Fall into the house of Severs – still life drama at 18 Folgate St

severs1The first rule of Dennis Severs’ house is that you do not talk in Dennis Severs’ house.

Not that you’re given a chance to say anything. As we rounded the corner into Spitalfield’s Folgate Street and rang the bell on number 18, the door immediately opened to reveal a composed gentleman in warm winter clothes.

“Is this your first visit to my friend Dennis’ house? Entry is ten pounds. I warn you, there is a mad cat.”

What were we in for? The Californian Dennis Severs moved into Folgate Street in 1979, when the run-down area was attracting colourful types like Gilbert & George. Bypassing frivolities like electricity and modern plumbing, he decorated each of the house’s eleven rooms in the style of a different era, from 1724 to 1914. The aim, or ‘game’ as he put it, was to give the impression the original occupants of the house – the Jervises, a family of Huguenot silk weavers – had just left the room.

Ring the bell, hand over your tenner, and slide into the past.

Photograph by Roelof Bakker

Photograph by Roelof Bakker

The motto of the house, Aut Visum Aut Non (‘you either see it or you don’t’), hints at the ghostly quality of the place. Severs died in 1999. In his Will, he asked the house be kept as it was during his lifetime, still admitting the curious, silent public.

Inside the tall, dimly lit house, you see no ghosts. But you hear them, oh yes. The atmosphere is an entity in itself, following you, touching you. You learn to minimise your movements to avoid the naked flames. You tune into the language of the nibbled scone, the glistening yolk of a cooling boiled egg, the afternoon sherry guiltily abandoned. Upstairs, in the paupers’ room, the collapsing ceiling admits sighs of freezing London air.

“Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.”

Performance art of this kind offers strange intimacy. I was reminded of Punchdrunk’s incredible 2007 production of The Masque of The Red Death in which the audience were given masks and let loose in the industrial cavern that is Battersea Arts Centre. You could rifle through tattered paperwork, watch contortionists getting violently busy on a four-poster bed, or enter a mad puppet show…but you had to remain silent.

moretta

In my mask, I laid eyes on a boy (man? It was so dark, I couldn’t tell), taller than me – rare, as I’m over six foot – lurking in a chamber of piled silks and wools. He beckoned; I unthinkingly obeyed. Without permission, he laid a velvet cloak around my shoulders and slowly fastened the clasp. Was he gorgeous? I don’t know; I never saw more than his eyes, which I stared into with inebriated fascination for far longer than was polite until he laid his hand on my back – a touch! – and moved me on.

That, I think, is the trick of performance art. Like a parasite, it knows your boundaries and wheedles inside. Think of Venetian prostitutes with their Servetta Muta masks held by a bit between the teeth. Anonymity is intimacy.

“Those in the past were also dizzy and dumbstruck”

Severs left a note for us in Mrs Jervis’ pink confection of a rococo dayroom. To experience the house without sensing the long-gone occupants would be “like celebrating the Millennium as a number, without Christ.” It’s safe to say he took his still life drama seriously. But that heavy statement was interesting…

dickensroom“You must forgive the shallow who must chatter,” says another note. We have the Internet, 24 hour news, the telephone with the police on the end waiting for our call. The Severs house recreates the cut-offedness we’ve learned to forget. If you love history, you spend eons inside books offering first person accounts of a moment 100 years old or more, but when you enter the closed atmosphere of 18 Folgate Street, with its strange sounds, strong smells, and unreliable light, you at once feel vulnerable.

But the house is merely a pretty illusion if you aren’t willing to let down your barriers –  a fact brought home by the frequent smacks on the wrist in the form of signs saying, “STOP LOOKING AT INDIVIDUAL OBJECTS/ARE YOU STILL LOOKING AT THE OBJECTS/WELL STOP IT”. The spirit of the age was what Severs wanted to capture, not a cabinet of curiosities. These signs are more off-putting than the small anachronisms such as supermarket labels on the claret bottles. Besides, I like to think they were all part of the game. Where would Hogarth’s revelers get their cheap plonk if they were around today? Sainsbury’s, like the rest of us.

It takes an experience like 18 Folgate Street to illustrate how different we are to our ancestors – and how viscerally similar.

As Severs said:

“You are 100 years old; you are wise.”

Share Button

Rossetti as Subject: ‘Screechy’ Hancock & The Teenage DGR

One of the pleasures to be had from Pre-Raphaelite artworks is spotting the cameo appearances: Millais lying on an ironing board, Fred Stephens ignoring the fairies, or Lizzie Siddal’s hair on Jesus’ head… It’s fascinating to see the individual artists’ stamp on a set of familiar features.

Despite being a compulsive fidget, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was, according to William Holman Hunt, a ‘good-natured’ sitter. His Italianate features appear in many PRB works, and likenesses of him, from sketches dashed off in chop houses to carefully-rendered portraits, often provide an interesting insight into the dynamic of the group at the time.

NPG P1273(56); Dante Gabriel Rossetti by Paul Jonnard, after  John HancockSculptor John Hancock’s 1846 plaster medallion is the earliest known likeness of Rossetti in adulthood. This is the young, dreamy Gabriel Hunt and Stephens remembered shirking classes at the Royal Academy: 18, girlish and moody, with unbrushed ‘elf locks’, and an insouciant air masking rickety self-confidence. Always surrounded by what Hunt called his ‘following of clamorous students’, the adolescent Gabriel wore his poverty with bravado: if you took exception to his unfashionable, mud-spattered clothes, well, you obviously didn’t have a poet’s soul.

John Hancock (not to be confused with the American periwig enthusiast) is one of those fleeting blips on the radar of PRB history. From the glimpses we get of Hancock, it seems he was one of the many little fishes swept up by Gabriel’s net of enthusiasm. (Everyone was a stunning painter! Even if he’d never touched a brush.) Hancock’s young cousin Tom was certainly bewitched by this long-haired teenager bursting with admiration for Shelley and Keats. “How much I owe to listening to his talk at a very impressionable age,” he later wrote.

Like everyone else Gabriel was fond of, Hancock received a ribbing in verse. Here he is, getting on everyone’s nerves at a PRB gathering:

Dante's Beatrice

Dante’s Beatrice by John Hancock

The hop-shop is shut up: the night doth wear.
Here, early, Collinson this evening fell
“Into the gulfs of sleep”; and Deverell
Has turned upon the pivot of his chair
The whole of this night long; and Hancock there
Has laboured to repeat, in accents screechy,
“Guardami ben, ben son, ben son Beatrice”;
And Bernhard Smith still beamed, serene and square.
By eight, the coffee was all drunk. At nine
We gave the cat some milk. Our talk did shelve,
Ere ten, to gasps and stupor. Helpless grief
Made, towards eleven, my inmost spirit pine,
Knowing North’s hour. And Hancock, hard on twelve,
Showed an engraving of his bas-relief.

(Rhyming ‘screechy’ with ‘Bay-ah-tree-chi’ – amazing. Almost as good as ‘wombat’ with ‘flings a bomb at’.)

But not everyone took to Hancock. Gabriel’s brother William described him as ‘an ungainly little man, wizened, with a long thin nose and squeaky voice’. Such venom was possibly because he failed to produce promised funding and content for The Germ. It certainly wasn’t the last time William took the hump with someone who encroached upon his and Gabriel’s twin-like bond – see Lizzie Siddal, Fanny Cornforth etc – but, tantalisingly, we don’t have details.

Unlike the majority of the PRB circle, Hancock had steady financial backing from his family and experienced early success, exhibiting successfully in London and Paris and gaining widespread praise for his lovely plaster statue of Dante’s Beatrice. But something, somewhere, went wrong.

Hancock died of gastric irritation and exhaustion just after Christmas 1869, aged only 41, with just £20 to his name (very roughly, £1400 of today’s money). In his obituary, The Athenaeum lamented: ‘the anticipated progress of the sculptor was somewhat suddenly stayed and not renewed’. We do know that Hancock asked to use the PRB initials, but, for unknown reasons, was never permitted to do so. William alluded to ‘unfortunate circumstances into which it is not my affair to enter’ (but apparently enough of his affair to draw everyone’s attention to in print).

What happened to Hancock between the lovely plaster medallion of the teenage Gabriel and his early death? I’d love to know.

Share Button

When I am queen, I will burn down the castle.

They say that one passion leads to another. Long before I discovered Dante Gabriel Rossetti, I lived in Gormenghast.

Gormenghast

Between school bullies, kidney infections, and the oncoming Iraq war (which, I’d somehow convinced myself, was my fault), the year 2000 was a dismal time to be fourteen. But when the BBC released a four-part adaptation of Gormenghast in time for the Millennium, something shifted. From my hospital bed, I imagined the mauve peaks and crumbling spires of the castle on the horizon. I stopped doing my homework. Mervyn Peake’s Machiavellian fantasy was a safe place to escape to.

I never grew out of it. At my first University graduation, seeing the professors traipsing down the aisles in their gowns and mortar boards, I whispered excitedly to the boy next to me: “This is just like Gormenghast!” He had no idea what I was on about.

Years pass. We grow up, our tastes evolve. I fell out with high fantasy, fell into the nineteenth century. But, over a decade after my first encounter with Gormenghast,  thumbing through my paperback trilogy, something sounded familiar…

Fuchsia-and Steerpike

“A girl of about fifteen with long, rather wild black hair. She was gauche in movement and, in a sense, ugly of face, but with how small a twist might she not suddenly have become beautiful. Her sullen mouth was full and rich – her eyes smouldered. A yellow scarf hung loosely around her neck. Her shapeless dress was a flaming red. For all the straightness of her back she walked with a slouch.”

Oh, hello, Jane Morris.

Jane Morris

For a fourteen-year-old reader, Lady Fuchsia Groan is an easy character to relate and aspire to. Living in isolation where ‘the halls, towers, the rooms of Gormenghast were of another planet’, her response to most things is to run away to her dark attic of storybooks and paintings. She is a petulant child playing Ophelia and Juliet, dying to fall headlong into a world of chivalric romance and adventure.

Fuchsia – in Peake’s own illustrations and his text – has unmistakable similarities to Rossetti’s Jane. Like La Pia, Fuchsia glowers with the lethargic energy of someone who wants to be somewhere else but isn’t sure where. Her unkempt hair and pronounced features give her the ‘unpretty’ Pre-Raphaelite beauty the Victorians were so bothered by. Jane was considered unfortunately unattractive by many. Fuchsia, too.

lapiafuchsiared

There are Pre-Raphaelite echoes in every corner of Gormenghast. Maybe it’s the meeting of the Gothic and the Chivalric, the tragic and the absurd, or Peake’s own network of literary sources including Lewis Carol and The Brothers Grimm. Peake’s childhood in China and later studies at the Royal Academy gave his work a sense of ancientness and the exotic that reminds me of Holman Hunt’s picking and choosing of historical and cultural details. You can see it in The Hall of The Bright Carvings and the almost Tibetan descriptions of the endless corridors and slanting roofs of the castle.

mervynpeakeuptree

Mervyn, acting casual

As a war artist in the 1940s, Peake saw terrible scenes of human cruelty in the rubble of the bombsites and the concentration camps. Perhaps it was only natural to head for the dusty safety of the past.

The BBC adaptation – which I realise is not to every Peake-purist’s taste – is funhouse mirror Pre-Raphaelitism. Nature is vast and unfathomable. Steerpike wheedles his way into Fuchsia’s favour by claiming to be “like the knights of old, your ladyship” only to find he can’t possibly live up to Fuchsia’s fantasies. In John Constable’s later stage show, Fuchsia is even given red hair. (Actual audience comment: “This is horrible. They said it was fantasy. It’s nothing like Harry Potter at all.”)

Fuchsia and Jane

The BBC costumes are luxuriant. Fuchsia starts off as a teenager in a loose red velvet dress embroidered with stars. As she gets older and sadder, her outfits become heavier, more stiffly structured, until she is dragged down into the foaming floodwaters like Ophelia, leaving flowers in her wake.


The costume department referred to some of the same sources the Pre-Raphaelites did – Velázquez and Botticelli – resulting in voluminous layers of fabric and detail (even hazelnuts as buttons!) like a mad dressing-up session in a museum vault. Actress Neve McIntosh would gain two inches in height after taking off Fuchsia’s weighty gowns. Rossetti, with his reams of fabric cluttering up the house, would have loved it.

Lady Gertrude Groan
Excuse the poor quality photograph, but wouldn’t Rossetti have made a great job of this still from the film as a painting? Minus the prosthetic chin.

I wonder if I would have reacted so strongly to the Pre-Raphaelites had I not experienced Gormenghast so young. One good thing leads on to another. What’s next?


Buy The Gormenghast Trilogythe BBC miniseries on DVD, or the fantastic soundtrack by Sir John Tavener who, coincidentally, has Marfans.

Share Button

Share your PRB pictures

Stephanie of preraphaelitesisterhood.com wants your museum pictures! Share them here and enjoy the gallery of starry-eyed loons.

Me and The Bridesmaid

That’s me in the corner. That’s me in the spotlight. Staring down The Bridesmaid.

Share Button

A call for establishment of The International Deverell Defence League

Since I blogged about Walter Howell Deverell’s Twelfth Night, I’ve been wanting to spend a bit more time with the poor doomed boy. So here’s a treat – the study for his ill-fated The Banishment of Hamlet. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was most likely the model for Hamlet.

Walter is mostly remembered as the ‘lost’ Pre-Raphaelite who discovered Lizzie Siddal in a hat shop. Had he accepted full membership into the Brotherhood, he may have been better regarded today, but Walter was the eldest of seven surviving siblings, motherless and later fatherless, too. Linking his name to a controversial gang of artistic upstarts seemed like another way to make life difficult for him and his dependants. As such, he tends to be relegated to a walk-on character in the story of Rossetti’s love-life.

By all accounts, Walter was a nice young thing, and highly sought-after as a model among the PRB. He was especially close to Rossetti, cackling over clueless patrons in the rooms they rented together in Red Lion Square – purportedly so dingy that Walter’s doctor was moved to pat Rossetti on the head and mutter “poor boys, poor boys”.

Looking like a Victorian Johnny Depp, Walter had a mildly-exaggerated reputation for driving girls to distraction, although his infamous comment about PRB standing for “penis rather better” was probably in reference to the constant pain he would have suffered with the Bright’s Disease that eventually killed him, aged 26. Having had acute pyelonephritis aged 14, I can attest to its utter mind-bending awfulness, which is one of the reasons I feel so sympathetic towards poor old Walter.

The Banishment of Hamlet was doomed from the beginning, receiving a typically venomous Athenaeum review:

Hamlet himself, in spite of his being perched upon a square box in the gawky, shrinking attitude of a delinquent school-boy, might, with an effort, be allowed to pass as not wholly un-Shakespearian; but his yellow, pink, and blue majesty Claudius, who pokes towards his nephew in a withering attitude – copied, perchance, from the Bayeux Tapestry – is.

The painting was roundly abused when it appeared at the National Institution in 1851, went unsold, and then, depending on the source, was either blown up in a gas accident or lost in a fire. The study above resides in the Ashmolean under another name, making it difficult to trace.

William Michael Rossetti penned a kinder review*, praising the prince’s moodiness in the same terms he reserved for descriptions of his brother around the same time:

There is a certain brooding indolence in his whole figure; irresolution is shown in the movement of his hand, and mingles even with the settled scorn of his eyes.

The ‘delinquent school-boy’ attitude of Walter’s Hamlet may well have been inspired by his friend’s air of insouciance; his habit of pulling his sleeves down over his hands and flicking his long fingernails when nervous. The painting certainly seems to have been the subject of jokes between the pair as seen in these cartoons by Rossetti in which the lads’ Irish patron MacCracken erupts with delight at the sight of something that looks an awful lot like Walter’s Hamlet:

‘The long expected Deverell, arriving at length/ find M’C laid up with the sickness of/hope deferred. Owing to an unfortunate error/of packing, the patient is strongly excited on seeing it/and there seems every reason to fear the worst.’ – DGR’s caption

There are lots of these over on The Rossetti Archive, suggesting that Hamlet’s unsaleability was a source of humour rather than anguish. Indeed, Walter exhibited a strange, fatalistic disinterest in the way no one seemed to want his pictures.

Rossetti and Deverell sip wine and snigger as MacCracken reacts in typically understated fashion.

I love the way Rossetti always depicts himself as scruffy and round-shouldered next to Deverell’s rather natty figure. Perhaps the ‘delinquent school-boy’ comment appealed to his sense of humour, or perhaps it was a gentle dig at Walter’s popularity with the girls.

The Dauphin Of France, camping it up bigtime

It’s a shame that Walter has become a footnote in Rossetti and Siddal’s relationship. There’s a sweetness to his surviving paintings that I find refreshing. Pretty girls pose with pretty birds, and Shakespearean characters totter about in pointy shoes and bright tunics like tableaus from a child’s picturebook. It would be easy to write them off as twee, and perhaps that’s precisely what happened, but I think Walter may have sought out idyllic scenes on purpose, what with the stress of his family responsibilities, the purgatives prescribed for Bright’s Disease, and the eventual realisation that he wasn’t going to make it. His poetry, published in The Germ, betrays a troubled frame of mind:

The Sight Beyond.

Though we may brood with keenest subtlety,
Sending our reason forth, like Noah’s dove,
To know why we are here to die, hate, love,
With Hope to lead and help our eyes to see
Through labour daily in dim mystery,
Like those who in dense theatre and hall,
When fire breaks out or weight-strained rafters fall,
Towards some egress struggle doubtfully;
Though we through silent midnight may address
The mind to many a speculative page,
Yearning to solve our wrongs and wretchedness,
Yet duty and wise passiveness are won, —
(So it hath been and is from age to age) —
Though we be blind, by doubting not the sun.

Walter died on the 2nd of February 1854. He only sold one painting in his lifetime.

Rossetti wrote to Ford Madox Brown: “He had been told in the morning that he could not live through the day and he appeared to receive the announcement without emotion or surprise, saying he supposed he was man enough to die”.

It was the first big loss of Rossetti’s life. “I have none left who I love better, and I doubt whether any who loves me so well,” he wrote to Walter’s family. By 1870, he was still trying to sell The Banishment of Hamlet to raise funds for Walter’s surviving family. If he had succeeded, perhaps we would still have it today.

*It has been argued this was DGR writing under WMR’s name, but I’m going to trust the original citation for the time being.

Share Button

Nudity, holy dirt, and bone-picking at Kelmscott Manor

“I am inclined to think that sort of thing is mostly rubbish” – William Morris, on his own work.

I managed to crawl my way out of last week’s all-pervading October fog – Dickensian or Hitchcockian, depending on the monsters looming out of it – to get to the Edward Burne-Jones exhibition at Kelmscott Manor.

The Body Beautiful: Burne-Jones At Work, was partly a goodwill gesture on behalf of The Tate, who carefully dismantled William Morris’ Kelmscott bed and took it to London for the Pre-Raphaelite: Victorian Avant-Garde show*. To be honest, I was expecting the Tate’s rejects. (“We’re having Love Among The Ruins. You can have this teacup.”) But the collection of hazy nudes and tactile studies, although small, was well worth the three-hour drive from Cambridge.

“It’s so flat that to see anything is not easy, and when you do see it, it isn’t worth seeing” – Rossetti, indulging in a grump.

For those of you who haven’t ventured out into the wilds of Lechlade to William Morris’ earthly paradise, let me first explain that Kelmscott exists inside a cosmic bubble. The modern world has been kept at such a distance, you can comfortably believe it no longer exists. The house and surrounding farm buildings have been preserved as sensitively as possible, encouraging visitors to see it as a home and not a museum. The weather is constantly mellow and glorious, and the carpark and the cafe are minor details – you can convince yourself that Morris has just pootled off to Iceland, and Jane is probably embroidering in the next room.

The illusion is compounded by little domestic details unfettered by velvet ropes. Rossetti’s satinwood writing desk (on wheels!) is so dinky, I wouldn’t get my legs under it. The general smallness of the house’s Victorian occupants was especially apparent in Morris’ overcoat, hanging from a door in the same room. Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Paris says the label, as if fresh off the catwalks. You can imagine him bustling about in it.

And then, upstairs…

The Body Beautiful: Burne-Jones at Work  

What I love about Burne-Jones’ nudes, especially the females, is their long, cold, anatomical beauty. There’s a sickliness about them I enjoy.

Of the small collection of studies, especially striking was the snake-necked Disiderium, the head of Amorous Desire, as dangerous as she is gorgeous. While some of the sketches looked scratched out and hurried, Disiderium oozes off the paper with the same anthropomorphic sensuousness present in Beguiling Merlin. More ‘the body bewitching’ than ‘the body beautiful’.

Woman In An Interior features Rossetti’s cockney darling, Fanny Cornforth, looking hard as nails. She wasn’t invited to stay at Kelmscott with him, strangely enough. I like her masculinity, here. Many men in Rossetti’s circle were mildly afraid of her, despite her being, by most accounts, a cheerful presence.

It’s a shame the exhibition was so little-publicised, because fans of Ned would really have loved this, especially given the extraordinary setting.

 

The certain secret thing he had to tell

Some of Rossetti’s worst illness and addiction was played out at Kelmscott, so it’s a sad place as much as a lovely one. When I last visited, I was in the midst of post traumatic stress disorder, and it was easy to see how the landscape of flat, marshy fields and slowly-flowing streams could be as much a help as a hindrance to someone suffering from an untreated mental illness. May Morris remembered him in his black cloak, “tramping away doggedly” across the landscape alone.

Jane, whose collected letters were published this month, doesn’t get much in the way of a ‘voice’ in comparison to the men at Kelmscott. Her job is muse. Embroiderer. In the dining room, I tried to imagine her as Burne-Jones described her at nineteen, laughing “until, like Guinevere, she fell under the table”, and found I couldn’t. Amusingly, on her bedside table today are the collected letters of noted drunkard and amateur sadist Algernon Swinburne, open on a page extolling “cannibalism as a wholesome and natural method of diet”. Oh, Algie, you card.

It’s amazing I ever got back in the car.

I have a bone to pick with The Society of Antiquaries.

Rossetti’s bombsite of a paintbox resides upstairs in the tapestry room he commandeered for the light. In hilarious contrast to Millais’ pristine palette, Rossetti’s paintbox looks like something you’d find at the bottom of a skip. All his squeezed tubes (missing their tops, naturally) are congealed together in a shallow tin box encrusted with lead drippings, studio detritus, and a sort of greenish, yellowish coating of grotesquery and rust.

It’s gorgeous.

The room attendant, who very tolerantly said, “I’m touched you react that way” when I basically had a fit of the vapours over the thing explained the paintbox is a conservationist’s nightmare. Like Beata Beatrix, which was restored in time for The Tate, the paintbox contains a certain amount of ‘holy dirt’: original detritus from Rossetti’s studio. The trick is to separate the holy dirt from the decades of accumulated filth and decay without damaging the artefact. The trouble is, they haven’t started the process yet. And from the sounds of it, there are no plans to.

I wish I could share a photograph of it here, but photography is strictly forbidden. There are no postcards of the paintbox either, and because it isn’t labeled, half the visitors are walking by it without ever knowing what it is.

I feel the need to start a campaign. Look here, Society of Antiquaries, print some postcards, and put the proceeds towards protecting that precious paintbox!

* Before any Morris fans worry, the crew photographed each step of the disassembly, so not a single tiny, precious screw will be forgotten when the bed eventually returns.

Share Button

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at Tate Britain

I spent yesterday trapped in a gridlock of uncomfortably warm bodies amongst the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Yes, it was as fantastic as it sounds.

This post isn’t going to be remotely succinct or clever. I just want to gush. I loved it. So many of my favourite things in one place. And having the opportunity to sit and chat with fellow PRB-lovers afterwards was just terrific.

Kirsty Stonell Walker of ‘The Kissed Mouth’ and I, modelling Doc Martens, the unofficial footwear of PRB-admirers everywhere.

A lot has been said in the press recently, some more sensible than the rest. There’s been the obligatory game of Hunt The Phallus, and general moaning about how the PRB would have been so much better if they’d just dropped a shark into a tank of formaldehyde. But were the PRB truly Avant-Garde?

I come at the PRB from a literature point of view. My MA focused on Rossetti’s cycles of desire and denial in The House of Life. So although I know a fair bit about the PRB’s visual art, the wider subject of Avant-Garde isn’t something I feel I can comment on.

However, I can give my top five moments:


5. I saw Rienzi. It was blue. So blue. Hunt’s colours are so  psychedelic and trippy – mountains are purple, flesh is orange, goats are bizarre and terrifying. His work has to be seen to be fully experienced.

4. The passion flowers in Rossetti’s The Blue Bower were like glossy photographs. As Edward Burne-Jones said, Rossetti somehow makes everything look as if it’s under glass, though he swore he didn’t use glaze.

3. Rossetti’s Paulo and Francesca da Rimini. Strangely washed-out and chalky compared to the print on my wall. Francesca’s incredibly long hair has the texture of real long, fine hair in contrast to the lustrous thickness of the hair in his later work.

2. Speaking of lustrous hair, Rossetti’s teenage self-portrait was hung in the first room to lure in all the ladies.

1. Walter Howell Deverell’s Twelfth Night. I hadn’t allowed myself to read spoilers about the exhibition, so turning a corner and seeing this was a huge surprise. I was so happy for him.

You see, poor Deverell had no luck.  So handsome (that’s him in the middle and Rossetti on the right) and so promising a talent, his work was badly hung at the RA, his The Banishment of Hamlet was later destroyed in a gas explosion, and he died of kidney disease and dysentery three months after his 26th birthday.

Deverell’s decline and death hit Rossetti hard. One of the last times Rossetti visited him, “[Deverell] rose up in bed as I was leaving and kissed me, and I thought then that he began to believe that his end was near”.

The whole story is so sad. It was good to see him represented.

I had a few small criticisms, but only on the understanding that the exhibition was wonderful and I’ll probably go back at least twice.

Of course, there were pieces I was dying to see that weren’t included. Julia Margaret Cameron’s Pomona, for one: Alice Liddell, all grown up and threateningly beautiful. And I’m always hoping for a second viewing of a lock of Rossetti’s hair, which I saw at the Fitzwilliam a few years ago (alongside Keats’ hair!) – a sight I never fully recovered from.

I did feel that the show could have been organised differently. It was a mammoth undertaking and difficult to tackle, but I felt that the different facets of the Pre-Raphaelite circle needed their own space. There was an element of jumbling that was interesting for people with prior understanding of the PRB, but perhaps confusing for those coming in cold.

I think the problem in creating an entire PRB exhibition is that you’re dealing with so many people who all evolved dramatically in taste and execution over a period of decades. So you’ve got Rossetti offering tiny jewel-toned watercolours in one room, and then massive red-lipped vampiric creatures in the next. You want to ask what happened.

Perhaps a clearer linear structure could have added something. For instance, ‘this is what they hated, here’s how they banded together, here’s how they evolved and the legacy they left’. I also would have loved to have seen at least part of the manifesto emblasoned somewhere, because everyone loves a good manifesto.

I dare you to open that fridge door.

And then there was the gift shop. The £25 strings of plastic beads would have left William Morris reeling. Expensive satchels and striped scarves were very nice but had nothing to do with the PRB. We were hoping for a bit more effort. Having said that, my life has been enriched by the possession of a Scapegoat fridge magnet.

Overall, though, what an overwhelming experience. Next up, Edward Burne-Jones at Kelmscott!

Share Button

“Madam, I am not an ‘ite’ of any kind.”

In later life, Rossetti liked to shrug off his connection to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. To admirers, he gently dismissed the whole movement as “the visionary vanities of half a dozen boys.”

To which I say “pah!”, because tomorrow is the 164th anniversary of the formation of The Brotherhood – #PRBday on Twitter – and, unlike Claret Day, the celebration is officially sanctioned by The Pre-Raphaelite Society and not simply another excuse to drink red wine and look louche.

This is the autumn of the PRB. My date with The Tate is looming. I’ll be meeting up with Kirsty of The Kissed Mouth and Robyne of Artistic Dress on the first Saturday to empty the Tate’s shop of frighteningly expensive fridge magnets. Then, in October, it’s straight to Kelmscott Manor for the little-advertised Edward Burne-Jones exhibition which will probably prove my undoing.

I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, but… The Tate has Holman Hunt’s Rienzi (full title Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions – what were you thinking, Hunt, honestly?) which was on my wall for five years when I was a student and has been hidden away in a private collection for the entire span of my life. Rossetti modeled for the hero, hence the flying saucer eyes and the my-uncle-knew-Lord-Byron-actually hair. That’s Millais, dead on the ironing board. If I can get a long, clear look at it, I’ll be happy for years.

How will you celebrate PRB Day? Catch me on Twitter and vote for your favourite painting using #PRBday. I will be baking a cake in honour of great art.

Share Button

Slap a catalogue number on me, Henry.

Is there anything better than perusing glossy photographs of artificial limbs and trepanned skulls over one’s breakfast? I think you’ll find there isn’t.

This week, I won a copy of the Wellcome Collection’s brand new ‘Guide For The Incurably Curious’.

Wellcome is my favourite museum. If you have the slightest interest in wunderkammer, it’s a playground. The perfect balance of the medical, the historical, the scientific and the artistic, lovingly founded by Victorian philanthropist Henry Wellcome. Look upon his facial hair and tremble.

I’ve spent birthdays there, handling live leeches and drinking gin. I’ve seen Mexican miracle paintings there, verdigris mediaeval skeletons, and glass acorns for warding off lightning strikes. Once, an attendant saw how excited my friends and I were and fetched us goodie bags complete with wearable cardboard moustaches.

Science museums can feel unfriendly to artsy types, but at the Wellcome, the two disciplines interact. Upstairs, in the cool white Medicine Now room, slides of organs are displayed alongside barmy art (there’s a giant purple jellybaby as a metaphor for human cloning). Downstairs, in the darker, more anthropological Medicine Man room, you’ll find a wall of antique forceps and some beautifully detailed glass eyes which could easily be items of jewellery or sculpture. Plus, there’s a Bosch painting, and everyone loves a good Bosch.

But I think what I love the most about the Wellcome Collection is that, in a manner of speaking, I’m in it.

I have Marfan syndrome. The National Marfan Foundation explains:

Marfan syndrome is a disorder of the connective tissue.

Connective tissue holds all parts of the body together and helps control how the body grows.  Because connective tissue is found throughout the body, Marfan syndrome features can occur in many different parts of the body.

Marfan syndrome features are most often found in the heart, blood vessels, bones, joints, and eyes. Sometimes the lungs and skin are also affected.  Marfan syndrome does not affect intelligence.

Specifically, Marfans is caused by a kink in the fifteenth chromosome. So imagine the surreal excitement I felt when I turned a corner in the Wellcome Collection and came across this:

There it is. The Human Genome Project, chapter 15, subheading ‘Verity’s Wonky Genes’. I took it from the shelf with both hands. Buried amongst the reams and reams of baffling code inside was the string of glyphs that spelled out Marfan Syndrome.

Only one in five-thousand people have Marfans. The syndrome will generally make you around six feet tall and willowy in build, with exceptionally long, spidery fingers and toes. You may have a curvature of the spine or an uneven ribcage, and you can probably bend your thumbs into strange angles. Abraham Lincoln probably had it, as did Jonathan Larson, Joey Ramone, and, I strongly suspect, Lux Interior of The Cramps.

Marfans can affect you in all sorts of strange, annoying, sometimes life-threatening ways. Individual Marfs differ. As for me, I’m well looked-after by good doctors. I pace myself, I watch my diet and try not to be a stubborn ass when it comes to clinging to the barrier at Morrissey concerts or vigorous charity shopping the weekend after minor heart surgery. (Although holding hands with Morrissey and acquiring an antique nursing chair for £10 were worth the resulting drama).

One of the things about having an unusual health problem is that you can end up feeling alienated. That’s why I love the Wellcome Collection. Things that could be clinical or morbid, like Jennifer Sutton viewing her old heart after her successful transplant, are greeted with curiosity and joy.

It’s an ambition of mine to get Marfans into the Wellcome more prominently. Short of standing in the entrance hall with a sign on me, I don’t know how to raise awareness. I’m not quite ready to donate my hands. But it’s a syndrome that really lends itself to art. Maybe I can use my nonexistent artistic ability to chop up my MRIs in a nice lightbox, or draw an Edward Gorey-esque bunch of spidery fingers. Or, better still, persuade someone  who actually knows what they’re doing to put Marfans in front of the lens, like Alexa Wright’s ‘After Image’ series.

Where’s an artist when you need one?

Share Button


It’s been one of those summers.

I took a short writing holiday at the end of last month. There were graphs and coloured pens and a real teapot. Strictly no gin, and no Internet – serious stuff. During those four days, I rediscovered the immense mental health benefits of just knuckling down and doing the one thing in life you truly want to do. Surprisingly, I also came to appreciate how the everyday commitments that keep you from writing can be useful. The frustration steels your determination. There must be a proverb to that effect floating around. Probably by Hafiz.

The result is that the novel is so much closer to completion and I’m so much more buoyant about life in general. And also petrified. I’m human.

On the subject of terror and joy, today is exactly one month away from my visit to the Tate’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. How am I going to contain myself in the gift shop? What am I going to wear? How am I going to stop myself from standing in front of a minor sketch with my hand clamped over my mouth, whimpering “isn’t it just the most wonderful thing in the world?” like I did to some poor man at the Fitzwilliam who was just trying to be friendly by pointing out the extra piece of paper Rossetti had glued on to extend Alexa Wilding a few inches.

“[Rossetti] did not sleep, and neither did he compose himself to rest, though the lamps of the carriage were darkened by their shades. During the greater part of the night he sat up in an attitude of waiting, wearing overcoat and hat and gloves, as if our journey were to end at the next stopping place.” – Hall Caine, Recollections of Rossetti.

You and me both, DGR. See you in London!

Share Button