Wednesday, 17 January 2018

May Morris 'like icy fire'

Will Rothenstein, May Morris, 1897, NPG 
For a long while now, I've been quoting the description of May Morris as 'like ice and fire' by a contemporary without being able to give the correct citation.  Now the WMG exhibition is coming to its close [many thanks all who have visited and commented, it has been highly successful] I have finally located the source:
Selected Letters of Arthur Symons 1880-1935, Univ Iowa Press 1989, 158
The comment comes in a passage about the never-resolved question as to whether Janey Morris and Gabriel Rossetti were lovers in the legal sense.  Symons writes
"it is difficult to believe (and few people do believe) that [DGR's] relations with Mrs. Morris were purely platonic.  Rossetti was the most passionate and the most magnetic of men; I don't know Mrs. Morris, but I know her daughter, and she has a temperament like icy fire, and has always gone the way of her temperament quite frankly."
In context, the words appear to signify ardent, not frosty, but they are ambiguous if not obviously contradictory; one infers however that Symons viewed May's nature as vehemently passionate, and unlikely to be constrained by propriety.
Another quotation emerged from the same file but a quite different source:  May's description of daily life at Kelmscott Manor in 1910, which led into memories of the past:
"In the old days, all the family used to assemble at night in the Tapestry room.  Work was put away, logs in the fire, games played, long talks ...  When the family went to bed, Father often worked.  I have waked sometimes and lain watching his room at right-angles to mine and his figure passing the window; listening to the chanting which accompanied the poetry-making.  How the sound seemed wedded to the fragrance of the night in that enclosed garden!
And he is here constantly. I never lose the sense of it: at a turn of the garden I hear his footstep on the gravel - and hear it without surprise; the shock is, to come back to the present.  Looking up at the windows, I've been conscious of him there in the room, and hear his voice too-  always without surprise..."



the Windrush Foundation is formally asking the Department of Communities and Local Government  to consider making 22 June WINDRUSH DAY. 
The day would be an occasion to remember not only WINDRUSH passengers, but also all other migrants who have made and continue to make significant contributions to the prosperity of Britain. The day could be devoted to local social history and to celebrating its heroes and ‘sheroes’. Schools could annually feature and highlight them, and it would a means of fostering greater social understanding and cohesion. It could be a way in which young people, especially from minority ethnic backgrounds, develop a better sense of identity as the histories and contributions of their parents, guardians and friends are appreciated and celebrated.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

William Morris Seasonal Thought

(this more like a tweet, really)

"THE GREAT advantage and charm of the Morrissian method is that it lends itself to either simplicity or to splendour.  You might be almost plain enough to please Thoreau, with a rush-bottomed chair, piece of matting and oaken trestle-table; or you might have gold and lustre (the choice ware of William de Morgan) gleaming from the sideboard, and jewelled light in your windows, and walls hung with rich arras tapestry".

-  Walter Crane, William Morris to Whistler, 1911, pp.48-9

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

A glimpse of Maria Zambaco

When Maria Cassavetti Zambaco returned to London from Paris in 1866 after leaving her husband, her mother is said to have arranged for her to sit to Burne-Jones for a portrait - hence the start of the notoriously disruptive romance that involved an abortive elopement and suicide pact.   The subject of the portrait was the legend of Cupid & Psyche, which EBJ  had been illustrating for a few years in relation to William Morris's project for an illustrated Earthly Paradise - eventually issued without pictures.  It's not entirely clear which of the several existing images was done for Maria's mother, but of course this was also the start of a very long sequence of obsessional images based on Maria -  drawings, oils, portraits -  which testify to her emotional impact on EBJ and imply long sessions in the studio. 
Perhaps from the start, although later obscured by  friends' reluctance to stir the scandal publicly, the arrangement was for EBJ to also teach Maria to draw, so she was not only sitting to him but studying and working alongside in his studio - a realm from which Georgie BJ was firmly excluded [and had been from the early days of their marriage].  The evidence indicates that artist and model were together  here twice  week for several months, maybe over two years, and that to limit the gossip, Ned's other friends were discouraged from dropping in on those days.
It seems that nevertheless, fellow artist Charles Keene snatched a swift sketch of Maria at the easel, which he later used for a small etching, showing her drawing (was she left-handed, as shown?).

  It's unclear how many prints were made by the artist from the original - the British Museum and BMAG have copies, and in 1902 it was included in a published portfolio of Keene's work.  And although its date of execution is unrecorded, it can be compared with a thumbnail sketch of Maria by EBJ, evidently also done in his studio. Here she is reading, not drawing, but her garments and unbound hair are very comparable:

In letters and memoirs are occasional references to Maria's own artworks, allegedly derivative
  copies of EBJ's style (as would be expected from a student).  They all seem to have vanished from view however so one can't tell if this is true or slanderous; it would be good to see an example. 
Some good few years later Maria forsook drawing for sculpture,  studying with Alphonse Legros at the Slade and with Rodin in Paris.  She produced and exhibited firstly portrait medallions including one of her cousin Marie Spartali, and then at least one free-standing desktop bronze piece, which she exhibited in Paris under the name of Cassavetti, presumably because her hated husband was now a celebrated medical expert in the city.  The only image shows that rather poignantly it is a figure of Cupid or Eros stringing his bow, entitled L'Amour irresistible, the subject zooming right back to the Cupid & Psyche and the outcome of her earlier encounter with Burne-Jones.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Edith Holman Hunt

Edith Waugh was Holman Hunt's second wife, who married him after the death of her sister Fanny Waugh,  in bold defiance of British law against marriage with a deceased wife's sister and of her family's fierce disapproval.  The Hunts' granddaughter Diana wrote about her in a  great book My Grandmothers and I,  which is being re-issued by Persephone Books.  Check it out here

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Van Eyck and Rossetti


Reflections, the current exhibition at the National Gallery refocusses attention on the PRB’s original impulse and choice of name, invoking artists before Raphael, who in the 1840s were commonly designated ‘Italian Primitives’ and not regarded of great worth.  Hence much of the contempt heaped on  PRB pictures for their glaring faults in composition and treatment, harking back to unsophisticated art of the distant past..   The dividing line between primitive and progressive, or ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’, was fixed at 1500, insofar as picture dates and attributions were identifiable.
When I first walked into the NG exhibition, which is  curated by Susan Foister and Alison Smith, I thought it was linked to Liz Prettejohn’s latest book Modern Painters, Old Masters -that is, that the latter was ‘the book of the show’.   But it is apparently not so, and indeed the book has a far wider field than the exhibition, which is built around the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck.    However, or perhaps moreover, the book investigates the relation between the portrait and the artists of the PRB generation in great depth.  One citation is Ruskin’s commendation of ‘a small picture on panel, representing two quaintly dressed figures in a dimly lighted room’ - i.e. the Arnolfini Portrait – ‘dependent for its interest  little on expression, and less on treatment – but eminently remarkable for reality of substance, vacuity of space, and vigour of quiet colour’.[Quarterly Review March 1847] 

Two years later, the first PRB works were ready for exhibition, with their semi-secret initials and unconventional style.  Six months after this, DGR and WHH set off for Bruges on their trip to France and Flanders in autumn 1849.   Paris was a necessary destination for any British painter, but Bruges and Ghent were obligatory for those who had taken the ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ label for themselves and been criticised for valorising ‘primitive’ modes and works.    DGR’s responses to art were often poetic and he duly composed sonnets on their travels.  Some of these, including tributes to Memling but not van Eyck, were published in The Germ, the literary manifestation of the PRB, which DGR conceived and wrote for in the final months of 1849.
The second issue contained Hand & Soul, his keynote fiction of a 13th century Italian artist whom he named Chiaro di Messer Bello dell’ Erma and who appears as if a PRB avatar.  The tale begins as an art historical account of a very ‘primitive’ Florentine painter, of whom ‘little heed is taken’ and whose work is ‘gone like time gone – a track of dust and dead leaves…’  There follows an imaginative narrative of Chiaro’s quest for fame and fortune amid turbulent times, ending with a Romantic-devotional vision of his own soul in female guise, which he paints.  The result is a ‘small picture’ on panel in the Pitti Palace, attributed to ‘autore incerto’ and in modern times hung out of chronology just below a disputed Raphael. 

Surely inspired by Ruskin’s praise of the Arnolfini Portrait, together with devotional works by Memling and Van Eyck,  Chiaro’s painting represents 
‘merely the figure of a woman, clad to the hands and feet with a green and grey raiment, chaste and early in its fashion, but exceedingly simple.  She is standing: her hands are held together lightly, and her eyes set earnestly open…. As soon as I saw the figure, it drew an awe on me, like water in shadow….the most absorbing wonder of it was its literality.  You knew that figure, when painted, had been seen…’

Sunday, 19 November 2017

May Morris and Alfred Hitchcock

Not literally, in person, alas, but via the big screen in a small town.
In July 1937, MM and MF  had a sudden yearning ‘to hear the curlews calling again above Blaen-hafren.’  They abandoned plans to camp in Herefordshire, hired a car with driver Mr Norris and headed again for Lanidloes, where they checked in at the Trewythen Arms.  Then the evening:

After dinner we actually went next door to a Cinema show Sabotage. Oh but it was funny! the confusion, the unreality in ‘real’ scenery, the hideous voices, the more hideous close-ups.
In one scene we see two gentlemen ‘conspiring’ in front of a tank at the former Westminster Aquarium where  a turtle is showing off quite nicely.  I was beginning to enjoy the turtle when we were switched off to an interior with a young lady with the American puffy cheeks and a painful smile mending big toy sailing-boat with a lad looking on.  To them enters a thickset man with nerves, apparently her husband  who I believe has been ordered by the wicked Bolshevist of the Aquarium to bomb something or somebody.  Then switch off to some underground machinery – then to a  shabby parlour where conspirators are conspiring  Scotland Yard next and a handsome young detective.  And so on.  Then a lunch party between the Detective and the Unhappy Wife who I suppose is being pumped about her husband’s actions; but all the voices are so rauquous [sic] and unnatural that one doesn’t catch what is said – and it doesn’t matter.  Then we have London streets and the nervous Conspirator being tracked by the handsome Detective; then the conspirators parlour and a knock at the door and all the folk melt away except the nervous man – Another switch to something or other.  Then a close-up of a clock bomb with the hands set to 2.15.  Then the Nervous man’s home & he gives a parcel to the Lad (wife’s young brother) to leave in the cloakroom at Piccadilly Circus (we somehow gather there is a big function and procession to come off to fit in with the bomb).  Then the boy & parcel lounge thro’ different comic scenes and at last find themselves in an omnibus.
Next we have a close-up of the bomb with the hands pointing to 2.13, and I get very nervous and put my hands to my ears and MF laughs -  There are other muddly scenes and then the omnibus again and a puff and presumably the boy and the bus etc are blown up.  By this time the Unhappy Wife and the Handsome Detective  are finding affinities and he wants to “spare the woman”.  The great scene is at her house where she is unwillingly preparing a meal for her husband, obviously distracted by news of an explosion and the death of Young Brother.  We have a close-up of her hands cutting bread with a sharp carver & then after various switchings they stand opposite each other and presumably she jabs him. It was all so quick I didn’t see this but Mr Norris said he saw the knife in his stomach.  Then scenes in which the lady is anxious to go to prison but the Detective  (with sundry disgusting close-ups of  nasty floppy faces kissing) informs her that no passports are needed to go over to Boulogne (aren’t they?) and he is going to take her away, and all is well – God Save the King. 

May’s conclusion:
It was as incoherent and ever sillier than the Waltzes from Vienna, with Queen Victoria dancing about the stage, that I saw with Cousin in London the other day.  Just imagine the ingenuity of this invention being used to turn out stuff of this sort.  However MF and I got a good laugh now and then.  And so to bed.

Born in 1862, MM was 75 when she watched Sabotage, so perhaps unsurprisingly disconcerted by jump-cuts (‘switchings’) and barely-glimpsed violence.  But, however selective, her frame-by-frame summary is somewhat extraordinary and a tribute surely to Hitchcock’s cinematic power.