Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Witches Round the Cauldron by Daniel Gardner (1775)

5 Nov

When shall we three meet again,

In thunder, in lighting or in rain.‘ (Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I, Scene I)

by Daniel Gardner, gouache and chalk, 1775Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth, 1775

‘…something wicked this way comes.’

As the eighteenth century slowly approached its end, things were getting darker on the artistic scene. Ghosts, vampires and witches suddenly appeared on canvases of painters such as Henry Fuseli, Goya and William Blake. Dark side of the imagination began to shape works of art as well as literature, and the aesthetic of sublime slowly crept in. This was the answer to the excessive coldness, lightness and rationality of Classicism. In times when this was painted, public tastes were inclined towards the supernatural and Gothic, especially with theatre-goers who loved scenes from Macbeth. ‘Paint the witch!‘ replaced the more barbaric ‘Burn the witch!’.

Although the subject of this scene hints at the later developments of Romanticism, its execution is true to the styles of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, two artists whose style Gardner emulated, and often borrowed ideas for composition and arrangement of figures. This is an utterly charming and dreamy portrayal of three witches from Macbeth. There’s nothing scary or disturbing about it, and these three ladies are certainly prettier than Shakespeare had intended his witches to be, but these are not just three witches, oh no, Gardner actually portrayed three friends, society hostesses, art lovers and supporters of Whig party in this portrait.

The figure on the left, with long brown hair, is Elizabeth Lamb (nee Milbanke), Viscountess Melbourne. Witch on the right, dressed in splendid, sparkly black robe with zodiac symbols on it and tiny golden details, is Anne Seymour Damer (nee Conway) who was also an amateur sculptor. She has a typical black ‘witch’ hat and holds a magic wand in her right hand. In the middle is the most extravagant and well remembered out of all three; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, famous for her beauty, bold fashion statements, gambling and partying (much like Kate Moss today), her affair and an unhappy marriage. Along with a hat, her beautiful head is covered with gauze veil, and while she holds the sumptuous white silk fabric of her dress with one hand, she uses other to throw some herbs or blue flowers in the cauldron. Despite portraying a Shakespearean scene, which is a great task for the imagination, Gardner didn’t really use it, but rather chose to follow the fashion of the day; both in clothing the ‘witches’ wear and the style and composition of the painting itself.

High society lady, writer and diarist Lady Mary Coke (1727-1811) wrote in her diary of ‘the Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Melburn, and Mrs Damer all being drawn in one picture in the Characters of the three Witches in Macbeth … They have chosen that Scene where they compose their Cauldron, but instead of “finger of Birth-strangled babe, etc” their Cauldron is composed of roses and carnations and I daresay they think their charmes more irresistible than all the magick of the Witches‘. (*)

Although I find the whole painting aesthetically pleasing, and very fitting for the mood of these post-Halloween days, I must say a thing or two about the brushstrokes and the play of light. Gardner beautifully portrayed their dresses, painting in soft, playful and refined strokes, using gouache and chalk. And the light; see how the bronze cauldron glistens, smoke arises like in a dream, and the reflections of the fire on the gorgeous silk dresses of the witches. I should also mention the possible allegorical meaning of the painting; since all three women were interested in politics and publicly supported the Whig party, it is possible that Gardner painted the cauldron as a symbol of ‘shadowy political machinations as leading members of the Devonshire House circle.’ (*)

John Everett Millais: Mariana and Autumn Yearning

29 Aug

Dusky, velvety colours, intricate detailing and that peculiar mood of yearning and melancholy that pervades paintings from Millais’ early phase, make Mariana a true Pre-Raphaelite gem, comparable by beauty and emotional intensity only to the more famous Ophelia painted around the same time.

1851. John Everett Millais, Mariana, 1851 smallerJohn Everett Millais, Mariana, 1851

Painting Mariana is a beautiful and psychologically stimulating example of Millais’ early work and his devotion to the values of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, that is, to study nature attentively, to have genuine ideas to express and to produce thoroughly good pictures. Pre-Raphaelites had a tendency to draw inspiration from works of literature such as Dante and Lord Tennyson’s poems, and plays by William Shakespeare. This painting is no exception. Its mood and composition instantly attract the viewer. A tired lady in a gown of shiny midnight blue velvet stands by the window, supporting her aching back with hands, gazing into the distance. That’s Mariana, a character from Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure and Lord Tennyson’s poem Mariana, a young woman doomed to a life of solitude because her fiancé Angelo abandoned her after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck at sea.

In her lonely, virginal chamber time stands still. Modern, Victorian interior in carnelian brownish reds and peridot greens is contrasted with old Medieval stained glass windows that show the scene of Annunciation which perhaps serves to compare Mariana’s waiting to that of Virgin Mary. If you look closely, you’ll notice a needle pinned into a discarded embroidery. Mariana seems occupied by her pursuit while seasons change and winds roar around her lonely claustrophobic abode. The abundance and lushness of late Summer transitions in Autumn as orange and green leaves come dancing softly into her cluttered Victorian chamber. Seasons change but her longing seems infinite and still. Autumnal nature dying in rich shades could symbolise Mariana’s inner dying. The seal in the right corner of stained glass windows reads In coelo quies or In Heaven there is rest, further implying Mariana’s suicidal thoughts as she contemplates on her dreary world. These verses of Velvet Underground’s song Venus in Furs remind me of Mariana’s emotions: I am tired, I am weary/ I could sleep for a thousand years/ A thousand dreams that would awake me/ Different colours made of tears.

At first sight, this painting seems like a simple Victorian genre scene; passive and sad woman in a dark cluttered room, in a Medieval-style dress, exhibiting a typical Victorian nostalgia for the past eras. However, Millais portrays a complex psychological state underneath the aesthetically pleasing exterior, and that’s what makes this painting stand out amongst other similar Victorian artworks. Attentive to details like he was in his early artistic phase, Millais managed to evoke Mariana’s feelings – her yearning, pain, loneliness and seeming resignation, mood of dreariness and ‘changes that all pass her like a dream’, as Lizzie Siddal, another Pre-Raphaelite muse, would late wrote in her poem. This painting is so iconic in my opinion, just like the famous Ophelia. You simply can’t think of the character Mariana without imagining the scene the way Millais portrayed it and he based the painting on this particular verse by Lord Tennyson:

She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

Looking at her pose and her surroundings you can feel her tiredness and desperation. You can imagine the broken thoughts running through her mind; What am I doing with my life? What awaits me? Will my life be this dreary forever? Perhaps she still feels the softness of her silk wedding dress under her fingers, but, oh, misery, all too soon she has buried it along with her dreams. Millais is quite daring in his choice of subject. In rigid Victorian world, a woman did well if she got married, and if she remained a spinster, well, that must be her fault. And here we have a dashing young artist portraying a sexually frustrated woman; a woman who is not content with being silent and doing her embroidery but wants more, from life and love equally. Almost twenty years later, a fellow Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti revisited the theme and painted his own version of Mariana; portraying her as a sensuous and arrogant femme fatale disdainfully gazing into the distance, using Jane Burden Morris as a model. I prefer Millais’ version because he, in my opinion, managed to portray Mariana’s feelings much better. I feel that in general, Millais is the poetic one, and Rossetti is the passionate one. With this subject, lyrical and poetical approach is better.

I recognise Mariana’s feelings in these lyrics written by Morrissey:

And as I climb into an empty bed

Oh, well, enough said…” (The Smiths, I Know It’s Over)

Dream is gone, but Mariana’s loneliness is real. She could have been a bride and now she’s a fool. Oh, if only that dowry wasn’t lost at sea. If only Angelo had been more faithful. Please, save your life, Mariana, because you only got one.

Syd Barrett – See Emily Play

26 May

Pink Floyd’s second single, See Emily Play, allegedly told a story of a young aristocrat, known as the psychedelic schoolgirl. Mystical, whimsical and childish, verses of ‘See Emily Play‘ contain a deeper meaning than you’d expect. By reading this post further, you’ll discover the influences that created this beautiful and strange psychedelic gem; from Shakespeare and Romantics to Pre-Raphaelites and Pagan festivals.

pink floyd early posters 1

Recorded on 23 May 1967, and released on 16 June, the song instantly became a hit and struck a chord with the public, preparing the youth for a vivid and mind expanding atmosphere of, what was later known as, the summer of love. It was Pink Floyd’s second single which paved their way to success. Interviews and performances at the Top of the Pops soon followed. At that point Syd had already started struggling with the concept of being a commercial rock musician rather than being an artist.

Still, the lyrics of the song represent the very best of Syd’s writing; witty, childish and whimsical, they are the testimony to the spirit of the 1960s, and yet some of the verses posses a certain mysticism. It is impossible to pinpoint precisely what inspired Syd to write this song for its verses are engulfed in mystery, as is the case in most of Syd’s songs. Syd himself had many versions, one of it was that he feel asleep in the woods after taking LSD and saw an unusual girl.

The main inspiration for the song was, in fact, a fifteen year old girl Emily Young, who skylarked across Holland Park to the London Free School with her friend Anjelica Huston. Emily was nicknamed ‘psychedelic schoolgirl’ at the UFO club. Intellectual curiosity prompted Emily to visit the Free School and educate herself beyond school curriculum. Her private ‘evening classes’ consisted of reading William Blake, existentialists and Romantic poets, dressed at the same time in a noticeable long Victorian style gown ‘that touched the ground’.

Pete Brown said that ‘See Emily Play‘ was based on this schoolgirl.

This English cult of the schoolgirl in fetish uniform has always been around – the more dubious side of English culture, allied with British repression and fetishism. Emily was someone I went out and about with. I was friends with her because Anjelica Huston was at the same school, and hung out with Emily as well. I met them walking down to Portobello Road. I did poetry gigs in schools. I was young, in my twenties. These girls were seventeen or eighteen. I went out with them. English schoolgirls in the sixties were forward-looking, discovering their own sexuality.‘ (Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe by Julian Palacios)

1960s Emily Young - Syd's Muse                      Emily Young in the 1960s

Syd’s young muse blossomed into a notable sculptor whose aim is ‘to tell a truth about the origins of human life and consciousness.‘ In a way her sculptures remind me of Gauguin’s work, at least in approach. Like Gauguin, Emily believes that the truth about life lies in primitive and archaic, and that art is hidden in the forces of nature, not in Western world galleries. I’m delighted to see that despite her progression from a confused 1960s schoolgirl to a prolific artist, she hasn’t lost the open-minded attitude towards life. Her worldview is still psychedelic.

LYRICS:

Emily tries but misunderstands, ah ooh
She’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow
There is no other day
Let’s try it another way
You’ll lose your mind and play
Free games for may
See Emily play

Soon after dark Emily cries, ah ooh
Gazing through trees in sorrow hardly a sound till tomorrow
There is no other day
Let’s try it another way
You’ll lose your mind and play
Free games for may
See Emily play

Put on a gown that touches the ground, ah ooh
Float on a river forever and ever, Emily
There is no other day
Let’s try it another way
You’ll lose your mind and play
Free games for may
See Emily play.

1852. Ophelia by John Everett MillaisMillais’ ‘Ophelia’

The story of Emily Young is, however, merely a segment of Syd’s fantastical song. The opening verses of the third stanza can instantly be connected to Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece – Ophelia. It is impossible to believe that the whole century separates these two maidens in long flowing gowns! ‘Put on a gown that touches the ground, ah ooh, Float on a river forever and ever, Emily…’ Emily’s graceful figure full of calmness in a flowing white gown that touched the ground, so brilliantly white against the darkness of the dance hall in All Saints, caught Syd’s eye while he wailed ‘I’m high, Don’t try to spoil the fun‘ into the microphone.

Beautiful and complex, strange as the mists of Avalon, this pop gem is at once intelligible and psychedelic all the way. It simultaneously unites all the elements that Syd’s fantasy world was made of; May Queens and Green Man, psychedelic drugs, tragic heroines, mysterious world of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, children’s stories, Romantic poems along with bright and innocent childish visions. See Emily Play is, at the same time, a hymn to the English woods, willow branches, rivers and pagan festivals, as well as the embodiment of dozens of archetypes of European literature – tragic and innocent maidens such as Ophelia. We know that Barrett was familiar with John William Waterhouse’s rendition of Ophelia who is painted in a long flowing gown, surrounded by the magnificent and mysterious woods and deep sinister water. Flowers, mystery, lost maidens, muses; all amalgamated in the mind of a psychedelic Mad Hatter of rock ‘n’ roll – Syd Barrett.

1894. John William Waterhouse's Ophelia1894. John William Waterhouse – Ophelia

Influence of a great Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, can also be traced in Syd’s writing. Shelley’s poem ‘The Song of Asia‘ was printed in Syd’s copy of ‘The Cambridge Book of Poetry‘. Specific verses evoke both the spirit of the song, and the ones of the Pre-Raphaelites masterpieces.

Whilst all the winds with melody are ringing.
It seems to float ever, for ever,
Upon that many-winding river,
Between mountains, woods, abysses,
A paradise of wildernesses!
Till, like one in slumber bound,
Borne to the ocean, I float down, around,
Into a sea profound, of ever-spreading sound.

1910. Ophelia - John William Waterhouse1910. Ophelia – John William Waterhouse

Final stanza of ‘See Emily Play‘ offers the listener a feeling of isolation; floating forever on a river, in loneliness and sorrow. Tragic destiny awaits Emily, as it awaited other innocent heroines before her; Ophelia, Lady of Shallot, Lavinia… At the same time, these verses may suggest a more personal subject, the one that never stopped occupying Syd’s mind; the end of childhood, days of innocence and playfulness are gone forever. Still, the usage of the same subject, by artists centuries apart, from Shakespeare, Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites to Syd Barrett, shows us that themes in art are eternal, whether it’s a poem, a painting or a rock song.

And what did Emily had to say about the song? ‘Floating forever on a river is a perfect dream image of the soul moving through time and space, through eternity. Of the world at peace in its place in the cosmos. Individual and universe flowing in perfect order with nature at one.

syd 118

I decided to write about this song because it’s beautiful and lyrical, thematically rooted in nature, folklore and other artworks that I love, and most importantly – it is a song I can identify with. In fact, it is the only song I can identify with, especially with the verse ‘She’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow’. Then the ‘free games for May’ and I was born in May. For an unknown reason, I’ve felt like a ‘psychedelic schoolgirl’ for a long time. One cannot be sad when one is immersed in psychedelia.