Saturday, 16 May 2020

Helen Muspratt Photographer

Helen Muspratt, triple self-portrait : copyright Jessica Sutcliffe

I'm really hoping the current covid crisis will have lifted from museums as well as everywhere else by the autumn, because the Bodleian Library in Oxford is scheduling an exhibition of original photographs from the Helen Muspratt archive there.   Due to open 16 October 2020.   

Helen Muspratt, Eileen Agar, copyright Jessica Sutcliffe
It will include all aspects of Muspratt's work, from  pioneering images of fellow artists like Eileen Agar and Paul Nash, 

through commercial university-town portraits  of eminent figures, to documentary accounts of the Soviet Union and Welsh valleys in the 1930s. 

Something from her daughter Jessica Sutcliffe about Muspratt's work here :  OUP blog

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Gossip about Effie Millais

William Bell Scott to William Michael Rossetti
21 June 1855

"Millais's marriage is not a pleasant event.  What do you think of it?  a lady whose complaint against her husband is that reported of Mrs Ruskin is not an actress who will set much store by either good taste or the affections, and one may fear notoriety has got the better of the man who shares her role.  However other men  may see the matter in quite another light.  Were there any stolen waters in Millais's cup last [sic] year in the Highlands?  Were there any crim.con elements in that summer trip?'
Ms in Durham University Library

Tom KcKellar: Sargent's model

new information from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  i'll try to attach image later

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

GBJ's Bridge of Sighs

Georgiana Macdonald [later Burne=Jones]  The Bridge of Sighs, pen & ink 1859-60; Dennis T 
Lanigan Colln

A second article in the current British Art Journal publishes the Bridge of Sighs drawing by Georgiana Burne-Jones in greater detail than was possible in Pre-Raphaelite Sisters.  

Written by the new owner, Dennis T Lanigan, it describes GBJ’s short-lived artistic career in detail and relates the image to other contemporary depictions of destitution set on or under bridges over the Thames, including Simeon Solomon’s beggar youngsters  complete with white mouse in I am Starving (1857) and two etchings illustrating Hood’s  poem by John Everett Millais and Gerald Fitzgerald (1821-86).  Published at the end of 1858, the last of these is closely comparable in subject matter, showing three watermen with the body of a young woman they have just pulled from the river, observed by a peeler and two inquisitive boys.  GBJ’s version differs compositionally, however.

The article does not include the drawing's provenance, partly given on GBJ's label on the back,which  presents it to her younger grand-daughter, who died in 1975.  This indicates that GBJ kept the work almost until the end of her life.  It was sold at Christie's on 11 December 2018. 
Dennis Lanigan concludes his article saying that the work shows the social conscience that would never have  appealed to Georgie’s husband – although he had some radical tendencies in youth – and that it ‘is likely  that she was forced to abandon her vocation against her will because of a lack of support at home and her need to concentrate her activities on being both a wife and mother.  Georgie therefore was almost as much a victim of her circumstances as the unfortunate young woman she portrayed in her drawing.’ 

Simeon Solomon, I am Starving ,  1857, National Gallery of Art Washington

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Florence Claxton

Florence Claxton, Women's Work, 1861

The current issue of the British Art Journal carries an extensive and welcome article on Florence Claxton’s satirical painting Woman’s Work: A Medley,  which presents an almost Hogarthian panorama of the constraints and obstacles experienced by middle class women in the mid-nineteenth century.   Pictorially centred on a fleshy, leisured  fellow surrounded by adoring subservient females, it’s a most useful illustration, frequently cited.  But it's been virtually out of reach to scholars and critics, as its ownership is unpublished, it’s not been exhibited since 1861 and the few available reproductions have been small and rather murky, given the number and density of figures within the scene.

So Charlotte Yeldham’s in-depth study makes this ‘most daring and ambitious’ picture newly available for discussion by art historians and social historians.    We learn that it is 750mm wide and was exhibited in large and ornate gilt frame at the Portland Gallery in London in spring 1861.  That is was ‘used in direct support of the campaign for greater work opportunities’ led by first-wave feminists Anna Jameson, Barbara Bodichon, Bessie Parkes, Emily Faithfull.  That the crinolined woman crouching by the closed door of the medical profession has blood on face and hands represents not only aspiring female doctors but also a ‘kneeling, weeping’ fallen woman, with tell-tale loose hair, driven by destitution, shame and disease into sex work.

Yeldham’s correlation of the numerous vignettes within Woman’s Work with contemporary campaigns around marriage, education, emigration and the rest is very thorough.  Detailed exposition of the all background figures is given and previous misconceptions [mostly due to poor earlier images] are corrected.  One small query remains: the identity of the blonde artist on the escape ladder tugging at Rosa Bonheur’s skirts.  Could this be Claxton herself?   The only potential portrait I can find shows her with fair curly hair.  

Monday, 20 April 2020

DGR and A Last Confession

Rossetti’s dramatic monologue A Last Confession dramatised his disillusion with the failed revolution of 1848 in Italy.  I've discovered a historical source that also informs the poem‘s plot.

The narrative concerns a young Italian patriot who kills the  girl he loves (a poetic stand-in for Italy) when she scorns  both cause and lover in favour of accommodation with the Austrian occupation of Italy.   

The speaker,  who has fatal wounds incurred as a guerrilla fighter,  addresses the reader via a priest,  recounting the event:   
The day was one red blindness; till it seemed
Within the whirling brain’s entanglement
That she or I or all things bled to death.
 And then I found her laid against my feet 
 And knew that I had stabbed her, and saw still
Her look in falling.  For she took the knife
Deep in her heart.

This theme of sexual jealousy allied to political betrayal echoes the real life example of Antonio Gasparoni, the ‘famous brigand’ (1793-1882) whose career was the subject of Europe-wide mythologizing.  Gasparoni himself became a tourist attraction when imprisoned with his band in Civita Castellana.

 According to Stendahl, one such tourist in 1839, the bandit leader was betrayed by a lover who succumbed to a six thousand scudi bribe. Foreseeing imminent capture, Gasparoni strangled her.   

By 1855 the narrative had evolved, as artist Joanna Boyce related:
‘When he was 20 in a  fit of jealousy he killed the girl he loved and finding a price was put on his head he turned brigand and for ten years he made himself the terror of travellers.  So well known was he for his wonderful daring and agility even among foreigners, that very few  English passed through Civita Vecchia, where he was first imprisoned, without going to visit him.  When he was a little past thirty he gave himself up to the authorities and and he and his 16 men have lived together in prison more than thirty years, a happy quiet life …. A nobler looking old man I have never seen.’ 

Gasparoni’s trademark was his conical brigand’s hat, shown in this portrait,  from the museum  in Sonnino, a historical centre of banditry.  Rather uncannily, the scowling features bear a distinct likeness to the young D.G.Rossetti….

Monday, 24 February 2020

Weirdly Beardsley and Beard's Nudes

The Tate's new exhibition about Aubrey Beardsley opens at Millbank next week, which allows a new appraisal of his works, and is rather apt to the current fashion for all things queer.   Some images are so in the earlier meaning of the term, as odd, freakish, singular, bizarre; others with a distinctly gay, intersexual aspect.

He had a phenomenal graphic talent for alluring grotesqueries,  beguiling sinuous lines and sexually ambiguous figures with triffid-like flowers [maybe they inspired the triffids]. Certainly weirdly attractive parabolic curves and dramatic black shapes.

Though he disclaimed personal homosexuality, drawing these images was auto-erotic, and plainly deviant to those in the gay culture of the 1890s, who encouraged and paid for illustrations to Mademoiselle de Maupin and Wilde's Salome.


One can only post some of the Lysistrata designs, as the outsize phalluses will be deemed offensive  today.    

which is interesting in relation to the recent BBC programmes on female and male nudes, in which Prof Mary Beard happily dwelt on  Courbet's L'Origine du Monde [probably not postable either] but was very coy in respect of male nudes, showing only limp genitals  and nothing by Beardsley or Mapplethorpe.

As it happens,  I am publishing a small book on Beardsley with the V&A /Thames & Hudson, with 100 images mostly from V&A collections. 
I'm looking forward to Tate's monster display of original pieces.  
Somewhat oddly, but in keeping with Beardsley's off-centre reputation, Tate's publicity cites his work as key inspiration for today's tattoo artists.

Monday, 17 February 2020

William Ansah Sessarooko

Contemporary records to Black individuals in London in 1700s and 1800s are relatively rare.  Here is a reference to rumoured news of William Unsah Sessarakoo [as he was spelled in Britain]

James Ducarel, a Huguenot gentleman, writing to his lawyer brother Andrew Ducarel on 11 January 1749: -

'You will see upon this day's paper the story of a Black King's Son being sold by a Captain with whom his Father had trusted to him to be brought to England for this education.  That Captain was George Hamilton, who sold him for 40£ in order to sink the gold-dust and other effects which the Black King had given him to bear the charges of his education    This and other particulars I have had from a gentleman lately come from the West Indies, who knows the truth of these things.'

It was indeed true, though other sources name the perfidious captain as  David Crichton.  
Sessarakoo reached Britain about a month later, being greeted as something of a celebrity and having his portrait   painted by Gabriel Matthias.

Friday, 14 February 2020

May Morris in 30 seconds

according to Ashmolean Museum :

you may be able to craft a different clip  emphasising creative and conservation endeavours?  LINK

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Stunners' Opera

Briefly, about THE STUNNERS’ OPERA being written by composer Howard Goodall and librettist Joanne Harris:

This brings the  Pre-Raphaelite Sisters out of their frames and on to the musical stage.  Howard and singer Josie Richardson gave a glimpse [what’s the aural equivalent?] of the songs for Elizabeth Siddal at the National Portrait Gallery last week.

Very exciting afterlife to come…  hopefully before the end of 2020

photo: Katherine Leedale

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Fanny Eaton in duplicate

During the last week of Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, the owner of a duplicate copy of the profile head of Fanny Eaton by Joanna Boyce Wells  brought it to the National Portrait Gallery for comparison with the version that has been lent to the exhibition  from the Centre for British Art, University of Yale.

It is quite exciting to learn of this copy, which is the same size and slightly variant in composition - one row of blue beads in the hair - but otherwise virtually identical.  Without more technical inspection of the support and the paints, it's not possible to judge when and where and by whom the duplicate was made. Its framing indicates it has been in existence since at least 1960.

Together with the discovery of an inscription on the profile head by Boyce, previously identified as a 'self-portrait' but now known to depict the artist's 'darling sister' Anne Boyce Mordan, this has made the exhibition an exciting one.

Thanks to all who came and who commended the exhibition to others.  It ends today, after  a very crowded final week.   I hope that it will stimulate more interest, more research and more exhibitions.  There are more Pre-Raphaelite Sisters to meet.

Sunday, 12 January 2020


I've been otherwise busy recently and have  missed out on several exhibitions, but got to 24/7 at Somerset House, and without knowing what to expect [having missed out on reviews etc] found it chimed neatly with recent experience that is in many ways one's chronic experience nowadays - that of having too many tasks and rapidly shrinking time in which to achieve them. [Who has a to-do list that gets done every day?]

It's not only about the pernicious always-online aspect of digital devices, though they have aggravated the situation to intolerable levels.  24/7 ranges widely, in no particular order, with time-lapse videos next to mechanically pecking hens, next to Mark Zuckerberg gabbling 'more, more, more', and inexorably ticking clocks, then swinging back historically to a dramatic 1780s painting of  Arkwright's textile mill by night, every window illuminated to demonstrate non-stop production through two 12-hours shifts daily.  Which is essentially the modern experience, in varied forms.   Plus of course Bentham's famous panopticon, an apt precursor of today's continuous surveillance.

I half-expected to see a calligraphic version of W.H.Davies's once-famous poem 'What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?'  And perhaps missed it, as 24/7 has over a hundred exhibits, randomly distributed in Somerset House's southern undercroft, a string of spaces on different levels that begins to feel like an Escher drawing, with stairs up and down, mysterious frosted lifts and dark caverns for immersive installations behind thick black curtains.  One has benches and  continuous recordings of the dawn chorus by actual and electronic birds, another invites one to hum along with a humming soundtrack as the bench vibrates. Parts are frankly scary and nightmare-inducing.  One's balance is disturbed, and with it, possibly the balance of one's mind.

Flickering screens everywhere,  with abrupt clips of factory workers and slow-time videos of artists writing and reading real letters.Naturally, the visitors were filming the exhibits on their phones...