Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Wounded Cavalier

I hate it when people say ‘You really have to see the painting, a book can’t do it justice!’ partly because it’s true, but mainly because it might be years before you see a painting you love in real life, maybe never.  Mind you, the thrill when you finally see it, up close and personal, is astonishing.  I had such a moment at the last Pre-Raphaelite Tate exhibition and it wasn’t with a painting I would have expected.

Shuffling slowly along the walls of beautiful works there were many ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ but then I found myself in front of The Wounded Cavalier (1855) by William Shakespeare Burton…


Yes, I know, it doesn’t do it justice…

It’s no secret that I love this picture.  In the flesh it is luminous, almost tangible in its detail and feeling.  Even in books the minutiae of the world, the butterfly, the ferns, the dying oak leaves, is so real you can almost taste autumn on the air.  In a very basic way, seeing the real thing gives you a chance to see it bigger, clearer and you see more.  And in The Wounded Cavalier there is so much to see.

Someone's not happy...
Let’s start with the people: we have a cavalier, wounded, a woman holding him and a man looking on.  It seems to me that someone is missing, but I’ll come to that in a moment.  In reverse order of importance to the picture, the man who looks down at the woman and the cavalier does not look happy.  In his big hat and black garb he is as Puritan as it gets.  In order to emphasize the point he is carrying what can only be called a Gert Big Bible.  He is contained, definite and upright, a neat little line of disapproval.  Many critics think he is the woman’s husband or lover (lucky girl), some have suggested that he is her brother.  It would seem that he is either husband or brother as they appear to be out unchaperoned.  I have to admit his Bible interests me: at first it may appear to be only a clumsy character marker, but it has bookmarks poking out.  What has been marked ?  I read one analysis that suggested that the bookmarks were between the Old and New Testaments.  Maybe it suggests the man is caught between the vengeance of the Old Testament God and the forgiveness of the New Testament.  Maybe he is the Old and his sister is the New, coming to the aid of her fellow man, whatever their beliefs.  That Bible is in an interesting position, poised as the end of the broken blade.  The man in black is the victor, his Bible has vanquished the ways of the cavalier, the blade pointing directly at the point between the armour and his uniform, just where he is vulnerable.

Gosh, you're rather lovely...
So the woman is certainly more sympathetic than her fellow Puritan.  Her clothes are grey rather than black and she cradles her dying enemy in a pose reminiscent of Mary and Jesus at the base of the cross.  Their relationship was worthy of a repeat performance later in Burton’s career…

It's so good, he did it again...
Isolated in their embrace, the couple become Romeo and Juliet, a couple who find a connection despite their politics.  In the 1871 image I almost feel she could pull him through and they will ride off together in a happily ever after.  In the original oil he’s looking a lot more ropey and I think he’s a goner.  Her expression is so intense, as if that moment is more than just a choice to help a dying man.  It is a choice between two men, two ways of life, but also a choice between a hopeless cause and a sure thing.  The cavalier is not only badly wounded, but also his entire way of life is dying out.  To side with him over her kinsman is to choose the past not the future, romance over religion.  You could argue that she’s just chosen to be kind to a dying man, but the look on her face betrays that she has rather more on her mind than being a Good Samaritan.

Sword handle...
Mind you, he is a pretty one, in a ginger-Jesus sort of way.  He is very untidy in his wounded sprawl, his feet one side of the oak tree and his body the other.  His sword is through a tree, his cards are on the ground, his hat is discarded and his is a death of disarray.  I do think he is dying, not only because of the colour of him, but also because he is symbolic of his cause.  Look at the handle of the broken sword – doesn’t it look like a skull with the blade through one of the eyes?

Butterfly on the Blade
On the sword is a beautiful butterfly, possibly denoting the fleeting glory of the cavaliers.  It is settled on the sharp edge, something beautiful in added danger, unknowing.  A comment on the young, beautiful cavaliers, dicing with death?  Or maybe it is there as a comment on the Puritan man, pushing the sword home with his Bible (metaphorically) unaware of the beauty that it threatens.

Cards by his Boots
Well, the cards give us a fairly familiar image of a gambling cavalier.  It is symbolic I suppose of the naughty vices of the Royalists but as all the cards we can see are hearts, it may hint that the vices aren’t that awful, they are only human.  Maybe it is hinting that the fight that landed this cavalier in mortal peril was over a card game (or maybe love), which leads me to ask ‘who is missing from this scene?’

Well, obviously whoever it was that wounded the cavalier.  Unless it was an elaborate accident, there must have been a fight and although we cannot see what is hung from the Puritan man’s leather strap, it seems unlikely that it was either of these two.  Maybe the man has struggled away from a battle?  But that doesn’t explain the broken sword.  Most likely he fought someone in that spot, he broke his sword in the tree and his enemy stabbed him in the neck.  I did wonder about the round ‘pebble’ in front of the broken sword handle – is it a button from the enemy or something from our cavalier’s clothes?  There seems to be no money or valuables, so possibly the man was robbed or his valuables were taken in response to the card game, or cheating at cards.  The wall is broken behind them so possibly the attacker fled through the whole.  Or possibly it was our Puritan chap who ran him through, Bible in hand.  No wonder he looks hacked off that his woman is hugging his floppy haired nemesis.

The Proscribed Royalist 1651 (1853) J E Millais
William Shakespeare Burton only strayed into Pre-Raphaelitism on this one occasion, but he did so with such faithfulness that this painting can easily rival Millais at the height of his powers.  In fact I much prefer The Wounded Cavalier to Millais’ offering on the subject The Proscribed Royalist, 1651, showing a young Puritan woman (in a very flashy skirt) hiding a hot cavalier in a tree after the defeat of King Charles I at the Battle of Worcester.  It is possible that Burton saw the painting in 1853 and was inspired.  When The Wounded Cavalier was hung at the Royal Academy it was hung next to The Scapegoat by Holman Hunt, which could only improve its appearance more, frankly.  It was in the same exhibition as Chatterton by Henry Wallis, which in many ways it resembles.  Burton's life was punctuated by ill health and problems and so not many of his paintings appear to have made it to public collections in this country.  He abandoned the total immersion in Pre-Raphaelite style after this one piece, although it is suggested that certain figures recall the style in his later works but it’s so hard to find a range of his pictures it’s hard to tell.  I suppose if you are to be known for only one picture it might as well be a piece of brilliance.  The beauty and unanswered questions of The Wounded Cavalier will keep it a favourite for many people for many more years to come.

If you wish to see it in the flesh, the lucky owners are The Guildhall Art Gallery in London.  Enjoy!

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Jane and the Wrongs of Women

Once upon a time, it was easy to spot the beautiful women.  They were well off, privileged, possibly royal.  They might be the Queen (who is always beautiful if she was born to be Queen), they might be a Duchess who just happens to be sleeping with the King.  They looked wealthy, plump, clean and disease free.  Nothing boys like more than a girl without pox.

Nell Gwynn (1675) Peter Lely
Emma Hamilton George Romney
Sleeping with a man of power and not being his wife was a sure fire way of being acclaimed as beautiful.  More often than not marriages were made for any reason but love and attraction, so for a man to be tempted to stray, that woman had to have it going on.  Also, nothing like a hint of 'slutty' to add to your beauty, apparently.  In those days a woman's value was in her purse or relatives not her face.  It probably didn't hurt to be pretty but pretty didn't mean power.  Family, money, land, connections, all of these made you a woman worth looking twice at.  When we look at these women now and read the glowing descriptions of them we accept that they are 'beautiful' without possibly appreciating the way the word is applied, both by their contemporaries and ours.

Roll forward to the Victorian period and behold the power of a severe centre parting...

Queen Vic on her wedding day
Victoria set the tone on the female aesthetic. With her round face, smooth shell of shiny hair and diminutive form, she was the model for the ideal Victorian woman, replicated in art such as James Collinson' For Sale...

Clean and Pox-Free!  Lovely.
All women were expected toaspire to a certain type of beauty.  Shiny, small and tight sums up the images we have of these angels of the house, all bound in corsets and with partings so sharp you could cut your finger on them.

Mrs Coventry Patmore (1851) J E Millais
 Along came the Pre-Raphaelites.  Contemporary with his ever-so conforming portrait of the spaniel haired Mrs Patmore, John Everett Millais unleashed his Ophelia upon a stunned world.  Unlike his painting of Christ in the Carpenter's Shop, the beauty of its female of protagonist was undeniable (and less controversial).  Elizabeth Siddal, found by Walter Deverell and brought to the attention of the world by Millais had shocking red hair, but otherwise was a small, neat little woman with a pretty face and refinement.  Her beloved Rossetti was bohemian and unusual, she was bohemian and unusual, and somehow their unconventional relationship worked with her unconventional looks.  Whatever else Lizzie was, in female aesthtetics she wasn't the most groundbreaking.

That title has to go to a woman who died a hundred years ago today.  Discovered in a theatre in Oxford by the erstwhile Rossetti, she was proclaimed as a beauty when, by her contemporaries standards, she was anything but.
Jane Morris in 1865
Tall, bony, frizzy haired, striking features and darkish complexion, she looked like a cross between a gypsy and an Amazon.  To a society used to their women shiny and pocket-sized, Jane must have seen like a freak.  Not only that but she was married to a man of wealth and tradition, living and moving within normal society as well as the bohemian art scene.  She became establishment - an usual thread in it, but part of the main tapestry nonetheless.

Traditional Victorian Couple
The Pilgrims of Siena (1881)
Jane is second from the right





















Skip forward to modern day.  In an article just yesterday Jane was described as 'the famous beauty', but at what point did she become the hallmark of beauty?  I find it interesting that the article that hailed her looks (the number of times the word 'beautiful' is repeated is quite funny) as unquestionably stunning has a sidebar of which unfortunate 'celebrities' look rank or gorgeous on any given day (Madonna: garish, Irina the Russian model: perky).  I begin to wonder if beauty is linked to power once more, or an acceptance of establishment.  While Pre-Raphaelite art is seen as unquestioningly beautiful (if rather low brow and pretty by some) the the women who inhabit the canvases, whatever they look like, are the epitome of beauty.  Whenever I read dismissal or questioning of the status of Pre-Raphaelitism, I notice the criticism is often a thinly veiled attack on the appearance of Jane Morris.  Rossetti's art is spoken of as being large, dark women, improbable, unsettling.  While we love their art, Jane is a beauty.  This leads me to wonder about the nature of our biography of women, both living and dead.


Above is a trio of pictures of another dark-haired lady, one rather more modern.  Top is a picture of the food writer and tv presenter, Nigella Lawson, around the time that she rose to fame with her retro style and witty commentary.  The middle picture is when she appeared at court last autumn to defend herself against a barrage of personal details, and bottom is a picture of her a week ago, on holiday.  Adjectives such as 'saucy' and 'sexy' were applied to the first image, 'severe' and 'regal' going into court, but by the time the fuss had died down she gets 'bloated and 'puffy' applied to her for the last picture.  It doesn't take a genius (but it is beyond the power of the newspapers) to work out that the difference between the first two images and the last is that she definitely set out with the knowledge she would be photographed.  She is her public persona and is glorious.  The last is just her, her private self.  Not only that but her star is not in the ascendant (at least in the media) and so she is no longer beautiful. I am simplifying the matter to save even more rambling on my part but it seems to me that as a woman your beauty never lies in your face.   The consensus think you are popular, you are a beauty.  Your star begins to fall and your beauty vanishes.

Kate Moss' Pre-Raphaelitesque Wedding Photos (by Mario Testino)
It seems to me that Jane Morris highlights two great concerns for the public face of female beauty.  She broke the mould that said you had to be some King's mistress or some heiress to be beautiful.  She was there as the star of Pre-Raphaelitism went into the ascendancy and, by their accolade, she was Beauty.  She paved the way for women of striking and various features to be seen as beautiful and in that way all women can look in the mirror and think 'I am Beauty because Beauty is anyone and everyone.'  This is all well and good but Jane also highlights a rather less pleasant side of this award.  If that star does not climb anymore, if that star you are hitched to should fall, then you too cease your reign.  A woman who was beautiful yesterday because she was successful is 'puffy and bloated' today as she has nothing to offer in terms of 'interest'.  When Pre-Raphaelitism is good, Jane is a beauty, but when it is not, it is criticized for its obsession with large, manly women with big lips and weird hair, in short, Jane's appearance.  Jane reveals to us that  our weights and measures for beauty are never based on the appearance of our face.  The taste of the mob and the size of our (or our husband's) wallet is what is really seen.

Better to be yourself and block your ears.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Review: A Muse Unburdened by Ulrik Nilsson

Welcome to the second day of the Jane Morris long weekend and today I'd like to review the second comic book by the Dutch artist Ulrik Nilsson, A Muse Unburdened.



I reviewed Ulrik's first comic, A Muse's Burden, back in September last year (review here) and this follows the multi-dimensional adventures of Jane and Rossetti through both time and space.  The thing I love about Ulrik's work is that he has no boundaries, there are no taboos.  Ever wondered what Jane Morris fighting space aliens looks like?  Wonder no more...

Bad Em the Wombat wonders how Jane's space battle will end...
It's daring, mad and creative and so charming that you just go with the story.  It tumbles through space and time, showing the power of muse and creation, and also introducing us to a familiar figure.  Within the story is a section entitled '19th and 21st Century Muse', where Jane and Margje Bijl meet and explore the meaning each of them have in the other.

Margje and Janey cause a rumpus...
Those of you who have read my piece on Margje's exhibition, this is a mirror of Margje's art and a touching series of escapades result from their time together, including a rather controversial haircut...


I love this sort of 'afterlife' for familiar figures.  Why shouldn't she fight aliens and travel through time? Ulrik empowers Jane so that 100 years after her death she is a heroine of beauty and power.  No wonder she inspires Margje and Ulrik so much.

I love Ulrik's work so much, I look forward to seeing more.  To order A Muse Unburdened  visit Windmill Comics if you live in Europe or the UK.  Otherwise, contact either the Publishers (via the website) or Ulrik(via Facebook).

See you tomorrow for the anniversary of Jane's death and a look at how she made Kate Moss possible.  Kind of.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Writing Jane Morris

As we approach the centenary of her death, I was looking for some ways to look at Jane Morris again, to see how we see her now.  I thought a good place to start was how I saw her, after all she does appear in my upcoming novel...

(My new book, hopefully heading your way this Spring!)
My novel is an ‘imagining’ of Alexa Wilding’s life between 1865 and 1882 (that is to say we don’t know that much so I filled in the gaps with what we do know).  Not only that, it is actually a novel about people we do know a great deal about, or at last we think we do.  The wonderful thing about Alexa, from my point of view, is that she entered Rossetti’s life at a fairly crucial point in his downward spiral and remained there until his death.  She was a quiet presence and the things she must have witnessed astonish me.  I wish she had kept a diary.  She went to Kelmscott both times and she went to Bognor as Rossetti and Jane began the end of their relationship.  She visited Fanny, she visited George Price Boyce.  Let me just take a Boyce moment…


That’s better.  Anyway, it’s all very well and good writing about Fanny Cornforth, I have a fairly clear picture of her in my mind, but Jane Morris?  Lordy, where to start...?



When I came to write Jane, the thing I wanted to avoid was playing favourites to Fanny.  Jane has always been a villain for me because she ‘stole’ Rossetti away from the woman who dedicated her life to him.  Now, I know it isn’t that straightforward, but that is definitely how Fanny saw it.  Jane had a husband and also had an ardent lover.  That’s just greedy.


Reading around Jane, certain things stand out.  Her silence, her presence, and oddly, her kindness.  It’s hard to level the brooding, punishing goddess of Astarte Syriaca with a woman who would welcome you into her home, but it seems that Jane was polite, kind and welcoming to people.  She also was nobody’s fool, her letters make that very clear.  But then again, how can that be the same woman who cause suffering to her husband through the foolish shenanigans of Kelmscott? 

It is impossible to think that Alexa would not have been told anything of Jane before she set off for Kelmscott in 1871, she knew Fanny for goodness sake.  Also, Alexa would have noticed (if she didn’t know before) that Mrs Morris was there without the benefit of Mr Morris.  I am happy to doubt whether or not Rossetti and Jane’s relationship was physical (hydrocele, ouch!) but they certainly had an emotional affair and that is bad enough.  Alexa was there and would have had to tramp through the house every day to reach the studio.  What did she notice?  One thing I noticed when I was there last was that if Jane or Rossetti wished to liaise, one or other of them had to go through William’s bedroom to meet.  Now that is horrific.

So, putting pen to paper about Jane was damn near impossible to start with.  I read and enjoyed The Wayward Muse by Elizabeth Hickey but that is very openly sympathetic to her, for obvious reasons.  Just as Alexa threatened and pretty much ended Fanny’s reign as Queen Muse, then Rossetti’s obsession with Jane must have impacted on Alexa.  Alexa was barely into her twenties when she went to Kelmscott and so I suspect she may have felt intimidated by the woman who had cast such a spell over her employer and friend.  If Rossetti was mad then part of his madness was Jane, by which I mean the 'Jane' who existed on his canvas and the sly gossip of his friends.

Pia de' Tolomei (1868) D G Rossetti
Jane Morris (1865)

So here is a passage from my novel A Curl of Copper and Pearl which shall be released soon (fingers crossed).  Alexa travelled to Kelmscott during a blistering hot summer to pose fro Rossetti who is recovering from a breakdown following the retrieval of his poems from Lizzie Siddal’s grave.  Alexa stayed in the house for some time, only hearing the occasional footsteps above her, or the swish of a skirt, but never seeing Jane.  Her curiousity is at a pitch when one afternoon, May and Jenny, the Morris daughters, suggest a game in the garden to relieve the oppression of being indoors.  Alexa and the girls do cartwheels on the lawn and suddenly, there beside Rossetti, watching the game, is Jane Morris...

“I felt rooted to the spot, the girls rushing past me to greet their mother. She looked down at them and her mouth curved to a smile as she spoke, their eyes rapturously on her. Rossetti’s eyes also gazed at her face, beguiled, ensnared, and utterly devoted. I looked at her and I felt afraid. The sky blackened, clouds that had scudded with summer breezes gathered, and the air in the garden thickened ominously. Her eyes once more rose to mine, causing my breath to hitch as I took her in. Both girls were pressed to her sides, her hands, such long, pale hands, resting on their shoulders in perfect balance. Her face, again such frightening symmetry, was dark, boldly struck with full lips, a straight nose and eyes fringed with lashes like coal dust. Her kinked, dark hair rose like a halo, a massive mane that tumbled and hung down her back. Her dress was a glowing jewel blue, and her tall frame carried the acres of fabric effortlessly, with no curve to ruin the flow of the fabric. We were just staring at each other, neither moving to join the other, until finally Rossetti waved me to his side, with a little impatience.
‘Janey, this is Alice Wilding,’ he announced, softly, warmly. She nodded and I tried to smile. Her eyes flicked from mine to the house.
‘I hope you have been made comfortable.’
I was surprised at her concern, it sounded genuine and rather mundane, when I expected her lips to part and some message of truth to fall from them. Her voice too, deep and with the same faint burr of country I had heard in our driver, but covered with gentility, with a need to conform.
‘Thank you, yes.’ I rushed, sounding stupid and a little guilty at my frozen hostility. She nodded, appearing relieved.
‘Good.’ The word appeared, surprising me.  As if there was a need for response, always a need for response to fill the shoes of the silence scattered in her wake.
‘Thank you,’ I replied, for want of something to add, to rejoin to her. She looked at Rossetti, his eyes barely flickering from her face, with such devotion. For a moment, I thought she looked amused, as if she disbelieved the passion of her admirer, his ardour was a joke they were sharing. It was carefully covered beneath her hooded eyes, and suppressed on her blooming lips. She turned and walked back to the house, this time with us all following her, almost powerless to resist. I was the last of the party and just as I stepped through the door, the heavens opened.”


Join me tomorrow for a surprising, modern look at Jane…

Friday, 17 January 2014

Damsels Without a Dress

I don't mean to be over-dramatic but there are definitely times when I need saving.  I am incorrigible, I charge in to trouble without a second thought and I often want to help people by lobbing myself in the way of danger.  All this adds up to hot water with me often in it.  However, because of my rampant feminist principles (or something) I often don't need a knight in shining armour and slay the dragon myself.  Now, it's not like I'm complaining but some days I am frankly too exhausted to slay anything and I could do with some assistance.  In order to get some pointers on attracting the right sort of help, I obviously turned to Victorian art...

The Rescue (1900) John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
Goodness me, there are definitely moments when I can't be bothered or am too knackered to do walking.  Oh look, it's a stairlift in human form!  Now who hasn't wanted one of those?  And such an attractive one too.  However she seems to be at a slightly awkward angle: He seems fine but she has a look on her face that seems to say 'I'm definitely slipping...'

St George and the Dragon Sidney Harold Meteyard
Now, this work a bit better for me.
 'Hello, you seem to have slayed a dragon.  Here's my naked shoulder...'
I love the fact that peril seems to loosen your clothing.  After all, he's the poor blighter who had to fight the scaly beast but now her dress is falling off.  I expect it's collateral damage.  Mind you, it's a bit subtle for me, I'm not good at subtle (I know, you're as surprised as I am) and I'm worried that just a shoulder will not be enough to win my knight over...

Andromeda (1876) Arthur Hill
Now that's more like me, well, sort of.  I think that certainly makes a statement - 'I find I am unable to cope right at this moment, can you give me a hand?'  Nothing says peril like 'I've lost my pants'.

Andromeda Sarah Page
Poor old Andromeda.  For some reason the sea monster preferred his snacks without the wrapper, but I guess that makes sense.  These artists are obviously going for absolute artistic verisimilitude. Nothing says verisimilitude like no pants.  And nipples.  It's bad enough to find yourself on a rocky ledge sans under-bobbins but imagine finding yourself in Tescos like that.  Down the chiller aisle.  Help!

The Knight Errant (1870) J E Millais
Hang on, I think I can see a problem with the nudeyness, especially if I'm getting rescued by a chap with a big sword.  Not a euphemism.  But, blimey, that looks a bit 'choppy' and I'd want to keep both hands after the rescue.  I quite like the idea of covering up with extremely long hair, good for those modest moments plus I'm sure it hides a multitude of sins.  Not sure how I would get myself tied to a tree in the first place.  There seems no obvious way that the lady here has managed it.  Her clothes are folded nicely in front of her and there she is, not in any particular peril apart from the naked/tree aspect of it all.  According to Millais catalogue entry, the Knight Errant 'was instituted to protect widows and orphans, and to succour maidens in distress.'   I say, steady on.


Perseus and Andromeda (1929) Robert Anning Bell
Ah, now, this maiden was clever enough to be in peril on a comfy seat.  If I am to be imperiled, I would like to bring my own blanket and have a nice sit down while someone does the sea-beast slaying for me.  I've had a busy day, I'll be right over here if you need me, go ahead and kill the dragon-y thing.


The Rescue Vereker Monteith Hamilton
I quite fancy being scooped up but come now, lets be realistic.  That horse would look a damn sight more surprised if he had to scoop me up.  I am impressed that she has managed to be lifted up in some rather nice floaty white fabric, very flattering and dramatic and saves you from saddle-chafe.  You have to think about these things while being in distress without any pants on.  I'm not sure what he is saving her from, other than outside nakedness and possible pneumonia.  All very worthy things to be rescued from, but not as exciting as dragons.

So what have I learnt about being rescued.  Dragons work well, as do sea beasts, but nothing beats public nudity.  If I want to get rescued I obviously have to strip off.  Sigh, it's a hard life...


Then the People Brought her Clothes William Russell Flint

Friday, 10 January 2014

A Guest at the Memory Palace

Last night I had the very great pleasure of being a guest at the opening of Margje Bijl's exhibition 'A Memory Palace of Her Own' at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow.



As you will remember from my blog post last Autumn about the preparations for the exhibition, Margje's art centres on the meaning of image and identity, as she bares an uncanny resemblance to Jane Morris.  It goes much further than that - Margje takes that surface and explores the echoes in life, art and the clash in Margje/Jane sharing the same space, the same paths.  From tomorrow you can go along to the William Morris Gallery and see her beautiful journey for yourself.

As for the event, it was a pleasure to be involved.  Margje prepared a sound file, a fragment of which can be heard here and while it played, she drew an image described in the story...

Margje Drawing
Copyright: Sebastiaan Veldhuisen
The story in the sound piece revolved around Margje's dream visits to William and Jane Morris' homes and her experiences there.  There was a mixture of dream and reality which played beautifully with the dual nature of her art.  After that it was my pleasure to lead a question and answer session with Margje about reflecting a Stunner in image and the contrasts in how she sees her muse as opposed to how she is generally perceived, or how Rossetti famously saw her.  It was fascinating to talk to Margje about her own form of 'biography' of Jane/herself and how revealing it was about Jane and Margje as well as Margje as Jane.  I love how her words provide a spoken narrative to possibly the most unknowable of Rossetti's muses.

Margje's Art
Copyright: Sebastiaan Veldhuisen
It isn't just through the beautiful photographs that Margje explores Jane.  Her art and portraits give back an uncompromising gaze of a stunner born anew through her 21st century avatar (many thanks to Jan Marsh for using the word 'avatar' to describe Margje, just the most perfect word).  I have never seen such a battle rage between two women for experience and truth to be revealed, from Jane's passive unwillingness and Margje's courageous exploration.

Jan Marsh and Margje
Copyright: Sebastiaan Veldhuisen
It's always wonderful to see your heroines in real life, and for the third time I got to see Jan Marsh as she closed the presentation element of the evening by discussing how Jane Morris' life and death will be remembered in this centenary year.  What I can guarantee is that you will not see a more innovative way of exploring the icon, the lover, the wife, and the woman than Margje Bijl's art.

Margje's exhibition runs from tomorrow until 9th March and the exhibition page for the William Morris Gallery is here.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Book Review of 'Marriage of Inconvience' by Robert Brownell

I have to admit to a fairly typical curiosity when I heard there would be a new biography about the Ruskin marriage, especially as it promised new information.  Coming hot on the heels (well, actually now preceding it) of the new film about the sorry affair, I really wanted to know what on earth went on.  It's all common knowledge that she was the victim and him the heartless weirdo.  Apparently.  Enter Robert Brownell's new book...


I have previously said that I have doubts about the accepted version of events (I may even be described as Team Ruskin).  I didn't like the way that things were assumed about the man from very little evidence and the words of interested parties.  This rang rather true of my involvement with Fanny Cornforth (that well-known illiterate cockney prostitute) and so have always wanted to know more.  Just the most cursory of fact-checking can dispel the 'fact' that he was a weird old man marrying an innocent child - She was 20, he was 29.  The casting of Greg Wise as Ruskin in the new film makes me cover my eyes in horror.  As gorgeous as Mr Wise is, he is a gentleman in his late 40s, almost 20 years older than the man he's playing and he looks like they have added a few more years too with his make up.  Imagine the difference in casting someone like Rupert Friend or Orlando Bloom (actually both too old, how about Robert Pattinson?  He's 28, so near enough.  R-Patz for Ruskin!  Lawks, imagine that cinema queue...), someone younger, nearer Effie's age, that would even the stakes a little.  In fact, that's the point of the book.  Imagine if Ruskin wasn't the worldly man of age, imagine he was just a romantic idiot.  What then?

Ruskin, kicking back.
I won't give away too much because I really want you to read the book but I will tell you this: Philip Larkin was right when he said 'They f- you up, your mum and dad'.  What a sorry mess.  It is wise to take all biography as being biased, but, my Lord, it is hard to see the good side of the behaviour of Mr and Mrs Ruskin and Mr and Mrs Gray.  One side seem to be scheming, the other side, over-protective idiots.  Money, money, everything flowing back to money.  If anything I wanted to slap a great many people, including Ruskin, for not seeing exactly how awful people can be when they are desperate.  The Ruskins didn't want their son to die of a tubercular broken heart, the Grays wanted their pretty, flirty daughter to keep them out of the poor house.  No-one asked too many questions and a lot of people complained that they didn't get a fair share of what wasn't theirs to start with.


A Highland Lass (Effie Ruskin) (1853) J E Millais
Things I didn't know were that Millais and Effie knew each other before her marriage and that the Ruskins had some sort of agreement that they would abstain from sex until Effie's 25th birthday (because Ruskin wanted to complete his books and didn't want babies all over the place).  It would be easy to look on Effie as a little bit less than the innocent victim, due to her behaviour with all her many admirers, but then you could understand her seeking attention elsewhere is she wasn't getting it at home.  I found her rather callous attitude to the news that duels had been fought over her when they travelled abroad to be disconcerting, but I think it typifies her silliness, how utterly remote from real life she was, they both were.  That brings me to the wedding night...

The Ruskins looking jolly....
I can never decide if it's a modern obsession or if it's eternal to wonder why John Ruskin did not consummate his marriage.  We seem to automatically take it as a big flashing sign of his weirdness.  It shapes our opinion of him.  It almost doesn't matter why he didn't, although in my time I have heard the following reasons - he didn't like body hair, she was having her period, he was gay, he liked little girls, and so on.  I had never heard that they had an agreement.  I have to admit it makes sense if the idea was to ensure there were no babies and they weren't the only ones.  Mind you, Brownell goes further and brings forth the piece of evidence that usually backs up the idea that Ruskin was a weirdo.  In a letter to her father in 1854, Effie revealed that Ruskin told her that 'he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was that he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April.'  That is usually taken to mean that Ruskin thought Effie would look like a marble statue, that her body hair (gasp!) was so repellent that he could not bring himself to look at her.  Taking this statement as fact, what if Ruskin used the word 'person' to mean not the body, but the personality.  Read the book before you judge him for this horrible statement because after 535 pages, I'm not wild about any of their persons either.

So now we wait for the film which is due in the Spring.  I would very much urge you to read the book beforehand because I am guessing from the casting that Mr Wise's grey sideburns will mean he is playing old Ruskin rather than hot Ruskin.  Not that I don't think old Ruskin was hot.  Oh dear, I better move on.  Make your own mind up and as always, my dear friends, question everything that is assumed.

Marriage of Inconvenience can be purchased here (UK) or at your local bookshop.