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!

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Rossettifest – the Rossettis at Highgate Cemetery with Dinah Roe

Yesterday, I hopped on the train to attend another talk at Highgate cemetery, this time by Dinah Roe, author of The Rossettis In Wonderland: A Victorian Family History. A great chance to meet up with friends and talk about my favourite thing in the world – the wonderful, strange Rossetti family.

Jan Marsh had advice for Dinah when she embarked upon Wonderland: “Be careful not to let Dante Gabriel run away with the story”. Sure enough, DGR Superstar wasn’t centre stage last night. Instead, Dinah focused on those family members interred at Highgate:

  • Mother Frances, who quoted Byron in her commonplace book and wished her children had been born with a little less genius and a little more common sense.
  • Father Gabriele, revolutionary poet, exile, and prime example of how excessive close-reading under the influence of the Freemasons will do you no good.
  • Daughter Christina, the baby of the family, who struggled with feelings of under-achievement. (What hope is there for the rest of us?)
  • Son William, The Dependable One, who made his mark as Pre-Raphaelite chronicler and a respected critic of art and literature.
  • Daughter-in-law Lizzie Siddal, grudgingly accepted into the family, perhaps only after her death.
  • The three Polidori aunts: Eliza, Charlotte, Margaret. Intimidating, witty and tough.

Italian, exiled, religiously and intellectually radical, the two families were always going to encounter suspicion in Victorian England. Viewing themselves as Londoners first and foremost, they tended to close in on themselves for emotional and creative support, creating an intense environment that makes for a fascinating talk in a pseudo-medieaval chapel whilst sheltering from June rain.

What I enjoyed most about Dinah Roe’s talk, and the book, was that she allows space for the family to be tremendously funny and surprising. It’s all too easy to take a High Romance view of the Rossettis, obscuring their wit and affection. These were, after all, the siblings who liked to roll around on the floor, re-enacting violent deaths from the novels of Walter Scott.

Thanks to William chronicling the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s every move, we know that the critics called Dante Gabriel and the other PRBs ‘young gentlemen with animal faculties morbidly developed by too much tobacco and too little exercise’ – which sounds great – or, in other words, ‘unmanly’. Because being feminine is the absolute worst of the worst, obviously. You might as well be some kind of mollusc.

The unmarried Polidori sisters, on the other hand, were comparatively macho. Wearing threadbare unfashionable dresses, striding across decks, appreciating ‘pretty boys’, and healing the wounded alongside Frances Nightingale, these weren’t women content to sit at home and embroider. I shan’t recount all their adventures here, but if you’re in need of an antidote to the Victorian matriarch – read the book.

I was inordinately pleased to hear the Polidoris getting some attention. John Polly-Dolly Polidori, author of The Vampyr and possibly the first man to deliberately hit Lord Byron with an oar*, is a favourite of mine. He must have been the coolest uncle for a romantically-minded bunch like the Rossetti children. This rather fetching portrait hung in the family home. To be reading Shelley as teenagers and knowing their uncle knew him, bickered with him, and eventually shared a similarly sad, early death, must have been yet another reminder that theirs was a very special family indeed.

The highlight of the evening – and I’m about to betray my geekiness here – was the inclusion of three recipes from the family cookbook. Histrionic Gabriele hated English food, so his wife duly replicated Mediterranean dishes for him throughout their marriage: Macaroni soup (containing a mere 2lb of beef), a cheeseless lemon cheesecake allegedly safe to store for six months, and a sugary rum punch Christina called ‘grog’. If I ever feel like adding diabetes to my list of ailments, I’ll give them a go.

Something interesting happened when the floor was opened to questions. A lady asked a question I’d asked Lucinda Hawksley last time: does anyone know what happened to Lizzie and Dante Gabriel’s stillborn baby? I’ve never found the slightest clue. So, if you know what generally happened to stillborn babies in the mid-Victorian period, chime in.

As always, Highgate is the loveliest possible place to gather for a talk. The staff (who now know my boyfriend and I by name – have we been spending too much time there?**) are friendly and sympathetic to the misguided compulsion that sends guests creeping up the steps to the unstable west cemetery, where you’re as likely to stumble upon a Victorian luminary as get brained by a falling tombstone.

It’s always lovely to meet other PRB enthusiasts, and Dinah Roe was no exception. Especially in the rain, when I was glowing under the influence of one too many £1 glasses of Highgate red wine. The Rossettis will have that effect on you.

* See Benjamin Markovits’ Imposture (Byron Trilogy) for a fictionalised account of John’s adventures.

** I have a thing about visiting Highgate in inclement weather. The first time, on a snowy Valentine’s day out, my boyfriend and I managed to get ourselves locked in after twilight closing time. So, on one hand, we had to lurk around the gate and beg a passing couple to alert the gatekeeper, but, on the other, we now get to reminisce about “the time we were locked into a Victorian necropolis…on Valentine’s day. Sigh.”

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The Girl In The Yard

Lately, I’ve been reading Peter Ackroyd’s The English Ghost: Spectres Through Time, a compendium of hauntings scattered across English history. I love Peter Ackroyd. He is my favourite walrus-shaped historian. I once had a dream in which we were best friends and he’d allow me to lounge around on scatter cushions in his flat at the top of an old London warehouse, reading his tomes while he organised his cravats*.

Being a series of short witness-accounts of strange occurrences, there are a lot of ghosts to take in. Just when I’ve decided on a favourite, Peter Ackroyd presents me with something twice as horrible oozing out of a seventeenth century cupboard and I have to revise my leader-board accordingly. There’s the bodiless entity creeping around Ely, punching people in the side of the head. Then the man in the dripping raincoat, who seems to love being run over on the A38 again and again. And I couldn’t leave out Borley Rectory, the supernatural fire-safety story. Whether you believe in them or not, the history of England is riddled with boggarts, bugs, wraiths, shucks and clabbernappers.

So here’s my contribution.

I was nineteen and living alone in a flat in one of the three-storey Victorian houses on Cambridge’s Chesterton Road. The ceilings were high, the heating was sluggish, and the basement flat – for some unknown and therefore definitely sinister reason – was only ever rented to men. The men had two entrances separate to the main building where the women lived. One was at the front, down a set of steps behind some iron railings, and the other was down another set of steps in the paved yard out the back. It was here that I met my ghost.

It was an old house but it wasn’t a creepy one. I had a room on the ground floor, with a miniature kitchen, a computer desk in the old fireplace nook and a small wall-mounted bookcase with closed sides, packed tightly with books. I never saw the other residents, even in passing, (I kept student hours), but I liked it that way. Only one or two odd occurrences made me pause. The first involved the bookcase.

Quite often, when I came in from my classes at Anglia Ruskin, my books would be on the floor. The one I usually found six feet from my little bookcase was Literary Theory: An Anthology, 1336 pages long, weighing as much as a carrier bag full of sand. If it had slipped off the shelf, it wouldn’t have bounced cheerfully across the carpet for such a distance. But it did, repeatedly, and only while I was out.

This didn’t worry me. My half-serious theory was that some disembodied visitor objected to the cover art – a Victorian surgeon contemplating an inappropriately alluring female corpse – so I’d apologise out loud and place the book back on the shelf. The ‘rearrangements’ kept happening, but they weren’t distressing. I wasn’t expecting a one-to-one audience with a full-body apparition.

As it happened, the afternoon I saw her, I wasn’t alone. My dad had come over from Ipswich to visit, and we were out in the yard. He was subjecting my bike to a bit of no-nonsense-Navy-engineer maintenance. He wanted me to cycle back and forth from classes, but I’m a ditherer, and cycling in a city seems like just another way for me to end up in hospital. My bike had lain dormant for months under a plastic sheet, and dad was grappling with it in the small bike shelter as I loitered a few feet away by the steps leading down to the men’s basement flats.

I don’t know what made me turn around. But when I did, I was facing a young woman holding a tray. Her muscles were in the process of dropping the tray – a kind of frozen flinch – because I’d startled her. Which, I suppose, was natural, as she was a maid in a long blue dress and apron and I was a six-foot vision of the future in drainpipe jeans and smeared eyeliner. She was solid, around five-feet-seven, dark-haired, and her uniform was similar to this unnamed girl’s on the right.

I registered all this within the space of two seconds. There wasn’t time to speak. She was gone. She didn’t disintegrate, or fade, or even just wink out. I can only say that she simply wasn’t there any more.

Rather than the ice-crystals-in-the-blood shock so many people in Peter Ackroyd’s book reported after meeting with ghosts, I felt guilty. I wasn’t frightened, but she most definitely was. I think she must have dropped her tray, whenever the connection faltered and she found herself alone. I turned back to dad, who was still engrossed in my flat tires, and never mentioned the girl to him.

In The English Ghost, Peter Ackroyd describes the categories of hauntings: the conscious souls of the dead, the replaying of actions, nature spirits, omens good or bad… but I believe my ghost wasn’t a ghost at all. I think there was a glitch in time; a window allowing us to see each other. Perhaps the moving books were a symptom of whatever quantum hiccup was focused on the house. It’s fun to speculate, and I especially like the possibility that maybe, just over 100 years ago, a parlour maid rushed back into the scullery after breaking a trayful of china, and told her friends about me – the girl in the yard.

* There’s still time, Peter, if you’re reading this.

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