Tag Archives: Victorian era

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.

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Edgar Allan Poe – Eulalie and The Ideal Beloved

7 Oct

Edgar Allan Poe died on this day in 1849, oh, it was a sad Sunday in Baltimore, even the ravens cried. The 7th October was Sunday that year too, what a spooky coincidence! Poe is one of my favourite writers and these days I was intensely immersed in his poems and short-stories, particularly those which deal with his favourite topic: death of a beautiful young woman. I have an obsessive interest in Poe’s feminine ideal and a poem that I am sharing here today, “Eulalie,” originally published in July 1845, deals with the narrator’s sadness and finding joy again, in love and in his beautiful yellow-haired beloved with eyes brighter than stars. Poe’s poems and prose feature two very different types of female characters; first is the learned type, intellectually and sexually dominant, slightly exotic and mysterious woman such as Ligeia and Morella, which are in minority, and then there’s the idealised maiden whose only purpose is to be beautiful, love the narrator and die… Poe’s ideal beloved is a beautiful tamed creature; young, dark haired with sparkling eyes and lily white skin, passive, frail and vulnerable, romantically submissive maiden who, just as in the poem “Annabel Lee”: “lived with no other thought/ Than to love and be loved by me.” Her love has the power to transform his life, as is the case with the blushing and smiling bride Eulalie, but her death can be of an equal if not greater importance. Such is the fate of the characters such as Annabel Lee, Morella, Eleanora, Madeline Usher and Berenice. In death, their singular beauty is eternally preserved.

Today I read the story Morella, which you too can read here, it’s quite short but very interesting, thought-provoking and macabre. I feel that it’s just nice to remember birthdays of your favourite artists and poets, it gives more meaning to my otherwise meaningless existence.

Stephen Mackey (b. 1966), Bride of the Lake

Eulalie

I dwelt alone

In a world of moan,

And my soul was a stagnant tide,

Till the fair and gentle Eulalie became my blushing bride—

Till the yellow-haired young Eulalie became my smiling bride.

 

Ah, less, less bright

The stars of the night

Than the eyes of the radiant girl!

And never a flake

That the vapor can make

With the moon-tints of purple and pearl,

Can vie with the modest Eulalie’s most unregarded curl—

Can compare with the bright-eyed Eulalie’s most humble and careless curl.

 

Now Doubt—now Pain

Come never again,

For her soul gives me sigh for sigh,

And all day long

Shines, bright and strong,

Astarté within the sky,

While ever to her dear Eulalie upturns her matron eye—

While ever to her young Eulalie upturns her violet eye.

The original manuscript, 1845

Victorian Photography: Girls in Silk Cages, Pale and Fragile as Lilies

10 Jun

A friend recently reminded me of the photograph of Ellen Terry that you see below and its mood of sadness and wistfulness struck a chord with me. Naturally, I thought of many other Victorian photographs of girls in contemplation so I decided to share them all in this post; they are perfect for daydreaming.

Sadness (Ellen Terry at Age Sixteen), photo by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864

All of the photographs here were taken by female photographers: Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) who is perhaps a pandan to the Pre-Raphaelites in the field of photography because of her inclination toward the Arthurian world and medieval romances, and Clementina Maude Hawarden (1822-1865) who often took photos of her daughters and is sometimes called “the first fashion photographer” because many of her photos feature the lovely crinoline gowns from the era, full of ribbons and flounces.

What draws me to these photographs is their dream-like quality; they are like windows to the long lost worlds, they evoke as much feelings from me as a poem can, they portray beautifully the inner world of Victorian girls and young women. Gorgeous fashions and delicacy of the fabrics, dazzling play of light and shadow, a tinge of melancholy and wistfulness. In this long lost world from the other side of the mirror long haired dreamy maidens in their dazzling silk and tulle cages are shown reading or praying, or travelling the landscapes of their thoughts, sitting by the window and gazing into the outside world of freedom and strangeness; girls as fragile as lily flower, with faces pale from the moonlight, yearning hearts and silent tears that smell of jasmine, trapped in claustrophobic interiors of damask and daydreams, touching life only through veils, “seeing it dimly through tears”, drunk, not from cherry cordial, but from the heavy fragrance of roses in their vases. Caught between girlhood and adulthood, in their dreamy interiors, with mirrors and books, they are gazing through the glistening bars of their cages, in silence, for the captive birds sing no ditties.

“I’m wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there: not seeing it dimly through tears, and yearning for it through the walls of an aching heart: but really with it, and in it.” (Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights)

John Singer Sargent’s Watercolours – Ladies with Parasols

9 Apr

It so happens that most of the paintings I talk about here on the blog are oil on canvas, but deep down in my heart I am an ardent lover of watercolours. I think it’s a medium full of spontaneity and feelings. So, let’s take a look at some beautiful watercolours with a mood of spring and indolence by an American Impressionist John Singer Sargent.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911, detail

A beautifully dressed woman with a parasol, in nature, enjoying the sunshine and summer breeze; not quite a foreign subject to the artists, especially not to the Impressionists; Claude Monet for one painted plenty of such scenes. Still, I feel that John Singer Sargent’s explorations of this theme are particularly interesting. Firstly because they are made in watercolours, and secondly they were made in moments when Sargent was taking a break from his highly appraised oil-on-canvas portraits of Victorian and later Edwardian nobility, therefore they are more experimental and more intimate. These show Sargent’s heart, not his business.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911

In “The Lady with the Umbrella”, a beautiful woman dressed in a beautiful white gown is lying on the grass; her umbrella has just rolled over and she has to hold it gently with her hand, lest the summer’s breeze might blow it away. There is an air of sweetness and delicacy about her, she looks like a large white anemone flower, but there is a hint of sensuality as well; her flushed cheeks and direct gaze, the way her little hand is holding the umbrella, the S-silhouette of her body, so typically Edwardian, clad in soft whiteness. The sitter is actually Sargent’s niece Rose-Marie Ormond. I like how closely cropped her body is; look how her dress and the umbrella are delightfully ‘cut-off’. The artist hesitates to show us all of her charms, but rather invited us to daydream of the nature surround this beauty and makes us believe her dress is indeed a flowing sea of white silk that goes on and on, lavish and soft. The painting reminds me of a scene you’d find in Merchant-Ivory films such as “A Room with a View” (1985) or “Howards End” (1992) with the beautiful Helena Bonham-Carter. Also, because of the woman’s gaze, pose and the way she’s closely-cropped, it almost reminds me of fashion photography, from the sixties and seventies as well as now. Example of what I mean is right below:

John Singer Sargent, Madame Roger-Jourdain, 1883-85, watercolour on paper, 30.5 x 55.8

Still, “The Lady with the Umbrella” isn’t the first painting of this kind that Sargent made. After 1900, Sargent often used the motif of woman lying on the grass with her parasol near her, but when he painted Henriette, this was a new thing for him. His watercolour portrait of Madame Roger-Jourdain made decades earlier is perhaps the painting that started it all. Henriette Roger-Jourdain was a daughter and the wife of two artists; her father was Henri Moulignon, and her husband was the artist Joseph Roger-Jourdain. Henriette was not just a society hostess but also a friend and a muse to many artists; composer Gabriel Fauré dedicated his composition “Aurore” to her in 1884, Paul Albert Besnard and Sargent both painted her. Sargent became acquainted with the Roger-Jourdain family because they were neighbours in the boulevard Berthier in Paris.

The painting is similar to the one we’ve seen above; a lady lying on the grass with her parasol near her, but here her body isn’t closely cropped and she is surrounded by grass; freedom all around her. One can imagine her laughing when tickled by the grass, stretching her arms and breathing in the fresh air, laughing at the tree tops that open before her eyes, wishing she could fly with the birds and be one with the baby blue sky… Dressed in a white dress, lying on that dark green grass she looks like a lotus flower on the flickering emerald green surface of a lake. The portrait oozes that fantastically indolent and sensuous “dolce far niente” mood.

John Singer Sargent, Woman with Parasol, 1888, watercolour on paper, 17.2 x 24.1 cm

Now, this third example is a tad different; the colours are darker and the woman appears more demure. She is depriving the viewer of her coquettish gaze, choosing rather to stay hidden underneath her gauzy white scarf. I really appreciate the sketch-like brushstrokes here; look how the parasol was painted with its taupe brown shadings and details in white, then the grass in a strange moss-green colour, perhaps it was an autumn day. Again, the woman’s hat and her parasol are slightly closely-cropped which helps us imagine that we are there with her, it gives an immediacy to the scene.

All painting/drawing techniques have their strengths and beauties. Drawings with pencil exude sincerity, those with charcoal possess the gloom and the strength of a tall oak. Pastels are raw pigments and their vibrancy is so psychedelic and childlike. All yet, I adore watercolours! Painting with them is such a thrill; you dip your brush in that watery paint, press is gently to the paper and let is either sink in or mingle freely with the colour next to it… and you feel like a magician, like a witch over her cauldron creating a love potion. Pure magic! Everyone should try it, it’s really therapeutic, it feels like travelling on a rainbow and making friends with each colour. I feel that, with watercolours, the painting almost creates itself; you can make a brushstroke in blue and add a mere drop of red, when water touched the two, you’ll see purple. You can play with it and see where it takes you.

Richard Redgrave – The Sempstress

19 Mar

Work — work — work!
My labour never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread — and rags.
That shattered roof — this naked floor —
A table — a broken chair —
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
For sometimes falling there!

Richard Redgrave, The Sempstress, 1846

In a modest interior, on a light of a single candle a poor girl is wasting her precious hours, days and nights, labouring over a blouse she will never wear, or a dress for a dance she’ll never attend. Outside the last breath of twilight colours the sky in sad streaks of yellow. Lights on the windows appear one by one. The hour is merry. The night murmurs of dreams and far-off lands, it speaks to the poets and dreamers across the grey cityscape, and softly knocks on this poor needlewoman’s window… The night invites her eyes for a dream, distant trees are whispering gentle lullabies, but she knows she cannot leave her needle and rest her hands… The work needs to be done, the bills paid, warm bread on the table would be heaven… And yet her gaze is directed upwards; tired of the wordly misery, she longs for the stars. Her own shadow on the wall is her only companion; her kindred-spirits are the birds that sing cheerfully in spring, and white snowflakes in winter. She is yearning not for idleness and luxury but rather a heaven up there with all its promised delights, for this earth is unkind. Exhausting work day by day, night by night, have coloured her young oval face in paleness of sorrow, as she daydreams of the sweetness of the countryside:

Oh! but to breathe the breath
Of the cowslip and primrose sweet —
With the sky above my head,
And the grass beneath my feet.

She might be poor and starving in the countryside, but at least she would have fresh air, brooks and flowers that ease the life’s hardships in ways that the grey city cannot. In the early Victorian era, the newspapers were informing their readers about the exploitation of workers in the factories, often in the clothing trade. Still, when Richard Redgrave painted “The Sempstress”as a part of the wave of sentimentalised portrayals of working-class life, he was inspired by a poem he had read earlier, Thomas Hood’s “The Song of the Shirt“, which I already quoted above, first published on 16th December 1843. Here are some more lines that go well with the painting:

In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.

But why do I talk of Death?
That Phantom of grisly bone,
I hardly fear its terrible shape,
It seems so like my own —
It seems so like my own,
Because of the fasts I keep;
Oh, God! that bread should be so dear
And flesh and blood so cheap!

Her face expression, with large eyes turned upwards, and the way her figure is lighted in a dramatic way are reminiscent of the baroque paintings of female saints. Redgrave here portrays a realistic subject and offers a social criticism to eyes that wished to see it, but for the majority of Victorian viewers this painting offered a sentimentalized portrayal of working class reality; a life of sorrows, poverty and longing, with hope directed towards god. Is not this poor girl a martyr then? A martyr of a society blighted by the blossoming industrialisation and exploatation of cheap labour in factories.

Oscar Wilde – Speak gently she can hear the daisies grow

22 Feb

Today I’ll share with you a poem I recently stumbled upon and loved very much: Requiescat by Oscar Wilde. I particularly loved the first stanza and the last one, and the rest in between.

The Birch Tree (1967), by Ante Babaja

Tread lightly, she is near

Under the snow,

Speak gently, she can hear

The daisies grow.

 

All her bright golden hair

Tarnished with rust,

She that was young and fair

Fallen to dust.

 

Lily-like, white as snow,

She hardly knew

She was a woman, so

Sweetly she grew.

 

Coffin-board, heavy stone,

Lie on her breast,

I vex my heart alone,

She is at rest.

 

Peace, peace, she cannot hear

Lyre or sonnet,

All my life’s buried here,

Heap earth upon it.

Virginia Poe’s Valentine Poem for Edgar Allan Poe

14 Feb

Here is an acrostic poem that Edgar Allan Poe’s darling little wife Virginia wrote to him for Valentine’s Day in 1846. Less than a year later she was dead.

Virginia Poe’s handwritten Valentine poem to her husband Edgar Allan Poe, Feb 14th 1846; what a beautiful handwriting!

Ever with thee I wish to roam —
Dearest my life is thine.
Give me a cottage for my home
And a rich old cypress vine,
Removed from the world with its sin and care
And the tattling of many tongues.
Love alone shall guide us when we are there —
Love shall heal my weakened lungs;
And Oh, the tranquil hours we’ll spend,
Never wishing that others may see!
Perfect ease we’ll enjoy, without thinking to lend
Ourselves to the world and its glee —
Ever peaceful and blissful we’ll be.