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 na├»ve.  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.