Henry Peach Robinson – Fading Away

28 Apr

The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.

(Edgar Allan Poe)

Henry Peach Robinson, Fading Away, 1858

I found myself thinking about death these days, and naturally the first things that came to my mind were the poems, the paintings and this Victorian era photograph taken by Henry Peach Robinson in 1858. “Fading Away” is a very romantical and elegantly sad photograph which shows a pale and frail young girl dying from consumption, or perhaps from a broken heart. She is surrounded by her a family members, all of which play a different role in the composition of the photograph and also in expressing emotion. The male figure, presumably the father, turned his back towards the girl, unable to face the painful truth; death of his beloved daughter. Perhaps he is trying to suppress his tears, and perhaps he feels powerless because he failed to protect her from the ultimate enemy: death.  This photograph perfectly encapsulated the morbidly romantical fascination with death which came to define the Victorian era. For modern viewers the aesthetic conveyed is very Victorian, but the Victorians felt very differently about Robinson’s photograph. It received mixed reviews from the public; some found it shocking that the photographer would invade such an intimate, private moment. The Victorians knew the distinction between the private life and the outside world. And also, the photograph is actually an early example of photomontage and Robinson. was a pioneer of that. I am as shocked as the Victorians were because the final result is so realistic and I would never have assumed that these individuals weren’t in the same room at the same moment together.

Poets of Romanticism expressed an inexplicable longing for death because every day life, with its struggles and ugliness, was far from their ideal of Beauty. “Transient pleasures as a vision seem, and yet we think the greatest pain’s do die”, wrote John Keats in his poem “On Death”. Percy Bysshe Shelley was equally dramatic, utterly obsessed with death, he saw it as the state of ultimate happiness and perfection. The Victorian era romanticised death, especially the slow, staged, almost theatre-like moment of death. And what actress to play the role of a person soon to be departed than a beautiful, pale, virginal girl who had tasted none of life’s sweetness and joys and already at such a tender age death was to take her away. It’s like a rose forever preserved in its loveliest stage of bud! Never blooming fully, and thus never withering either. Poe was right: death of a young girl is indeed the most beautiful topic for art. And here is John Keats’ poem “On Death” written in 1814 in a letter to his brother Thomas who was, just like the poor girl in the photograph, suffering from consumption which would ultimately be Keats’s end as well:

On Death

Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream,
And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?
The transient pleasures as a vision seem,
And yet we think the greatest pain’s to die.

How strange it is that man on earth should roam,
And lead a life of woe, but not forsake
His rugged path; nor dare he view alone
His future doom which is but to awake.

Henry Peach Robinson, She Never Told Her Love, 1857

“She never told her love,

But let concealment,

like a worm i’ the bud,

Feed on her damask cheek”

(Shakespeare, Twelfth Night II,iv,111-13)

Robinson’s photograph “She Never Told Her Love”, taken in 1857, served as a study for the girl in “Fading Away”. Resting on soft big pillow, the girl truly does appear to be fading away. Her hair is spread on the pillow, her hands clasped on her lap, her lips ever so softly parted. This study’s focus is on the girl, she is alone in her pictorial space, alone with her woe, illness and that poor broken heart. In “Fading Away” she is surrounded by family, and even though the study has the intimacy of the girl alone, I feel like the characters add to the drama and the story behind the photograph.

It is interesting to think of the way poets and artists of Romanticism and the Victorians saw death, and how our culture sees it. The Victorian era attitude towards death is seen as “morbid” nowadays and I don’t quite see why. Every living thing on earth is bound to die one day, so why is death such a taboo topic, such a shocking morbid “Gothic” thing? It seems like everything is so sugarcoated nowadays; idealised, filtered, posed, set-up, and artificial and hence such a pure, dark truth such as death is hard to digest. Death comes without invitations, it cannot be ignored, postponed, sugarcoated, it changes everything, it is beyond our control. Perhaps we are too entitled today and we subconsciously feel that, along with our generally good standard of living (at least in the Western countries), immortality is also our god-given right, and it isn’t. Can’t we go back to times when death was romanticised and one could truly die of a broken heart!? I feel like I can relate to Romantic visions of the death much more, and also this beautiful poem “Goodbye, my friend, goodbye” by the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) who ended his life not by consumption or broken heart, but by suicide:

Goodbye, my friend, goodbye
My love, you are in my heart.
It was preordained we should part
And be reunited by and by.

Goodbye: no handshake to endure.
Let’s have no sadness — furrowed brow.
There’s nothing new in dying now
Though living is no newer.

The poem was written in the poet’s own blood and found in the hotel room where he had committed suicide. Still, despite the tragical ending, the poem carries a seed of hope, like a silver dandelion seed floating aimlessly in the wind, because dying is nothing new and living no newer, and the sad parting brings reunion, and could there be a more hopeful thought? Death is not the end, not the end…

2 Responses to “Henry Peach Robinson – Fading Away”

  1. Upside-down Land 28th Apr 2020 at 8:27 pm #

    BTW, I love your interesting quotes. My interest is piqued. I will search for more quotes by Van Gogh.

    Like

    • Byron's Muse 28th Apr 2020 at 9:53 pm #

      Oh I am a quote fanatic! hehe

      Here is one I love by Van Gogh: “Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.” That is why I see myself as an art-lover, and not art-critic. I prefer to love things and not put my focus on criticism.

      Like

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