Wend It Like William – The Morris Pilgrimage with Curiocity

MorrisBJChaucer2Whilst fully admitting it feels as if I left both my legs somewhere in Greenwich, this weekend’s Curiocity Pre-Raphaelite Pilgrimage was a great (and exhausting, oh good God, exhausting) way to spend a Saturday.

Beginning at Southwark at The George Inn, an original coaching inn close to the site where Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims would have set off, we embarked on a thirteen mile trek to William Morris’ Red House in Bexleyheath, an ‘escape from the city’ taking in the green spaces and lesser-travelled highways of the London Morris would have known.

Coffee in hand, we were packed off with a retelling of The Wife of Bath and the encouragement to tell stories and mingle along the way.

 

In th’ olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
The elf-queene, with hir joly compaignye,
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede.
This was the olde opinion, as I rede;
I speke of manye hundred yeres ago.
But now kan no man se none elves mo

The Pilgrim’s Passport

We wended our way across the city, thanks to chips and cider, a lot of laughter, and some wonderful sights on the way: the grave of Christopher Marlowe in Deptford (topped with a fresh-cut red rose), storytelling in the Queen’s Orchard following a sudden rainstorm, and seeing the brown guts of the Thames bared at low tide, where the mudlarks and toshers would once have rooted for valuables – the modernity Morris sought to flee, and the history that made up the landscape of his imagination.

(This got me thinking. An equivalent Rossetti pilgrimage might involve a nocturnal wander through Chelsea, the ransacking of a Whitechapel antique shop, and a good cry on the floor. Another Saturday, perhaps.)

Back at Red House in time for folk music and a further dose of cider, we had our polaroids taken by the front door as proof of survival. Yes, we all brought wombats. We are serious scholars.

prbpolaroid2 At the same time, across London, 300 people were arrested at an EDL rally. We were reminded that for every person generating cruelty and ugliness there is more than one devoted to beauty and equality.

“All we true people must make up our minds – if we don’t see – to feel each other – & never let go. Else the wicked ones will have it all their way.” – John Ruskin

Seeing those newly-uncovered murals for the first time was as exciting as we knew it would be. There’s what could well be Morris’ first repeating floral pattern, as well as two wombats (verified by John Simon, author of Rossetti’s Wombat and world authority on that most noble of marsupials) snuggled up at a wedding feast. To think, someone covered it all in white emulsion on purpose.

“I am too blind and sick to know what I am about,” wrote Lizzie Siddal, working on something within the house. Seeing these collaborative works in the flesh, you really feel what a joint effort the place was, and though, as our guide said, the wildly clashing patterns give the impression that the artists were cheerfully tonguing LSD, the excitement and the love of the time shines through.

“You realise they were all in their early twenties when they did this?” grinned the lovely lady who served us tea. “Sickening, isn’t it?”

morrisbadge

Si je puis – ‘If I can’, or, paraphrased by Rossetti ‘as I can’t’.

Many thanks to Red House and the people at Curiocity for creating such a challenging and enjoyable day out.

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Vote for your favourite on #PRBday

September the 8th is PRB Day – your annual chance to vote for your favourite Pre-Raphaelite painting. This year is extra-special, being The Pre-Raphaelite Society’s 25th anniversary.

Founded in September 1988 (I was two!), the Society’s Review remains a great source of information and discussion – keeping the PRB as fresh and relevant as the day half a dozen boys got together in Millais’ living room and wondered if ‘brotherhood’ would make them sound like the clergy.

Last year, I voted for the 1860 Regina Cordium. I love the way Lizzie’s red beads cascade over her sickly green flesh; the queen of hearts languishing in a respiratory clinic.

Regina-cordium-1860

Tweet @PreRaphSoc with the hashtag #PRBDay and vote for your favourite Pre-Raphaelite painting. Last year’s winner was Millais’ Ophelia, but I think we can do better than that, don’t you? (Child genius = basically cheating, right?)

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Sound the Important Artistic Discovery Klaxon

Excuse me while I let the Red House press release do the talking. I’m busy gnawing the furniture with excitement.

Remarkable wall painting by Pre-Raphaelite artists is uncovered at home of William Morris

For years, two figures painted on a wall and concealed behind a cupboard at the former home of William Morris were believed to have been the work of a single artist.

Now, major conservation work has uncovered an entire wall painting which experts believe is by William Morris and friends, all of whom were important Pre-Raphaelite artists.

Red House in Kent, owned by the National Trust, was the home of Morris between 1860 and 1865. Regular visitors were Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal, Edward Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown.

At different times, the friends helped Morris to decorate walls, ceilings and items of furniture at the house with colourful wall paintings and decorative patterns inspired by their love of the medieval past.

After Morris left Red House, until the Trust acquired it in 2003, it remained in private ownership. As tastes changed, much of his original decoration was covered over with panelling, wallpaperor paint.

The bedroom wall painting had been hidden for years behind a fitted wardrobe and covered with wallpaper and until this year only two indistinct figures were visible.

Following generous funding, the Trust has been able to undertake conservation which has uncovered the complete painting, measuring six feet by eight feet. The painting, designed for what had been Morris and his wife Jane’s bedroom, depicts Biblical characters: the figures of Adam and Eve (with the serpent), Noah (holding a miniature ark), Rachel and Jacob (with a ladder) and is designed to resemble a hanging tapestry with the illusion of folds.

beforeafterconservation

Before restoration and (nearly) after. Magic.

It is not known for certain which artist painted which figure, and further research and analysis will be undertaken.

Jan Marsh, author and President of the William Morris Society said: “The concept of the overall design was almost certainly by Morris. Our initial thoughts are that the figure of Jacob was by Morris, Rachel possibly by Elizabeth Siddal, Noah by Madox Brown. But who painted Adam and Eve? Maybe Rossetti or Burne-Jones?”

wombatmural

There’s even a wombat snuggled up under a chair.

James Breslin, House Manager at Red House said:

“The early years at Red House were a flowering of ideas and creativity for Morris, who encouraged his friends to help him design a home uniquely medieval in feel. To uncover such a remarkable example of this early decoration has been so exciting.

“As we uncover more and more of those original schemes, we have been delighted that our visitors today have been able to share in these discoveries, and see the conservation in action, every step of the way.”

If the thought of incredible collaborative artworks hiding behind wallpaper makes you foam at the mouth, there’s still time to reserve your place at the Pre-Raphaelite Pilgrimage on the 7th of September – a thirteen-mile Chaucerian trek from The George Inn on London’s Borough High Street to Red House. You don’t even have to walk it, and there will be beer. I, for one, might need it.

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Ken Russell’s Dante’s Inferno: “Let’s go stunner-hunting!”

After casting Sean Bean in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I can forgive Ken Russell of almost any sin. Even Dante’s Inferno. Most of it.

Through a psychedelic ’60s lens, with the Pre-Raphaelite circle portrayed as drink-mad, cemetery-defiling pyromaniacs on top of all the usual Russell weirdness, Dante’s Inferno the only film I’ve ever awoken at dawn for, snarling over the final seconds of the auction: “It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s the only DVD copy I’ve ever seen anywhere, and it’s mine…”

Now, someone thoughtful has uploaded the whole wacky display to YouTube, so you can enjoy it as much as I did all those years ago, alone in my flat, wondering what on Earth I’d allowed into my life.

Don’t expect a history lesson. Do expect drunken bicycle jousting, zombie Lizzie Siddal, and Oliver Reed playing himself. No, it isn’t sensitive. But if you’ve ever seen the schlocky ’70s horror Burnt Offerings, you can’t really dislike Reed. My late Auntie Ann used to drink with him, and maintained he was a gentleman. He’s not a bad likeness of Rossetti, physically; dark and languid in layer upon layer of shabby Victorian tailoring. Jan Marsh has a chapter on the film in her excellent book The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal. She calls Reed ‘solid but smouldering’.

Leave me alone - I'm brooding.

Leave me alone – I’m smouldering, solidly.

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 15.45.00

Topsy and Janey, experiencing an approximation of married bliss.

Judith Paris as Lizzie Siddal. Again, quite a good likeness.

Judith Paris as Lizzie Siddal. Again, quite a good likeness.

Swinburne, getting overly-friendly with the Oxford dead. You cannot take him anywhere.

…and Swinburne, getting overly-friendly with the Oxford dead. You cannot take him anywhere.

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MAY 5 – CLARET

Rossetti, taking a sip in Millais' Isabella.

Rossetti, taking a sip in Millais’ Isabella.

The forth annual Claret Day is here, Victorianists. Settle down with a bottle of red, and take part in this tradition of immense poetical gravity.

(I made it up a few years ago after reading a cryptic comment in Rossetti’s notebook in the British Library.)

Bonus points if you involve a certain marsupial. The good people at Red House have joined the #WombatFriday malarky, so now it’s officially sanctioned.

So, on the subject of DGR and intoxication…

fortuneteller

The Card-Dealer
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Could you not drink her gaze like wine?
Yet though its splendour swoon
Into the silence languidly
As a tune into a tune,
Those eyes unravel the coiled night
And know the stars at noon.

The gold that’s heaped beside her hand,
In truth rich prize it were;
And rich the dreams that wreathe her brows
With magic stillness there;
And he were rich who should unwind
That woven golden hair.

Around her, where she sits, the dance
Now breathes its eager heat;
And not more lightly or more true
Fall there the dancers’ feet
Than fall her cards on the bright board
As ’twere an heart that beat.

Her fingers let them softly through,
Smooth polished silent things;
And each one as it falls reflects
In swift light-shadowings,
Blood-red and purple, green and blue,
The great eyes of her rings.

Whom plays she with? With thee, who lov’st
Those gems upon her hand;
With me, who search her secret brows;
With all men, bless’d or bann’d.
We play together, she and we,
Within a vain strange land:

A land without any order,—
Day even as night, (one saith,)—
Where who lieth down ariseth not
Nor the sleeper awakeneth;
A land of darkness as darkness itself
And of the shadow of death.

What be her cards, you ask? Even these:—
The heart, that doth but crave
More, having fed; the diamond,
Skilled to make base seem brave;
The club, for smiting in the dark;
The spade, to dig a grave.

And do you ask what game she plays?
With me ’tis lost or won;
With thee it is playing still; with him
It is not well begun;
But ’tis a game she plays with all
Beneath the sway o’ the sun.

Thou seest the card that falls,—she knows
The card that followeth:
Her game in thy tongue is called Life,
As ebbs thy daily breath:
When she shall speak, thou’lt learn her tongue
And know she calls it Death.

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The strange, corporeal afterlife of James Legg

If you were lucky enough to catch Doctors, Dissection, and Resurrection Men at the Museum of London, you’ll remember this fellow…

James_Legg

This is murderer James Legg. In 1801, the 80-year-old Legg challenged a fellow pensioner, Lamb, to a duel. When Lamb refused, throwing the pistol to the ground, Legg did the ungentlemanly thing and shot him anyway. Although apparently well-received in the courtroom, not to mention the ramifications of his advanced age and plea of insanity, Legg was sentenced to be hanged on the 2nd of November, and his body dissected.

Meanwhile, sculptor Thomas Banks and painters Benjamin West and Richard Cosway had always wondered if artistic representations of Christ’s crucifixion were anatomically correct. How they justified this is a mystery (“It’s for art, dears, art”) but surgeon Joseph Constantine Carpue apparently saw no moral issue with procuring the hanged Legg’s body fresh from the gallows and crucifying it in situ. The four men created two casts, one with skin on, one with skin off. The casts were moved to Banks’ London studio, where they attracted much attention from the curious public before being displayed for art students in the Royal Academy.

The ‘experiment’ still brings up uncomfortable questions about ownership and consent. But awfulness aside, the cast is incredible, and enormous. Legg must have been an imposing young man if he were that size at 80. The photograph is somehow more dreadful than viewing it in person. Perhaps it was the low light of the exhibition, or the woman sat at his feet, sketching, but I found it rather beautiful.

When I first set eyes on James Legg’s plaster remains and learned of his strange corporeal afterlife in the RA, I hoped Dante Gabriel Rossetti would have seen him. The student Rossetti hated drawing from sculptures in the same way most of us hated doing our times tables, but this is the boy who, dismayed by the sight of cancan dancers’ petticoats, took William Holman Hunt to a Parisian morgue to view a drowned man. On holiday. For fun. (He was a pleasant traveling companion, wrote Hunt, for certain values of pleasant.)

I think he would have loved James Legg.

Rossetti’s prolonged phase of reveling in the macabre produced some amusing works and letters: the ballad Jan Van Hunks about a smoking contest against the devil (DGR never smoked), general delight in ‘stunner’ murderesses and all things Poe. A cast of a flayed murderer would probably have persuaded him to pay more attention in class.

Playing card, 1840

Look at this jaunty little Death, done in 1840. Note the odd leg bones. It was never meant to be a serious anatomical study, but the disregard for details is there. “I have nearly finished studying the bones,” he wrote to Mamma Francis in 1843, ” and my next drawing will most probably be an anatomy-figure.” He sounds bored to tears.

Sadly, the cast of James Legg was removed from the RA in 1822, seven years before Rossetti was born, and only returned in 1917, thirty-five years after his death, when it narrowly avoided being blown up by a zeppelin bomb.

In light of their commitment to realism and the religious nature of so many Pre-Raphaelite paintings, it is tantalising to wonder how the PRB would have reacted to such a ‘teaching aid’, had it been available.

Although Rossetti would probably argue, it doesn’t matter how accurate the cast – it’s the soul of the thing that matters.

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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.

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The Wombat is a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness!

Wombat Friday

Wombie the World-Travelling Wombat looks nervous in the face of so much arsenic and adultery.

I emerge from a week of sinus infection horror raring to plough through the pile of books I’ve accrued and to – finally! – take part in #WombatFriday with the rest of the Victorianists on Twitter.

If you’re unaware of the long and illustrious saga of the noble marsupial in art history, pick up a copy of Rossetti’s Wombat: Pre-Raphaelites and Australian Animals in Victorian London and enjoy the account of Rossetti’s wombat, Top, plodding up to Ruskin (in mid-flow on the subject of communal artistic living as a means of saving humanity) to snuggle between his coat and waistcoat. Ruskin, being British and not the host, carried on “wring[ing] his hand and soul” as though nothing was happening.

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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.

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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.

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