Friday, 11 November 2016

BILL RICHMOND prizefighter

as evident from the date below, I intended to publish this post in September, but failed, because I intended to write more fully.
Bill Richmond will probably feature in the next instalment of BLACK & BRITISH FORGOTTEN HISTORY on BBC2 on 16 November, so here is a partial preview...
The memorial plaque (alas temporary) is under the black cloth

an unusual gathering at a central London pub on 13 September - although a very apt location, as the Tom Cribb pub marks the district between Haymarket and Leicester Square where pugilists were to be found in the Regency years, when prizefighting and sparring were cross-class [male] attractions.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

BHM and British government position

Black History Month, in my recollection, started slowly, then took off and grew vigorously around 2003, with the Great Black Britons list, and 2007 with the bicentenary of the Slave Trade legislation. More recently, it seemed to have diminished, as if the community had found other subjects of interest and concern, while the rest of us had just lost interest.  But this year has witnessed an immense resurgence of Black History events and initiatives, especially at local level, which have evidently been a good while in gestation  - so many that I hope someone is keeping a record of all Black History events in 2016, or some may get overlooked and thus again forgotten.

When I was researching images of Black Victorians many years ago, the message from the Black community was that one can't find what isn't there - and Black History wasn't there for the good reason that Britain had ignored or buried it - that is, absence was the story of Black History.
It still is in many respects.  But the recovery work that has been and is being done demonstrates yet again that [temporarily] invisible does not means non-existent and that almost everywhere one looks historically speaking one finds evidence of hitherto  unrecognised Black presence.

The upcoming four-part series Black and British a Forgotten History, written and presented by David Olusoga on BBC2, is the latest manifestation.  I don't have the full list of the 20 memorial plaques marking Black historical presences and personalities that structure the series, One might think that  some like Sarah Bonetta Davies, Francis Barber and Bill Richmond are in fact pretty well known,  but it's probably true that most audiences will either not have heard of them, or don't recall any details.  Indeed, history of all kinds is so swiftly overtaken  and re-forgotten that everything needs repeating regularly.  Or Black History can vanish again.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Spirit Drawings - by Anna Howitt

I haven’t yet managed to get to the Courtauld Gallery’s exhibition of ‘Spirit Drawings’ by Georgina Houghton, link  here but the press and publicity images are to me strikingly similar to those Spirit Drawings produced by Anna Mary Howitt when she fell for the Spiritualism craze.  It’s a long time since I looked at them in the Psychical Research Collection in Cambridge University LIbrary, but the clear bright colours and swirling lines are very reminiscent.

Anna Howitt was one of the original artists who responded to the work and writing of the PRB in 1849-50.   Unlike most of her contemporaries, she obtained some serious artistic training in Munich, along with Jane Benham Hay and back in Britain painted some remarkable scenes, one of a ‘fallen woman’ to set beside Rossetti’s Found, and one of her friend and fellow-feminist Barbara Leigh Smith posing as a defiant, flame-haired Boudicca.

Both are now lost because when Ruskin – pre-eminent avant-garde  critic in the 1850s – responded (allegedly): “What do you know about Boadicea?  Leave such subjects alone and paint me a pheasant’s wing”, Howitt was so devastated that her fragile mental state cracked and she had a major breakdown during which she destroyed all her paintings.  Some while later she retreated into Spiritualism,  producing  scores of vivid watercolour visions, supposedly under supernatural direction.   I recall, when looking through the long-forgotten portfolio of drawings, feeling very sad that Howitt’s talent and originality should have been so diverted. (One can’t blame Ruskin – there were other indications that Howitt was heading for a breakdown, and he did not know her personally.)  But maybe I should not have been.

I see that Georgina Houghton, who was ten years older than Howitt, had a self-funded exhibition in London in 1871, and it looks as if her work was produced in the 1860s, presumably in the same years as Howitt’s.  I wonder if they knew each other through the Spiritualist network, or whether the coincidence of their angelic productions is just that (or evidence of the spirits’ powers, of course)

All suddenly very intriguing. 

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Threat to Royal Exchange murals

Frederic Leighton

These are not well known, if only because so few people visit the Royal Exchange today, but they are a notable sequence, which belong to the Victorian history of public art that includes the major Westminster sequence and Madox Brown's efforts in Manchester Town Hall.

The London series relates episodes from the City's history (naturally)  with some excursions beyond the walls, including the opening panel (top) of Phoenicians trading in Cornwall by Frederic Leighton, and another featuring Magna Carta at Runnymede.

Two by Stanhope Forbes - citizenry taking to the Thames during the Great Fire, and the gutting of the previous Exchange in 1838 - are worth being seen, both for their shared fiery scenes and for their visually effective compositions for tall works to be viewed from the floor.  

Stanhope Forbes 
Stanhope Forbes 

Frank Brangwyn

So it is  shame that there are proposals to render them largely invisible in order to fill the space with commercial outlets - cafes and shops.    Even if Frank Brangwyn's panel, Modern Commerce, foregrounds that theme, which is indeed a large element in the City's history and identity.

I'm not sure of the murals' own history except that they must have been projected in the 1890s and continued through to the 1920s, as the later panels feature the Great War.  The list of artists is a roll-call of eminent  and now mostly forgotten late Victorians.

Henrietta Rae
Including just two women: Henrietta Rae and Lucy Kemp Welch, the former depicting Dick Whittington as benevolent Lord Mayor, and the latter an industrious group of Women Workers 1914-1918, with a battleship fleet on the horizon.

More on Kemp Welch's work

The proposals are for a mezzanine floor halfway up the paintings, obscuring their central sections and frankly making nonsense of the images.  A mock-up of the predicted effect below.

Here is where to register an objection.  Here is the VicSoc's fully itemised objection, which covers more than just the paintings.   And here is the full sequence of images, courtesy SpitalfieldsLife

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Mentor to William Morris

As is well known, William Morris began training with architect George Edmund Street in Oxford in 1855, where he met Philip Webb.  Morris’s time in Street’s office  was short – in less than a year he changed  direction in favour of painting and then in 1858 he published his first book of poetry.   But during his time with Street, Morris imbibed the  Gothick Revival passion that  Street held to be superior to all others, and the correct model for his own time, not only for churches but also public buildings, as he would demonstrate with London’s Law Courts in the 1870s.    

Among other writings on architectural principles, in 1855 Street had published a book of architectural and travel notes chronicling a tour of northern Italy, which Morris no doubt read and absorbed.  Following Pugin and Ruskin, Street was already a believer in Northern Gothic or ‘pointed’ principles.  ‘As in the pointed arch we have not only the most beautiful, but at the same time the most convenient feature in construction which has ever been, or which, I firmly believe, ever can be invented, we should not be true artists if we neglected to use it,’ he wrote.  The work of Italian Renaissance architects showed ‘the same falseness of construction, and heaviness, coarseness, and bad grotesqueness of ornamentation … together with the same contempt of simplicity, repose and delicacy which we are so accustomed to connect with them.’

As a result, even when medieval, many buildings described in Street’s book failed to meet ‘true’ Gothic standards, almost as if they were exam candidates. Some passed the test, others were found wanting. This was not chauvinism, for the great cathedrals of northern France and Germany were deemed as excellent as Lincoln, Canterbury and the like,  but it was distinctly partisan, and above all romantic, as is clear in Street’s closing paragraphs:

'The principle which artists now have mainly to contend for is that of TRUTH; forgotten, trodden under foot, despised, if not hated for ages, this must be their watchword.’  Whether architects, sculptors or painters, ‘let them remember how all-important a return to first principles and truth in the delineation of nature and natural forms is, if they are ever to create a school of art by which they may be remembered in another age.
    Finally, I wish that all artists would remember the one great fact which separates by so wide  a gap the architects, sculptors and painters of the best days of the Middle Ages from us now – their earnestness and their thorough self-sacrifice in the pursuit of art, and in the exaltation of their faith.  They were men who had a faith, and hearts earnestly bent on the propagation of that faith; and were it not for this, their work would never have had the life, vigour, and freshness which even now they so remarkably retain.  Why should we not be equally remembered three centuries hence? Have we less to contend for, less faith to exhibit, or less self-sacrifice to offer than they, because we live in later days?  Or is it true that the temper of men is so much changed, and that the vocation of art has changed with it?  I believe not.'
This chimed with Morris’s youthful idealism, even if he had already  cast off a good deal of Street’s religious faith.  And it certainly coloured his own response to medieval buildings when he came to defend them against restoration in the 1870s. 

In like manner, Street’s critical assessment of Italian architecture surely fed into Morris’s prejudice, no doubt later augmented in reaction to Janey’s predilection for the land and the language during her infatuation with Rossetti.  When obliged to escort his family home from Italy, Morris developed a severe attack of gout, which prevented him from sightseeing, and no doubt soured his mood also.

As a coda to his Italian survey, Street wrote positively of the use of brickwork and polychrome, two features seldom seen or admired in Britain.  'It has been by far too much the fashion of late years to look upon brick as a very inferior material, fit only to be covered with compo, and never fit to be used in church building, or indeed in any buildings of any architectural pretension’, he declared.  In the Netherlands, south--west France, Northern Germany, large tracts  of Spain and throughout northern Italy, however, brick was ‘everywhere and most fearlessly used.’ 

And as a result of his observations, Street hoped that ‘the ignorant prejudice which made many good people regard stone as a sort of sacred material, and red brick as one fit only for the commonest and meanest purposes, is fast wearing out, and that what now mainly remains to be done is to shew how it may most effectively be used, not only in external, but also in internal works.’

This sounds like the challenge taken up by Webb, designing Red House for Morris, all in fearless red brick, including internal arches, window surrounds and fireplaces.

Street remained a friend to Morris and Webb, and one would love to know if he ever passed an opinion on his proteges’ building in Bexley.


Sunday, 14 August 2016

Foundlings and Finds

Cornelia Parker curated an exhibition for the Foundling Museum in Coram Fields by inviting [and presumably paying, thanks to the Arts Council and other donors] sixty fellow artists to contribute a work of modest size loosely on the theme of ‘found’, and distributing the objects and videos through the rooms of the Museum, which are decorated and furnished to evoke the eighteenth century Foundling Hospital on the site, which was supported by several contemporary artists including William Hogarth.

Alison Wilding Cellar Frog 
Most artists are magpies, it seems, amassing studios full of found objects that may or may not relate to art works. So some of the contributors have unearthed such finds, like a collection of dirty playing cards picked up in streets over many years, or bottle tops from more recent gutters.  Others have submitted old pieces.  Others have made or displayed new/old objects, bought from flea markets.  Some have created wholly new works.  Alison Wilding shows the petrified corpse of a flattened frog found in her cellar, 

Anthony Gormley, Iron Baby
The result is an eclectic mix held together only by the theme and the fact that most are small  – which must have been quite hard for some contributors, accustomed to working on an outsize scale.  Many are necessarily solipsistic: ‘my’ objet trouvé from the beach, this reminds me of my grandmother, I made this a long time ago, etc.  For once, Anthony Gormley has not offered an ‘everyman’ version of his own body, but a touching cast of one of his own babies, aged six weeks, apparently asleep on the cold floor of an empty side room, as if somehow forgotten.

Elsewhere there is an uncomfortable, unspoken equivalence between the long-ago children who were ‘given’ to Captain Coram’s charity by mothers who could not support them, and discarded pieces of flotsam haphazardly found in the street or seashore.   Despite the title, the Hospital infants were not ‘found’ like Mike Nelson’s battered roadsign or Ron Arad’s string of unredeemed pawn tickets.  In some respects, there is too much rubbish on view.

Foundling tokens
Nonetheless, there are resonances even in these bits of detritus.  The roadsign is to a now-abandoned village, the pawn tickets are for never-claimed items, most frequently wedding rings. And the majority share a loss of identity that mirrors the anonymity of the foundlings who, once admitted, were re-baptised with new names, to recover their own only if their mothers came to reclaim them.  To this end each infant was identified by a maternal token, many surviving in the Museum’s collection, poignant mementoes of children who never knew their parentage.

The most eloquent art works reflect this anonymity and erasure, like Parker’s own contribution, an unfinished painting attributed to Alfred Munnings, of two well-off girls who lack features, maybe because the parents refused to pay the requested fee?  Or had not the means to support such an expensive portrait, in a symbolic echo of the foundlings' mothers.   This is also an 'orphan' work in art historical terms - a painting that has lost all identity, as there is no proof it is by Munnings, and like their faces the sitters' names will never be known,
Attributed to Sir Alfred Munnings

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Christina Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne

At the end of July, a team of Swinburnian scholars organised a two-day conference at St John’s College Cambridge to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Algernon Swinburne’s notoriously pagan and pan-sexual Poems & Ballads, which shocked and thrilled  Victorian readers in equal measure, thanks to blasphemy and indecency.

It prompted me to offer a paper, remembering my research into Christina Rossetti’s life and work, when I realised that Poems & Ballads was published in the same season as her second volume The Prince’s Progress, whose reception was quite overshadowed if not wholly eclipsed by Swinburne’s collection.

The text of that paper is now  here 

I had  forgottten how the personal and poetic relationship between the two poets is a lot more interesting than might be supposed.  As the conference showed, those who study Swinburne generally ignore Rossetti, no doubt consigning her work to the Tennysonian/devotional camp.  But as contributors to the emergence of Aestheticism in literature and art, they repay attention.

The conference was full of new scholarship and insights into Swinburne's work and influence - as the
programme indicates     There is also a case display at Cambridge University Library outlined here, though it would be good if the display items were listed, as only those with access to CUL can actually see the display for themselves. It's notable for an open copy of the Saturday Review in which John Morley violently and lengthily attacked Poems & Ballads for its 'mixed vileness and childishness' - ironic when Morley later changed into one of Swinburne's greatest admirers. 

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Winifred Knights

Copyright the Estate of Winifred Knights 
If you've ever wondered about the artist of the compelling painting The Deluge [of which the above is a compositional study]  then the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is the place to go - before 18 September.  As well as the actual Deluge, it contains several more large-scale works - not many, as Knights's production was not prolific, perhaps because so carefully considered and prepared, but a very rewarding number that absorb one's attention.

UCL Art Museum London
They include this image, described as  Village Scene with Millhands, as if it belonged with Lowry. as indicted by the associated studies and captions, the setting is based on buildings at or near on the Herts'-Essex border, where, all along the rivers Lea and Stort there were grain mills and breweries supplying London's beer; and while some of the figures do represent villagers, most were drawn from Knights' acquaintance, with herself just behind the woman with the red jacket.  For Knights shared with Stanley Spencer - also trained at the Slade - the device of including contemporary yet timeless figures and groups without socio-historical realism.   Place and people are incidental to picture-making, even though landscape, buildings and figures are firmly positioned and delineated.
Copyright Estate of Winifred Knights

Homage to Piero della Francesca infuses the painting of La Santissima Trinita,  According to the exhibition, this has a narrative behind it, which is however irrelevant to the strange and wondrous image of Italian women resting beside a lake of sorts, with the dry hills of central Italy in the distance.  In this image, the colours are not wholly true, but one can glimpse the glow that marks the reclining figures in a dream-like landscape.  It's a miraculous piece, even more commanding than The Deluge through its stasis.

So a relatively small and extremely satisfying display.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Triangular Northants

Two very different but both eccentric and  detour-worthy buildings in Northamptonshire - which seems on the face it  a most normal central, English, unremarkable  county.  One is in Northampton itself, in an unremarkable early 19th century urban terrace of tall narrow houses.  78 Derngate has in fact a tardis-like interior, once decorated by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in most outlandish designs for the time - 1916-17 - and now restored or rather recreated *  to match the  original.
Hard to say what the most startling  -  the black-painted hall room opening from the street, stencilled with a forest of triangles and geometric trees
or the guest bedroom  with walls and beds covered in striped fabric whose design anticipates Bridget Riley's moving patterns.
Bernard Shaw, when a guest, promised his hostess that he slept with his eyes shut so would not be unnerved by the eccentric décor.
In conservation terms, the whole project is perhaps excusable.  Only a  few original features survive, including a large bath and a silvered window-pane for Sir to shave by, plus some built-in furniture and fragments of CRM's decoration.  For most of the past century the building was put to uses unconnected with Mackintosh's patrons the Bassett-Lowkes, so there was little to preserve in decorative terms, although the full-on quality of the reconstruction is rather like an architectural themepark.  and one exits into the everyday street feeling a bit weird.
* more here on the recreation

Next stop an even more remarkably unrestored building now over four centuries old, the Triangular Lodge near Rushton, built in 1593-5 by Sir Thomas Tresham.  Literally so, for Tresham designed as  well as paid for the construction, as an embodied device signifying  the 3 that both began his name (tres) and symbolized the Trinity (Donne's 'three-personed God') in the Christian tradition.
Tresham was certainly eccentric, converting to Catholicism in 1580 when to do so involved fines, imprisonment and loss of civil liberties.   The Lodge however was not created as a clandestine chapel, although its symbolism was no doubt camouflaged by its being built on a large rabbit warren, ostensibly as the warrener's bothy.
It is literally covered in triangles and trefoils and trios

plus wonderfully-carved symbols - this I believe is the hand of God coming from the Sun to bless the Earth.

There are pyramids and crockets and finials and inscriptions too from the Vulgate and Mass.  
While perhaps not as freakish in its own time as it appears today, it must have been  always unique.  And well-built, amazingly preserved - conserved one assumes since it came into the care of the Ministry of  Works - aka English Heritage / Historic England etc etc - with no need of re-making.
  In many ways the most  bizarre feature is its triangular structure, with three faces - such an unfamiliar aspect that in an unsettling experience one walks round almost seeking the fourth side only to return to where one started without finding it. 

Sunday, 12 June 2016


David LaChapelle Re-Birth of Venus
 I NEARLY MISSED  the Botticelli exhibition at the V&A owing to the publicity and reviews concentrating on its promised ‘re-imaginings’  such as this fearful example.  And so the second mistake was to allocate it only a short time in busy day.  Thus, when I finally reached its true Botticellian section, I was triply angry with the curators who had insisted we waste half our time with Warholian and worse vulgarities from the twentieth century, plus a large roomful of Victorian hommages, before encountering the real thing, in all its wondrousness.
Botticelli Virgin & Child with two Angels Vienna

From darker, sexed up spaces filled with versions, allusions and pastiches of Primavera and the Birth of Venus one passes to a white room packed with original and studio works – though alas neither of the two famous picture (that was always too much to hope for) – in a welcoming atmosphere of pictorial purity  and grace.   The large selection of religious works, many in tondo form, express a  devotional sincerity that emphasises the spiritual beginnings of European art, while the male portraits  convey the confident laddishness of young Florentine men, all swagger and style.

Botticelli, said to be Smeralda Baldinelli, V&A 
Although very Botticellian, the profile female heads seem less visually interesting - and two here are categorised as 'ideal portraits' - perhaps because they lack the direct, arresting gaze. One that does engage the viewer is that now known as a portrait of Smeralda Bandinelli, looking from a loggia window and wearing a red silk gown under and over-garment of finest gauze.  It was bought in 1867 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, via Charles Howell, as an undoubted Botticelli, which is now agreed,and played its part in the Victorian revaluation of the artist.   Ss did the emergence of the Mystic Nativity in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century.    Burne-Jones owned a workshop version of the Coronation of the Virgin, now in the Metropolitan Museum, and it is clear how influential Botticelli's spirit and style were on the later artist, represented here by Luna and Evening.

Botticelli, Pallas & the Centaur, Uffizi
The star picture is that entitled Pallas & the Centaur, with a somewhat abashed centaur having his hair pulled by a goddess of some sort, draped in olive leaves and bearing a most tremendous axe. The possibly neo-platonic allegory is still uncoded.  Typically sinuous rhythms of limbs hair and drapery are held by vertical and horizontal rocks, pole and landscape, in sober hues offset by whites, gold and the thin scarlet strap of the centaur's quiver.   It's mysterious, beautiful and quite compelling.

In retrospect  I fully understand the curators' decision to mount the exhibition in reverse order.   Had it started more conventionally with the originals, the later tributes would have seemed merely honest failures, while the recent 're-imaginings' would have aroused derisive and sometime disgusted laughter.   It all has an air of Golden, Silver and worse than Leaden Ages.


Friday, 3 June 2016

Black Faces at Kelmscott [2]

A pair of old, quite dark-looking pictures showing a cityscape bustling with townsfolk, has hung at Kelmscott Manor since the early 1870s, when Rossetti shared the house with Jane & William Morris.  They are intriguing, not least because among the scores of figures going about their business in a colonnaded street, there are a dozen or so servants and urchins of evident African ancestry.
The street has been identified as the Rua Nova dos Mercadores in Lisbon, Portugal, in the late 1500s; and the painting style as Northern or Netherlandish.  The two panels were originally  one horizontal urban view that was later cut in two, presumably for ease of transport, each half being nearly a metre wide.
Portugal in the sixteenth century was a foremost trading nation in regard to Africa and Asia, thanks to its ships and navigators, and Lisbon was the entrepot for luxury goods – lacquers, porcelain, ivories, carved crystal, silks, gemstones, goldware, tropical timber and exotic animals as well as the precious spices from the East Indies.   The painting even includes a turkey from the New World, making the Rua Nova a microcosm of what would become the global market in goods and commodities.   So it’s no surprise that Africans – who at this date are likely to have been African-born  –  are shown there, in the city streets.  Like all the figures, they are generically portrayed, distinguished by their faces and hands and clothing from the many black-clad merchants (few, if any, white women are visible, since the everyday street was a male space).
The pictures, together with a third similar townscape, which includes a mounted African merchant, are the starting-point in The Global City On the Streets of Renaissance Lisbon  edited by Annemarie Jordan Gschwend and Kate J P. Lowe and published by Paul Holberton with support from the Gulbenkian Foundation. This remarkable and informative book ranges across the non-European people and objects that were to be encountered in the Rua Nova,  exploring the African presence also in contemporary documents.  
It includes an account of how the panels reached their present home, through Rossetti, who purchased them in 1866 from the backroom of a print dealer in the City of London, at a time when he was buying up antiques and curiosities for his house in Cheyne Walk.  On a cold Easter weekend, he wrote to his fellow-artist George Boyce:
"I called on you to see if you would come on with me  to a printseller’s in Bunhill Row, who has a very remarkable picture that I am in treaty for & went to look at again.  It interests me very much & I should like you to go & look at it if you are rambling that way.  It is in the back parlour of the printshop which is a interesting old shop at a corner near the Old Street end of Bunhill Row.  He will show it you if you ask to see it.  It is a large landscape with about 120 figures of the school of Velasquez – not by the great V. himself  I must needs feel pretty sure, though it is so fine it almost might be;  but I abundance of interest as to subject & in grandeur of landscape, nothing could well be more delightful.  I have made an offer which is under consideration, so don’t be too enthusiastic to the owner lest he should price his goods higher."
The dealer is now identified as George Love.  It is not known what price was paid, but within six weeks Rossetti had invited Burne-Jones to see ‘the undoubted and stupendous Velasquez’ installed at Cheyne Walk. Possibly as soon as summer 1871 it (probably in two halves) was taken to Kelmscott, where Rossetti and Janey were furnishing and decorating the newly-leased Manor, and where it would have seemed suitable for a part-sixteenth-century house.  It remained there after Rossetti left Kelmscott in 1874, thereby escaping the sale of the Cheyne Walk contents after his death, and is still in situ, although until recently its subject was as unknown as its artist.

The Global City conjectures that Rossetti was alerted to the picture in Love’s shop by Seymour Haden, printmaker and brother-in-law of James Whistler, both being in Rossetti’s social circle. Anne Anderson has suggested the tip off came from ‘the eponymous dodgy dealer’ Charles Howell, with whom Rossetti was on even friendlier terms in 1866.  No intermediary is actually required: Rossetti regularly haunted antique dealers in search of ancient furniture, paintings and especially Chinese pots.   But Howell is an intriguing idea, because he was Anglo-Portuguese and notorious not only for dubious dealings but also for unexplained travels or absences from London.   He was also a sharp connoisseur with what William Rossetti described as ‘quick and accurate discernment of the merits of works of art and decoration of many kinds, along with extensive practical knowledge of their market value’. It is possible that on a trip to his mother’s family in Lisbon, Howell obtained the Rua Nova painting and used Love’s shop to sell it on  - not as an anonymous Netherlandish work but as an unknown yet ‘undoubted’ Velasquez.  Just plausible, anyway as, even allowing for three centuries’ traffic, it is hard to guess how or when the picture might have travelled from Portugal to Britain.
The Rua Nova paintings can be seen on the website of  the Society of Antiquaries

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Marie Spartali last call

at least for the time being.

POETRY IN BEAUTY : THE PRE-RAPHAELITE ART OF MARIE SPARTALI STILLMAN  at the Watts Gallery Surrey will close on 5 June, leaving just two last weekends to see it.

Many thanks to all involved, who lent pictures, visited the exhibition and whether or not  they admired the works helped to raise MSS's profile and reputation to a more deserved level.   In future, when Pre-Raphaelitism is curated or discussed, her name will hopefully be included from the outset.

Thanks above all to Delaware Art Museum and the Watts Gallery, for organising and hosting the exhibition. 

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Abstract women, an Islamist and a fantastical armed figure.

A swift visit to Sheffield allowed an even swifter visit to the Graves Art Gallery, mainly with work by Bridget Riley in mind, which I wasn't allowed to take snapshots of, but also to discover a complementary  display of Abstract Art by women artists including Sandra Blow.

Then around the corner more discoveries:  Romney's full-length portrait of Edward Wortley Montague in full Islamic fig, with a label explaining that he first visited Turkey with his mother, the more famous Lady Mary W-M and was so attracted to Ottoman life that he adopted a form of local dress, as shown, and in later life tried to pass himself off as the illegitimate son of the Sultan. He was, said the Duke of Hamilton, 'wonderfully prejudiced in favour of the Turkish character ad manners, which he thinks infinitely preferable.'

Finally round another corner, almost as if to compare and contrast, two  [of which one here] of Hew Locke's characteristically encrusted full-lengths.  I'll have to add a close-up, to show the detail amongst which the  guns are hidden.

May Morris - A Remarkable Woman?

The MAY MORRIS CONFERENCE  on 13/14 May was a landmark event -  the first serious consideration of her life and career, exploring more aspects than most of us were aware of.  And, one felt, nevertheless not covering all her achievements.  It was quite exhilarating to listen to presentation after presentation [of what conference can that be said?!] featuring new information, steadily building a complex account. 
In 1891  May described herself  as ‘artist, designer, embroiderer and employer’.   

Remarkable in itself, to this list can be added ‘socialist pioneer’, ‘jeweller’, ‘teacher’, ‘lecturer’, ‘conservationist, and ‘editor’, as well as founder of the Women’s Guild of Arts and (during WWI) of the WI in Kelmscott village.  She was a leading figure in the Arts&Crafts Movement – okay we knew that – and largely responsible for the extensive memorialisation of William Morris that led in due course to the even greater heritage strand that now invokes his name all over the world. 

Late in life, May made two  striking self-assessments, writing to her old flame Bernard Shaw – whom she ought to have married (imagine the collective impact of such a partnership) had Shaw been less egotistical.    In the first, she wrote: ‘but there it is: I made a mess of things then and always, and have only myself to blame for a waste of a life’.  The second was more forgiving.  Linking the present to past, she declared:   ‘I’m a remarkable woman – always was, though none of you seemed to think so’.
In my introduction to the Conference, I questioned whether May ought today to be regarded as remarkable.  Her reputation in her lifetime and in the 70-odd years since her death has not been notable or glorious.  The reasons for this deserve examination, but as presentation followed presentation it became harder and harder to accept posterity’s lean judgment.   Certainly the notion of a ‘wasted’ life is entirely wrong-headed;  few careers encompassed as much, although May herself was entitled to feel disappointed,  especially perhaps in comparison to the global success enjoyed by Shaw.  

How remarkable remains to be assessed, however, when the fuller account of all her activities can be appraised.  That process is now underway, to gather momentum and traction as  it continues, until May Morris emerges properly from the shadow cast by her father and from the condescension of her contemporaries and successors. 

Some of the topics revealed at the Conference: 

  • New information from Catherine White on the Board School girls recruited to be trained to work for Morris & Co
  • Lynn Hulse's account of May's expertise and scholarship regarding medieval Opus Anglicanum
  • A new narrative of the Women's Guild of Arts and its members by Helen Elletson
  • More on May's role in and for the Kelmscott community from Kathy Haslam, noting that May's life at the Manor from 1923 will feature strongly in future presentation
  • Anna Mason's rich summary of May's role in the Socialist League from newly available records
  • Rowan Bain's account of Jenny Morris drawing on 500 letters now deposited at the WMG.
  • A preliminary account of May's teching at Birmingham School of Art from Helen Bratt-Wyton
  • Jenny Lister's analysis of the Morris & Co embroidery order book 1892-96 covering designs, prices and customers
  • New information from Annette Carruthers on May's friendship with the Middlemores, including her visits to their Orcadian house Melsetter, and to the Western Isles.
  • the first proper account of May's North American lecture tour 1909-10, including visits to Jane Adams, Annie Fields,  Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Michael Stillman  and the Pearce family, from Margaretta Frederick
  • Mary Greensted's detailed history of May's friendship with Ernest Gimson, and his designs for Kelmscott cottages and village hall.
  • Julia Dudkievicz on May's actions to maintain and preserve both Kelmscott Manor and WM's legacy from 1900-1938.
Altogether almost too much to appreciate in one sitting, but a clear indication that future research will reveal a great deal more about May's life and career than has been suspected hitherto.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Historical Hunch

I'm re-posting this here partly because it will also lead to the RLF webpage series of writers' reflections

to be found here  with many very beguiling subjects.....

Credibility and conjecture in writing about the past 

Jan Marsh
Aradio producer abridging a book once rebuked me for over-tentative writing about a cast of characters. Rebuked is not quite the right word, but sure enough, the text was peppered with ‘perhaps’, ‘possibly’ and ‘may have’ -  in order, as I saw it, to distinguish fact from inference. Ever since, when reading my chapters aloud for sound as well as substance, I have been vigilant to curb this tendency, which suggests only doubt in the reader’s mind. At the same time I have resolved never ever to write that someone ‘would have’ done or felt something, let alone that something ‘must have’ happened. Really no one can know.
Yet in writing about past events, even those that oneself experienced, not every detail can be known. As with a jigsaw missing a great many pieces, one makes a coherent script from fragments that hold together only when interpreted. ‘Possibly’ and ‘maybe’ are often essential. So too are hunches — those intuitions about events that leave a historical trace more shadowy than ripples but that still indicate something below the surface, and are still somehow apprehended by the biographer or historian.
I’ve recently been writing about the Victorian artist Marie Spartali Stillman, who I believe served as a role model for Vanessa Stephen Bell, and whose step-daughter Lisa I want to claim as the inspiration for the character Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The claim that she was an artistic role model can be postulated without documentary proof, but a literary means is required to persuade the reader that this is reasonable, even probable speculation.
Lay out the jigsaw pieces and see which interlock. The families were acquainted, Marie’s husband and Vanessa’s father being friends, and their mothers both having been sitters to the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Though resident for much of the time in Italy, Marie exhibited annually in London throughout the years of Vanessa’s youth. Did she also support Vanessa’s career choice in her student years, when social pressures to treat art as a pastime were strongest? Vanessa records only discouragement from her male tutors.
The negative evidence – or absence of evidence – is considerable, however. Despite the large Stephen/Bell archive, no mention of Marie’s art exists there, nor indeed of any female forerunners, unless a half-joking admiration for Cameron’s work be admitted. Vanessa’s art vigorously rejected the modes and exhibition spaces favoured by Marie. Nothing definite links the two painters; the jigsaw narratives do not fit. Yet I sense an invisible, submerged link. Which can only be registered in this indirect manner and may well lead readers to protest ‘where’s the evidence?’ and reject the conjecture. If there are no firmer facts, how can the idea be conveyed?
Maybe the real role model was Lisa Stillman, Marie Spartali’s step-daughter, who was roughly the same generation as Vanessa and seems to have acted as an unofficial tutor — or at least companion in drawing and sketching sessions. She spent weeks with the Stephen family at St Ives in 1892, when Vanessa was thirteen and Virginia was ten. Lisa was there as a friend of the family, but also to produce a portrait of the girls’ step-sister Stella. Hence, I infer, Lisa was the inspiration for the artist Lily Briscoe — who is painting Mrs Ramsay’s portrait in To the Lighthouse, the novel that evokes that summer, and also articulates a key theme, that of becoming a professional woman artist or writer. One link – quite fanciful, I confess, yet suggestive – runs through the names: Lisa versus Lily. ‘Still’ versus ‘Brisk’ (or Briscoe).
That’s inadmissible evidence, of course. So the challenge is how to make it persuasive, even compelling, for the reader. One strategy is to lay the pieces alongside each other, to imply a connection. Then gently echo until the underlying correspondence becomes obligatory, if still unproven. The skill is in the structure, the clauses, the textual tone, so that the author’s prose is trustworthy in itself. Another technique is upfront transparency, setting out the hypothesis plainly and marshalling the evidence for and against, or rather in reverse order, against and for, so that the positive outweighs or at least outlasts the negative. Textual tone matters here too, for claims and assertions often provoke readerly resistance, as in an argument, whereas the goal is at least tolerance, if not full acquiescence.
A third device, which I have sometimes used, is to remain rhetorically almost silent in regard to the hunch, but drop quiet hints, about other aspects, missing elements, another story, which are eventually gathered together, like the subsidiary boat or building in a puzzle, which now fit the larger picture and with luck will appear obvious, inevitable. This mode avoids over-determination, but has pitfalls: until the revelation, the writer is essentially telling a false narrative. Moreover, readers may simply reject the inference — it’s just a hunch, no evidence there.
In fact, all biographical or historical prose is fiction in disguise. All the formal citations and footnotes are part of the camouflage, a patterned cover for storytelling, a defensive wall against the reader’s indifference. Listen, they say, this tale may not be compelling, but it is true. It really happened, and this is how it happened. (And by implication, actual events are more interesting, more significant, than invented ones.) Historians and biographers – and autobiographers – craft their facts into stories in line with their interpretations, their inferences, their insights and their literary choices. They may not have an axe to grind but they have verbal tools with which to shape, carve, decorate the material. Part of the toolkit is the credible conjecture, or plausible hunch. What if this is how it happened? Imagine the sequence that led to this event. Z is surely explained by an encounter between X and Y.
Indeed, this writerly understanding – intuition if you will – about how things happen is a major pleasure of factual composition. The materials are there, the tools are to hand, the task is to discover what forms they wish to take. At its best, such writing feels simply enabling, assisting the narratives to tell their own story, following their lead, revealing their causes and effects. Much satisfaction comes from composing such prose and awaiting the outcome.
Evidence, in the form of documents, first-hand testimony, archive items and the like are the clay – or granite, in Virginia Woolf’s formulation – or perhaps the straight edges and jigsaw corners that anchor the composition to manageable shape, filled in with interpretation, or guesswork, where evidence is lacking, as when a damaged painting is ‘restored’. Pure guesswork, or hunch, also has its place, if it is illuminating. The process of writing accommodates all elements.