Pre-Raphs in Space

I’m surfacing for a brief moment as I haven’t blogged properly for yonks, and with Pseudotooth coming out next month I need to make it look like I’m alive.

Those who know me are well aware of my weakness for Beautiful Tragic Dead Boys. This means I frequently get gifts of antique photographs to hang on my wall where I can imagine the anonymous subjects were thwarted poets who died at sea. We all have our preferences.

Rejoice: I have a new Beautiful Tragic Dead Boy. Nils Asther was beamed down to earth in 1897 by the same aliens who gave us David Bowie. He grabbed my attention a few weeks ago for being the dead spit of my Az from Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs. I had in mind an androgynous silent film star look for Az, and Nils’ dark, unearthly prettiness, though rather too tall, is precisely how Az materialised in my head, stealing my silverware and hijacking the neighbours’ wifi.


Thank you, Outer Space, for loaning us your bisexual cheekbony creatures.

So I’ve been watching as many Asther films as I can find. Mostly, he was the romantic bad boy, which he hated, but there are a few surprising films. Himmelskibet (A Trip To Mars) featuring a twenty-one-year-old, rather skinny Nils as a citizen of Mars, which is probably where he came from in the first place. While lacking the whimsy of Georges Méliès’ 1902 A Trip To The MoonA Trip To Mars – made in 1918 – has a certain Pre-Raphaelite flavour that caught my eye.

Himmelskibet

As unlikely as it may seem, the Pre-Raphaelite link to sci-fi is something that keeps popping up. (See the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood post on Princess Leia for some hair-talk.) Although the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were, by definition, interested in the naturalistic style of art before Raphael, they still interacted with the issues of their own Victorian age through a lens of medievalism and myth. Science, okay, not so much – Rossetti, famously, had no idea if the sun revolved around the Earth or vice versa, and argued it was unimportant anyway – but later disciples of the PRB did dip their toes into the world of modern technology. This 1910 Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale painting of an angel guarding a biplane has always fascinated me…

eleanor fortescue brickdale the guardian angel

The celestial meets the mechanical.


There’s something odd about watching a film about space exploration made during the First World War. And there’s a yearning quality to A Trip To Mars. While the Earth is tearing itself apart, Mars turns out to be populated by peace-loving vegetarians. We get to watch a rocket full of uniformed Earthmen barging onto the peaceful planet where everyone floats around like Grecian deities. It’s as if Man has found Eden again, and another way to ruin it all.

Are the Earthmen ready for the Martians’ message of peace and love, or will they give in to the temptation to hurl grenades for no good reason? Here’s their chance to go back in time and halt things before they go wrong – something the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were deeply concerned with.

Here are a few of my favourite rather Pre-Raphaelite moments. You can watch the whole film here.

Himmelskibet1

beatrice-meeting-dante-at-a-wedding-feast-denies-him-her-salutation

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast Denies Him Her Salutation

Screen Shot 2017-02-02 at 20.02.10

c03fc44474161040291a9f01c6b34660

Frank Dicksee – La Belle Dame Sans Merci

11155844

william_holman_hunt_gallery_6_large_26a

William Holman Hunt – Rienzi Vowing To Obtain Justice

himmelskibet-trip-to-mars-1918-image-93

John Everett Millais: The Black Brunswicker.

John Everett Millais – The Black Brunswicker.

And finally, a spaceship decked in flowers. Just because.

Screen Shot 2017-02-02 at 20.12.21

Share Button

“A beautiful and inoffensive rouge”

Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale - The Blush

Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale – The Blush

When I think of historical makeup, the usual image to spring to mind is a florid Rococo beauty smothered in powder and false hair. Victorian heroines had better things to do, like passing out on the moors and rejecting marriage proposals from clergymen.

Victorian women did wear makeup. It wasn’t proper to talk about wearing makeup, and it certainly wasn’t proper to look like you wore makeup. That was for actresses and other ladies of questionable virtue. Beauty, wrote nineteenth century agony aunts, came from clean living and inner purity.

That’s rubbish, obviously. So women turned to cosmetics. As well as unwholesome, makeup was considered rather old-fashioned, carrying connotations of old maids cack-handedly tarting themselves up. The desirable look was that of the fictional milkmaid, who rose merrily at dawn with bright eyes, spent the day out in the fresh air (remaining untanned, importantly), and never read unsavoury novels. Her cheerful disposition gave her eyes sparkle and her cheeks a natural bloom.

To achieve the milkbabe look, talcum powder, cold cream, and fragrances were normal and acceptable on any lady’s dressing table. They might be joined by eyebrow darkeners of coal or crushed cloves… and the dreaded rouge, so easy to apply too thickly.

IMG_5484 Men, too, had their cosmetics. Mascara, or moustache wax, was applied with a fingertip to give definition to moustaches and eyebrows. Many Victorian women fell for the popular myth that regularly trimming one’s eyelashes would make them grow longer and fuller. It’s easy to see how such disasters would lead a woman to borrow from her husband’s mascara stash.

Ruth Goodman’s How To Be A Victorian quotes one disapproving Victorian lady as saying rouge was “not only bad taste, but it is a positive breach of sincerity. It is bad taste because the means we have sought are contrary to the laws of nature.” With this quote in mind, it’s easy to see how Dante Gabriel Rossetti was accused of painting indecent women…

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Helen of Troy. 1863.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Helen of Troy. 1863.

The vivid red lips typical of his later work give his models a savage, vampiric look, setting them apart from the dainty, delicately blushing ideal ladies of the day. They know they’re gorgeous, and they’ll probably bury you. Bear in mind, two dots of pink on a face as pale as that was a telltale sign of tuberculosis, too.

There’s a whole mountain of Victorian psycho-sexual neurosis when it comes to women’s faces and what they chose to put on them, which is partly why I was so excited when, trawling Etsy, I came across LBCC Historical Apothecary. There you’ll find authentic reproductions of cosmetics from all kinds of historical eras, from jazz age scented face powder to jasmine hair oil from 1772.

victorianrouge2

LBBC have plenty of rouges to choose from. I went for the Turkish variety. It’s a reproduction of an 1810 recipe that was used since at least 1740 and later on, too. It takes five months to make from repurposed violin shavings, and was said to be “beautiful and inoffensive”. In the bottle, it’s almost indistinguishable from blood, and smells like tasty floral vinegar.

victorianrougeSo here I am, pretending to be a Victorian pretending to be makeup-free.

On the lips, the rouge is a tad drying, but the colour lasts all day and sits happily under a layer of Vaseline. It doesn’t bleed. The only other lip tints I’ve tried are from Bourjois and Benefit, and both of them stain a heavy colour at first and fade quickly. This rouge acted differently from the start – I definitely prefer it to modern tints. It’s easy to imagine a Victorian woman using this clandestinely while her mother-in-law bleated on about ‘paint’.

On the cheeks, I stippled on a tiny amount with a soft sponge and blended it quickly before it had a chance to stain. Despite having no prior experience with any blusher whatsoever (pasty goth for life) I managed not to make any disasters, but I would say go easy. You can always add more.

Several hours and only one touch-up later…

victorianrouge3That really dark bit’s a shadow. But now I want to try a more lurid eighteenth century look at a later date. And definitely the 1772 rose tinted lip balm for when I’m out and about, beheading nobles, etc.

Share Button

#PRBday: Visions of hope in Pre-Raphaelite art.

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 23.54.42Baudelaire. I posted this quote on Twitter this morning in response to last night’s terrible violence in Paris.

In times of darkness, art reminds us that humans have always been capable of wonderful things, regardless of war, oppression, or sickness. Sometimes more so for the suffering, if you look at the poems and paintings of the early twentieth century. Art, like heroism, shows its colours more brightly when the world is bleak.

And art can bring people together in strange, synchronistic ways. Now there’s the Internet, people who might never encounter each other in the flesh can link up and enthuse together – something unimaginable just a few decades ago.

The 15th of November is #PRBday, when Pre-Raphaelite devotees raise the group’s profile, shine a light on their legacy, and welcome new friends into the online circle. I’ve met so many fabulous people thanks to these mid-Victorian “boys who couldn’t draw”, as Rossetti called himself and the other PR Brothers.

I was going to write something else today, but none of it seems appropriate. I think what I instinctively want to do is share some hopeful Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Joan of Arc

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Joan of Arc

Edward Burne-Jones - Love Among The Ruins

Edward Burne-Jones – Love Among The Ruins

Ford Madox Brown - The Last of England

Ford Madox Brown – The Last of England

Frank Cadogan Cowper - St Agnes in Prison Receiving from Heaven the ‘Shining White Garment’

Frank Cadogan Cowper – St Agnes in Prison Receiving from Heaven the ‘Shining White Garment’

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Found

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Found

William Holman Hunt - The Light of The World

William Holman Hunt – The Light of The World

demorgan-fieldoftheslain

Evelyn De Morgan – Field of The Slain

We’ve got art, and we can make more. We’ve got friends, and we can make more of those, too. There’s inspiration in that. There always has been. And where there’s inspiration, life prevails.

Share Button

Combattez pour la patrie! Or not, whatever.

bastille

On the morning of July the 14th 1789, the people of Paris had had enough. The medieval fortress Bastille, a symbol of the abuses of the monarchy, was stormed by a mob of a thousand men, women, and children. The garrisoned guards, sympathetic to the cause, joined the vainqueurs, helping to free the Bastille’s prisoners (all seven of them, including one chap who thought he was Julius Caeser). Ninety-eight attackers were killed. The Bastille’s governor was beheaded after kicking a pastry cook in the groin. It was the flashpoint of the Revolution, a pivotal moment in Europe’s history.

For Gaetano Polidori – father of The Vampyre‘s John Polidori and grandfather of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti – the rise of the people against the injustices of poverty and monarchy really put a dampener on his morning stroll.

“I was passing by the Palais Royal while the populace were running to assault the fortress; and, having encountered a highly-powdered wig-maker, with a rusty sword raised aloft, I, not expecting any such thing, and hardly conscious of the act, had the sword handed over to me, as he cried aloud—‘Prenez, citoyen, combattez pour la patrie.’ I had no fancy for such an enterprise; so, finding myself sword in hand, I at once cast about for some way to get rid of it; and, bettering my instruction from the man of powder, I stuck it into the hand of the first unarmed person I met; and, repeating, ‘Prenez, citoyen, combattez pour la patrie,’ I passed on and returned home.”

In summary: “Screw you guys, I’m going home.”

bastille3

As always, at moments of great historical significance, you have bystanders who’d really rather be at home with a cup of tea.

The Rossetti link to the Bastille doesn’t end there. I’ve already blogged about Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s youthful trip to the site of the Battle of Waterloo with fellow Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt. While the battlefield with its meddlesome tour guides left DGR distinctly unimpressed, the site of the Bastille was far more stirring. In October 1849, he wrote home to his brother William:

The other day we walked to the Place de la Bastille. Hunt & Broadie smoked their cigars, while I, in a fine frenzy conjured up by association and historical knowledge, leaned against the Column of July and composed the following sonnet:

How dear the sky has been above this place!
Small treasures of this sky that we see here
Seen weak through prison-bars from year to year;
Eyed with a painful prayer upon God’s grace
To save, and tears which stayed along the face
Lifted till the sun set. How passing dear
At night, when through the bars a wind left clear
The skies, and moonlight made a mournful space.
This was until one night, the secret kept
Safe in low vault and stealthy corridor
Was blown abroad on a swift wind of flame.
Above God’s sky and God are still the same:
It may be that as many tears are shed
Beneath, and that man is but as of yore.

As someone who thoroughly enjoyed The Castle of Otranto, you can see how, on balance, Rossetti would prefer the sort of battle that involved ghastly dungeons and the tears of the damned. Revolution, of course, was a cause close to the hearts of the PRB, though perhaps, as this hasty sonnet suggests, it was the sentiment of revolution and not the act itself that lent itself to art.

bastille2

The Column of July, Paris. The PRB loitered here.

Share Button

Between you and me, William…

As it’s the two-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, I thought I’d share this Pre-Raphaelite tidbit from the twenty-one-year-old Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

In the autumn of 1849, he and William Holman Hunt took a holiday to the continent together. Rossetti journaled the experience in verse which he duly sent to his brother, William Michael, back in London. Between sniggering in art galleries and noticing pretty girls (French ones weren’t as nice as English ones, naturally), the PR Brothers took in the usual famous attractions, including the site of the Battle of Waterloo. Here’s what Rossetti thought of it:

On the Field of Waterloo.

So then, the name which travels side by side
With English life from childhood—Waterloo,
Means this. The sun is setting. “Their strife grew
Till the sunset, and ended,” says our guide.
It lacked the “chord” by stage-use sanctified,
Yet I believe one should have thrilled. For me,
I grinned not, and ’twas something:—certainly
These held their point, and did not turn but died:
So much is very well. “Under each span
“Of these ploughed fields” (’tis the guide still) “there rot
Three nations’ slain, a thousand-thousandfold.”
Am I to weep? Good sirs, the earth is old:
Of the whole earth there is no single spot
But hath among its dust the dust of man.

Oh dear. But he does have a point. And then, in a letter to William at home:

One of the great nuisances of this place, as also at Waterloo, is the plague of guides from which there is no escape. The one we had at Waterloo completely baulked me of all the sonnets I had promised myself; so that all I accomplished was the embryo bottled up in the preceding column. Between you and me, William, Waterloo is simply a bore.

Yawn.

Yawn.

 

Share Button

That Damned Elusive Pearl Spiral

You will have seen it again and again in Rossetti’s paintings of lush, isolated women – a spiral of pearls nestling in waves of red or raven hair. Once you’ve noticed it, it keeps turning up. Here it is in ‘A Christmas Carol’…

christmas-carol…and in Alexa Wilding’s hair in ‘Monna Vanna’…

dante_gabriel_rossetti_12_monna_vanna…and, naturally, adorning Jane Morris in ‘Mariana’…

mariana
Rossetti was an incorrigible collector. His Chelsea house was crammed with musical instruments he never played, mirrors he never polished, and great swathes of fabrics for the beautification of his models. He spent the evenings rummaging in junk shops for exotic jewellery and amassed quite a collection of cheap yet dramatic pieces. Some of these pieces still surface in Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic exhibitions. Unfortunately, the spiral hair pin he obviously adored was allegedly borrowed by a friend and never seen again. That probably didn’t do Rossetti’s latent paranoia any good.

While we wait for it to turn up on Antiques Roadshow, we have Kirsty Walker’s biscuit replicas to enjoy, and – at last! – beautiful handmade replicas by Joanna of Nanya Online. I don’t normally do plugs, but I won Joanna’s Tumblr competition and I’m just thrilled. It arrived today in a tiddy box adorned with ‘The Beloved’.

IMG_2672 IMG_2678Isn’t it delicate? It feels like a network of tiny bones in my hand. Joanna also makes earring replicas of the spiral. Have a look at her shop.

Unlike Alexa Wilding and friends, my hair is made of ghosts, so nothing will ever stay in it. Luckily the spiral comes with another pin so it can be worn as a brooch. I’ll be wearing it on my Victorian riding jacket at Portsmouth’s Victorian Festival of Christmas where I’ll be ‘performing’ – ha! – later this month. See you there.

Share Button

New readables

My short story, Cremating Imelda, is the featured story in this month’s Animal Literary Magazine. When Imelda’s 440lb body overwhelms a crematorium’s ventilation system, the newspapers are equally horrified and amused. But Imelda had a life before her cremation, and a secret talent only her parish priest was privy to.

Also out soon in the Pre-Raphaelite Society Review is my article ‘In Defence of Walter Deverell’. Sometimes referred to as the ‘lost’ Pre-Raphaelite, Deverell died before his talent could truly take off. What happened to his family – and how they kept Walter’s place in PRB history alive – was interesting and poignant to research. Some typically bitchy Victorian letter-writing, too, with what appears to be the use of some rather sneaky pseudonyms.

Share Button

Tributes of an old friend

It’s no secret that Fred Stephens has a special place in the hearts of Pre-Raphaelite acolytes. ‘Swoony Fred’ to the initiated, because, well…

f_g_stephens

Yes.

Frederick George Stephens was one of two non-artistic members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Stephens tried his hand at painting and poetry, but, dissatisfied with his efforts, reportedly destroyed most of his paintings (a handful now hang in the Tate) and turned away from poetry:

Most sadly falls this life on me,
With noble purpose unwrought out:
The steeled soul rusteth thro’ the day;—
My life it flitteth fast away.

Poor Fred. He stuck instead to criticism, writing for the Athenaeum for forty years until his conservative views on British art and dislike of Impressionism caused friction. Despite the growing paranoia and grumpiness of his Pre-Raphaelite associates in their old age, he remained a steadfast friend and one of the most ‘sensible’ figures in the bunch.

I’ve got my hands on an original copy of Stephens’ ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti’, gifted at Christmas 1897 to a Miss Foster from Emma V. Roberts, who clearly knew how to spoil her friends.

fredstephens1

Stephens was aware of the race to the publishing houses in the wake of Rossetti’s death. The outpouring of grief and praise (for a fee) from those who barely knew the man bothered him, as did the bickering of his former Brothers. While some placed Rossetti at the helm of the PR movement, other recalled him floating along in his own bizarre bubble, and others still – particularly an increasingly batty Holman Hunt – were unhappy with the cultish following Rossetti had accumulated (“Rossetti was the planet round which we revolved,” gushed Valentine Prinsep), and took pains to defend their own place in the movement’s history.

In 1894, Stephens published his own biography of his old friend. It’s a short, affectionate book with vivid, amusing descriptions of the early scenes of Rossetti’s life, including the “respectable, but dull” Charlotte Street with its “opposing lines of brick walls, with rectangular holes in them, which Londoners call houses”.

It also contains my favourite description of the student Rossetti in full-on self-conscious Romantic mode, by an anonymous ‘fellow student’ (possibly Fred himself) who had evidently been staring a bit too intently:

“Thick, beautiful, and closely curled masses of rich brown much-neglected hair, fell about an ample brow, and almost to the wearer’s shoulders; strong eyebrows marked with their dark shadows a pair of rather sunken eyes, in which a sort of fire, instinct of what may be called proud cynicism, burned with a furtive kind of energy, and was distinctly, if somewhat luridly, glowing. His rather high cheek-bones were the more observable because his cheeks were roseless and hollow enough to indicate the waste of life and midnight oil to which the youth was addicted; close shaving left bare his very full, not to say sensuous, lips and square-cut masculine chin. Rather below the middle height, and with a slightly rolling gait, Rossetti came forward among his fellows with a jerky step, tossed the falling hair back from his face, and, having both hands in his pockets, faced the student world with an insouciant air which savoured of defiance, mental pride and thorough self-reliance.”

I love that. Have you ever described one of your friends so minutely?

The book itself is rather fragile, one-hundred-and-twenty years on. The tissue paper over the illustrative plates feels like dried petals. Luckily, you can read the text in full at the Rossetti Archive.

fred2

Share Button

Merry Christmas, everyone

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - A Christmas Carol

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – A Christmas Carol

Share Button

National Poetry Day – Insomnia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Anyone who’s experienced long periods of sleeplessness knows it’s Hell. Insomnia dogged Dante Gabriel Rossetti most of his life. When he was well, he’d often work until dawn and sleep during the day. When he was ill in the 1860s and ’70s, sleep evaded him completely, turing him onto sedative drugs and stiff doses of whisky – bad news for a man who’d been almost teetotal most of his life.

Written in 1881, a year before his death, Insomnia was one of Rossetti’s last poems. With its lulling, almost seasick rhythm and disordered sense of time, I think the poem captures the way in which sleeplessness dulls and heightens the senses simultaneously, trapping the sleepless one in a purgatorial state of memory, desire, and regret.

Insomnia

Thin are the night-skirts left behind
By daybreak hours that onward creep,
And thin, alas! the shred of sleep
That wavers with the spirit’s wind:
But in half-dreams that shift and roll
And still remember and forget,
My soul this hour has drawn your soul
A little nearer yet.

Our lives, most dear, are never near,
Our thoughts are never far apart,
Though all that draws us heart to heart
Seems fainter now and now more clear.
To-night Love claims his full control,
And with desire and with regret
My soul this hour has drawn your soul
A little nearer yet.

Is there a home where heavy earth
Melts to bright air that breathes no pain,
Where water leaves no thirst again
And springing fire is Love’s new birth?
If faith long bound to one true goal
May there at length its hope beget,
My soul that hour shall draw your soul
For ever nearer yet.

Found Drowned - George Frederick Watts

Found Drowned – George Frederick Watts

Share Button