Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Black Magi sightings 2


As I discovered with Black Victorians, there turn out to be many more images than one imagines/knows of  and certainly this elegant young Magus, who's carrying a jar of myrrh [and whom I'll call a Balthazar although there are disputes as to which King has which honorary name...] had previously escaped my knowledge.  

 He's from a late 15th century altarpiece in the Lichtenthal convent in south-west Germany, up a tributary of the Rhine, the gift of the abbess Margarethe of Baden.   Now he's in NYC, in the Met's famous medieval section, together with his elder companions bearing gold and frankincense.  

They appear to have been detached from the ensemble in the 1700s, removed from the convent in the 1930s and sold via Sothebys before  purchase by the Met in 1952. They are tall, excellently carved and superbly painted - except for the backs, which will not have been visible when the whole ensemble was up - and notable for what the Met describes as their 'balletic poses'. Balthazar has very shapely legs and stylish boots clearly made of softest leather. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

St George the Moor?


The excellent new website Art and the Country House, edited by Martin Postle and published online by wonderful Paul Mellon Centre, aims to augment the Art Fund's presentation of paintings in public ownership in the UK with a selection from privately-owned collections.     One of the latter is Mells Manor, Somerset, where the collection includes many works acquired by William Graham, the great Victorian collector of early Italian and Pre-Raphaelite art which were inherited by his Pre-Raphaelite-loving daughter, Frances Horner.

Among them is this little-known panel painting from the early 1400s depicting St George vanquishing the legendary dragon.  The website's description by Paul Joannides 


rehearses the evidence regarding possible artists, but factual information on provenance and other aspects is lacking and so despite its lively presentation and skilful rendering of armoured saint, rearing horse and writhing dragon in a constricted vertical space it is hard to guess if this was a free-standing panel or part of an ensemble.

Most striking to me is George' s dark complexion, on facial features that suggest African physiognomy.  The most accessible medieval source for details of this Christian saint was Voragine's Golden Legend, which (when Englished by William Caxton in 1483 )  opens its hagiography thus:

S. George was a knight and born in Cappadocia. On a time he came in to the province of Libya, to a city which is said Silene. And by this city was a stagne or a pond like a sea, wherein was a dragon which envenomed all the country. 

His deliverance of the king's daughter goes like this:

Thus as they spake together the dragon appeared and came running to them, and S. George was upon his horse, and drew out his sword and garnished him with the sign of the cross, and rode hardily against the dragon which came towards him, and smote him with his spear and hurt him sore and threw him to the ground. And after said to the maid: Deliver to me your girdle, and bind it about the neck of the dragon and be not afeard. When she had done so the dragon followed her as it had been a meek beast and debonair. Then she led him into the city, and the people fled by mountains and valleys, and said: Alas! alas! we shall be all dead. Then S. George said to them: Ne doubt ye no thing, without more, believe ye in God, Jesu Christ, and do ye to be baptized and I shall slay the dragon. Then the king was baptized and all his people, and S. George slew the dragon and smote off his head, and commanded that he should be thrown in the fields, and they took four carts with oxen that drew him out of the city.

Both Cappodocia and Libya in the middle ages were Muslim locations, as was the legendary site of George's body in a chapel between Jaffa and Jerusalem.  So it could have been thought that he himself was of  'Moorish' origin.  But Western artists were not in the habit of literal historicism.  Normally, St George was a pale-skinned European, clad  in the knightly armour of the artist's time. 

So can one account for a depiction of George as brown-skinned?

I wonder if in this instance there was some kind of confusion or crossover with St Maurice, whom legend describes as a knight of the Roman Empire who was also ruler of Thebes which fancifully was said to be located in 'the parts of the East  beyond Arabia', to be 'full of riches and plenteous of fruits' with inhabitants 'of great bodies and noble in arms, strong in  battle, subtle in engine and right abundant in wisdom.'  

Maurice was martyred along with scores of others who rendered unto Caesar but declined to worship the Caesar's deities and were slain en masse.   Iconologically, late medieval images of Maurice depict him as an armoured knight of African appearance, as in the extraordinary painting by Cranach, now in the Met, New York.

Both Maurice and George have such splendid hats. 

Friday, 20 November 2020

Lily Briscoe and Lisa Stillman


I have posted a speculative paper on the connections between the artist Lisa Stillman  and the fictional character Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse, based on the Stephen family holidays at St Ives, where Lisa executed a [now untraced] portrait of Virginia's mother Julia.

The images show Lisa as a girl in Florence and a young woman in New York

The text is here:


Sunday, 8 November 2020

Willem Jerve Koetjie

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 "You will be amused to hear that I have taken a little black (a Malay) into my service. He is a dear good boy."  So wrote Alice, duchess of Hesse to her mother Queen Victoria in June 1863. "He has no religion, and can neither read nor write. I am going to have him taught and, later, christened.  He is very intelligent, thirteen years old."

She added that the lad "was brought over two years ago by a gentleman, to whom he was given away by his own parents as a mark of gratitude for some service done. This man has had him here two years, but has never had him taught any thing."   According to the editor of Alice's Letters, published twenty years later, the boy "was brought from Java by Baron Schenk-Schmittburg. His father was a negro, his mother a Javanese."   

According to the Royal Collection, he was called  Willem Jerve Koetjie, Dutch names that confirm his origin in Java, now Indonesia, which was a colony of  the Netherlands. What lay behind Alice's decision to employ Willem remains unknown.  The 'Baron Schenk-Schmittburg'  belonged to a local Hessian family, but wikipedia knows nothing about him, least of all what he may have been doing in Java in the early 1860s which prompted or obliged a couple of African and Indonesian ancestry to present a German lordling with their son.  The account of its being a grateful exchange for service rendered sounds euphemistic:  does this imply the family owed a debt to Schenk-Schmittburg that they could not pay in cash? in which case it was essentially a financial transaction. Or was their gratitude also bound up in the belief that service to a European offered good prospects for  their son?   Can one infer that the Baron accepted the 'gift' of a black boy as a useful or decorative addition to his servantry, but had no real role for him, and was very content to transfer him to the Grand Duchess' household?  

Before that, what global trading movements were responsible for the meeting of Willem's parents, a Javanese woman and an African man?   Here, the term 'Malay' used by Alice may provide a clue, for Dutch colonial posts were established at both Batavia (now Djakarta) and the Cape of Good Hope in south Africa. In Cape Town, a population group informally known as 'Cape Malay' grew from enslaved labour taken there from the East Indies in the eighteenth century.  Willem's father may thus have been from South Africa, perhaps employed by a company trading between Batavia and the Cape, although other migrations across the Indian Ocean are possible.

His names are intriguing, as commonly servants of this rank had but one forename and one surname or sobriquet.   Willem of course denotes his Netherlandish origins, as does Koetjie, a diminutive close to the Dutch word for 'calf' that is today a surname in South Africa, while Jerve has connections to France. (but as the transcription of his names in the Royal photo album seems to read 'Jeroe' rather than 'Jerve', perhaps this was simply a second Dutch forename, usually spelt Jeroen).    However he travelled from Java to Germany, he carried a full European-style appellation.  It was not unusual for servants to move between high-status households, and while to us Willem's experience appears similar to that of a favoured horse or lapdog, his contemporaries doubtless would regard service in the dukedom of Hesse as great good fortune.

True to her intentions, Alice would arrange for Willem's education, so that he learned English as well as whatever language was spoken in the household of Alice's husband, Grand-Duke Louis of Hesse, with its seat in Darmstadt.  Before that, however, he travelled in 1863 with his new employer to Britain, where he was photographed by the Court photographer at Balmoral,  wearing elaborate, orientalist uniform in the style known as Zouave.

About a fortnight before these photos were taken, Willem was involved in a carriage accident, chronicled by Queen Victoria in a vivid account of the afternoon and evening of 7 October which provides a rare glimpse of at least one of Willem's experiences.  With John Brown, a coachman named Smith, the royal sisters Alice and Helena (Lenchen)  and Victoria, he was in the group that drove from Balmoral towards Loch Muick, "up and over the Capel Mount in frequent slight snow showers."  

Victoria's detailed diary entry is worth quoting at length.
"The view  of the green Clova hills covered with snow at the tops, with gleams of sunshine between the showers, was very fine, but it took us a long time, and I was very tired towards the end and felt very sad and lonely. Loch Muich looked beautiful in the setting sun as we came down, and reminded me of many former happy days I spent there.  We stopped to take tea at Altnagiuthasach [now spelt Allt-na-giubhsaich]  We started at about twenty minutes to seven from Altgnagiuthasach, Brown on the box next Smith, who was driving, little Willem (Alice's black serving boy) behind. It was quite dark when we left, but all the lamps were lit as usual; from the first, however, Smith seemed to be quite confused (and indeed has been much altered of late) and got off the road several times, once in a very dangerous place, when Alice called out and Brown got off the box to show him the way. After that, however, though going very slowly, we seemed to be all right, but Alice was not reassured, and thought Brown's holding up the lantern all the time on the box indicated that Smith could not see where he was going, though the road was as broad and plain as possible. Suddenly, about two miles from Altnagiuthasach and about twenty minutes after we had started, the carriage began to turn upon one side; we called out "What's the matter?"   There was an awful pause, during which Alice said "We are upsetting". In another moment - during which I had time to reflect whether we should be killed or not, and thought there were still things I had not settled and wanted to do - the carriage turned over on its side and we were all precipitated to the ground!  I came down very hard, with my face upon the ground, near the carriage, the horses both on the ground and Brown calling out in despair "The Lord Almighty have mercy on us!  Who did ever see the like of this before?  I thought you were all killed."  Alice was soon helped up by means of tearing all her clothes to disentangle her; but Lenchen, who had also got caught in her dress, called out very piteously, which frightened me a good deal; but she was also got out with Brown's assistance and neither she nor Alice was at all hurt. I reassured them that I was not hurt, and urged that we should make the best of it, as it was an inevitable misfortune. Smith, utterly confused and bewildered, at length came up to ask if I was hurt.  Meanwhile the horses were lying on the ground as if dead, and it was absolutely necessary to get them up again. Alice, whose calmness and coolness were admirable, held one of the lamps while Brown cut the traces, to the horror of Smith, and the horses were speedily released and got up unhurt.  There was now no means of getting home except by sending back Smith with the two horses to get another carriage.  All this took some time, about half an hour before we got off.  By this time I felt that my face was a good deal bruised and swollen and, above all, my right thumb was excessively painful and much swollen; indeed I thought at first it wa s broken, until we began to move it.  Alice advised then that we should sit down in the carriage - that is, with the bottom of the carriage as  a back - which we did, covered with plaids, little Willem sitting in front, with the hood of his "burnous" over his head, holding a lantern, Brown holding another and being indefatigable  in his attention and care. He had hurt his knee a good deal in jumping off the carriage.  A little claret was all we could get either to drink or wash my face and hand. Almost directly after the accident happened, I said to Alice it was terrible not to be able to tell it to my dearest Albert, to which she answered "But he knows it all, and I am sure he watched over us".... 
"The thought of having to sit here in the road ever so long was, of course, not very agreeable, but it was not cold, and I remembered from the first what my beloved one had always said to me, to make the best of what could not be altered.  We had a faint hope at one moment that our ponies might overtake us; but then Brown recollected that they had started before us.  We did nothing but talk of the accident and how it could have happened, and how merciful the escape was ,and we all agreed that Smith was quite unfit to drive me again in the dark.  We had been sitting here about half an hour when we heard the sound of a voice and horses' hoofs, which came nearer and nearer.  To our relief we fond it was our ponies. Kennedy (whom dear Albert liked, and who always went out with him and now generally goes with us) had become fearful of an accident, as we were so long coming; he heard Smith going back, and then, seeing lights moving about, felt convinced something must have happened  and therefore rode back to look for us, which was very thoughtful of him, for else we might have sat there till ten o'clock.  We mounted our ponies at once and proceeded home, Brown leading Alice's ad my pony, which he would not let go of for fear of another accident. Willem and Lenchen followed, led by Alick Grant.  Kennedy carried the lantern in front. It was quite light enough to see the road without a lantern.  At the hill where the gate of the deer-fence is, above the distillery, we met the other carriage, again driven by Smith and a number of stable-people come to raise the first carriage, and a pair of horses to bring it home.  We preferred, however, riding home which we reached at about twenty minutes to ten o'clock.  No one knew what had happened till we told them.  Fritz and Louis [Victoria's sons-in-law] were at the door.  People were foolishly alarmed when we got upstairs, and made  a great fuss.  Took only a little  soup and fish in my room, and had my head bandaged. I  saw the others only for a moment, and got to bed rather late."

I don't recall the movie about Victoria and John Brown well enough to remember whether this  incident featured there, but it has filmic potential, on a dark Highland road, with the overturning coach also bringing down the horses, Princess Alice (a noted horsewoman) proving calm and efficient, faithful John Brown indefatigably attentive and young Willem sitting mutely amid the wreckage before riding home on the same mount as Princess Helena.  All recovered apart from poor Smith, who inevitably lost his job, and died within months..

Sadly Willem also died, four years later, in Darmstadt, reputedly of pulmonary tuberculosis, although several of the Hesse family died of diptheria, which was a speedier killer.  "Every one regrets the poor child, for he was very dear", Alice told her mother. "I miss him so much here, for he did everything for me, and liked being about me and the children.  All our servants went to the burial... I was really attached to him, he learnt so well and was in many ways so nice, though of course troublesome at times. How short life is, and the instant one is gone, he is so wiped away for others, and one knows absolutely nothing about the person anymore!"

Alice's affection resulted in the memorial portrait of  'poor Willem' commissioned from the Hesse court painter August Noack

and almost certainly drawn posthumously using photographs and an actual livery jacket with silver trim, which receives as much pictorial  attention as the sitter's features.  The pose and gesture endow Willem with an expression of sensitive regret, as if bidding his employer farewell. She presented the portrait to her mother, perhaps in memory of the near-fatal carriage drive in the Cairngorms.   One only wishes there were more recorded recollections, especially of the times when in true teenage manner Willem was 'troublesome'. 

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Venetian Bust

always worth a re-visit.  
looks like bronze and marble but is all coloured marble.  Hollowed out from rear, probably made to grace a wall niche, perhaps to allude to handsome servants and gondoliers attending guests at  the noble [or rich] family's palazzo.
18th century bust from Venice, purchased in Florence in 1869 for V&A.  

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Fingers to the fire: Christina Rossetti’s mental health crisis


IT’s years since I published my biography of Christina Rossetti in which I speculated that her teenage ‘breakdown’ may have been linked to sexual trauma or abuse, and I have not kept up to date with much Rossetti scholarship, while nonetheless applauding the ongoing critical attention her verse now receives.  But I ought to have been aware of the article by Simon Humphries in Notes & Queries, March 2017, where a summary account of Rossetti’s mental state by the physician who attended her in 1845 extends biographical understanding of these mid-teen years

Mackenzie Bell, Rossetti’s first biographer, consulted Dr Charles Hare around 1895-6.  After some delay, Hare, whom obits described as a meticulous correspondent and explained he had sifted through over 8000 case notes to locate Rossetti’s, replied on 2 November 1896, when he was aged 78 (he died just two years later).  As Humphries shows, meticulously, the diagnosis of a nervous breakdown caused by ‘religious mania’ was not made by Hare but by other commentators. But Hare did describe Rossetti when he was first consulted in November 1845 as ‘then 15’  (she was four or six weeks short of this birthday ) ‘and of a highly neurotic disposition and character.’    He was the fourth medic to be called, which must reflect the family’s acute anxiety.

Although then denying that he was disclosing the ‘medical memoranda’ or patient records which would ‘under no circumstances whatever’ be made public, Hare continued to quote his case notes as ‘matters of observation open to anyone at the time or mentioned in ordinary conversation’.  They actually read like a record of what his patient told him.

‘Has been out of health for several months & a marked change has taken place in her manner & in her way of speaking. When walking out would suddenly leave her mother & turn back home, or run forward without any cause & when asked why, said she did not know. Has said very odd things—has also spoken of suicide; her spirits have been low & she does no drawing or work of any kind.

‘She tells me that she feels low & heavy & has a pain & heat almost constantly over a small spot at the top (vertex) of the head; this part is hot to the hand applied.—Is aware that she does not always express herself correctly but she cannot help it; she does it from impulse.

‘She is usually very unwilling to go out for a walk—feels too listless to do so: she does not like the effort necessary to prepare for a walk though when out she does not object to the walking. She tells me that she has a very strong impulse to burn her fingers as by putting them on the hot bars of the fireplace: she knows that she will have pain to suffer in consequence and she ‘does not like that better than anyone else’; but yet she cannot help burning her fingers; she has done so 3 or 4 times the same morning.’  

This reads as a vivid description of behaviour in extreme psychic distress.

Hare continued to attend Rossetti on a regular basis for the next five years (he recorded over 100 notes) and observe some improvement in her condition. However. In 1849 he was again summoned, when she was ‘very weak’ and ‘confined to the sofa’, with pains and ‘confusion in the head’.

‘I found that the headache had become more frontal: her dreams were usually ‘frightful’ ones, & she had besides, ‘frequently the sensation of vertigo or rather the sensation of things around her—furniture, the walls, the floor—moving; the walls appear to be falling gradually forward & the floor to have an undulating motion, & she sees creeping things on the floor around her: mind sometimes wanders, she says very odd things & is rather contrariant’ [sic]’

These alarming symptoms diminished ‘in a couple of months’, although the pain in her head persisted.  On 9 June she composed the poem,  ‘Looking Forward’, writing out a copy for Hare ‘in her own neat handwriting’, whose title one could interpret as evidence that she had resumed writing – although the content remained suicidal:

Sleep, let me sleep, for I am sick of care;

Sleep, let me sleep, for my pain wearies me…

Sweet thought that I may yet live and grow green,

That leaves may yet spring from the withered root,

And buds and flowers and berries half unseen;

Then if you  haply muse upon the past,

Say this:  Poor child, she hath her wish at last;

Barren through life, but in death bearing fruit.


All these symptoms, but most especially the impulse to touch fire-hot bars, which allies with the ‘cutting’ incident recalled by her brother when she scored her arm with sharp scissors, surely record the kind of self-harm often associated with severe teenage anguish - now termed an ‘acute mental health crisis’ rather than a nervous breakdown.  The migraine-like headaches, nightmares  and hallucinations suggest  a recurrence four years after the original attack.


Of course I don’t know what caused or precipitated Rossetti’s crisis in 1845 or its return in 1849.  Those with professional knowledge of teenage mental health whom I consulted in my turn spoke of self-harm, dissociation and suicidal impulses being recognised traumatic symptoms of sexual abuse, which in the context of Rossetti’s otherwise warmly affectionate family life seemed a plausible suggestion.   And I wish I had known of Hare’s notes  when I was researching her life.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Hera by Marie Spartali Stillman

Marie Spartali Stillman’s painting Hera, which although not ‘lost’ has remained fairly unknown,   features in the forthcoming exhibition Artful Stories, curated by Nancy Carlisle and Peter Trippi for the Eustis Estate museum in Milton, Boston.  It depicts Hera/Juno, the patronal goddess of marriage and fertility, carrying a pomegranate and a peacock feather, in the standard half-length format that MSS adapted from renaissance and pre-Raphaelite examples for vaguely allegorical figures.

Probably painted in Rome, Hera is likely to have been a gift to Richard and Edith Norton, who were living in Italy.  Richard was the son of Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton, whom MSS knew through her husband, W.J. Stillman and British friends like Janey Morris. It is signed with MSS’s familiar monogram, and an indecipherable date that could be 1895 or 1905.  The composition and especially horizon are very similar to other works by MSS, notably The Rose in Armida’s Garden (1894) 

and the undated, unfinished Woman with a Dove in the Laing AG, Newcastle.

Some months ago, I was sent a jpeg of the 'new' Hera/Juno, which is that at the top of this post.  One can see the rather nasty crack  running through the support just left of the face.  Happily, the Eustis exhibition has cleaned, conserved and mended the tear, so the painting looks very much better - as here below.