Sunday, 22 December 2013

Georgian Absences

Banking, insurance, sugar, rum :  in many respects the long eighteenth century owes all
its economic and cultural history to the profits and products of transatlantic slavery. 
For an excellent analysis of the shortcomings of the current exhibition Georgians Revealed at the British Library ,
see  reviews by Miranda Kaufman

and Norma Clarke in the TLS 20 December 2013 [link follows]

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Morris vs. Rossetti

'They Never Throve Together' said Burne-Jones about  William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti

for my account of their friendship and rivalry, see:

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Edmonia Lewis in London


While preparing a course on women artists, I’ve recently discovered that Edmonia Lewis, the Black American sculptor of mixed African and Ojibwe descent, spent her last years in London.    No one seems to know why she came to Britain or whom she knew here.  Born in New York in 1844, she had a difficult youth until enrolled at Oberlin College Ohio during the US Civil War.  She studied art and was funded to travel to Rome, where she flourished as a sculptor, mainly with dramatic marble figures.  Some, like Forever Free  and Hagar reference her African-American heritage, others like Indian Combat and Minehaha reference her Native American roots (Longfellow’s Hiawatha being based on Ojibwe tales)  Some were portrait busts, the Death of Cleopatra a full-length reclining figure, which went to the centennial exhibition in Philadelphia and was then lost and damaged before being rescued.  Her last recorded work was an Adoration of the Magi (1883).  It’s not yet known when she relocated to London but in 1901 the Census shows her residence as 37 Store Street, Bloomsbury (age 59; birthplace 'India'!; occupation 'artist / modeller', so she was still working in clay) and  at the time of her death in 1907 she was living in Blythe Road west London.  She was buried in St Mary’s the Catholic part of Kensal Rise cemetery.  Does anyone know any more about her time in Britain?


Lizzie Siddal : Her Play

It’s bad enough when dramatisations cast actors in fictional roles who look completely different from one’s mental conception of the character, but  ‘true story’ dramas can have the complication of real life likenesses working against audiences’ visual knowledge – a fact especially true of the main players in the popular Pre-Raphaelite sitcom, which sometimes seems endlessly rehearsed.  So heartfelt compliments to the casting director and cast of the new play at the Arcola Theatre, for their vivification of the chief characters, who vividly resemble the originals and convincingly portray them.  Although Rossetti is rather taller than in life, and Annie Miller too petite, Holman Hunt, John Ruskin (with a smug, half-fixed smile) and jaunty, confident John Millais are acutely rendered and all convey a highly plausible animation, while Emma West the actor playing Lizzie Siddal, with the pearlescent skin that often goes with copper hair,  could be her double.

The playwright Jeremy Green has taken on board recent scholarship on Siddal’s artistic aspirations to give her an active role in the PRB circle.  He resisted the temptation that often makes Rossetti’s charismatic personality dominate the drama, and remarkably has drawn Gabriel as the sexually reluctant partner in the relationship (as I have always thought) albeit without quite explaining this.  The first half of the evening is high-spirited and upbeat, successfully conveying the PRBs’ youthful optimism – I particularly liked how each young man declared himself a genius – and deftly navigates the shoals of period misrepresentation.   I should confess to an offstage ‘appearance’ as a Mrs Marsh, whose grizzling twins have required nearly all the shopkeeper’s supply of laudanum, but an irritating anachronism to show it being glugged directly from the bottle.  
The true pitfall of this type of drama is the perceived need to stick to historical fact, which tends to fill the scenes with narrative, unneeded by those who don’t know the story and annoying to those who do. In Siddal’s case the great obstacle is her now too-familiar death from an overdose while suffering from post-natal depression – a truly sad and pathetic end to her young life, but one that does not contain high-tension drama.   I wished Jeremy Green had departed more vigorously from historical fact, not perhaps to ignore her death but maybe show it differently, less inevitably, less pathetically.  Or to leave the audience guessing as to whether or how far Gabriel was responsible for that fatal dose – a subject on which opinion can still be forceful.

So, a somewhat too faithful re-telling that leaves scope for further episodes in the romance.