Sunday, 26 November 2017

Edith Holman Hunt

Edith Waugh was Holman Hunt's second wife, who married him after the death of her sister Fanny Waugh,  in bold defiance of British law against marriage with a deceased wife's sister and of her family's fierce disapproval.  The Hunts' granddaughter Diana wrote about her in a  great book My Grandmothers and I,  which is being re-issued by Persephone Books.  Check it out here

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Van Eyck and Rossetti


Reflections, the current exhibition at the National Gallery refocusses attention on the PRB’s original impulse and choice of name, invoking artists before Raphael, who in the 1840s were commonly designated ‘Italian Primitives’ and not regarded of great worth.  Hence much of the contempt heaped on  PRB pictures for their glaring faults in composition and treatment, harking back to unsophisticated art of the distant past..   The dividing line between primitive and progressive, or ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’, was fixed at 1500, insofar as picture dates and attributions were identifiable.
When I first walked into the NG exhibition, which is  curated by Susan Foister and Alison Smith, I thought it was linked to Liz Prettejohn’s latest book Modern Painters, Old Masters -that is, that the latter was ‘the book of the show’.   But it is apparently not so, and indeed the book has a far wider field than the exhibition, which is built around the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck.    However, or perhaps moreover, the book investigates the relation between the portrait and the artists of the PRB generation in great depth.  One citation is Ruskin’s commendation of ‘a small picture on panel, representing two quaintly dressed figures in a dimly lighted room’ - i.e. the Arnolfini Portrait – ‘dependent for its interest  little on expression, and less on treatment – but eminently remarkable for reality of substance, vacuity of space, and vigour of quiet colour’.[Quarterly Review March 1847] 

Two years later, the first PRB works were ready for exhibition, with their semi-secret initials and unconventional style.  Six months after this, DGR and WHH set off for Bruges on their trip to France and Flanders in autumn 1849.   Paris was a necessary destination for any British painter, but Bruges and Ghent were obligatory for those who had taken the ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ label for themselves and been criticised for valorising ‘primitive’ modes and works.    DGR’s responses to art were often poetic and he duly composed sonnets on their travels.  Some of these, including tributes to Memling but not van Eyck, were published in The Germ, the literary manifestation of the PRB, which DGR conceived and wrote for in the final months of 1849.
The second issue contained Hand & Soul, his keynote fiction of a 13th century Italian artist whom he named Chiaro di Messer Bello dell’ Erma and who appears as if a PRB avatar.  The tale begins as an art historical account of a very ‘primitive’ Florentine painter, of whom ‘little heed is taken’ and whose work is ‘gone like time gone – a track of dust and dead leaves…’  There follows an imaginative narrative of Chiaro’s quest for fame and fortune amid turbulent times, ending with a Romantic-devotional vision of his own soul in female guise, which he paints.  The result is a ‘small picture’ on panel in the Pitti Palace, attributed to ‘autore incerto’ and in modern times hung out of chronology just below a disputed Raphael. 

Surely inspired by Ruskin’s praise of the Arnolfini Portrait, together with devotional works by Memling and Van Eyck,  Chiaro’s painting represents 
‘merely the figure of a woman, clad to the hands and feet with a green and grey raiment, chaste and early in its fashion, but exceedingly simple.  She is standing: her hands are held together lightly, and her eyes set earnestly open…. As soon as I saw the figure, it drew an awe on me, like water in shadow….the most absorbing wonder of it was its literality.  You knew that figure, when painted, had been seen…’

Sunday, 19 November 2017

May Morris and Alfred Hitchcock

Not literally, in person, alas, but via the big screen in a small town.
In July 1937, MM and MF  had a sudden yearning ‘to hear the curlews calling again above Blaen-hafren.’  They abandoned plans to camp in Herefordshire, hired a car with driver Mr Norris and headed again for Lanidloes, where they checked in at the Trewythen Arms.  Then the evening:

After dinner we actually went next door to a Cinema show Sabotage. Oh but it was funny! the confusion, the unreality in ‘real’ scenery, the hideous voices, the more hideous close-ups.
In one scene we see two gentlemen ‘conspiring’ in front of a tank at the former Westminster Aquarium where  a turtle is showing off quite nicely.  I was beginning to enjoy the turtle when we were switched off to an interior with a young lady with the American puffy cheeks and a painful smile mending big toy sailing-boat with a lad looking on.  To them enters a thickset man with nerves, apparently her husband  who I believe has been ordered by the wicked Bolshevist of the Aquarium to bomb something or somebody.  Then switch off to some underground machinery – then to a  shabby parlour where conspirators are conspiring  Scotland Yard next and a handsome young detective.  And so on.  Then a lunch party between the Detective and the Unhappy Wife who I suppose is being pumped about her husband’s actions; but all the voices are so rauquous [sic] and unnatural that one doesn’t catch what is said – and it doesn’t matter.  Then we have London streets and the nervous Conspirator being tracked by the handsome Detective; then the conspirators parlour and a knock at the door and all the folk melt away except the nervous man – Another switch to something or other.  Then a close-up of a clock bomb with the hands set to 2.15.  Then the Nervous man’s home & he gives a parcel to the Lad (wife’s young brother) to leave in the cloakroom at Piccadilly Circus (we somehow gather there is a big function and procession to come off to fit in with the bomb).  Then the boy & parcel lounge thro’ different comic scenes and at last find themselves in an omnibus.
Next we have a close-up of the bomb with the hands pointing to 2.13, and I get very nervous and put my hands to my ears and MF laughs -  There are other muddly scenes and then the omnibus again and a puff and presumably the boy and the bus etc are blown up.  By this time the Unhappy Wife and the Handsome Detective  are finding affinities and he wants to “spare the woman”.  The great scene is at her house where she is unwillingly preparing a meal for her husband, obviously distracted by news of an explosion and the death of Young Brother.  We have a close-up of her hands cutting bread with a sharp carver & then after various switchings they stand opposite each other and presumably she jabs him. It was all so quick I didn’t see this but Mr Norris said he saw the knife in his stomach.  Then scenes in which the lady is anxious to go to prison but the Detective  (with sundry disgusting close-ups of  nasty floppy faces kissing) informs her that no passports are needed to go over to Boulogne (aren’t they?) and he is going to take her away, and all is well – God Save the King. 

May’s conclusion:
It was as incoherent and ever sillier than the Waltzes from Vienna, with Queen Victoria dancing about the stage, that I saw with Cousin in London the other day.  Just imagine the ingenuity of this invention being used to turn out stuff of this sort.  However MF and I got a good laugh now and then.  And so to bed.

Born in 1862, MM was 75 when she watched Sabotage, so perhaps unsurprisingly disconcerted by jump-cuts (‘switchings’) and barely-glimpsed violence.  But, however selective, her frame-by-frame summary is somewhat extraordinary and a tribute surely to Hitchcock’s cinematic power.  



Friday, 17 November 2017

May Morris on the Joys of Camping

IN SUMMER 1934 May Morris and Mary Frances Lobb (MF) took their annual camping holiday in mid-Wales – ‘an enchanting place by little Severn singing over his stones’, opposite ‘a grassy slope rising high to the sky’.
Postal deliveries never seem to have been a problem.  One day ‘a letter came addressed “To the Ladies in charge of the Camp” asking for an account of it’.  So, as it was blustery with icy wind and some rain, they composed an article.

Which was printed four days later in The County Times under the headline: ‘Reader’s Account of Life under Canvas / Defying the elements’ and quoting in full from Miss May Morris, of Kelmscott Manor, Lechlade, Gloucester:
From our home in the flats of upper Thames valley our holiday thoughts always turn to the hills and wild places of the west, where the curlews call.  This year it was to be somewhere near the source of the Severn, and study of the map showed Lanidloes as a point to start from in searching for a suitable camping-place.  Exploring up the valley, the trouble was to find a sheltered flat for setting up the tent.  But the ideal spot was discovered as though it called for us: close by Severn, in the lee of a  wooded hedge and sheltered from the winds; a mountain to north of us,  a mountain to south of us, and everywhere lovely growth of trees.  What is also important was it was well-fenced against cows and horses and wandering bulls.  Here for some peaceful weeks we listen to the hurrying water, keep house and cook (light tasks these, though we are house-proud and the tent always neat) and explore the glorious slopes of Plynlimon.  We are often asked, “How do you manage in bad weather?  Do you go up to the farm to sleep?”  Never, indeed!  We have camped in Outer Hebrides, on the Scots border, on the Cornish coast, by Cardigan Bay, on our own Berkshire Downs, and whatever the weather, we sit tight, wet or fine, sometimes listening to the drive of rain roaring on the tent or watching the veils of mist dancing fantastically across the hills, sometimes (rarely) making a trench to run the water away.  To take everything as it comes is the very spirit of adventure, and this one wouldn’t miss for all the comfort and security of stone walls.

It was fine when we set up tent and moved in, and the next day we sat and basked by the river; after that real mountain weather wet in – wind and rain with rare gleams of sun.  Severn often came gloriously in spate, so that our friends the ducks would not face it, but came quacking importantly and insistently to our front lawn, demanding bread, fighting and tumbling over each other  when they got it.   Of course the unexpected happens: i.e. coming back from a  long walk on the mountain one evening we received a shock: on opening up we found the provision-hamper upset, bacon , butter and lard gone, and all other goods strewn about, including our chief treasure, a huge pot of tent-made winberry jam well spread over everything, and the tent full of wasps.   This was the work of a very intelligent sheepdog, who astonishingly broke never an egg, nor a pot, nor a crock in getting what his soul craved for (having incidentally chewed a guy-rope to get inside).  So two tired women who had looked forward to a half-hour’s rest before getting supper, had to set to work to clean up. After the first surprise, we laughed till we ached – with always the note of sorrow – the winberry jam was gone.

One is never dull in camp, even in the worst weather: there are books, writing up diary, sketching, embroidery, cooking (easy and quick with a Primus stove) and the hours pass with incredible swiftness.  We are close by a  delightful Welsh farm, full of interesting furniture and fittings, the farmer and his wife the kindest and friendliest of people, a  pretty wee maid of two running to us talking Welsh – to which we always reply “Bore da i chwi” – our only Welsh.  It is a peaceful contemplative life.  When home again by the upper waters of the Thames we shall look back on our stay by this mountain river as a happy dream; at time there may be some sound or scent that brings it all back, and we shall say longingly, “The curlews are crying over Blaenhafren”.