Friday, 8 June 2018

Ignatius Sancho on stage

Currently playing at Wilton's Music Hall in Wapping is the solo show by Patterson Joseph narrating the life of Ignatius Sancho, one of the best-known African citizens of London in the 18th century, who became a composer, campaigner and shopkeeper, and was probably the first man of colour to vote in a parliamentary election, when the franchise depended on property ownership. 
Born on a Spanish slave ship around 1729 and taken to Britain in 1731, he worked for three sisters in Greenwich and then for the Duke of Montagu before opening a grocery store in Westminster.  He married a Caribbean woman and had several children, and died in 1780.
Sancho's story is known from his own writings, his correspondence with Laurence Sterne being published in 1782, and from his letters to the press  and involvement in the nascent anti-slavery movement.  His appearance is known from the portrait by Thomas Gainsborough

which Patterson Joseph recreates on stage, apart from the hair - it's not clear from the portrait whether Sancho's is fashionably long or a black Georgian-style wig,  but he's clearly presented as a Georgian-style gentleman. 
From his years as a footman and valet, through his time as a tradesman, friendship with Sterne and casting his vote for Charles James Fox, Joseph's is a witty account of Sancho, following the historical sources but including dramatic animadversions, and a tour de force in terms of theatrical event. 

Here is a review by Chris Omaweng

and here are details of the current performances :

One episode in the show evokes Sancho's music, which includes fashionable dance minuets, reels and songs.  More about his compositions here:

Wilton's Music Hall is a resurrected building that has lately been preserved in all its decay.  As a theatre it was designed for comedians and popular song-and-dance acts and just about works for Joseph's energetic Sancho monologue, but places most of the audience rather far from performer.  However, its historical quality certainly adds to the theme of  forgotten stories.

I'm wondering if some enterprising actors are thinking of dramatising the life of Francis Barber?   There should be some good scenes to write set in Samuel Johnson's house, especially when Barber entertained his fellow Black Londoners there

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Ruskin and Education

A new collection of essays on this theme is being published:
John Ruskin, whose bicentenary will be celebrated in 2019, was not only an art historian, cultural critic and political theorist, but also, above all, a great educator. He was the inspiration behind William Morris, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust and Mahatma Gandhi, and his influence can be felt increasingly in every sphere of education today, for example, in debates about the importance of creativity, grammar schools and social mobility, Further Education, the crucial social role of libraries, environmental issues, the role of crafts as well as academic learning, the importance of fantasy literature and the education of women. Though Ruskin was a great believer in ‘Separate Spheres’, he also championed wider learning opportunities for girls. ‘John Ruskin and Nineteenth-Century Education‘ brings together ten top international Ruskin scholars to explore what he actually said about education in his many-faceted writings, and points to some of the key educational issues raised by his work, concluding with a powerful rereading of his ecological writing and his apocalyptic vision of the earth’s future.  Edited by Valerie Purton, this volume is dedicated to Dinah Birch, a much-loved Victorian specialist and authority on Ruskin, and makes a fresh and significant contribution to Victorian studies in the twenty-first century. 

To declare an interest, this volume contains an essay by me, 'Mad Governess or Wise Counsellor?'  on the context and contents of  Ruskin's (in)famous text Sesame and Lilies.  Here below is the opening :

This chapter begins, unusually for me, with an autobiographical anecdote that concerns my old school.  Some little while ago I was invited to the annual Founder’s Day, and as the invitation was insistent,  I duly presented at 10.00am in the school hall, to find a seat with my name on it. Much of the programme was familiar, a rather uncanny sensation after so many years, but then members of the upper sixth performed a drama written by themselves, which enacted episodes from the story of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, involving John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, John Ruskin et al.   I knew then why I had been invited, as an alumna who has written extensively about this group and their art. Being a connoisseur of dramatisations and re-tellings of the PRB’s now near-legendary events, I enjoyed the somewhat tongue-in-cheek presentation by these stylish young women.
More followed, in the speech by the head teacher. I recalled that in my day the head was a historian and annually pulled out of the past some aspect of the school’s founding – by none other than the redoubtable Frances Mary Buss, this being North London Collegiate School and she being immortalised alongside Dorothea Beale, the formidable founder of Cheltenham Ladies College:

Miss Buss and Miss Beale
Cupid’s darts do not feel;
How different from us,
Miss Beale and Miss Buss.

On this latest Founder’s Day at NLCS the historical theme was art. Frances Buss’s father was  an unsuccessful painter who taught drawing at her new school, opened in 1850,and through whom she had artistic acquaintance. In the school archive is the record of a visit by Millais, who happened upon a student practising the harp, and also a letter to school governor Annie Ridley from John Ruskin, in which he wrote: ‘I am much interested in what you tell me of the school and of the feelings with which it has been founded’, adding, ‘I might perhaps be able to come and see what you are doing and to hear how I could promote it.’

This was intriguing to hear, because the school’s founding principles were that girls’ education should be as intellectually rigorous as that of their brothers, should include public examinations and in due course preparation for university, and should also involve regular physical exercise.  Whereas Ruskin, as has always been assumed, promoted gender difference in education,  ‘Sesame’ meaning classical and scientific learning for a boy, ‘Lilies’, sympathy and service to others for a girl:
All such knowledge …as may enable her to understand and even to aid, the work of men … yet not as knowledge, not as if it were for her an object to know, but only to feel and judge….

Solemnly she is to be taught to strive that her thoughts of pity be not … feeble … nor her prayer …languid … for the relief from pain or her husband or child [or] when it is uttered for the multitudes who have none to love them – and is “for all who are desolate and oppressed”

 So what brought these two views into potential collaboration?

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Embroidered Minds Epilepsy Garden at Chelsea


The Embroidered Minds Epilepsy Garden aims to raise awareness of epilepsy and the challenges that both sufferers and their families experience today.

Craftsman William Morris’s daughter Jenny developed epilepsy in 1876. It carried enormous stigma in Victorian times and had a profound effect on the Morris family. In response to this historical situation the garden aims to raise awareness of epilepsy and the challenges that people living with the condition and their families still face today.
Embroidered Minds, a cross disciplinary collaboration was instigated by Leslie Forbes and based around her researches and subsequent novel Embroidered Minds of the Morris Women which explores the tragic ‘conspiracy of silence surrounding William Morris’s family and Jenny’s experience of epilepsy as fiction based in facts.
Leslie died in July 2016 following an epileptic seizure but the collaborative project continues as she intended, to challenge ignorance of the condition today. The garden design was initiated by Leslie and old friend Kati Crome and realised by Kati, Leslie's husband Andrew Thomas and other members of the collaboration.
See more about Embroidered Minds and the background to the project at:
Included in the garden are plants often seen in William Morris designs such as Acanthus mollis and Acanthus spinosus and also some which were used as early treatments for epilepsy, including Valeriana officinalis.
The garden has three sections representing different lived experiences of epilepsy: first the calm pre-seizure mind; second, the chaotic state of the brain during seizures; and finally, the cumulative effects of unusual neural connections after living with seizures for a long time.
A vertical living wall referencing William Morris designed surface patterns, oak bench, tiled path and foreground planting are interrupted by a seizure represented through planting. The vitality of the post-seizure section also reflects the hope of a brighter future for epilepsy sufferers and their families through greater awareness and understanding of the condition.
The oak bench representing an EEG readout, starts as a calm resting place and is then disrupted with the chaos of a seizure. Specially commissioned from furniture designer Toby Winteringham, the bench is created with steam-bent oak secured with copper rivets and supported by rusted steel legs.
Running below the bench is a ceramic tiled path designed by artist Sue Ridge and designer/ceramist Andrew Thomas. Based on designs by William Morris the tiles are laid in a disintegrating pattern representing different aspects of epilepsy, transforming into neurological and seizure based images and ‘glitches’ as they run under the chaotic end of the bench.
The garden is partly sponsored by Epilepsy Society and Young Epilepsy, with some of the young people resident with Young Epilepsy at their site in Surrey helping to grow a selection of the plants.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Beyond Ophelia again

A couple of images to illustrate the installation at Wightwick Manor.  Definitely worth a detour and/or  special trip   Open till December but don't leave so long.

If any other venue with appropriate atmospheric and security conditions is interested in showing this compact and absorbing display in 2019, please contact Wightwick Manor.


I'm delighted to say that the portrait of 19th century pugilist JEM WHARTON is now on display in the National Portrait Gallery, Room 19.   The owner first brought this to my attention following 'Black Victorians',  when the sitter's identity was unknown apart from an old label 'Young Molineux', which was one of the terms applied to Jem Wharton, who at the date of this painting (1839) ran a tavern-cum-training-ring, as so many fighters did on retirement.   The artist was Liverpool-based William Daniels, himself of working-class origins, who specialized in local portraits and genre figures.
'Young Molineux' references the best-known Black prizefighter of the previous generation, Tom Molineaux.  

Another of Wharton's fighting names was 'the Moroccan Prince', no doubt bestowed on him by those who promoted pugilism in reference to his complexion, although in the 1851 census Wharton's birthplace was given as London. In the era before Queensberry rules, when bare-knuckle fighting was outlawed but still popular, competitive pugilism was semi-clandestine and often deliberately obscured, so records are uncertain. 
I'm hoping that the rediscovery of the portrait will lead to new researches and sources.
Here Jem Wharton is seen in fighting garb, with a sash that, as the precursor of a belt, signified previous victories.  These had all been bare-knuckle contests, but here he's  wearing gloves, which at this date were coming into use in training, sparring and demonstration bouts, which very often took place in rings at the back of pubs, which would fit the nondescript indoor setting here, with Wharton posed as if about to commence or return to sparring.  Later, boxers were always shown with fists raised as if about to punch an opponent.

The portrait's history is unknown before its acquisition by the lender in London in the 1960s.  The now rather distressed frame   appears to be original.

Wharton's image joins that of Ira Aldridge, just across the room, alongside other Regency celebs

Friday, 27 April 2018

Piccadilly 1875

Giuseppe de Nittis, Piccadilly, 1875
A somewhat belated post with an image of one of the paintings in Tate Britain's recent exhibition IMPRESSIONISTS IN LONDON  which on the pavement to the left shows an elderly Indian street sweeper wearing a red turban, alongside a policeman.  Possibly included on account of the turban, the wintry street scene wanting in colour, but also an authentic glimpse of mid- to late-Victorian London.
It is one of a series showing London streets commissioned by banker Kaye Knowles.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Brass in Lochaber

A brief report on some concerts in the Loch Shiel music festival last week in various venues around Lochaber
Most notably under the arches of the famous Glenfinnan viaduct.  Rather hard to get performers and arches in the same shot.  A trio of tubas joined by students from Lochaber schools aged 11 to 18 on trumpets and trombones.  Audience on the hillside, or perched on rocky outcrops.  

The following day, the New Antonine brass ensemble in a sort of open-air treetop cabin up in the Salen forest, which because we arrived late we had to locate aurally, following sudden trumpet and tuba sounds heard from below.   In fact, this was a rehearsal - we got to hear the whole exciting programme, including  the French horn playing a way off among the trees, as if in hunting mode.

The atmosphere was not as damp as the photos suggest - the air must have been much colder than it felt.  And it was a wonderful experience, lost in sound high up amid trees.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Museum Professionals

by Nicholas Penny, from article in recent issue of Apollo

Among museum professionals, a curator has for many decades been understood as someone who is responsible for the care, display and interpretation of specimens, artefacts, or works of art in the permanent collection of a museum or gallery. During the last 20 years, temporary exhibitions have become increasingly central to the activities of almost all institutions of this kind, and many curators are now largely absorbed by the mounting of such exhibitions. Curators are only likely to attract media attention by this means, and such impresario curators are almost always the ones who are proposed as future directors. Indeed, a curator is now more commonly understood to mean someone who organises temporary exhibitions of the visual arts, whether in a private or a public institution

It has often been argued that senior administrators are better qualified than traditional curators to serve as museum directors, but nowadays the trend is to appoint impresario curators, preferably those who are comfortable with contemporary art and, if a new building is planned, have some confidence in dealing with architects. Directors with no curatorial experience and without the related expert knowledge of art tend to diminish the value of such experience and expertise out of their own insecurity. The results can often be devastating, even if, being of little interest to journalists, whose attention is usually focused on the exhibitions programme, they generally go unnoticed by the public.

There are fewer internationally recognised experts among the curators of London’s museums than was the case 25 or 50 years ago. The curatorial staff in regional museums in this country possess only a fraction of the knowledge of their collections than one would have found then. There are major North American museums in which only one curator cares for the historical collections, where there were formerly four or five. At the convivial gatherings of international museum directors that I attended between 2008 and 2015 the voices of directors who openly disparaged the scruples of traditional curators and the concerns of conservators were increasingly confident – and indeed the original motive for such gatherings was precisely to make international lending easier, that is, to promote the increasing emphasis on loan exhibitions within institutions that were formerly chiefly associated with permanent collections.

Senior administrators have not often been appointed as directors, (although, as mentioned, their eligibility has often been discussed) but their status within the museum hierarchy (which includes IT, HR, PR, and many other new growths) has increased hugely and they will be detected in the shadow of any impresario director. Sometimes they are loyal, self-effacing and truly efficient. The model, significantly, is one which is more common in the performing arts. Curators are thus ‘relieved’ of many of their former responsibilities, encouraging the trend whereby some become ‘scholars in residence’ and others concentrate on exhibitions. The admirable special training now available in both in the US and the UK to equip curators with more experience of administration and management has been designed to combat this state of affairs, and excellent directors will be found among the curators who have benefited from such courses. But there is no reason not to look elsewhere as well.

In the 19th century it was widely believed that any director of the National Gallery in London must be a practising artist, and the same applied in equivalent institutions throughout Europe. It is easy to imagine – and should not be so hard to find ­– a director with an academic background, especially perhaps a historian, who values the experience and knowledge of his or her curators.

In a large museum with many different departments a curator will be suspected of having a prejudice in favour of her or his own special field of experience and expertise, or at least an inclination to give priority to art over archaeology, for example, or modern and contemporary preference over everything else. Even in a gallery with a collection consisting only of European art there are often no curators with the wide interests and sympathies that would enable them to assess the needs of the collection as a whole. The necessary range may also be more easily found outside the curatorial body. On balance the rise of the impresario director should be seen as more of a threat than the appointment of someone without traditional curatorial experience.

But a threat to what? To the ideal of the museum and gallery as something created for posterity and not merely for today’s public (or the youth of today); to the ideal of the museum as a place to transcend the fashionable rather than to revel in it; to the ideal of the gallery as a place where repeated contact with the permanent collection is carefully balanced with the attractions of temporary exhibitions; to the ideal of museums and galleries as places where people can educate themselves, places which are therefore equivalent to libraries as well as to theatres.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

London Lammassu

The latest and in many ways the best occupant of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square is this version of the Assyrian lamassu statue. 

Best partly because its base dimensions match those of the vacant plinth, so it feels and looks right for its place, as also does its bulk and height, comparable to the equestrian figures for which such plinths were made; chiefly because of its implicit lament for the lost heritage of Syria owing to the current violence there.

The only issue is its orientation: so that the majesty of the sculpture can only be seen from a slightly awkward angle, looking up from the roadway to the west.  The side facing into the square bears the explanatory inscription in red gilt cuneiform script - aesthetically pleasing but secondary and not informative in itself.   The appropriate plinth, in the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square, is however not vacant, so this is where the tin-can lamassu must stand

As a great addition to the fourth plinth sequence.


Wednesday, 14 March 2018

the first Black Icelander

Talking of Iceland, there is  the history of Hans Jonatan-  here as published on Wikipedia
Hans Jonatan (1784–1827)  was the subject of an important test case in Danish law on slavery, and a groundbreaking DNA study. Fleeing to Iceland, he became one of the first people of colour to live in Iceland. A biography of Jonatan by Gísli Pálsson was published in Icelandic in 2014. An English edition was published in 2016. Danish and French editions are forthcoming.

Hans Jonatan was born into slavery in 1784 on the plantation at Constitution Hill on the island of St Croix in the Caribbean, which had become a Danish colony in 1733 when purchased by the Danish West India Company from France. His paternity is uncertain, but Pálsson argues in his biography that his father was a white Dane, Hans Gram, who was the secretary of his owners for three years; his mother was Emilia Regina, a black 'house slave' who is first recorded in 1773 at the St Croix plantation of La Reine, where she was presumably born. In 1788, Emilia had a daughter, Anna Maria, this time by a black man, Andreas, who at the time was a house slave too; but their fates are not recorded.   The details of the West African ancestry of Hans's mother were unknown prior to a genetic study.
Hans Jonatan was owned by Heinrich Ludvig Ernst von Schimmelmann and his wife Henriette Catharina.  In 1789 the Schimmelmann family moved to Copenhagen as the plantation business took a downturn, bringing Emilia Regina and, later, Hans Jonatan with them. Not long afterwards, Heinrich died, bequeathing Hans to his widow Henriette Catharine. In 1802, at the age of seventeen, Hans Jonatan escaped from Copenhagen to join the Danish Navy and fought in the Napoleonic War, for which he received recognition.

Later, when he was detained by the police, he and his lawyer argued in 1801 before a Copenhagen court under judge Anders Sandøe Ørsted that although slavery was still legal in the Danish West Indies, as slavery was illegal in Denmark, Hans Jonatan could not be kept as a slave. However, in the case Generalmajorinde Henriette de Schimmelmann contra mulatten Hans Jonathan 1802, Ørsted sentenced him on 31 March 1802 to be returned to the West Indies.

Hans Jonatan escaped, and his fate remained unknown to the Danish administration. It was only around the 1990s that the rest of his story was pieced together. In 1802 he arrived in Djúpivogur in Iceland. One of the first records of Hans Jonatan after 1802 is in the diary of the Norwegian cartographer Hans Frisak for 4 August 1812:
The agent at the trading post here is from the West Indies, and has no surname ... but calls himself Hans Jonatan. He is very dark-skinned and has coal-black, curly hair. His father is European but his mother a negro.
Frisak hired Hans Jonatan as a guide. Hans lived as a peasant farmer at Borgargarður working at the Danish trading station in Djúpivogur. He took over the running of the trading post in 1819. By February 1820, Hans had married Katrín Antoníusdóttir from Háls. They had three children; two survived childhood, and their living descendants now number nearly nine hundred. Hans Jonatan died in 1827.  His grave is unlocated.

His grandson, wife and their five children are shown in this family photo from around 1900.

In 2018, scientists achieved a genetic breakthrough when they reconstructed a part of Hans Jonatan's genome solely using samples from his descendants. This was the first time that a human genome had been reconstructed without using physical remains. For the study, 788 of his descendants were identified, and DNA samples from 182 family members were taken. The study was aided by the extreme rarity of African heritage in Iceland, the homogeneity of the country's population, and its comprehensive genome database. The samples were analyzed against known signs of African DNA, recreating about 38% of his mother's DNA profile and thus 19% of his own.

 It was determined that that Emilia Regina's ancestral origins were from a region now encompassing Nigeria, Benin, and Cameroon.  So her forebear must have been captured or sold to slavers on the African coast and shipped to the Caribbean in the early or middle years of the 18th century.

May Morris's vacation journals

the handwritten vacation journals that I was quoting from a while back, recording the summer excursions of May Morris and MF  have now been deposited with the Society of Antiquaries in London, which owns and manages Kelmscott Manor.  This is an appropriate home, because all the holidays were taken while the couple were living at Kelmscott, and by virtue of their ownership of the Morris estate, the Antiquaries own the copyright to May's unpublished writings.

This photo shows Stefan Johannessen, Icelandic ambassador to the UK, viewing the journal describing one of their visits to Iceland - highlight of May's later life - together with the photos taken there, postcards and business cards presented by Icelanders they met.  Their travels are recorded step by step, May taking special care to note down the correct names of places and people as far as she could, while also aiming to retrace her father's routes, to see what he had seen.

For now, as Kelmscott Manor is planning a major refurbishment programme, the journals will remain in the Antiquaries' library in Burlington House, available to the public by appointment, although subject to conservation and professional care.


Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Elizabeth Siddal Beyond Ophelia


It's time that Elizabeth Siddal had an exhibition of her own art works - some decades after the one I curated at the Ruskin Gallery in Sheffield.
So good news that the team at Wightwick Manor in Warwickshire is showing a fair selection from now until the end of the year.
Lizzie, as she is familiarly known to all fans, came into the Pre-Raphaelite world as a model, most famously of course for Millais's Ophelia. I discount the idea of discovery in a milliner's shop: though at least one of her sisters worked as a dressmaker and Lizzie probably did the same,  she had aspirations to art and  her first known modelling job was for Walter Deverell, whom she doubtless met at the School of Design where he taught and she attended classes, as she did later at Sheffield Art School.
When, after working for Millais, Holman Hunt and probably Charles Collins, Lizzie went to sit for Rossetti, she lamented that 'no man cares for her soul', only for her availability as a model.  He was the first person to respond to her aspirations, taking her under his wing as student as well as prospective partner.  He drew her at the easel and drawing board.
After her death  Gabriel collected together all her own watercolours and drawings, having the latter photographed for memorial albums.

Sadly, Gabriel never taught Lizzie much in the way of technique, anatomy or composition, so her works were genuinely naïve.  They convey emotional force, often articulated through paired couples. 
Many have a curiously Blakean air, and not only when the figures are similarly boneless.
The range of subjects is relatively wide, but notably focussed. 
Firstly on moments relating to Tennyson's early poems, when Gabriel was pushing for Lizzie to be included among the illustrators of the Moxon edition.  Here are images from Tennyson's St Agnes Eve [not to be confused with Keats' Eve of St Agnes] and the allusion to St Cecilia in  The Palace of Art.  Another is Lizzie's early image for the Lady of Shalott.
Secondly on traditional ballads, for a projected book based on Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Lizzie's copy of which survives.  These include St Patrick Spens, Clerk Saunders and May Margaret, and the Lass of Lochroyan.
Several other subjects are devotional - the Nativity, Angels, the self-sacrificial daughter of Jephtha. 
Then there are those illustrating Rossetti's poems: The Blessed Damozel, Sister Helen, The Woeful Victory. 
And some whose subjects are yet unidentified, including these two:
one where in a forest a ghost figure frightens a woman; and one where lovers listen to dark-skinned girls playing an exotic musical instrument.  it is likely that both also have literary sources - which surely ought to be guessable?
Wightwick Manor has a relatively large collection of Siddal's works because in 1961 Rosalie Mander, chatelaine of the Manor and author of a biography of Rossetti, bought them at auction.
 The exhibition BEYOND OPHELIA :  A CELEBRATION OF LIZZIE SIDDAL ARTIST AND POET is curated by Hannah Squire and on display in the Daisy Room at Wightwick until Christmas Eve.
a slightly clearer image of the ghost in the forest:

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Blake in Sussex

 Now at Petworth until 25 March is a sort of capsule exhibition on the work of William Blake with special focus on his brief time on the Sussex coast in a subsequently famous cottage at Felpham, where, as in this image, he continued to see visions of angels in the sky - a different view to their manifestation over the rooftops of Lambeth.

TThe cottage is quite a contrast to the exhibition site Petworth House, one of the grander English mansions abutting a tame village amid extensive parkland, very appealing on a wintry day.

Which concentrates  the exhibition's intense presentation in two darkened rooms, filled with disparate works and objects, each conveying an aspect of Blake's career, aspirations, visual imagination, artistic endeavours, skills.

There's a lot to pack in, and for the visitor to take in, but all selected with intelligent care. Including the series of tiny vignettes engraved to illustrate an edition of Virgil's pastoral poems and convincingly linked to the Sussex landscapes that Blake found all round.  

They link so clearly with work by Samuel Palmer based on the countryside at Shoreham, not so very far from Petworth and of comparable appearance.

Then there are also the original court records from Blake's arrest and arraignment in 1804 on charges of sedition for allegedly shouting 'Damn the king, damn all his subject, damns his soldiers, they are all slaves; when Bonaparte comes it will be cut-throat for cut-throat; I will help him' when getting into a scuffle with two off-duty soldiers he found in his garden at Felpham.   Devils in place of angels, really.   Fortunately, the magistrates who heard the case included Petworth's owner the Earl of Egremont, and the jury acquitted Blake, perhaps perceiving that he was not entirely, or not always, sane.  Though he no doubt meant what he said - which was certainly seditious.


Saturday, 24 February 2018

The Birth of Art Photography

Duchess of  Cambridge with Photos Curator Philip Prodger and NPG Director Nick Cullinan at Victorian Giants.  Photo: Noah   Goodrich

Alongside and in some ways ahead of Pre-Raphaelite painting came art photography – images with aesthetic intent as well as visual recording.  During the second half of the nineteenth century the two art forms, polychrome and monochrome, intersected and impacted on each other.
From March to May Victorian Giants at the National Portraits Gallery explores four pioneers of Victorian art photography – two female, two male.  The women are Julia Margaret Cameron (of course, with claims to being the overall leader in the field) and Clementina Hawarden, who with eight surviving children was professional enough to exhibit prize-winning studies before dying prematurely aged 42.
The men are Lewis Carroll of ‘Alice’ fame (of course, and more properly Charles Dodgson) and Oscar Rejlander, who enjoyed some attention in 2013 around the bicentenary of his birth but deserves more for his innovative practices.
The exhibition, curated by Philip Prodger, sadly outgoing NPG head of photograph collection, is full of familiar and less familiar images, many of girls in roughly the same age group as Waterhouse’s now-controversial water nymphs.  While the photographs are chaste, in the sense of being decently clothed and not evidently presented for male pleasure, it will be interesting to see how they are received in today’s cultural moment  especially those by Carroll, who had an undeniable paedophilic gaze.

Clementina Hawarden is the least-known of the featured Victorian Giants. For a full account of her photographic practice see  Suzanne Fagence Cooper's recent blog


Thursday, 1 February 2018

"I was a few years back a slave on your property..."

 ... and as a Brown woman was fancied by a Mr Tumoning unto who Mr Thomas James sold me.”
Thus opens a letter written in 1809 by Mary Williamson, recently discovered in a family archive. 

It's the subject of a lecture by professor Diana Paton at UCL on Friday 9 February:

’Mary Wiliamson’s Letter, or: Seeing Women & Sisters in the Archives of Atlantic Slavery’
Prof. Diana Paton (Edinburgh)
according to the blurb, the lecture will reflect on the history and historiography of ‘Brown’ women like Mary Williamson in Jamaica and other Atlantic slave societies. Mary Williamson’s letter offers a rare perspective on the sexual encounters between white men and Brown women that were pervasive in Atlantic slave societies. Yet its primary focus is on the greater importance of ties of place and family—particularly of relations between sisters—in a context in which the ‘severity’ of slavery was increasing. Mary Williamson’s letter is a single and thus far not formally archived trace in a broader archive of Atlantic slavery dominated by material left by slaveholders and government officials. Prof Paton asks what the possibilities and limits of such a document may be for generating knowledge about the lives and experiences of those who were born into slavery.

this single piece of correspondence raises far more questions than can be answered, as Diana Paton elaborated.
Its substance is that Mary Williamson, a freed woman on the estate of Haughton James in western Jamaica, asked the absentee owner in London UK to order the restoration of her house and provision ground that the overseers had destroyed, leaving her homeless and unable to provide food for herself and two sisters, still enslaved.
According to Paton, this and other complaints of harsh treatment coincided with the abolition of the slave trade, the ending of new imported labour and declining income from the estate.
In the archive where Mary Williamson's letter was discovered there is no surviving evidence of a reply from Haughton James, He was aged 71 and of course may have instructed a relative or agent to do so.  The scanty details suggest that Mary W was resourceful, but one would so like to know how she and her sisters fared.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

What's Dido Belle wearing?

This is a   heads-up
 for BBC4  at 20.30 on Wednesday  24 January  when the clothes Dido Belle wears in this famous painting will be analysed, unpicked and re-created by historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila in the series A Stitch in Time presented by costume historian Amber Butchardt.  At least that’s what is promised, so I hope the programme does concentrate on Dido’s diaphanous gown  which is pictorially obscured by the bowl of exotic fruits she holds to signify her own tropical origins.  
A Stitch in Time is a good series that has not received the attention it deserves.  As with Lucy Worsley’s efforts, there’s much prancing and smirking and dressing up, overlying more serious historical presentation, but the latter prevails, packed into a useful half-hour.  Especially informative was the programme devoted to the vast green gown worn by Signora Arnolfini in Van Eyck’s painting, where she looks pregnant but is in fact clasping a whole fistful of fabric in order to be able to walk forward.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

May Morris 'like icy fire'

Will Rothenstein, May Morris, 1897, NPG 
For a long while now, I've been quoting the description of May Morris as 'like ice and fire' by a contemporary without being able to give the correct citation.  Now the WMG exhibition is coming to its close [many thanks all who have visited and commented, it has been highly successful] I have finally located the source:
Selected Letters of Arthur Symons 1880-1935, Univ Iowa Press 1989, 158
The comment comes in a passage about the never-resolved question as to whether Janey Morris and Gabriel Rossetti were lovers in the legal sense.  Symons writes
"it is difficult to believe (and few people do believe) that [DGR's] relations with Mrs. Morris were purely platonic.  Rossetti was the most passionate and the most magnetic of men; I don't know Mrs. Morris, but I know her daughter, and she has a temperament like icy fire, and has always gone the way of her temperament quite frankly."
In context, the words appear to signify ardent, not frosty, but they are ambiguous if not obviously contradictory; one infers however that Symons viewed May's nature as vehemently passionate, and unlikely to be constrained by propriety.
Another quotation emerged from the same file but a quite different source:  May's description of daily life at Kelmscott Manor in 1910, which led into memories of the past:
"In the old days, all the family used to assemble at night in the Tapestry room.  Work was put away, logs in the fire, games played, long talks ...  When the family went to bed, Father often worked.  I have waked sometimes and lain watching his room at right-angles to mine and his figure passing the window; listening to the chanting which accompanied the poetry-making.  How the sound seemed wedded to the fragrance of the night in that enclosed garden!
And he is here constantly. I never lose the sense of it: at a turn of the garden I hear his footstep on the gravel - and hear it without surprise; the shock is, to come back to the present.  Looking up at the windows, I've been conscious of him there in the room, and hear his voice too-  always without surprise..."