Saturday, 18 June 2022

The Barrett Plantations


Some pencil sketches of the Moulton Barrett estate at Cinnamon Hill on Jamaica are for sale at Karen Taylor Fine Art.  They were drawn by Mary Clementina,  young wife of the Barrett son sent to manage the canefields in 1830 (who did not long survive her Caribbean transplantation)

Those illustrated include this distant [from the big house] view of the enslaved workers' homes

 Mary Clementina Barrett [1803-1831]     Slave [sic] houses on the Barrett Plantation

 together with an essay defending the Barrett slaveowners as devoted to the welfare of their workers - of which is adduced the proof that Cinnamon Hill was not torched during the revolt of 1831, which pushed forward the emancipation.   This account summarises information from an Abolitionist visit in 1837:

Two Quakers, Joseph Sturge and Thomas Harvey, went to the West Indies to inspect the condition of the newly emancipated Black population. Visiting Jamaica in February 1837, they were invited to visit Samuel Barrett’s estates. They wrote of the Retreat estate that: 
‘[it was] an estate of great extent beauty, being several miles in length and depth, and comprising both pasture and mountain woodland—It is managed by a black overseer named Samuels, who was born a slave on one of the estates of his present Master. He is now free, and though he can neither read nor write, the property under his charge is in the finest order, and the people in the best discipline. With perhaps the single exception of the apprentices on Hopeton and Lenox estates, the Retreat negroes possess, we believe, greater advantages than those on any property in the island. 
'We walked with the overseer through the negro village. The houses are comfortable, and many of them of considerable size, and situation in the midst of neat gardens. They had shingled roofs and cement or boarded floors. Most of the people were at their provision grounds, but Samuels introduced us to such as we found in the houses….they all appeared to be in prosperous condition’ .
'The whip had been abolished ever since the proprietor came to reside in the country’ and after abolition ‘the free children thrive ‘because Mr Barrett takes notice of them’ i.e. gives them the same allowances of clothing and causes the same attention to be paid to them as during slavery’ ‘[W]e afterwards saw the estate school…the classes read and spell correctly, and a few of them wrote to dictation. The school does great credit to the teacher…
'We were afterwards shown over the hospital, which is a good and airy building. We met there the medical attendant, who is a coloured man and an irregular practitioner, in considerable practice. He was formerly a slave on this property, but purchased himself because his wife was free.’ .
Sturge and Harvey continued the narrative of the humane slave owner moved to improving the condition of their slaves upon first-hand experience of their plight. This humanitarian self-presentation was shown in the parish chronicle upon the death of Mary Clementina death in 1831 when, it recorded, she was ‘beloved and bewailed not by her intimate friends only, but by all her negroes’.

Her widower, who was uncle to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, died in 1837.  Under the Compensation Act, the family received over  £12,000 compensation for the 'loss' of their enslaved workforce.

Thursday, 2 June 2022

Marie Spartali Rediscovery part one


Marie Spartali Stillman, The Last Sight of Fiammetta, 1876

it's always great when a work not seen in public for decades re-appears,  but a special welcome to Spartali's stunning Fiammetta - a real gem and of significance both for her own now rising reputation and for its relation to Rossetti's later Fiammetta..

 As Pamela Gerrish Nunn and I observed many years ago, when the present work was known only from its listing in the Royal Academy catalogue for summer 1876:

‘Eighteen months later, Rossetti asked Spartali to sit to him for his own version of Fiammetta.  Since her reputation as a model has tended to obscure her career as an artist and since she is typically said to owe her pictorial inspiration entirely to Rossetti, it is worth noting that in this case her choice of subject evidently stimulated his own, and that by ‘casting’ Marie as Fiammetta, so to speak, Rossetti implicitly recognised her choice of the theme’. [  Jan Marsh & Pamela Gerrish Nunn, Women Artists and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, 1989, p103]

As Pamela now remarks,  'what a beauty!  Surely destined to be seen as her masterpiece[sic]'.

Inspired  by and titled from an early Italian  sonnet  that Rossetti translated and was re-published in 1874, the subject is the supposed inamorata of Boccaccio  a more or less fictive figure like Dante's Beatrice and Petrarch's Laura.   She is depicted here as a  girl - say in her early teens - dreamily fingering a mandoline amid a bower of roses. 

The format is one popularised in the 1870s wave of Pre-Raphaelitism, which appealed to patrons in the manner of Venetian courtesans or Kneller's Hampton Court Beauties.  This is a large work, in watercolour, where  the figure is finely painted, especially  in the delicately conveyed flesh tones, and the surrounding foliage is more loosely rendered, in order to focus the viewer's attention on Fiammetta.

The picture will be auctioned in September at Bonhams in Bond St - so this is by way of a preview.


Monday, 16 May 2022

Fanny Cornforth as Woman in White

 from  Foreword to Stunner: the Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth new edition by Kirsty Stonell Walker 

Active, interesting ‘afterlives’ have been created for several of the young women who acted as models in Pre-Raphaelite paintings.  ‘Acted’ is the right word, for a model plays a role, often in costume, in much the same way as a stage performer.  The role may sometimes overlap with real life, but as showbiz interviews disclose, the actual person should not be identified with the parts she plays.

Fanny Cornforth was the ‘stage name’ of young Sarah Cox, who modelled for Pre-Raphaelite paintings of fallen women and alluring beauties,  and whose character was maligned by commentators who described her as a vulgar, thieving whore.  Kirsty Stonell Walker rose to Fanny’s defence a decade ago, using documentary sources and her own instinct to produce a vigorous and engaging biography.  

She was an undoubted ‘stunner’, physically attractive with a fine figure, sweet features and ‘a mass of the most lovely blonde hair – light golden or harvest yellow’.   Kirsty made Fanny the star of her own story, not just a supporting figure in the Pre-Raphaelite soap opera, as the bosomy, grasping ‘mistress’ of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.   Now, thanks to the reach of the internet coupled with wider and deeper historical research,  much more information is revealed.  This revised edition includes new facts about Fanny’s girlhood in Sussex, about her second marriage and life after Rossetti, and a full account of her last years and death from dementia. 

To this is added an enjoyable critical account of Fanny’s subsequent ‘appearances’ in fiction and film – where of course historical characters play new roles.   Fanny Cornforth has a future as well as a past.

NOTE  on  Saturday 22 May at the Royal Academy weekend course on Jo Hiffernan as Whistler's model and muse, I  will summarise Cornforth's comparable role as Rossetti's 'Woman in White' 

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Young Teacher's new home


Rebecca Solomon, The Young Teacher

Good news that the Rebecca Solomon genre painting featuring Fanny Eaton as an Indian ayah with two white youngsters has been purchased by Princeton University Art Museum.

Photo shows the unframed canvas in NPG conservation studio prior to Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition in 2019.   

it will join another image of Eaton in the Princeton collection, head study by otherwise unknown Walter Stocks.

Thursday, 28 April 2022

the Morrises at home


Suzanne Fagence Cooper previously chronicled the adept manner in which Effie Gray extricated herself from an unhappy, unconsummated marriage to John Ruskin in order to become the wife and artistic partner of John Millais.  In ‘How We Might Liveat Home with Jane and William Morris’ she traces the Morrises’ shared and separate lives with clarity and judicious assessment.  

The marriage of William Morris, designer-businessman, and Jane Burden, stableman’s uneducated daughter, has always been the subject of curiosity.  Not so much for its cross-class features, which were relatively common in the Victorian age, but for its sequel.   Eight years after the wedding and the birth of two children, Jane began a love affair with artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Morris’s friend and business partner – with the agreement if not approval of her husband.

William Morris is everyone’s hero.  Jane has a terrible reputation, as silent, sulky, faithless wife.  With sympathetic warmth, Cooper leads us through the couple’s experiences.  She imagines them in various locations but does not invent their thoughts. Some known details are omitted – Jane’s unfulfilled wish for a son, her clandestine correspondence with Rossetti, Morris’s extravagant spending.  But there is so much to include.  Notably the evolution of Morris’ aesthetic taste from quaint medieval to proto-modern plainness, plus the analytical account of the tiny ornamented booklets that Jane created - when and for whom were they designed?  

No letters from Jane to Morris or his family survive, so we don’t know what she called him at home.  In the group, he was ‘Topsy’ or ‘Top’; outside it would always be ‘Mr Morris’.

In its focus on personal lives, biography like this is not ‘history from below’ so much as what Phyllis Rose called ‘higher gossip’.   It draws readers along engaging narratives to which we can relate.  Morris, whose achievements are so various in poetry, design, manufacturing, politics, calligraphy, translation and publishing, also wrote of his ‘disappointments and tacenda’ – about which to keep silent.  These include his failure as a lover, and most painfully, the awfulness of Jenny’s epilepsy, which struck when she was fifteen, blighting both her own days and those of the family.   Jane grieved acutely and had her own ‘unspoken’ list of regrets.

The strength of Cooper’s storytelling, signalled in the book’s subtitle, is its attention to how wife and husband created each of their homes, with comfort and fine objects but no luxurious superfluity.  If we can believe it, nothing that was not either beautiful or useful.  

Their relationship, too, was a shared construction, mortared with tact, which weathered the storms.  When Rossetti’s guilt for  ‘stealing’ his friend’s wife drove him to a paranoid breakdown, Morris allowed him to convalesce at Kelmscott until Jane acknowledged the affair was at its end.    Morris did not  gloat over this outcome, and the subsequent affection  between the couple was noted by all observers.   Jane devoted her widowhood to securing Morris’s memory through books and buildings – his lifelong pleasures.

Sunday, 27 February 2022

When is public art offensive ? 1


When is public art offensive  and what should be done with it?


Cecil Rhodes by Henry Alfred Pegram, Oriel College Oxford

To be removed: Historical statues that celebrate those who should not be honoured, even for their philanthropy, as that effectively camouflages their execrable careers, as in the cases of slave trader Edward Colston and imperialist Cecil Rhodes.   Removal amplifies rather than erasing history, as re-valuation. 

[censored detail] in Pursuit of Rare Meats by Rex Whistler, restaurant, Tate Britain

To be removed: historical depictions that mock or denigrate people on the basis of ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality.   Currently high on the agenda:  the allegedly ‘witty’ Rare Meats mural by Rex Whistler in the restaurant at Tate Britain, where diminutive African figures in collars and chains are dragged through a pastoral landscape by European women and men on a sporting ‘expedition’ in pursuit
of fine foods.  As Diane Abbott MP says, ‘Nobody should be eating surrounded by imagery of black slaves.  The management needs to move the restaurant.’   Tate’s response in the form of an ‘interpretation text’ that ‘addresses this directly as part of our ongoing work to confront such histories’ doesn’t grasp Abbott’s point.  Nobody should eat surrounded by an argument over enslavement.     If the restaurant stays put, the mural needs to ‘move’ permanently out of sight.  The problem of ‘how?’ should not obstruct this.

To be debated: Sculptures that offend or distress members of the public, typically images of nudity or violence.   Is the classical naked woman reclining for (male) visual pleasure so engrained in high art that objections are pointless?  Many communities find it indecent.   What of more explicit works like Courbet’s ‘L’origine du monde’?   would that be on display in the National Gallery as it is in the muse d’Orsay?

Full male nudity is often worse and has been so since decorous figleaves were added to Renaissance statuary.   Often, the intention to shock and offend, as in work by Robert Mapplethorpe, the Chapman brothers, Gilbert & George, is recognised by being carefully curated within museums, rather than openly in public spaces.  

Matthias Grunewald, Crucifixion, Isenheim altarpiece, Colmar

Curiously, ubiquitous figures of torture and crucifixion do not prompt much concern, even though paintings and sculptures of Christ hanging on the cross seem very horrific.  Should they attract warning signs?

Saturday, 29 January 2022

Laura Knight's Hat


Laura Knight Self with Ella Napper 1913 NPG

 Yesterday  an excellent webinar on diverse aspects of Laura Knight's art work was held at the MK Gallery Milton Keynes.  Including a great short film on Barrage Balloons and the women who managed, manoeuvred, mended and maintained them.  if one hadn't known of Knight's  painting of the team launching an airship-sized balloon, the fact that this wartime detachment was [all?] female might have been ignored and forgotten. 

Several MK speakers alluded to Knight's famous and famously popular Self-Portrait painting Ella Napper as a standing life model,  noting the double back views, so that both the egocentric artist's face and the erotic display of the female nude are obscured.  But also, that the artist claims for herself the traditional male role.

Once more, I was struck by her hat  -  surely a version of the bohemian artist's wideawake? rather like a beard a sort of emblem signifying 'Edwardian painter'.  And then the scarlet top, joined with the other assertive reds.  Where have we seen these before?  

In G. F. Watts' Self-Portraits [of which he did many]  Both the black hat and the red gown


GFW  was the doyen of the British art world when Knight was young. Even the epitome of the genius painter as constructed in the Victorian age.  Did the Knights visit the GFW retrospective at the RA in 1905?  I 'd guess it had a subliminal, if not direct influence.  

Knight's floppy flower-decked felt and droopy red cardi are of course outclassed by Watts' swagger hat and cardinal's robe.  But they do subtly mock the Great Artist image.

Her self-portrait expresses her ambition in  this period. As she recalled ''An ebullient vitality made me want to paint the whole world, and say how glorious it was to be young and strong and able to splash with paint on canvas.'