Saturday, 24 February 2018

Never the Bridesmaid

Today marks the death of Fanny Cornforth in 1909 and so I'd thought I'd display my utter Fanny-centricness (completely a word and possibly a euphemism) with yet more of my random ramblings and conspiracy theories.  It all started with this drawing...

Study of a Female Head (1865) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I had always assumed that this was Fanny Cornforth because, well, it looks exactly like her. Not only that, I always assumed that it was a sketch for this...

The Blue Bower (1865)
It's Fanny giving a bit of side-jaw while cheekily plucking her whatsit.  I really had not given it any thought, but according to the Rossetti Archive (the holy grail of Rossetti research material) the pencil sketch is proposed to be a study for The Bride (or The Beloved)...

The Bride (or The Beloved) (1866)
That noise is me making a unladylike dismissive snort, but, as we have spoken about earlier, 1865 is a bit of a dodgy year for Rossetti.  Lizzie Siddal had died a few years previously and in the void she left, Fanny had wiggled in quite comfortably, thank you very much.  She had taken over patching up Rossetti after his wife's death, a job she would continue to do until his death in 1882.  He in turn had used her in paintings such as Fazio's Mistress to express how beautiful and necessary she was to his vision.  The problem was that he was the only one who felt like that.

Lady Lilith (before)

Lady Lilith (after)
Lady Lilith had been a work in progress ever since Rossetti did Fazio's Mistress.  The vision of a beautiful, powerful woman, dressing her hair in front of a mirror was a lovesong to Fanny and her tresses. Likewise, Lilith is a step removed from romance, but still is a woman and her hair on a pedestal.  Unfortunately for Fanny, Lady Lilith with her face was not selling so Rossetti swiped Alexa Wilding off the street and slapped her face over the top. As I postulated earlier, maybe the same occurred with Monna Vanna also from 1865.  So back to The Bride...

Marie Ford as 'The Bride'
Let's talk a bit about the construction of The Beloved: If Fanny had been intended to go in the picture, she wasn't the only substitution.  A bit like Annie Miller in (or not in) The Awakening Conscience, it is roundly believed that the Bride in the centre of the painting is a professional model called Marie Ford.  The studies of the central figure from around 1863, but the final figure, certainly after the 1872 repaint resembles Alexa Wilding, again.

The Beloved photographed during the 1872 repaint
Look at the shape of the jawline in the photograph and then in the finished oil.  There is definitely something going on there. I call 'Alexa' on that redhead. To the Bride's left is little Ellen Smith, looking all small and cute and brunette.  She is present and correct in both the finished oil and the photograph of work in progress, so we'll give her a pass.

Study for a Bridesmaid
We also have this young lady, who looks suspiciously like Aggie Manetti and may either be a study for Keomi (who we'll get to in a moment) or the back left Bridesmaid who we can't really see. Imagine sitting for Rossetti, possibly having your shoes eaten or wee-ed on by random animals in the house, and no doubt getting a scowling from Fanny, only to find out you are at the back of the wedding photo and Ellen is blocking you.  Rude.  Moving round, next to her is thought to be Fanny Eaton.

Study of a Woman (1860s)
Fanny modelled for various of the Pre-Raphaelites (and others) during the 1860s and some of her many children followed her into modelling.  It is possible that the child at the front was one of Fanny's to start with, as the little boy replaced a girl with a cherubic face and frizzy hair.

Girl with Long Hair for 'The Beloved'

Girl with Short Hair for 'The Beloved'

Boy for 'The Beloved'
As you can see the child servant changed from the little girls to a boy, reportedly called 'Gabriel' who was working as a servant, and spotted by Rossetti at the door of a hotel.  In 1865, Rossetti and Fanny had visited Paris together and it is likely that Rossetti had seen Edouard Manet's Olympia, which is supposed to have influenced him and made him add the black servant figure.  As Rossetti loathed the painters in Paris, I wonder how great an influence they were and it might just have started out as an opportunistic addition, if the child was in attendance with Fanny Eaton when she posed. Either way, Rossetti wasn't above changing his mind about who appeared in the picture.

Keomi Gray study for 'The Beloved'
So finally, over on the right-hand side is Keomi the gypsy, mistress and model of Frederick Sandys and star of such of his paintings as Medea and  Vivien among others.  If you look at the photograph of the repainting, a sizable bit of Keomi is missing, so I wondered if she had been the replacement for Fanny, if Fanny was indeed in there at all, but the drawing that exists of her is from 1865, which says to me that she was always intended for the part and that would tie in with how close Sandys and Rossetti were at that time.  So what about Fanny?

Possible study for 'The Beloved'
While we're on the subject, this sketch is also meant to be from The Beloved.  My God, is everything from The Beloved now? Mind you, there are a lot of women in that painting and apparently a fair few who weren't but might have been meant to be.  So this, I contest, is also probably Fanny and so might be the second image of her that is meant to be in The Beloved.  So what can we hypothesize from all this?

Fanny Cornforth (c.1867)
I wonder if Rossetti made the decision not to include Fanny in his salable works in 1865.  It's always been part of the official story that Rossetti dropped Fanny c.1864-5 when Lady Lilith didn't sell, he discovered Alexa, and he brought Jane Morris back into his life. However we know he produced other pictures of her in the years 1865-9 but they're informal, personal and intimate.  We also know that he made several copies of Lady Lilith but with Fanny instead of Alexa, and again these are smaller, often chalk or watercolour.  Fanny had been his partner in crime for a couple of years which had produced a lot of ideas and art that were to follow, with Fanny at the genesis.  Venus Verticordia started with a sketch of Fanny, Lady Lilith obviously and I wonder if Fanny posed for various of the figures for The Beloved.  The problem was that Fanny became bad luck.  It is undeniable that 1864-7 were rough years in terms with how Rossetti dealt with his guilt, creativity and criticism.  In my humble opinion, and this really is just my opinion, I think Rossetti was appalling at separating his art and his people.  I don't think it was a coincidence that he lusted after models and I think there is a lot of his relationship with the apparently notable exception to this, Alexa Wilding, that needs explaining.  More and more I believe Fanny hung in there with their relationship, beyond reason, and it can only be imagined how hurt she must have been when he cut her out just because other people no longer appreciated her face. 

Apparently, she was okay being Fazio's 'Mistress', but probably best not to include her in any picture with the word 'Bride' in the title or she might start getting ideas...

Friday, 16 February 2018

Support Your Local Girl Gang!

Some of you who are on Facebook will have noticed an announcement yesterday which I am very excited about. I have another book coming out!  Huzzah!

On 13th September, the lovely people at Unicorn Publishing will be flinging my book unto the world.  It is entitled...

Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang: The Makers, Shakers and 
Heartbreakers from the Victorian Era

...and here is the story behind it.

Fanny Cornforth
It's no secret that I have always been determined to tell Fanny Cornforth's story in all its glory.  Part of my utter joy in doing this blog is telling you about how she really wasn't the nut-cracking, illiterate, thieving, lying prozzie she was made out to be, how, in fact, her story enriches our understanding of Rossetti and his art.  The beauty of women like Fanny is that they are part and parcel of the Pre-Raphaelite story and by giving them some respect we can all learn something new, something deeper about art.

Maria Zambaco
But Fanny is just the tip of the iceberg as all the women of the Pre-Raphaelite movement have interesting stories to be told.  Whether they are models, artists, sisters, wives, lovers, embroiderers, sculptors, mothers or a combination of roles, the women tell us so much about the time, the movement and the art, yet have not had the coverage and research of the men, especially if they are thought to have had a lesser role.  

Alexa Wilding
Well, you and I know that something needed to be done about that and so in September this year, Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang will set you on the path of discovery for all our wonderful Pre-Raphaelite women.  Each of them has a story to tell, filled with triumph, disaster, survival and creativity.  From the famous to the infamous, lady to laundress, their stories will inspire you.

Marie Spartali
Together with original art from contemporary sources, I have the utter delight and pleasure to be working with Kingsley Nebecki, a frankly awesome chap who is doing portraits of our 50 girls, bringing together so much of the essence and aura of each woman in a single image.  His work is beautiful and I'm very excited to see the results.

Elizabeth Siddal
From well-known women like Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris to lesser known figures such as Aglaia Coronio and Hetty Pettigrew, all of them have had an impact on Pre-Raphaelite art.  Brief lives to grandmothers, those who spent their lives in pursuit of art to those who flickered in and out of the movement in a moment, I'll tell you all their stories in my own way.  Get ready for laughs and tears and scandalized gasping as I tell you who ran off with a wife-beater, who was made a widow after only a few weeks and who was the victim of a violent stalker.  Ever fallen in love with entirely the wrong man?  Let me introduce you to Anna Blunden, who was certain Ruskin was the chap for her.  Feel underappreciated at work?  The Pettigrew sisters will tell you how to demand a decent wage and make any boss ashamed of paying you less.  These women should be your girl gang because they have all been there, done that, and you know they'll have your back.

For further information, here is Unicorn Publishing's announcement page and I'll bring you further news closer to release day...

Monday, 12 February 2018

In a Spin

I'm recovering from a weekend of fun at the Weald and Downland Museum in Sussex where I spent two days learning how to spin.  Now, this might not be quite the rock and roll lifestyle you imagined for me (let's be honest, it probably was), but as I am someone who spends a fair amount of time not being able to find exactly the knitting yarn I need, I thought I'd learn how to make it myself.  Unsurprisingly, my thoughts turned to Victorian depictions of spinning...

Still Life Interior with Spinning Wheel (early 20th century) 'Cogswell'
I do love doing things with my hands (no sniggering at the back) and so the idea of learning how to turn sheep into wool (not the whole sheep obviously) just seemed like magic and so booked the course and began to dream of sitting at my wheel singing as I span. Span?  Spun? Spinned? Well, you know what I mean...

Thank you Morris, 'span' it is.  Mind you, his depiction of drop-spindle spinning is a bit vague.  I'm guessing that's what she's doing - I can see the stretch of fleece going from hand to hand as she twists, but I can't really see a spindle.  Mind you Adam seems to be digging with an elongated heart on a stick so who knows what's going on here...

Woman Spinning Margaret Thomas
That's more like it, although she's going some in this picture.  The idea is (for those who don't drop-spindle, or indeed spin) is that the hand nearest the spindle holds the fleece as it twists as the other hand feeds out the fleece to feed the twist.  The hand nearest the spindle then moves up the unspun fleece releasing the twist into it.  You then wind that part onto the spindle and away you go again.  As I have just started, I horribly over-twist but that is normal and to do with not working quick enough and being too cautious.  It also makes your arm ache like a bugger, especially if you try and drop-spindle-spin sitting down. Anyway, enough practice, let's get on with the art...

Sleeping Beauty (1913) Leon Bakst
Let's just get something out of the way - I did not prick my finger and fall asleep for a 100 years.  This would have been damn near impossible anyway as a regular spinning wheel does not have any sharp bits at all.  Apparently 'great wheels', really massive spinning wheels, have a spike, probably used to hold the fibre to be spun (called a distaff) because you are using one hand to turn the wheel while the other feeds in the fibre for spinning, a bit like a sideways drop-spindle.

St Elizabeth of Hungary spinning for the poor Marianne Stokes
Here you can see the distaff holding up the dark fleece while Elizabeth spins and uses the treadle joined to the shaft by her knee.  Although we often think of wheels being a symbol of the industrious poor, living in little cottages and wearing headscarves, having a wheel in your house was fairly rare until Tudor times.  Until then you would drop-spindle (which can be made really easily) and so Elizabeth of Hungary is doing work for the poor with something the poor would not have had access to.

Our Saviour Subject to his Parents at Nazareth (1847) John Rogers Herbert
This therefore is a very miraculous scene, not least because the spinning wheel would not be invented for about another 500 years.  You'll remember from Blogvent that the Virgin Mary was known for her needlecraft, and so I think Herbert was trying to express this.  Actually, apart from the uninvented spinning wheel, it's not a bad effort as if Mary is going to be doing all that embroidery she'll need to get her yarn from somewhere.  It's not like she can pop over to Hobbycraft on the donkey.

The Sleeping Embroiderer Gustave Courbet
What is it with Courbet and sleeping women?  It's a bit creepy and voyeuristic but we'll just think the best that he was making the best if their rest period.  So the lady here is spinning her embroidery yarn but has dozed off with the spike of fleece on her lap.  I love that red ribbon around the silver fleece.

Fair Rosamund John William Waterhouse
It's nice to know that whilst hanging around for her lover and being done in by his jealous wife, Rosamund Clifford wasn't sat around bored.  In the corner of her room is her spinning wheel.  Well, that wool isn't going to spin itself and if you want a thread to lead your erstwhile lover to your hidden lovenest (not a euphemism) then you have to make it yourself.  The illicit-lover-threads you buy in the shops are just not the same quality.

A Romance of Bridport, Dorset (1923) Francis Henry Newberry
Whenever a monarch turns up in your town, you might as well bring out your spinning wheel to impress him.  Henry VIII was well known for his love of a woman with a wheel (according to the song often attributed to him, 'I like big wheels and I cannot lie') and so this lass is wise to turn up with her wheel, which also denotes her unmarried state.  The term 'spinster' referred to the mostly unmarried women who span wool, the idea being you would probably give that occupation up when you were married and popping out babies.

At the Crofter's Wheel (1876) William Henry Midwood
Come on now, it's obviously an open secret that men love a wheel.  Look at the confidence this woman has with hers, as if to say, 'Yes, I spin and you like it, don't you Big Boy?'  If I had only known this as a teenager it would have saved so much heartache.  Men like milkmaids and spinsters, don't try and deny it.  Damn it, I could have had a vastly different school experience...

Thomas Faed at the Easel in his Studio (1853) John Ballantyne
Mind you, I think it's a fair bet that Victorian artists loved a spinning wheel as a prop.  You could use it as short-hand for honest, lady-like labour making dainty loveliness which has a purpose.  From the flax spun for nets and rope in Bridport (hence the spinning wheel) to dainty silk spinning, it has all sorts of useful and beautiful applications in real life.  Stick some apple-cheeked voluptuous woman next to a wheel and we know what it represents.  

Waiting (1885) Clement Rollins Grant
Also, as we have covered, it's rather a neat way of showing that the woman is unmarried.  Grant's girl, above, is literally waiting to be married, but she doesn't look like she needs to spin for anything other than fun.  There does seem to be a point in time when wheels start looking slightly anachronistic and an affectation... 

Summer Morning Interior (1917) Ernest Townsend
This young lady seems to say there might be trouble on the Western Front but I have a load of merino to spin up.  However, might it be that she is unmarried and likely to stay so because all the chaps are now dead in No Man's Land?  Might this be a powerful anti-war painting disguised as something pretty and Vermeer-y?

The Spinning Wheel (1859) John Phillip
So, in conclusion, I have added another skill to my apocalypse cv, joining bee-keeping, bread-making, chicken-hypnotism and cow-milking.  As someone said this weekend, when the lights go out, I'll be ready, which is just the sort of positive thinking we all need.  Anyway, everyone can look forward to some over-twisted wool for Christmas this year...

Friday, 2 February 2018

Oh, Manchester...

Unless you have been blissfully disconnected from social media over the last few days you will have no doubt heard the outrage over the absence of a certain painting...

Hylas and the Nymphs
This week Manchester Art Gallery removed Hylas and the Nymphs from its walls and left a note in its place asking questions about what is displayed and how on the walls of our galleries.  The Museum's website held the following questions:
This gallery presents the female body as either a ‘passive decorative form’ or a ‘femme fatale’. Let’s challenge this Victorian fantasy!The gallery exists in a world full of intertwined issues of gender, race, sexuality and class which affect us all. How could artworks speak in more contemporary, relevant ways?What other stories could these artworks and their characters tell? What other themes would be interesting to explore in the gallery?
What followed was a hell-fire storm of public fury.  From censorship to the rise of out-of-control feminism, much has been said online, so I just wanted to talk about what went wrong and what they could have done differently...

Cards on the table first - I am a card carrying feminist.  I believe men and women of all races and whatnot are equal and think that life would be splendid if everyone could make it through a day without repressing anyone else.  As such I'm not blind to the fact that some Victorian art raises questions about the ideals we hold in society, for example...

Syrinx Arthur Hacker
I love a bit of Arthur Hacker but for a moment consider that someone paid to have this pubescent, hairless girl on their wall. She's really beautiful and the interplay between the reeds and the slender figure of the girl and that dark waterfall of fabric is stunning, but taken in a sober and unromantic light, it's an odd image to pop on your dining room wall. Why do we love art like this? It can't be the subject matter because I doubt any of us would rush to put a photograph of a nude teenage girl by a pond on our wall, yet the delicate magic of time and our acceptance and love of the style of art overcomes us.  It's not just a Victorian fantasy, it's our fantasy.  I don't know why, and it certainly isn't a universal thing.  My mother-in-law hates Victorian art as much as she loves telling me so.  It just isn't her taste.  Doesn't make her more feminist than me, doesn't make the art she likes more modern or 'appropriate'.  She likes the Impressionists and Chardin and abstract stuff.  Ugh. Sorry I'm rambling, but it's not about the naughty Victorians versus the modern feminist art killjoys but that is how it's come across.

Dead Hector Briton Riviere
For an awful lot of people it all smelt like censorship and censorship smells really bad.  Even though the Gallery said it was about a conversation about how we read the cultural attitudes of past generations through the presentation of women, they started the conversation by taking the artwork away.  Its absence was actually only a temporary one as it is being used in an exhibition opening in March.  It would have to be moved, it would have vanished for a few weeks during set up anyway but the Gallery have used its transit as an opportunity to have this 'conversation'.  However, that isn't on the website.  That came out in a newspaper article about it. Think about that for a moment: Manchester haven't censored anything, they have merely moved a painting for an exhibition, which happens all the time in galleries everywhere.  Nothing controversial there.  However, the curator Clare Gannaway's explanation was not clearly expressed and the newspapers launched into a howl of HOW MANCHESTER HATES LOVELY NUDEY LADY ART.  I'm going to be kind to poor Clare as I'm sure she's had a terrible week and probably in no way did she intended to massively offend the Victorian art loving public and cause feminist-loathing ranting and no doubt cannibalism. I think they just made a mistake in the way it was handled. It could have been handled better, no doubt about that, but they weren't the first to have the conversation...

In 1989, the Guerrilla Girls raised the issue of how women artists and subjects are approached in our galleries.  Their witty and honest statements drew attention to the inequality and added to conversations about the lives of models and the brilliance of women artists.  I have been working for over two decades to fight for the reputation of Fanny Cornforth which I see as part of the reassessment of how we accept or challenge Victorian art, but in no way, shape or form would I ever have images of her removed, even if they contributed to biographers seeing her as a saucy baggage.  I digress but think about Jane Morris - would we have a different view of her if Evelyn de Morgan's portrait of her was as well known and displayed as Rossetti's?  The answer seems for more display of art, not less.  More Victorian art, more glorious female artists showing us an alternative Victorian vision to compare and contrast with more famous pieces. That is a conversation.

The Rokeby Venus after a suffragette attack
Over a hundred years ago suffragette Mary Richardson slashed up Diego Velazquez's Venus in the National Gallery in response to the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst.  The imbalance of the mistreatment and imprisonment of women asking for the vote and the reverence given to the painted female form was too much and a cleaver was taken to it causing substantial damage.  More slashing followed, including to Pre-Raphaelite art, but the act wasn't so much about the art as the attitude in society that values two-dimensional women above three-dimensional.  The problem is that the moment you destroy or indeed remove items of cultural value your argument is lost.  You look like a history-rewriter, a philistine, too stupid to understand the work and therefore destroys it.  Book burning is next, mark my words etc etc.

On the Balcony John William Godward
Part of the problem with Manchester's move is that they linked it to #MeToo and #TimesUp in a rather diaphanous manner.  The image they took down was a group of nymphs in the act of tempting a hot young man to his doom. Everyone is semi-naked, mythological and hot, it's an equal opportunity picture, not in any way symbolic of male abuse of women.  There are plenty of those sort of pictures, don't worry.  How about this one?

The Embrace of Fra Filippo Lippi and Lucrezia Buti (1871) Gabriele Castagnola
This is a blantant image of a bloke attempting to snog a lady who doesn't really want to and the whole thing being framed as romantic. 

Ajax and Cassandra Solomon J Solomon
Or this one?  I love this one and it is just appalling if you think about the subject matter. Ugh.  There are many and varied abductions, rapes, slave markets and all sorts of abominations gorgeously rendered by the Victorians which would make a thought provoking exhibition about how things are acceptable in paint that we contemn in real life.  Hylas and his nipple-free temptresses just don't fit that bill, so by hanging an important cause on moving a painting smells like bandwagon-chasing and cheapens both the most important feminist moment of my adult life and what could be a thought-provoking and discomforting exploration of gender attitudes in art.

Fear not, Hylas has not gone for long, has not been destroyed or censored in the proper sense of the word.  He will return and we will all have learnt an important lesson which is don't get between the public and the art they love.  Actually, that's a really lovely lesson, however painfully learnt, and Manchester should no doubt take some consolation from the fact that no-one can touch their art, which in the climate of funding crisis and pressure to sell pieces should fortify them.  

Also, put the postcards back in the gift shop.  For heavens sake, think of your revenue streams!