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John Roddam Spencer Stanhope: Thoughts of the Past

24 Apr

“Roxanne, you don’t have to wear that dress tonight, walk the streets for money, you don’t care if it’s wrong or if it’s right…” (The Police)

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Thoughts of the Past, 1859

A sad-eyed red haired young woman is standing by the window in her shabby room overlooking the harbour and the grey waters of the Thames. Space around her is dark and cluttered, and it’s hard to distinguish all the details. The window to her right is overlooking the dark murky waters of the Thames, but the colours and style of the painting might lead us to assume the window is overlooking the gloomy canals of Bruges; it has a touch of Northern Renaissance and especially Van Eyck’s tall lean figures in strange cluttered spaces. Stanhope actually painted this in the studio at Chatham Place by the Thames just bellow the studio where Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal spent many happy hours in love. The woman’s face with those large very sad eyes and ruby red lips pressed together reveals her inner drama and tells us into her story. She is holding her long hair with her right hand, and she’s holding the brush in the left, but it’s looks more like she is clutching them both. There’s uneasiness about her gestures and face expression; one can sense something isn’t quite right. A cloud of heavy silence and the anticipation of the inevitable downfall hangs above the room.

This is Stanhope’s first exhibited painting and he is considered the second generation Pre-Raphaelite. The style, the theme and the mood of the painting are indeed very Pre-Raphaelite. Also, a typical Pre-Rapahelite painting with all its details and layers of symbolism allows us to read it almost like we would a book; gazing, investigating, and interpreting. A motif of a sad woman deep in her thoughts reminds of Millais’ Mariana although in that painting the inspiration was taken from Shakespeare’s work and in this painting by Stanhope the motif is taken directly from their day to day Victorian reality. This red-haired woman in the painting is a prostitute contemplating her life so far; reeking of sin and immorality, and feeling turmoil that seemingly has no answer. She is dressed in an informal clothes, there’s money and jewellery on her dressing table and in the lower left corner we see a man’s glove and a stick, part of it. The curtains are torn in one place, and the plant under the window looks sickly, striving for light and fresh air but never reaching it. The view from her window, looking on the dirty waters of the Thames indicate the only destiny suitable for a fallen woman such as herself: suicide by drowning. Living is no option because in the eyes of the respectable Victorian society, she is already tainted, and suicide would be the only path to redemption.

As you can see in the study bellow, Stanhope originally intended to paint the woman with eyes looking upwards, just like in Baroque painting of female saints. The model was Fanny Corthforth who was also Rossetti’s lover and, in 1858, also posed for his painting “Found”, another fallen-woman theme painting. As effective as that face expression is in some paintings, I am glad Stanhope discarded the idea because it can seem overly sentimental, even pathetic. Instead, he portrayed her gazing straight at us and by doing that he involved us, the viewer, and drew us into her world of indecision, moral quandary and despair. I think it also brought the fallen woman and her problem down to an earthly realm; her gaze condemns society she lives in here on earth, instead of seeking help from the heavens above. It isn’t God who judges her, it’s society. Her struggles are much more than sugary sentimentalism that Victorians loved.

A study for the painting

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Lord Tennyson: February fair-maid – The Snowdrop

27 Feb

A little poem by the Victorian poet Lord Tennyson about a snowdrop, one of the first spring flowers. He called this delicate white flower “a February fair-maid” and I thought it was unbelievably romantic and sweet to think of her in that way. A silent and fair maid dressed in white whose arrival in the gardens, woods and meadows signifies the end of winter and the warmer, brighter days, as Tennyson put it “May time and time of roses”. Truly, when I see snowdrops, and I saw some last week for the first time this season, it fills my heart with mad blind hope. I know that spring will come and that soon I will see the cherry blossoms in bloom and thread my way through the meadows while the sweet gentle sun of March kisses my face. Let us not forget the Snowdrop’s dear friends, shout out to yellow primroses and crocuses whose silken gowns come in all three colours; purple, yellow and white.

Photo by Michelle De Rose, Waiting.

The Snowdrop

Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid!
Ever as of old time,
Solitary firstling,
Coming in the cold time,
Prophet of the gay time,
Prophet of the May time,
Prophet of the roses,
Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid!

If I might see another spring… by Christina Rossetti

19 Feb

A poem by Christina Rossetti called “Another Spring”.

John Everett Millais, Spring (Apple Blossoms), 1859

Another Spring

If I might see another Spring

I’d not plant summer flowers and wait:

I’d have my crocuses at once,

My leafless pink mezereons,

My chill-veined snowdrops, choicer yet

My white or azure violet,

Leaf-nested primrose; anything

To blow at once, not late.

William Henry Hunt, Primroses and Bird’s Nest

If I might see another Spring

I’d listen to the daylight birds

That build their nests and pair and sing,

Nor wait for mateless nightingale;

I’d listen to the lusty herds,

The ewes with lambs as white as snow,

I’d find out music in the hail

And all the winds that blow.

Shadow from tree on grass with crocus in spring by Radius Images

If I might see another Spring —

Oh stinging comment on my past

That all my past results in ‘if’ —

If I might see another Spring

I’d laugh today, today is brief;

I would not wait for anything:

I’d use today that cannot last,

Be glad today and sing.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal – Love Kept My Heart In a Song of Joy

3 Feb

In this post we’ll take a look at some drawings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of himself posing for his lover and muse Elizabeth Siddal.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, D. G. Rossetti Sitting to Elizabeth Siddal, September 1853, pen and ink shaded with the finger on writing paper

It’s a well-known fact that Elizabeth Siddal posed for the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but it might surprise you that Rossetti was a model himself, not professionally though, but in this instance to his lover Elizabeth. Seems that the artist-muse relationship was a dynamic one with these two. In late 1852 Rossetti found himself a flat at 14 Chatham Place in Blackfriars in London, a place which no longer exists today. It was near the river Thames and near Southwark where Elizabeth lived. It was around the same time that Rossetti decided to become Lizzie’s art teacher. Despite coming from lower social class, Lizzie had a keen interest in the art; she read poetry that she could get her hands on and she dabbled in drawing too. From that time on, Rossetti even refers to Lizzie as his ‘pupil’ in the letters he wrote to acquaintances, making their relationship seem far more formal in nature than it was in reality as Lizzie was by that time a regular visitor at Chatham Place, even when Rossetti was away.

Still, Rossetti’s offer to tutor her in drawing killed two birds with one stone: “The offer to teach her was intended kindly and genuinely – Rossetti always believed Lizzie had a prodigious  undiscovered talent – but it had also the extra attraction for him of providing an ideal excuse for not needing to place their relationship on a more permanent, or official, footing.” (Lucinda Hawksley; Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel) Rossetti’s simple pen and ink drawing “D. G. Rossetti Sitting to Elizabeth Siddal” dates back to this early, still happy, phase of their relationship and shows a intimate moment of two artists at home at Chatham Place; Rossetti is posing and Lizzie is drawing him. it seems to have been sketched quickly, is intimate and sincere. I find it hard to imagine someone as arrogant and big-headed as Rossetti in an obedient role of an artist’s model, sitting quietly and not doing anything. And yet in the drawing he seems quite relaxed, gazing at Lizzie while she is gazing at him.

Lizzie Siddal’s love poetry is mostly sad, but some verses reveal the joy of love that she had experienced in her relationship with Rossetti, such as these verses from the poem “The Passing of Love” which might be about similar moments of quiet joy that Rossetti had captured in his drawings, just two of them alone at home, enjoying the love they have; love which keeps one warm even in the coldest winds of winter, love that makes one blind to everything else:

“Love kept my heart in a song of joy,
My pulses quivered to the tune;
The coldest blasts of winter blew
Upon me like sweet airs in June.

Love held me joyful through the day
And dreaming ever through the night;
No evil thing could come to me,
My spirit was so light.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal Seated at an Easel, 1852

Birth Anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe – The Oval Portrait

19 Jan

Edgar Allan Poe was born on this day in 1809. It must have been a cold and dreary winter’s day in Boston when his parents, traveling actors, welcomed him into this sad world. If he had been a girl, he would have been named Cordelia because his mother was a fan of William Shakespeare and often played roles from his plays. But he was a boy and they named him Edgar instead, again a theatre-inspired name from the play “King Lear”, more about it here. Now is as good opportunity as ever to indulge in his poetry or prose, and I decided to remind you all of his perhaps the shortest short story called “The Oval Portrait” (1842) which lingers in the memory long after one reads it; the shortness and the vague ending leave one wanting more, and the complex ideas about the conflict of life vs art, reality versus the world of imagination, and the idea of art feeding on life and ultimately destroying it. These ideas carried within them a seed which, long after Poe’s death in 1849, traveled over the ocean and blossomed into sumptuous flowers; the “l’art pour l’art” philosophy and later Aesthetic movement and Oscar Wilde’s “Dorian Gray”.

This story seems to have been particularly appealing to the French Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard because in his film Vivre sa Vie or My Life to Live (1962), there is a scene where a young man is reading a fragment of the story to the main character Nana, played by Anna Karina who was Godard’s wife at the time. Their marriage was already falling apart because he was apparently too absorbed to even notice her or anything besides his films. Everything he wanted to say, he expressed through the art of film. Just like the painter in the story, Godard saw Anna, his beautiful blue-eyed wife only through the camera lens. You can watch the clip here if you’re interested.

“The Oval Portrait” starts as a Gothic tale with an unnamed narrator coming into a strange castle and becoming enamored with a portrait of a beautiful young woman on the wall, but the plot soon jumps from the narrator to the story about the portrait itself and its history, again there’s “the most poetic topic in the world” according to Poe himself; the death of a beautiful woman, a pale wistful bride and her half-mad artist husband. Here is the entire story accompanied by some portraits of pretty women painted around the same time the story was originally published:

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Bildnis eines Mädchens (Portrait of a Young Girl), 1840

THE CHATEAU into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Appennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe. To all appearance it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. We established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay in a remote turret of the building. Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique. Its walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque. In these paintings, which depended from the walls not only in their main surfaces, but in very many nooks which the bizarre architecture of the chateau rendered necessary- in these paintings my incipient delirium, perhaps, had caused me to take deep interest; so that I bade Pedro to close the heavy shutters of the room- since it was already night- to light the tongues of a tall candelabrum which stood by the head of my bed- and to throw open far and wide the fringed curtains of black velvet which enveloped the bed itself. I wished all this done that I might resign myself, if not to sleep, at least alternately to the contemplation of these pictures, and the perusal of a small volume which had been found upon the pillow, and which purported to criticise and describe them.

Long- long I read- and devoutly, devotedly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.

But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated. The rays of the numerous candles (for there were many) now fell within a niche of the room which had hitherto been thrown into deep shade by one of the bed-posts. I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. But while my lids remained thus shut, I ran over in my mind my reason for so shutting them. It was an impulsive movement to gain time for thought- to make sure that my vision had not deceived me- to calm and subdue my fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. In a very few moments I again looked fixedly at the painting.

That I now saw aright I could not and would not doubt; for the first flashing of the candles upon that canvas had seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor which was stealing over my senses, and to startle me at once into waking life.

The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person. I saw at once that the peculiarities of the design, of the vignetting, and of the frame, must have instantly dispelled such idea- must have prevented even its momentary entertainment. Thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait. At length, satisfied with the true secret of its effect, I fell back within the bed. I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute life-likeliness of expression, which, at first startling, finally confounded, subdued, and appalled me. With deep and reverent awe I replaced the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow:

Henry Mundy, Martha Kermode, c. 1840

“She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to pourtray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead. But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And be was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well. But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him. And when many weeks bad passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!

Victorian Influences in Lolita Fashion: Cuteness meets Modesty

10 Jan

I do not dress as a Lolita, but I sure love adding a bit of that cuteness to my wardrobe, and I love the style, not only because it’s cute, slightly eccentric and a bit over the top, but because it is heavily inspired by Victorian fashion. And I made a few collages to illustrate the point.

Contemporary Lolita fashion, which originated in Japan in the 1980s and 1990s but has since gained world wide popularity and attention in fashion magazines, is heavily inspired by certain eras of western fashion – mostly the Victorian fashion or the period from 1830s to early twentieth century. So, it’s a Japanese style inspired by the west, or, more specifically, it’s a romantic vision of the western fashion as seen by the Japan. Lolita fashion isn’t the only occurrence when the Japanese take something from western culture or fashion, twist it around and turn into something fascinating and new, and cover it with a thick layer of cuteness. The aim of Lolita fashion is to look cute or “kawaii” and girly, but there’s also an emphasis on modesty and refinement; nothing tacky, too revealing or too tight-fitted would be accepted into Lolita style.

Silhouette

A typical Lolita dress has a tight-fitted bodice and a wide skirt; either a bell-shaped skirt which flares out from the waist down and ends just below knees, or an A-line skirt which is also flared, but more subtly. While the waistlines may wary; natural waistline is by far the most popular choice, but a high waist and an empire waist similar to the Regency era fashion are also common, the skirt is always wide, like an upside down flower in bloom, it is never tight-fitting or short. This silhouette brings to mind the crinoline dresses from the mid nineteenth century, but they were floor length, while the Lolita dresses are shorter and have more in common with the Victorian fashion for little girls and teenage girls.

Headwear

Lolita headwear tends to be elaborate and distinctly Victorian. Usually a bow or two, but when it comes to bonnets, they are very similar in shape and decoration to the bonnets worn in the early Victorian era, c. late 1830s and early 1840s. Lolita bonnets tend to be even more elaborate, with frills, lace and flowers, and not to forget the ribbons that tie under the chin.

Hair

Lolita hairstyle have very little in common with the hairstyles that women wore throughout the Victorian era, but they have a lot in common with the hairstyles typically worn by little girls and teenager girls before they had their debutante balls and tied their hair up as a sign of maturity and accepting the new womanly phase in life. Lolita fashion has a taste for long hair, worn sometimes in pigtails but mostly in long silky ringlets that look just very similar to the way girls wore their hair in some old Victorian photos, and the way hair was styled for child roles in period dramas set in the Victorian era.

Bodice (Blouse)

In cases where the attire isn’t a one-piece dress but instead constitutes of a skirt separate from the bodice, a white blouse is a popular option, often decorated with subtle lace detailing, little bows or interesting collars. White blouses were often worn by Victorian women, mostly in the late Victorian era and well into the early twentieth century too.

Gloves

And lastly, gloves or lace mittens, a staple piece of a respectable Victorian lady’s wardrobe, which sadly isn’t so fashionable anymore, but a Lolita, especially the Classic Lolita would never leave the house without them.

William John Montaigne – The Imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth

18 Nov

“She sits in her red tower – and dreams.”

(Virginia Woolf, from a letter to Ethel Smyth written c. January 1935)

William John Montaigne (1820-1902), The Imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth, 1866

A young angelic faced maiden is standing by the window in a small chamber in the Tower of London. Our eyes are instantly captivated by her gorgeous dress; so sumptuous and so vibrantly red with golden detailing on the bodice, puffed ‘Juliet’ sleeves, delicate white ruffles around her slender neck, and a shining silk petticoat which falls beautifully and creases majestically, bringing to mind the splendour of the dresses painted by Van Dyck in his portraits of the seventeenth century court ladies. Apart from the beautiful vibrant gown, our eyes are captivated by her face which reveals an inner turmoil. So pale and delicate, almost doll-like with sad pink-lidded eyes and full pouting mouth. Wistfulness of her gaze reveals her thoughts and worries. So tall, thin, elegant, and regal she seems to is in that stuffy old chamber. She seemed to have been writing something on the wooden wall, words unbeknownst to us, but something made her stop and her hand gesture, resting on her forehead, signifies this overwhelming worry. This fiery red-haired girl is the twenty year old Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, a younger Protestant sister was a thorn in the eye to the Catholic Mary, daughter of Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon, and when Wyatt’s rebellion broke out early in 1554, Mary wasted not a second in trying to accuse Elizabeth of conspiracy. Elizabeth was questioned at court about her involvement with the rebellion and despite having protested her innocence, she was imprisoned in the Tower of London for two months. All sorts of thoughts must have been haunting her mind when she was imprisoned on the 18th March 1554. Her future was uncertain, what awaited her was a possible death, and, moreover, the Tower of London was the same place where her mother, Anne Boleyn, had spent her last days before being accused of witchcraft and adultery and then executed. Was her mother’s spirit there to comfort her, in blue velvety night when the full moon shone through the tall windows?

In this painting, young and pretty historical figure is facing the same inner drama, fear and uncertainty that some other heroines have faced; Joan of Arc and Lady Jane Grey to name a few. Romanticism loved romanticising martyrs and beautiful brave heroines facing tragedies, and Victorian painting brought this genre on an entirely new level. William John Montaigne was a Victorian era painter and such a scene is perfectly suited to Victorian tastes, but the wonderful execution and striking colours give it a lasting value, it’s not to be forgotten easily. Still, Montaigne’s painting style here has a lot in common with Pre-Raphaelites too, more than the sentimental mainstream Victorian art. The composition with the girl standing by the window, looking worries and dressed in a vibrant dress, brings to mind John Everett Millais’ “Marianna”. More similarities are found in the manner in which Montaigne’s painting was painted, using intense colours and portraying intense genuine feeling, and being attentive to detailing.

For anyone interested in the political situation behind Elizabeth’s imprisonment and even her letter, you can read an interesting article here.