Thursday 7 March 2024

'mind you don't all go mad'


wrote Ruskin to Morris after thanking him for The Defence of Guenevere

"  You must be wondering much I have not written of your book before now, except in those cold words.  Bu I did not know what to make of it.  Good it is, in many ways wrong also in many ways but whether the wrong of it ought to be, or can be mended I cannot tell.  it is very gorgeous and very intense - but too much of mere sensation in it - there is nothing of human nature but the heart and eyes - your people all live on love, and crimson and gold.   Do you suppose that in the middle ages there were no heads fit for using as well as hearts or that people couldn't think inside of helmets?  The only thing that I can make out you consider a head good for is to have hair on it - what a blessed book it is for hair-deifiers!

It is also more obscure even than Browning.  I am quite certain that the blue closet is beyond all interpretation by any living being.  I speak more vexedly about the things than I should otherwise, and can't enjoy them as much as I should because I think you are doing Rossetti mischief with all these crotchets & quaintnesses and that you all live in a state of perpetual excitement about blood and murder and bones and pokes with lances which is inconsistent with good painter's work & proper business generally.  Still the book's a fine book as an exponent of what one may call Sacred Animalism - showing the nature of the Man-Animal in an elevated & fine state: and the passionate bits couldn't well be better.

The two bits I like best are the prayer of Rapunzel & Alice at page 106.   I haven't read Guenevere yet - but it looks good.  I don't say I'm right - mind - in all this - but mind you don't all go mad".

Ruskin to Morris  n.d  [MSS RP 2917]  in fine literary critical form

Friday 9 February 2024



            MARCH 2024  sees the centenary of the death of Fanny Eaton

#Led by Brian Eaton, her descendants plan to gather at her grave in Margravine Cemetery Hammersmith to celebrate her life and memory.

12.00 noon SUNDAY 3 March and  

12.00 noon MONDAY 4 March   potentially followed by refreshments nearby 

Margravine Cemetery lies between Barons Court underground
 and modern Charing Cross Hospital on Fulham Palace Road.  The grave plot is close to the Hospital end of cemetery.  From that west entrance, 50m from gate turn right and follow path round to right.
Margravine Cemetery is now a nature reserve.


Saturday 13 January 2024

Enslaved Children in Brazil, 1822 watercolour for sale


Portrait of Maria, Emma, 'Cammondongo' and a doll seated at a table at Gloria Cottage, 1822 | Old Master and British Works on Paper | 2024 | Sotheby's (

 Gloria Cottage group, Rio de Janeiro 1822, attributed to Maria Graham later Calcott

This very small drawing – about 3x4ins – appears to come from a sketchbook or block.  Showing a figure group in an interior space illuminated by a single candle, it was presumably sketched in pencil or crayon and then finished in watercolours with a  fine brush.  Despite its small  size, it is finely worked with a precision akin to that of miniature painting, with especial attention to the fall of light from the candle flame.  Its size and subject suggest a scene from the artist’s travels.

The domestic scene centres on the white child wearing a low-necked white dress.  She seems to hold some red-spotted fabric, which could be needlework or an apron and is seated behind a small table which holds some scraps of paper or pale fabric as well as the candlestick, which throws shadows to either side.  To the left sits an older girl of African ancestry, shown in profile, with her right arm raised as if in animated conversation. She wears an indigo-dyed patterned dress with a white shawl over her shoulder. Across to the right is a young boy of African ancestry, in profile, seated rather awkwardly with hands on his thighs, wearing a blue jacket over an open-necked white shirt and pants of the blue-and-white striped fabric typically sold to plantation owners for slave clothing.   [see for instance striped pants and blue jacket of workers depicted by William Clark in Ten Views in the Island of Antigua, 1823 and the sisters in Emma Jones Soyer picture currently on loan to Tate Britain]

Both Black youngsters look towards the White infant, whose lowered gaze is directed towards the tall doll stood on the opposite side of the table, which appears to make up a quartet of figures, as in a nursery game.  The boy looks up shyly while the older girl appears emphatically engaged.    The room is shown as sparsely furnished, presumably to enhance the pictorial  effect of the intimately and tenderly composed group. 

One’s immediate impression is that, if the drawing has come from a sketchbook, it was executed by a member of the family, or perhaps a visitor, struck by the candle-lit image of the blond child and her dark attendants.  Whoever the artist, s/he had some art training, for the group is skilfully portrayed and rendered, in an accomplished ‘conversation piece’ manner.   One’s impression is certainly of a directly observed scene, of children within an actual household.

The overall feeling is of domestic harmony, but there is no evident affection between the children. The boy indeed looks uncomfortable, even anxious, although the miniature scale and possible limitations of the artist’s skill may be responsible for over-interpretation here.    In any case, the grouping firmly endorses a racialised hierarchy, with the white child and her doll centre stage and the Black attendants, who must be enslaved, as subordinate.

 Where are they?  Intriguingly, the now-detached label gives the date, location and names of the sitters:    1822, Gloria Cottage, and from left to right Maria, Dolly, Emma and ‘Cammondongo’ (or something similar).

Until Gloria Cottage can be satisfactorily located – and assuming the inscription is that of the artist -  what can be deduced from the label?  The handwriting, plus the term ‘cottage’ indicate an Anglophone setting, as do the names Emma and Dolly.  Emma was especially popular in this era, shown in its adoption by Lord Nelson’s paramour Emma Hamilton and in Jane Austen’s choice for a fictional heroine.    So is this the home of an English family?  Taken with the date 1822, the presence of young Black inmates  attending a privileged white infant strongly suggests a colonial setting, where African-ancestry ‘house slaves’ typically made up the domestic workforce.  This could be in the Caribbean or the United States.   The doll appears to point towards the latter,  although toys being portable objects that travelled with a family, it could also be European.  It certainly looks an elite, manufactured item, not homemade.

If the setting is Caribbean, contemporary topographical illustrations of islands there can be invoked.   As Dr Johnson famously said when raising his glass, ‘Here’s to the next insurrection of the Negroes in Jamaica!’ because the enslaved population were in regular revolt.  Plantation owners sought to counter this, plus the calls for abolition that were recurrent within Britain, by presenting the Caribbean colonies as peaceful, productive, well-governed.   Clark’s Ten Views of Antigua, was preceded by James Hakewill’s  Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica from Drawings made in the years 1820 and 1821, published as aquatints in London 1824.

As Miles Ogborn has noted, these colonialist images ‘present Jamaica in terms of a Georgic landscape of agricultural labour: a sublime landscape of mountains, rivers and forests or a picturesque landscape of ordered settlement’. [British Library online].  Enslaved Jamaicans working this idyllic land are presented as pictorial staffage, which visually occludes the actuality of European owners and African-ancestry human livestock.

(Curiously, at Montego Bay in Jamaica today is an air bnb named ‘Glory Cottage’, sited in the grounds of  a mansion named ‘Victory’.  The names surely allude to the post-Napoleonic era, though on googlemaps the ‘cottage’ is new built and despite its well-wooded surroundings the mansion is not much older.)

Another plausible location for the present work is indicated by the names identifying the subsidiary sitters and in particular the boy called ‘Cammondongo’.  This can hardly be a proper name, even for an enslaved person.    It must be a phonetic rendering of the Portuguese word camundongo, for a house-mouse of the Beatrice Potter kind.   It is in familiar use in Brazil, and seems apt to the presentation of the timid boy in this group, whom we may suppose was nicknamed ‘mouse’.

A Brazilian location for Gloria Cottage sets the inquiry in a new direction, which proves unexpectedly promising.   In Rio de Janeiro is the old-established district of Gloria, named after the cathedral there.  The wonders of internet searching reveal references to this in the travel book  Journal of a voyage to Brazil and residence there during part of the years 1821, 1822, 1823 composed by Maria  Graham  and published in London in 1824 by Longmans and Murray.   Mrs Graham (later Lady Calcott) was the wife of a British naval commander who accompanied her husband en route for his posting in Chile.   Her voyage there and back [minus husband who died at sea] involved two visits to Brazil. On the return journey she stayed at Rio for several weeks.    Her book is illustrated with twenty topographical engravings based on her own sketches,  for as her narrative makes clear, Mrs Graham was always on the lookout for scenic views and local colour. Plate VII is ‘a view of Rio from the Gloria Hill’; vignette III shows ‘slaves dragging a hogshead through the streets’.

Maria Graham was well-educated and resourceful, her journal being chiefly devoted to political personalities and events in Brazil at the moment when the colony was detaching itself from Portuguese control.  Like other Britons of the time, she opposed slavery in principle, but regarded it benignly in Brazil, believing that it was in slave-owners’ self-interest to treat their workers well.  Like other Britons, she deplored the trade that brought Africans to Brazil from other Portuguese territories; her book includes figures for slaves ‘imported’ from Angola, Cabinda. Mozambique and Quelimane in 1821 (21,199) and 1822 (24,934). Elsewhere she remarks that ‘new negroes’ were ‘docile from fear’, having suffered in the slave ships and markets.

‘We then came to the hill called the Gloria, from the name of the church dedicated to N.S.da Gloria, on the eminence immediately overlooking the sea’, Graham recorded in her journal for 31 December 1822. ‘The hill is green and wooded and studded with countryhouses’ [sic]  [p.167]   Shortly afterwards she met one William May,  a long-term resident in Brazil whom she had known in Britain, and with whose wife she became good friends. Later, she became a neighbour of the Mays on the Gloria hill.  She also met Augustus Erle, ‘an ingenious young artist’  who spent seven years in Brazil painting portraits and landscapes, before being marooned on Tristan da Cunha and travelling on to Australia and New Zealand.   

My best guess, therefore, is that the present watercolour scene was drawn by Maria Graham Calcott and depicts a European family home in the Gloria district of Rio da Janeiro.  More research into the residents of Rio at this date may yield more information about the May family – or another neighbouring one with an infant daughter.   Equally, further research into the life of Maria Calcott could confirm or disprove this conjecture. 




Sunday 31 December 2023

Rossetti and Leighton

One knows both how competitive the Victorian art world was, with painters keeping their new subjects secret lest another should 'steal' or forestall it, and also how sensitive Rossetti was regarding his reputation, to the extent of declining to exhibit for fear of critical reviews.

it must therefore have been distressing when in  1855 the star picture at the Royal Academy was an ambitious multi-figure piece of a procession set in late medieval Florence, centred on Cimabue and Giotto, the heroes of pre-Raphael art.    Whom the PRB had celebrated and elevated by their choice of name.

At the RA to view this marvel, Gabriel and Lizzie ran into Anna Mary Howitt.   Surely this subject belonged to the PRB.  Was this newcomer, young Frederic Leighton,   paying homage or usurping their place ?

Everyone praised the piece,  most especially Q Victoria, who wrote in her journal :

'There was a very big picture, by a young man, called Leighton, his 1st attempt  … It is a beautiful painting quite reminding one of a Paul Veronese, so bright & full of lights. Albert was enchanted with it - so much so that he made me buy it. The young man’s father said that his future career in life would depend on the success of this picture’.

DGR was  27 this month, increasingly anxious about his future career.  Leighton's success  at 25 must have really worried him.  Moreover, Leighton had not only taken taken 'his' subject, but  had also filled the canvas with a virtuoso series of brilliantly executed figures, each a variation on the attitudes that gave history painting its harmonious  strengths as pictorial bit-part players in a visual epic.  See, for instance, the masterly depiction of a red-clad musician tuning his violin as he walked.    DGR could never manage such a sophisticated figure.  In addition,  young Leighton had also included a couple of horses, in direct emulation of high art, where  horses' heads and rears were admired accessories. [Holman Hunt   had indeed included a phalanx of equine rumps in his latest picture of Rienzi, to show his skill.]

worst of all, perhaps, on the far right of the canvas Leighton  had placed a figure of Dante Alighieri, leaning as it were on the picture frame to watch the whole procession pass.   Was this to challenge a fellow painter calling himself Dante Rossetti?

It raised the question whether Leighton, who had lived  abroad until this startling debut in London, seen  his own picture - a watercolour study for a larger canvas showing Giotto painting Dante's portrait, with Cimabue looking on.  

This had been exhibited in a watercolour show in London in winter 1852.    Had Leighton seen and noted this, then taken the theme  to outdo it? 

Rossetti was in fact as impressed as anyone.  Viewing it again, he admired 'the great richness of arrangement' and agreed that Leighton was destined for greatness.  He himself was busy with other scenes related to Dante, including a sweetly conceived image of two young women by a fountain, figured as Rachel and Leah from the Purgatorio.  He was enjoying Ruskin's patronage.  But public praise was elusive.

And perhaps the episode was one that helped shape his attitude to ambition, when some while later he told poor James Smetham, who could not rouse himself to confidence, that he lacked ambition, which was not envy, but the simple feeling of rage when others did better, followed by self-analysis and renewed determination.   Rossetti had always been competitive, finding in others' achievements a spur to action.

Rossetti spent the next couple of years deep in medievalism, thanks to Ruskin's misconceived but influential notions on the merits of Gothic architecture, his own discovery of Malory's Morte D'Arthur   and enthusiastic new admirers William Morris and Burne Jones. He seized, or proposed, the opportunity to create a fresco sequence on the upper walls of the Oxford Union debating chamber and when this fizzled into failure he disappeared for nearly a year, spent with Lizzie Siddal in Derbyshire.

Where,  I  suggest, he worked principally on the translations that would appear in the volume Early Italian Poetry from Ciullo d'Alcamo to Dante Alighieri.  This was his literary claim to innovation.  Ruskin promised to subsidise what was a substantial publication.  It may have been well advanced by Rossetti's 30th birthday in May 1858.   One of his father's favourite aphorisms was 'what you don't do at thirty, you never will do'

In autumn 1858, when he returned to London with renewed ambition in visual art, he found the art world had moved on, and Leighton was once more in the vanguard,  of the latest fashion for compelling female portraits in the 'Venetian' courtesan mode.  The new star was a dark-haired Roman model named Anna Risi, or La Nanna.  This was not an entirely new pictorial feature, but it was a departure from  moralising, sentimental and high-minded subjects.

     Whether titled as 'A Roman Lady' (she  looked proud, but every Victorian knew this was no lady)  or 'Pavonia', la Nanna was flavour of the season, and a new challenge. 

Rossetti rose to it,  choosing now to paint in oils and aim for the broad, fluent manner the PRB had reviled.  He found Fanny Cornforth as an appropriately sensuous model, and began the sequence of 'Pre-Raphaelite beauties' that would come to define his art.   

 At the same time, he returned to  Giotto painting Dante, re-drafting the composition to centre on the poet and his coeval Guido Cavalcanti, whose sonnets were key elements in Rossetti's translations, together with an imagined image of Giotto, who has surely borrowed some aspects (nose and full beard) from his latest successor, the painter Frederic Leighton.



Tuesday 21 November 2023

Ignatius Sancho

The conjectural account of Ignatius Sancho's earliest years offered by Prof Brycchan Carey in his talk for the Equiano Society  is extremely plausible and answers one puzzle, that presented by his name.  while Equiano through and after his years of enslavement acquired several names, as was common for such displaced individuals, Sancho  appears to have had only one from the age of around two years - and one that did not change when he was domiciled in Britain - where Ignatius was an unusual appellation.

Enslaved people - boys especially - were often mocked by being given classical names such as Pompey, Caesar, Hector, presumably as a kind of joke, underscoring their utterly powerless status with a heroic comparison.  Ignatius wouldn't work in quite the same way.  In Britain it was a Papist name, from Ignatius Loyola,  founder of the hated Jesuit order which in the early 18th century was still popularly believed to plot to 'return' Britain to Catholicism.  Attached to a friendless African orphan, it also would have a mocking element, which might explain why it was not changed to a more easily pronounceable name for a household servant.

In the preface to the   Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, it is stated  that Sancho  was 'born A. D. 1729, on board a ship in the Slave-trade, a few days after it had quitted the coast of Guinea for the Spanish West-Indies, and, at Carthagena, he received from the hand of the Bishop, Baptism, and the name of Ignatius.   

Starting here, Brycchan Carey posits that the boy was in a shipment of captives  landed at the slave entrepot of Carthagena [now in Colombia]  where the Jesuit order ran the church  and organised mass  baptism for Africans, in a cathedral dedicated to Loyola.  Hence his 'Christian name'.  

Thence he was transported to Cadiz in Spain, another great trading city,  where ships of the British Navy were then able to anchor, and where he was acquired or bought by a young naval officer.  [If the dates are right, he seems a bit young - under three - for this, but maybe it was comparable to acquiring a puppy]  The midshipman was related to sisters living in Greenwich (conjecturally identified as Elizabeth, Susanna and Barbara Legge)  to whom on his return to Britain it is suggested young Ignatius was presented as a gift   According to the Letters preface, these women ' surnamed him Sancho, from a fancied resemblance to the 'Squire of Don Quixote.'    A fanciful name for a black servant who had apparently come from Spain.

Tuesday 7 November 2023

African Hospitality ???


African Hospitality, a painting by George Morland from 1790, was companion piece to the artist's Execrable Human Traffic  known as the Slave Trade.    The latter (RA 1788)  shows African captives forced on onto a slaving ship.  African Hospitality depicts local people rescuing shipwrecked Europeans off the African coast, an imagined scene from an actual event.

Both works were engraved for sale within the nascent campaign to abolish the Slave Trade launched in London in 1787.   Both found their way into the collection of Alexander Dennistoun, a Glasgow merchant with family investments in north American cotton production.   African Hospitality was loaned to the 1857 Art Treasures exhibition in Manchester (#136), together with another Morland canvas listed in the Art Treasures catalogue as ‘The Englishman’s Return for African Hospitality’ (#143)

Having vainly searched for an image of 'The Englishman’s Return' I now assume it was in fact Execrable Human Traffic.  Following the death of Alexander Dennistoun’s son, both paintings were sold as 'African Hospitality' and 'Slave Trade', at Christie's, London, 9 June 1894, lot 43 (33.5 x 47 inches) and lot 44 (32 x 47 inches )  [credit to Donato Esposito - see BM database for images of both engravings]

So I am curious as to how and when the extended title was attached to Execrable Human Traffic specifically accusing the 'English'.