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

Friday, 12 May 2017

Like Nutmeg for Rheumatism

I am irresistibly drawn to historical figures who everyone hates.  It's an odd thing to admit, but if a figure, usually a woman, gets dismissed, made fun of, or generally loathed by subsequent biographers then I cannot help but want to know more. That is how I ended up in the company of Miss Mary Francis Vivian Lobb...

Miss Lobb and dog
As Jan Marsh says in her 1986 biography of Jane and May Morris, 'Miss Lobb has received an unsympathetic press.' From the very earliest accounts of her at Kelmscott to modern retellings of May Morris' life, Miss Lobb is a figure of fun at best and a murderess at worse.  Yet amongst those lurid tales of drink, lesbianism and gardening there are gems of kindness and understanding that make me question our attitude to May's companion. It is an easy comparison for me to make between sturdy, jolly Miss Lobb and Fanny Cornforth and I definitely think it is time that Miss Lobb was given more time, so let's make a start...

Actually, before I start I need to direct you to the work already done by Simon Evans at the National Library of Wales, which can be found here.  I stumbled across Simon's work recently and cursed him verily as I had spent a year doing exactly the same research but his work is wonderful and the collection they have sounds amazing.  He's helped me fill in a couple of gaps and as it is rare that I have used someone else's work on the internet, I am delighted to thank him here. Anyway, onwards...

May Morris (1890s) Frederick Hollyer
I wrote about May Morris in 2013.  She was a young woman who seemed to spend her life overshadowed by a great father and a famous mother, who strove to continue her father's work and somehow never owned it herself and had her mother's talent for picking dodgy men. Her 'spiritual marriage' with George Bernard Shaw amounted to very little and her actual marriage to Henry Halliday Sparling lasted only 6 years, barely outlasting her father.  By the new century May had become isolated, psychologically if not physically, in the Morris household at Kelmscott.

Jolly times at Kelmscott, c.1905
I've always felt the above picture made Jane look like a spider in a web, keeping everyone with her.  I was once told that if you sit on the floor in the presence of your parents it signifies that you always see yourself as a child, so make what you will of May's position next to her mother as opposed to Jenny, sitting on the chair beside them.  I get the impression that the Kelmscott life continued through the first decade of the new century, forever celebrating the achievements of William as if to emphasise his absence.  As war approached Jane died in Bath just as May was working furiously on a collection of her father's works, published finally in 1915.  Jenny retired to a collection of caring homes that kept her at a distance for the rest of her life.  Outside Kelmscott Manor, the world was changing and it was bringing change to May's door. Off to Cornwall we go!

From The Graphic 1878

Mary Francis Vivian Lobb was born 16 years after May, in 1878.  Her father, Nicholas William Lobb, was a financial negotiator and inventor, patenting things such as dried milk, vermin traps (the 'Holdfast', in 1891) and a preparation of farinaceous (starchy) foods (1878).  Both of Miss Lobb's parents were originally from Cornwall, and though she and her older brother Nicholas were born in Surrey, by the 1881 census they were all living at Mary's maternal grandparent's farm at South Petherwin in Cornwall.  In the 1891 census, Mary Lobb was attending a small private school which had only 10 pupils, girls between the ages of 12 and 15.  This was St Thomas' College, under the headmistress Caroline Stringer, in nearby Launceston, but after her academic career she was back at home in Trewen, less than 10 miles from Launceston and South Petherwin by the 1901 census.  Whilst Nicholas Junior was keen to leave the confines of rural Cornwall, first as a apprentice railway engineer, then immigrating to Canada, second son George Leopold remained on the family farm with his mother.  Arabella, the youngest, also remained in Cornwall for the whole of her life.  By the 1911 census, George, Arabella and Mary all live with their widowed mother on their farm, 'Trenault' but all that was about to change...

Miss Lobb and her mechanical skills (c.1914)
Back to Gloucestershire for the outbreak of the First World War: After the death of Jane Morris in the January of 1914, May attempted to get help in the home by advertising for a cook.  Jane had been forced to buy Kelmscott from their neighbour Robert Hobbs after he could not guarantee that they could live their for their entire lives. There is no mention whether this was a bone of contention between the Morris family and the Hobbs family but I can't imagine the effort Jane went to to be able to secure her daughter's home was seen as an enjoyable thing.  Also in June of 1914 May wrote a letter in the Gloucestershire Echo about  local farmers' 'ruthless cutting of the hedges, which are becoming an eyesore instead of a beauty'.  May concludes that 'ruthlessness is not really required for good farming'.  You do have to wonder if she was referring to her neighbour.  During this time Robert Hobbs was making changes to his farm's working hours in order to make the hours female friendly.  These concerns were reflected in reports from Cornwall where the skills of female farm workers were becoming news-worthy.  In the West Briton newspaper, in a piece about what would happen on farms 'if men were taken wholesale', it boasted of 'highly skilled' ladies but also complained that farmers were unaware that their skills could be utilised and that some women would be tempted to leave the county.  In the Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph of March 1916 there was concern that munitions factories were tempting women off the land with good wages and promises of work, whereas farmers refused to take women from labour exchanges and complained they were short-handed.  Possibly this was what led to Miss Mary Lobb being sent out of Cornwall to Gloucestershire, more precisely to Kelmscott village.

The Hobbs family, Robert is seated, centre
On page 2 of the West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser of Monday 11 September 1916, there was a short piece entitled 'Cornish lady drives a steam roller' - 'Miss Lobb of Trenault, a lady of independent means, is to be seen every day driving a steam roller on the main roads near Launceston.'  This was such a gripping news story that they ran it again on the Thursday of the same week.  Around the same time Miss Lobb competed with other women to win £5 by binding up 12 bundles of wood in the quickest time.  When she received her posting to Gloucestershire, she was put to work immediately.  In Robert Lusty's memoir Bound to be Read (1975), he remembers going with his aunt to collect Miss Lobb from the railway station.  Lusty's mother was Winifred Hobbs, pictured seated on the far right of the above picture. His memory of his first sight of Miss Lobb is particularly vivid:
'And where', she inquired, 'is our Miss Lob [sic]? We looked around for a likely land-girl and could see none.  The platform slowly emptied, leaving only one memorable figure upon it.  It was extraordinary even to my innocent eyes: squat, mannish and a little threatening. 'That,' said my Aunt Helen, 'cannot surely be Miss Lob?' But indeed it was and with her odd baggage she heaved herself into the back of the car and we drove in silent contemplation back to Kelmscott.' (page 15)
  Lusty's memories of Miss Lobb at his grandfather's farm paint a picture of a strong-willed woman who put people's backs up.  I don't think it was long between her hiring and her firing, but the versions of events are quite different depending on who you believe.  Lusty tells of a woman who was so foul-mouthed 'that it quickly became imperative for her to work in the fields alone' driving away even the seagulls (p.15-16 of Bound to be Read).  In fact, the local blacksmith, who was well-known for 'the ferocity and ingenuity of his own vocabulary' might have had a hand in her dismissal, as Lusty reports he 'felt unable to tolerate so formidable a competitor.'  Lusty accompanied his grandfather when he went to sack Miss Lobb who was out on her tractor, ploughing:
'He looked relieved on returning to the car. 'I have sacked Lob,' he said and we proceeded on our quiet way to Bampton.' (p.16 of Bound to be Read)
 It is easy to find accounts that Miss Lobb had been asleep or drunk at her tractor and that was the cause of her dismissal, but I believe the account of the man who was present and it would seem a woman, capable but difficult and as foul-mouthed as the blacksmith would be a divisive figure.  There is an interesting account of the Hobbs' farm here and it would seem that Robert Hobbs had worked hard to make his farm commercially viable, notwithstanding the pressures of war.  The last thing he needed was a woman who offended his male farm workers and might endanger the smooth working of the farm.  So Miss Lobb left, but didn't go far...

Miss Morris and Miss Lobb, c.1920s
It's a bit of a mystery why May Morris would swoop in and immediately employ a recently sacked, difficult land-girl. One explanation might come from Marjorie Breakspear in this account of meeting Miss Lobb at Kelmscott.  Breakspear was the niece of Lily Huntley, school teacher in Kelmscott, and in her memoir she records how May Morris and Mrs Hobbs both stood as president of the Kelmscott Women's Institute - 'There seemed to be a little rivalry about the office.' (page 11 of 'My Memories of Kelmscott').  If May had intended to complain about Hobbs in her letter about hedge trimming and to actively compete with Mrs Hobbs over this aspect of local role, possibly her acquisition of Miss Lobb into the household at Kelmscott Manor was done out of mischief as much as necessity.  As May was listed as an attendee, she might have already met Miss Lobb at the demonstration of 'Women in Farm Work' on the farm in Kelmscott, as recorded in the Banbury Guardian in June of 1916.  How ever it occurred, Miss Lobb entered Kelmscott Manor in 1916 and only left it after she and May had died.

Miss Morris and Miss Lobb (c.1920s)
The most striking thing about most people's account of Miss Lobb is the physical descriptions of her.  Much like Fanny Cornforth, no account of Miss Lobb can exist without extensive and often derogatory reports of her appearance which are often contradictory.  One thing that everyone agrees with is that her hair was cropped.  In Teresa A Lock's account Miss Lobb's hair was 'cut very short', in Marjorie Breakspear's account it was 'black curly hair, cut short as a man's'.  She is also always in male attire, wearing plus-fours or 'knickerbockers' (as Lily Years recalled in this article and Sir Geoffrey Mander in a 1945 Spectator article on 'Pre-Raphaelite Links').  This is confirmed in Sir Sidney Cockerell's memories of Kelmscott (as written in Cockerell by Wilfrid Blunt) who writes that she was always dressed in man's clothes. Also, the tie in the above photograph can be presumed to be red as both Lily Years and Alan Kitching separately recall her wearing a tie of this colour)  Her height is one that varies, some recalling her as tall (from Gudrun Jonsdotir's account of May and Lobb in Iceland) and Marjorie Breakspear, but then others describing her as 'squat', such as Robert Lusty, but all accounts describe her as masculine and also fat, weighing over 20 stone (as remembered by Teresa A Lock).  All use adjectives such as 'startling' (Geoffrey Mander MP) to express just how unexpected and powerful a presence Miss Lobb was at the Manor, amongst the Arts and Crafts needlework and Rossetti oils.  Cockerell goes further and calls her 'rather violent in some of her behaviour and perhaps a little mad' (Cockerell, p.65).  Her level of education was sneered at by Lily Yeats and Marjorie Breakspear reported that Miss Lobb had 'pretended to know a great deal about William Morris', yet others such as George Bernard Shaw's biographer Margot Peters state that Miss Lobb privately considered 'Morris to have been "an awful bore"' (Bernard Shaw and the Actresses, p.398).  I don't believe the two to be incompatible, and it might have been that Miss Lobb did know a great deal about Morris but just didn't really feel the enthusiasm of May's friends. One of her few defenders, Basil Blackwell wrote two articles in The Bookseller during the early 1960s.  He denied he ever heard her speak an 'improper word'. Even though Simon Evans has an account of Miss Lobb calling William Morris a 'dreadful old bore', Miss Lobb defended and bullied Blackwell into supporting May in her work on her father.  There is a wonderful anecdote in the Garden History Society Newsletter about a tea that May and Miss Lobb attended where Miss Lobb was asked if May would like to see the garden - 'The formidable Miss Lobb peered out of the window and said firmly, 'No, it is too mauve - the Morrises don't like mauve, you know.'' (Issue 61, Spring 2001, p.22).

May Morris (left) and Miss Lobb (right) with friends at Kelmscott
Miss Lobb joined the Kelmscott household as a gardener but swiftly became May's companion and close friend who ably fought May's battles, kept away anyone who she felt was bothering May.  That included Lord Berners MP, who had allegedly planned to install a siren at his home nearby.  Lord Berners, who knew Miss Lobb in person, replied 'It would be better is Mr [sic] Lobb had ascertained the facts before writing a letter which sounded as though it had emanated from the brain of a crazy spinster.' (from Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric by Mark Amory).  Miss Lobb continued her interest in her family land in Cornwall, advertising it to be let for £2 a week (Sheffield Daily Independent, Tuesday 12 April 1932).  May and Miss Lobb lived simply at the Manor, using the kitchen as a living room, lit by lamp as there was no electricity in the Manor as yet.  It is interesting how her friends responded to the presence of Miss Lobb in her life.  In George Bernard Shaw's account, Miss Lobb is merely a guard dog who knew nothing of the deep 'mystical betrothal' that existed between himself and May.  Janis Londraville, in On Poetry, Painting & Politics: The Letters of May Morris and John Quinn states that May, by the time she met Miss Lobb, knew her dreams had all vanished into 'thin air' (p.27).  May herself had apparently grown 'masculine and moustached' (George Bernard Shaw's account) and Miss Lobb's company seems to diminish May Morris in the eyes of others, reducing them both to 'two lesbian ladies of Llangollen' (William Morris: A Life for Our Time by Fiona MacCarthy, p.679).  I have often wondered if the characters of Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd in Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced were based on Miss Morris and Miss Lobb.  If not, that stereotype of a lesbian couple, one masculine, one more fluttery and girlish, is how Miss Morris and Miss Lobb are often pigeonholed and reduced.  May Morris herself found the village interest in her relationship with Miss Lobb amusing (according to Marjorie Breakspear's account).  When the village found out that the couple shared a room and Miss Lobb kept a loaded gun by her bed to ward off intruders 'the village folk had a lot to say about it.' I bet they did...

May Morris reading in bed, allegedly taken by Miss Lobb
In truth, May Morris had found someone who actually made her happy.  The couple were devoted to each other. There was no 'mystical betrothal' nonsense or unhappy marriage and after the unease of her parents' marriage and the disaster of her own, it must have been utter joy to find a soul mate.  I love the image from Marjorie Breakspear's account, of May and Miss Lobb allowing the grasses and flowers in their field to grow long and then cutting them with scythes. May continued to work hard for her father's memory and took Miss Lobb on a trip to Iceland, wonderfully recorded by Gudrun Jonsdottir:
 'Two foreign ladies came riding up the lane leading to the manse where I lived with my parents ... one was rather small, slim and grey-haired ... the other lady was tall and rather fat with short, black hair that curled around her chubby face.  She did not change for dinner except putting on a different kind of trousers.  She talked rather loudly and laughed often. Her name was Miss Lobb.'
Rather than the rather patronising summary by Cockerell, that if May had 'married the right man' 'how much happier, more effective, and - different - she would have been.' (Margot Peters (p.398), I see May and Miss Lobb as perfectly happy and industrious and it is obvious that we are only just beginning to appreciate the scope and depth of May's work, let alone the positive implications of her relationship with Miss Lobb.  Whilst I don't really share the enthusiasm for labelling people, I don't think there is any doubt that the latter years of May Morris' life were improved beyond measure due to the equal and abiding love of Miss Lobb.

May Morris on a Pony in Iceland, presumably taken by Miss Lobb
 May wrote her will in 1929, correctly assuming that it was likely she would outlive her sister, and leaving the bulk of her estate to Miss Lobb.  Jenny too had made this assumption even before her mother's death in 1914, writing a will leaving her belongings to May (there is a wonderful piece on Jenny here).  May's serious illness of 1928 made the local papers but she was not to die until a decade later.  When she died after a short illness on Sunday 17th October 1938, the newspapers reported her exquisite needlecraft, how she was a pioneer in jewellery, her work with SPAB and her role in the founding of the Women's Guild of Arts (from the Gloucestershire Echo, 18 October 1938).  It was rumoured by some villagers that 'Miss Lobb 'has summit to do with it'' (from Bound to be Read, p.17) or, in James' Laver's Museum Piece - 'they do say as she done away with the old lady.' (p.196), but mostly the accounts are of a woman so broken-hearted that she got drunk and killed herself, possibly with the loaded gun by the side of her and May's bed.

May Morris' funeral, almost identical to her father's
The truth is of course somewhat more complicated.  It is true that Miss Lobb, and possibly May, liked her drink.  There is a jolly advert in the 29th September 1933 Western Gazette which reads 'WANTED, 60 Gallons of NEW CIDER, made from Blenheim Oranges only, casks provided - LOBB, Kelmscott, Lechlade, Glos.' Well, that's the weekend taken care of.  On her death certificate her death is due to conditions that have connection associated with her smoking, drinking and weight but according to Simon Evan's research, Miss Lobb had been ill in her last years and May Morris had paid for her to receive medical help on several occasions.  Had they been husband and wife we would not blink at the fact that they could not survive apart for long, but for some reason we wonder at the devoted pair perishing months apart.  As it was, Miss Lobb was not drunk and idle in her last months.  In an article for The Burlington Magazine (1976) Shirley Bury writes that Miss Lobb responded to the letters of condolence she received at the death of her companion, including one from the director of the V&A.  She also wrote letters to the local newspapers on subjects such as the patterned quilts she had found in the attic chest at Kelmscott (Western Morning News and Daily Gazette 2 February 1939) and the medicinal quality of nutmeg for rheumatism (same paper, the day before).  These may indicate a lonely soul at the end of her life, but also continues a family tradition as it is possible to read letters from her sister Arabella to her local papers on such matters as aquarium keeping, the 'ashen fagot' and when her father caught a white mole.  

Miss Lobb and May Morris, camping
When Miss Lobb finally joined her beloved in the hereafter, her Will caused much interest. Under the headline 'NO HEARSE OR COFFIN', the Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic (October 7 1939) reported that Miss Lobb's dying wishes were to be placed in 'just a plain, oblong box of deal, rough but strong.' and it was to be conveyed to the crematorium not by a hearse but a 'motor lorry'.  Furthermore she wanted to be cremated without a religious ceremony, no mourning or flowers and her ashes to be sprinkled back in Cornwall, preferably Bosporthennis Moor.  It is interesting that most biographies that include Miss Lobb do not know or arguably care what became of her.  The versions of the story where she dies of drink, gunshot or something equally dramatic proliferate, including a very exciting postscript in Haunted Cotswolds by Diz White which records that Miss Lobb's ghost roams the attics of Kelmscott calling for May.

The trouble with Miss Lobb is that she has thus far mostly been a humorous aside in the story of May Morris.  Much like Fanny and Rossetti, Miss Lobb is used to undermine May and by extension William Morris, showing foolishness, bad judgement, questionable taste.  For some, Miss Lobb emphasises May Morris' inability to find 'the right man'.  Miss Lobb is a polar opposite to the waiflike Pre-Raphaelite maidens, lumbering around Kelmscott secretly hating William Morris whilst driving away May's former friends with the gun that would end her own life.  Miss Lobb, like Fanny, is a misunderstood caricature, willfully misrepresented in order to pander to the prejudices and vanities of people like George Bernard Shaw.   John Betjemen and his friends travelled to see May and Miss Lobb, a couple of old lesbians, as if they were some sort of tourist attraction. Evelyn Waugh visited Kelmscott in 1927 where he found May Morris and her 'hermaphrodite' (quoted in Jan Marsh's Jane and May Morris).  Sidney Cockerell saw May as a beautiful young woman who was psychologically flawed and full of discontent (p.66 Cockerell by Wilfrid Blunt).  During the 1920s and 30s, when all that the Pre-Raphaelites had been was substantially dismantled in the wake of war, it seemed almost obligatory to poke fun at the last remnants of a previous era.  There is no excuse for us to continue doing so.

I find Miss Lobb's letter about the benefits of nutmeg to emblematic of what I want to say here.  It reads:
Sir;- Two years ago I met at a friend's house a Roman Catholic priest, who told me that some years previously he had been laid up with rheumatism for many weeks with doctors in attendance.  He was finally cured. After a while he met a friend who told him about nutmegs.  he thought he would try them.  He was free for a long time so he forgot about his nutmegs.  Soon he began to get rheumatic twinges.  He returned to nutmegs.  The twinges went.  Now he finds if he goes without nutmegs for long rheumatism returns.  I personally find they keep rheumatism at bay, but I have friends who find them no use at all.  MFV LOBB, Kelmscott Manor, Glos
  I don't know how well known Miss Lobb's love of the nutmeg was known, but I am forced to wonder if a story in a 1940s copy of Punch magazine refers to it.  In 'Working Party', Miss Lobb goes to her grocer in search of a nutmeg grater (Punch 8 April 1942) and if a generation of post war writers, like Betjeman and Waugh, went in search of the Lesbian Ladies of Lechlade, I can't imagine Miss Lobb would have any qualms about sharing her views on a great many things. But the nutmegs say something about Mary and May and their relationship.  If we believe that May was unhappy at the way her life had dissolved, then Miss Lobb might have been her nutmeg.  Miss Lobb freed May of pain and unhappiness, she gave her devotion and company and a defense against the world which can't have been easy, even for a woman of independent means, however slim. Like nutmeg for rheumatism, even if others found her disagreeable or unfathomable, Miss Lobb was May's way to find ease at last.