, I am surrounded by mothers in their twenties, some in their teens.  I was relieved to see a woman of my age dropping off her little boy to Lily's class, and so I chatted to her.  Turns out, she was his grandma.  Sod and Bugger.

Anyway, I don't think it's fair to judge the PRB for their lack of older stunners, after all Janey was around 40 towards the end of Rossetti's life and still appeared as his perfection, but for the most part they are responding to a market that valued youth as it's heroine.  Come on, it's no different now.  There is no reason why The Lady of Shalott cannot be an old woman, in fact I would feel sadder for her if she was.  Can you imagine waiting all that time for a shiny thigh, and then it kills you?  Damn....


  1. Great post to start the New Year. Bit like the BBC and all films - older ladies have only usually cranky bit parts.

  2. It seems that once you get over 35, you better have something else working for you other than your looks or you are righteouly stuffed. It seems to have been the death of many an actresses career. Once you get to being a wrinkly old lady it's fine, they know what to do with you. You can either be the Virgin Mary or the Virgin Mary's Mum, there is no inbetween.

  3. How about the rather lovely historian Agnes Strickland - aged just 50 in this portrait by John Hayes?
    I do understand, though. I was surfing the TV the other day and found the Parliament Channel. They were showing the House of Lords. 'They're taking them young, these days!' I thought.

  4. "Can you imagine waiting all that time for a shiny thigh, and then it kills you?"

    Hahaha - tea now up nose, but so worth it for the mental image!

  5. Even Meryl Streep thought her career was over when she turned 38. Yes, us old ladies have a problem getting parts in movies, starting new careers, and even finding clothes to wear. So nothing has changed between the Victorian era to modern times. My sister and I decided (this is after some wine on Christmas day) that we both think aging sucks and that we need a lot more money for some of those cosmetic procedures done on actresses in Beverly Hills. I think Jane may look sad in that sketch is because she outlived most of her friends. That is one of the hardest things to deal with,

  6. Evelyn de Morgan's mature ladies are my mental ideal of middle-aged glam. Trufax. And now I want to see that older Lady of Shalott.

    Of course, so much of the outward appearance of age is illusion, obviously on the canvas, but almost as much so on film or on stage. (Where it's acutlely relevant to me, as not just an actress over 35, but an American one. There's a reason Elizabeth McGovern and Gillian Anderson basically just don't come home anymore...)

    Though it appears, at least in some cases, it's bit less so on the sketch page. Maybe that's where we look for our middle-aged stunners, from DGR if no one else. His later-years sketches of both Fanny and Jane seem to show the proper maturity of the women in front of him, and both look amazing.

  7. Robert: Thank you for that lovely image, she was rather smashing. There is hope yet :)

    Beth: *snigger* sorry ;)

    Lisa: As someone who had cosmetic surgery just over a year ago, it is horrific but as I had it for medical reasons, it was worth it. It seems a scary way of fighting nature tho', but the results are insanely effective. Scary stuff. And expensive. Really expensive. Wanna see my scars ? ;)

    Valerie: I didn't expect Rossetti to be my hero in this, but he seems to have either a respect or blindness for age. He just loved women and got on with it. Good on you, Gabriel!

  8. As long as Retin A and sunscreen can do the trick, I am not going to do anything else. I really am a chicken at heart about medical stuff. My mom had a mini fact lift done at 75 and it did wonders for her neck and eyes but she did need someone to be with her for the first few days. I doubt that many women lived to be that old in Victorian times. Like Queen Victoria, she is a very small woman. But she has kept her figure, exercises, and eats healthy food.

  9. There is no substitute for good living and letting go of the stress. Also having a saucy giggle now and then takes years off you... ;)

  10. Must practice my saucy giggle, I like that!

  11. The problem is that people are attracted to beauty and on the whole a younger woman is more attractive than an older one. However it's ridiculous that women should be confined to the shelf after the age of 35 or so (especially nowadays when people stay young looking for so long). It's nice that older women are speaking up a (eg in the various cases with the BBC) and the public are behind them. On the art front, Millais's Mariana doesn't look that young (I think the poem calls for someone who has been hanging around for years). On the other hand it does look like Lizzie Siddal who would have been 20 or so (?) so maybe that's just an illusion. Can I just say again how admirably attractive you yourself are...

  12. @superscorer: I've always wondered who the model for Mariana was, since my understanding is that Lizzie only sat to Millais for Ophelia. I've seen it suggested in a couple places that it was Christina Rossetti, but that seems unlikely. Though he could have used her for the head and a professional model for the figure -- that happened a lot.

    It's not clear in Measure for Measure (on which Tennyson's poem is based) exactly how long it's been since Angelo jilted Mariana (due to the loss of her dowry in a shipwreck -- just to underscore what a hypocritical piece of work he is, in case you missed it with the whole attempted-rape-of-Isabella thing), but the implication is that she's wasted almost-but-not-quite all of her marriage-marketable years moping around the moated grange, waiting vainly for the jerk to honor their betrothal (which is still formally in place and prevents her from marrying anyone else).

    She was my first Shakespeare role, at 24, but I was originally cast as the teenage Juliet and took over as Mariana early in rehearsals for an actress in her late 20s who had to drop out due to health issues. The director did have me play her slightly older than myself, but not a whole lot. So she'd probably still be on the verge of "on the shelf" in Victorian terms, if not ours, but still in the younger range Kirsty is discussing in this post.

  13. Thanks Valerie for that interesting background information. It must have been a disappointment to have to switch from Juliet to Mariana. I've never really liked the Tennyson Mariana poem much - I think all that "I am feeling aweary, I wish that I was dead" is a bit tedious really. I much prefer his other poem Mariana in the South. In that it really does seem as though the waiting is to be broken not by the appearance of the lover (shiny thigh or not) but by death

  14. Sorry for the confusion! There's a Juliet in Measure for Measure -- Claudio's pregnant girlfriend -- and it's a very small role. So Mariana was a promotion. :-)

    I have to confess to not being familiar with "Mariana in the South" (other than by reference via Waterhouse); I should really check it out. The other, of course, I'm completely incapable of reading without a mental recording of Eliza Doolittle with a mouthful of marbles...

  15. Firstly, let me just say how much I LOVE this blog, which I've been following since the summer and now I've finally signed in.

    Actually I have always thought that the Pre-Raphs were partly responsible for respecting older female beauty, women rather than girls with thir unusual choice of models with strong features. So different from Dickens's child-brides and the general fervour of the marriage market where anyone older than 20 was thought pretty much past it, though I accept that once betrothed engagements were long. And the features they chose, whereas a typical image of a Victorian ideal was all big eyes (child-bride again) and tiny mouths with weak chins, they chose these strong looking women with strong chins, as cruelly parodied in some of the caartoons referring to the Grosvenor Gallery. Today an ideal of women at their peak is around 30, where the bone structure is more visible than the "nubile" youngsters, and I've long felt that the Pre-Raphs played their part in this.

    Oh, unconnected but on University Challenge last night one hapless person thought Rossetti painted "Bubbles" - a mistake I'm sure no subscriber to this blog would make!

  16. shows, that Millais' "Christ in the House of His Parents" is even more controversial than the public of the Victorian era thought. I run into this incidentially when doing some research on Henry Holiday's illustrations to Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark". And as far as kisses are concernt, see how Henry Holiday played with Millais' Mary and Christ:


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx