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.

Monday, 2 May 2016

The Negro Page was an equestrian groom

from the Guardian  online 1 May and in print 2 May 

The Negro Page was an equestrian groom

The Negro Page by Aelbert Cuyp.
The Negro Page by Aelbert Cuyp. Photograph: British Museum  [ ?  the painting belongs to Royal Collection] 
The painting in the Royal Collection now known as The Negro Page (Lost in Showbiz, G2, 29 April) is more interesting historically than is recognised. It is an early example of the horse portraits so popular in Britain – and also of the renowned Barbary mounts so prized by Europeans in the 17th century. The kingdom of Morocco, then stretching far south, was famed for horsemanship and the horses, together with their handlers, mainly of north-west African origin, were celebrated for what became dressage, as in the Spanish Riding School. Similar figures are shown in Mytens’ picture of Charles I “departing for the chase”, also in the Royal Collection and many other contemporary works. The “page” depicted thus represents a highly skilled groom and not a decorative “blackamoor”. Incidentally, the Moroccan coronation gift to Victoria was a pair of horses, continuing the tradition.
Jan Marsh