A Letter in ‘Fortean Times’

Last year I posted anecdotes about Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt encountering gnomes.

As I had never seen these stories discussed elsewhere I sent them in a letter to the editor of Fortean Times, the British periodical about strange phenomena, for the consideration of readers.

The letter is published in issue #402 (February 2021) which has just reached me on the American side of the Atlantic.

The Yale Club Bookplate

Howard Pyle was born on this day in 1853. He was the first of the golden age American illustrators, followed by his pupil N.C. Wyeth. Through Pyle a faint Pre-Raphaelite influence came to characterize the genre.

It interested me to discover a work by Pyle that I had seen many times before noticing his initials: the ex-libris of The Yale Club of New York City. Pyle’s design was commissioned in 1905. The plate was engraved by Edwin Davis French, whom Pyle described as “the best engraver in the world.” The ex-libris is affixed to every book in the clubhouse library.

Millais at Home

Rupert Potter was a longtime friend of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais. A barrister by trade, Potter was a very talented amateur photographer, as was his daughter, the author Beatrix Potter. He made a series of portraits of Millais during the 1880s in Millais’s London studio and house at 2 Palace Gate, Kensington.

Potter visited Millais in July of 1886, capturing the artist at a moment of leisure during work on the painting Lilacs and a portrait of the 5th Earl of Rosebery, which appear on easels.

The Art of Dracula 92

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the subject of a recent post. It is a gorgeous, opulent film. Obviously Coppola, together with art director Thomas Sanders and costume designer Eiko Ishioka, gave a lot of thought to what was happening in the arts both in England and Mitteleuropa at the fin-de-siècle when the film takes place. As a result the scenery, costumes, and mis-en-scène are full of interesting references.

In this post I want to examine the influence of certain nineteenth century and Pre-War artworks on the production design.

Particularly during the first half of the movie we see a visual “dialogue” between Transylvania, represented by the imagery of Symbolism and the Vienna Seccession, and England, represented by Pre-Raphaelite imagery.

An example of the former is Dracula’s castle, which is depicted rising out of an outcrop in the Carpathian mountains, modeled on František Kupka‘s 1903 painting The Black Idol (Resistance).

At various points Dracula (played by Gary Oldman) is depicted sleeping either in his sarcophagus or boxes of earth wearing a golden robe inspired by Gustav Klimt’s 1907 painting The Kiss, which includes a similar pattern of whorls and rectangles.

On Twitter, Richard Wells called attention to a scene when Dracula scatters his vampire brides, causing two of them to withdraw, twisted together in a spidery form. According to Wells the choreography by Michael Smuin was inspired by “Virgil And Dante Looking At The Spider Woman,” an illustration from Gustave Doré’s 1861 edition of Dante’s Inferno.

The scenes involving female characters Mina Murray (played by Winona Rider) and Lucy Westenra (played by Sadie Frost) take place in and around the garden of an English country house, evoking the lush floral backgrounds of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.

Two works by Arthur Hughes, painted concurrently in the 1850s, The Long Engagement and April Love, seem to be referenced. In his book The Victorians, A. N. Wilson reads into The Long Engagement,

an emotional predicament stemming directly from an economic situation. The prosperity which had created the vast bourgeoisie with its gradations from lower to upper middle class had also created a code. You could not marry, and maintain the position in society to which you aspired, until you had a certain amount of money in the bank.

Mina is temporarily separated from her fiancé Jonathan Harker (played by Keanu Reeves) for precisely this reason. He is traveling to Transylvania to represent his firm in a real estate deal with Count Dracula in the hopes of advancing his career before they marry. The young lovers say goodbye in a shot composed similarly to The Long Engagement. Mina is later seen pining for Jonathan through a pergola like the female figure in April Love.

Another depiction of Mina during her separation from Jonathan places her at a table against the window of a solarium looking out into the garden. Although the angle is different the staging is reminiscent of John Everett Millais’s 1851 painting Mariana. The subject is a character from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure whose engagement was broken after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck. Millais portrays her looking out the window longing for the return of her fiancé.

But it is Lucy who is the most overt Pre-Raphaelite character in the film. Her pale skin and red hair are the defining features of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s models Elizabeth Siddal and Alexa Wilding. Her transformation into the monster, the femme fatale, the belle dame sans merci, is a standard Pre-Raphaelite narrative.

In the same scene, when Lucy joins Mina in the solarium, she is shown wearing an off-the-shoulder gown, seated amidst potted flora in a pose reminiscent of Rossetti’s Lady Lilith, which he painted in the 1860s and 70s. Notice roses of the same pink-white hue on the table in Rossetti’s painting and embroidered on the pillow behind Lucy.

This figure of Lilith, a demon from Hebrew mythology associated with seduction and the murder of children, foreshadows Lucy’s fate as the “bloofer lady.”

At The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, Stephanie Chatfield considers whether Bram Stoker based the character of Lucy on Rossetti’s tragic wife Elizabeth Siddal. As I wrote in my book Victoriana, when Siddal died in 1862: “Rossetti buried Lizzie with the manuscripts of his unpublished poetry sealed in her coffin. This romantic gesture came to a ghoulish end, however. He later ordered her body exhumed to retrieve the poems.” Did this story of an open grave inspire Stoker? Chatfield writes,

In his notes made while working on Dracula, Stoker never mentioned the Rossetti/Siddal incident, so we can not definitively confirm that Lucy Westenra was inspired by Siddal. However, Bram Stoker lived in the same neighborhood as Rossetti and he was a friend of Hall Caine, who at one time was Rossetti’s secretary. Stoker dedicated Dracula to Caine, with a nickname used by Caine’s grandmother (“to my dear friend Hommy-Beg”). Stoker may not have included the story of Siddal’s exhumation in his notes, but due to his closeness with Caine he had to have heard an account of it at some point and he had probably read Caine’s book Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1882).

The belief that Stoker used Siddal as inspiration is bolstered by his 1892 short story The Secret of the Growing Gold. The ‘growing gold’ is the hair of a dead woman, the very tresses that had been her most striking feature in life. Her hair grows persistently and with a purpose; her intent is to haunt her husband and avenge her own death. The similarity between Stoker’s story and the claim that Siddal’s hair continued to grow and fill her coffin after death is unlikely to be a coincidence.

Addendum:

The last artwork I will mention is not Victorian or Edwardian. In Dracula’s castle the ancient Count lives among the relics of his past. A portrait of Dracula as a young man is adapted from a self portrait by the early Lutheran painter Albrecht Dürer, circa 1500.

See also: An Edit in Dracula 92.

The Poet, The Artist, and the Gnome

Paul Chapman reminisced about his friendship with poet Coventry Patmore in the October 1904 issue of The Nineteenth Century and After. Patmore was a friend of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite artists. In the essay, Chapman tells the curious story of an encounter between Patmore, the painter William Holman Hunt, and a gnome.

[Patmore] said that one evening he was staying in a house together with Mr. Holman Hunt. They were in a room with double folding doors, and were sitting alone together, when, looking through into the further room, which was lit up, he saw a little figure seated on the corner of the table. It was alive and looked about, and was dressed in a quaint dress with a little peaked hat shaped like a harebell, and with pointed shoes. He called Holman Hunt’s attention to the figure seen by himself, and Holman Hunt saw it equally distinctly. Taking some paper, the latter made a sketch of it exactly as it seemed to him to sit there, the sketch corresponding in every particular with Coventry Patmore’s vision of the same. On looking for it again the figure had disappeared. I remember thinking it strange that the figure was so like that of the conventional gnome of the story-books, and I suppose that my host looked on me as a child, and told me a fanciful story. But it was told in a way to impress me, with its veracity, and some time afterwards I endeavoured to find out if Mr. Holman Hunt remembered anything of the circumstance or possessed the sketch, but was told there was absolutely no foundation whatever for the story. Documentary evidence, as I think Professor Huxley once took the trouble to prove, is always absent in such cases. Happily Mr. Holman Hunt is still with us to delight us, and, should he think it worth while, could clear up the mystery.

As far as I know Holman Hunt never did clear up the mystery. Unless it was he who told Chapman that there was no foundation for the story.

This is not the only anecdote about Holman Hunt encountering a gnome. Paul Johnson relates a story told by Lord Tennyson in The Spectator:

Tennyson loved jokes, stored them up, and told them beautifully. Many were rustic items from his Lincolnshire youth. Others were modern. He said: ‘They say I write about fairies as if I knew them, and they ask, “What are fairies really like?”’ He then told the story of the New Forest gnome: Holman Hunt went into the forest to get some studies of foliage on paper. Sitting in a glade he was so absorbed in his work that he did not notice that a little brown man, not three feet high, had crept up behind him. Then he saw a little brown arm stretch out and take his bottle. He looked round, and the little brown man said eagerly: ‘Gin?’ ‘No,’ said Hunt, firmly. ‘Water.’ The little brown man vanished immediately.

Perhaps the sketch alleged by Patmore is hidden away somewhere in an archive or collection.

Prosperine at Auction

Two very important Pre-Raphaelite paintings go up for auction at Christie’s in New York later this month. An 1878 version of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Prosperine and John William Waterhouse’s The Soul of the Rose will be offered at European Art Part I on October 28.

I have written about the models Jane Morris and Muriel Foster who are depicted in the paintings on this blog and in my book Victoriana.

Both works are expected to sell for between three and five million dollars—a far cry from mere decades ago, when the Pre-Raphaelites were out of favor, and David Lloyd Webber saw Leighton’s Flaming June for sale in a London shop for £50.

Agatha Christie and the Pre-Raphaelites

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Kirsty Stonell Walker connects two of my favorite subjects: Agatha Christie and the Pre-Raphaelite artists:

At first glance, you wouldn’t think Agatha Christie had any relevance in a conversation about Victorian art. A Golden Age queen, her novels are decidedly modern, reflecting a world after first one then another world war, and filled with skittish women, world-weary men, and murders galore. However, the more you read her novels, the more her Victorian roots show. Take for example, the short story ‘Miss Marple tells a Story’, where Miss Jane Marple tells her nephew Raymond (a novelist) and his girlfriend Joan (a modern artist) all about how she solved a murder that was brought to her by her solicitor and the accused man (husband of the deceased). I won’t spoil the plot for you, but when Miss Marple wants to explain how she isn’t as ‘up-to-date’ as her companions she says ‘I am hopelessly Victorian. I admire Mr Alma Tadema and Mr Frederick Leighton and I suppose to you they are hopelessly vieux jeu.’ Miss Marple is the archetypal maiden aunt, born around the 1870s (as she appears to be a woman of 50-60 in her first appearance in 1927, and grows older up to the 1950s). Jane Marple expresses many examples of what it meant to be a Victorian, for example in ‘Greenshaw’s Folly’, Miss Marple says ‘When I was a girl Inspector, nobody ever mentioned the word stomach’, together with admonishments that a lady would never be over-emotional in public. I especially love her inability to talk frankly about what litmus paper is used for, in ‘The Blue Geranium’, even though she knows from experience of being a nurse. She is shrewd but always finds a way of being delicate about matters of bodily fluids.

The entire post is wonderful with lots of references picked out of various novels and a gallery of Christie paperback covers with Pre-Raphaelite influences.

Victoriana, Coming Soon

My second book, Victoriana, will be published later this month by Castle Imprint. The official release date is May 21. From the Castle Imprint website:

The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 coincided with an unprecedented flourishing of invention, industry, and creativity within her realm. This volume offers a general introduction to the arts and letters of nineteenth century Britain with authoritative analysis. Historian Nick Louras describes a civilization involved in a process of renewal, whereby historical forms and traditions were drawn into a culture of innovation, to create a society that was both rooted and forward-looking, traditional and vital. He examines the influence of Charles Dickens, the Pre-Raphaelites, Lord Tennyson, John Ruskin, Thomas De Quincey, and the Queen herself to reconstruct that society for the reader.

The Waterhouse Muse

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John William Waterhouse was among the last artists to make use of the Pre-Raphaelite style in direct continuity with the first generation of Pre-Raphaelite painters. He was not strictly a Pre-Raphaelite. His interest in Classical and mythological subjects placed him, with Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, somewhat out of the mainstream of the genre. However a series of Arthurian, Shakespearian, and Christian paintings in the 1890s are boldly Pre-Raphaelite in style.

Beginning in the 1890s, and continuing until his death in 1917, Waterhouse worked primarily with one female model. Her likeness appears in his most famous works: La Belle Dame sans Merci (1893); A Naiad, or Hylas with a Nymph (1893); Ophelia (1894); The Mermaid (1901); and Tristan and Isolde (1914). In perhaps his most famous painting, Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), she appears duplicated as multiple figures.

For many years there was a mystery surrounding the identity of this model. “Who was she?” Christopher Wood asked in his 1981 book, The Pre-Raphaelites. “One cannot help speculating about the identity of the mysterious and beautiful model who reappears so often in…Waterhouse’s pictures…It remains one of the few Pre-Raphaelite mysteries, and one that will probably never be solved.”

The “Waterhouse Girl,” as she was long known, is a striking and prepossessing beauty. Her looks are characterized by doe-like eyes, celestial nose, a modest sensuality about the lips, and the long reddish-golden hair associated with Pre-Raphaelite models since Rossetti’s early paintings of Elizabeth Siddal. Peter Trippi writes that, “given their three decade relationship,” she “surely functioned as the artist’s muse.” We see her age over time from a young seductress in the earliest works to a woman of dignity and adult beauty in later paintings such as The Soul of the Rose, or My Sweet Rose (1908) and The Annunciation (1914). That Waterhouse changed his themes and approach to suit his model, rather than the other way around, is a tribute to her profound influence on his work.

The mystery of the model’s identity was at last solved. In 1988 a pencil study by Waterhouse for his 1905 painting Lamia was bequeathed to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. It depicts the upturned face of the model. Her name is inscribed by Waterhouse on the paper: Miss Muriel Foster.

We are fortunate to know her name, not as a mere piece of trivia. Waterhouse’s best work had for its foundation one of the most successful partnerships between artist and model in the history of painting. Muriel Foster’s contribution to that partnership comes through to us as viewers today. As Rossetti wrote in another context, “Beauty like hers is genius.”

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La Belle Dame sans Merci, by John William Waterhouse, 1893.
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A Naiad, or Hylas with a Nymph, by John William Waterhouse, 1893.
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Ophelia, by John William Waterhouse, 1894
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Hylas and the Nymphs, by John William Waterhouse, 1896
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The Soul of the Rose, by John William Waterhouse, 1908
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The Annunciation, by John William Waterhouse, 1914

Sources:

Baker, James K. Baker, Kathy L. (Fall 1999) “Miss Muriel Foster: The John William Waterhouse Model,” in The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies. New Series 8.

Baker, James K. Baker, Kathy L. (2004) “The Lamia in the Art of John William Waterhouse,” in The British Art Journal. Vol V, No 2.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Rossetti, William Michael (ed). (1895) The Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: Ellis and Elvey.

Trippi, Peter. (2003) “John William Waterhouse,” in Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters: The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection. London: The Royal Academy of Arts.

Wood, Christopher. (1981) The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: The Viking Press.

‘The Silent Voice’

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I notice (belatedly) that Gerald Moira’s 1898 painting The Silent Voice sold at auction last summer. The piece illustrates a stanza from The Two Voices, a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

Thereto the silent voice replied;
“Self-blinded are you by your pride:
Look up thro’ night: the world is wide.

A contemporary critic described the painting as follows: “In the blue moonlight, close about the dazed and doleful figure of a seated girl, a silent voice, or half perceived figure, whispers a coming comfort.” It is a beautiful painting in the late Pre-Raphaelite style.