Sunday, 11 December 2011

Ruskin's Mother

Portrait of Margaret Ruskin aged 44 by
James Northcote RA, 1825 

Some understanding of Ruskin's view of the world can be found by learning more about his mother, Margaret. Some accounts state that Margaret's father was a devout puritan named Captain Cox, of Yarmouth, a master mariner who died young. 

It may surprise people to know that Margaret was in fact born on the 2nd of September in 1781 at The King's Head Public House in Croydon where her father, William Cock, was the tenant-landlord. William was also an astute property developer, building a number of cottages that provided the family with a comfortable income. It is true that William died in a riding accident when he was only 33. Margaret's mother was able to use income from the rent of the cottages to send her to Mrs Rice's Academy for Ladies.  It was there that she became an Evangelical Protestant.

In the early 1800's Margaret went to live with her Aunt and Uncle in Edinburgh, where she met and married her cousin, John Ruskin's father, after an engagement of eight years.  John's father made his fortune as a wine importer and was often away on business, so it was his mother who became responsible for his education. His mother taught him to read every part of the Bible each year, including learning long passages by heart.  Her ambition was for him to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, but Margaret also taught John using the works of Sir Walter Scott, Byron and Shakespeare. Accounts describe Margaret as a 'strict disciplinarian' but it seems that she also indulged John, her only child. The family were wealthy and holidayed with trips through Europe. 

The impact of this on Ruskin is hinted at in his letters on education, where he wrote "the first essential point in the education given to the children will be the habit of instant, finely accurate, and totally unreasoning, obedience to their fathers, mothers, and tutors. The second essential will be the understanding of the nature of honour, making the obedience solemn and constant."

Even when John Ruskin was at Oxford for seven years, his mother lived with him, taking lodgings in the High Street to 'watch over his health'. She continued to watch over him until her death aged ninety.  John Ruskin was fifty two and was profoundly affected by her loss.  Margaret Ruskin was buried with her husband in Shirley parish church in Croydon and Ruskin had the following inscribed on her tomb:

Beside my father's body
I have laid
My mother's;
Ever returned to earth,
Nor purer life
Recorded in heaven.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Ruskin's letter to The Times, 13th May 1851

Sir, Your usual liberality will, I trust, give a place in your columns to this expression of my regret that the tone of the critique which appeared in The Times of Wednesday last on the works of Mr. Millais and Mr. Hunt, now in the Royal Academy, should have been scornful as well as severe.  I regret it, first, because the mere labour bestowed on those works, and their fidelity to a certain order of truth (labour and fidelity which are altogether indisputable) ought at once to have placed them above the level of mere contempt; and, secondly, because I believe these young artists to be at a most critical period of their career—at a turning point, from which they may either sink into nothingness or rise to very real greatness; and I believe also, that whether they choose the upward or downward path may in no small degree depend upon the character of the criticism which their works have to sustain.

I do not wish in any way to dispute or invalidate the general truth of your critique on the Royal Academy; nor am I surprised at the estimate which the writer formed of the pictures in question when rapidly compared with works of totally different style and aim; nay, when I first saw the chief picture by Millais in the Exhibition of last year I had nearly come to the same conclusions myself. But I ask your permission, in justice to artists who have at least given much time and toil to their pictures, to institute some more serious inquiry into their merits and faults than your general notice of the Academy could possibly have admitted.

Let me state, in the first place, that I have no acquaintance with any of these artists, and very imperfect sympathy with them. No one who has met with any of my writings will suspect me of daring to encourage them in their Romanist and Tractarian tendencies. I am glad to see that Mr. Millais's lady in blue is heartily tired of her painted window and idolatrous toilet-table, and I have no particular respect for Mr. Collins' lady in white, because her sympathies are limited by a dead wall, or divided between some gold fish and a tadpole (the latter Mr. Collins may, perhaps, permit me to suggest, en passant, as he is already half a frog, is rather too small for his age). But I happen to have a special acquaintance with the water plant, Alisma Plantago, among which the said gold fish are swimming; and, as I never saw it so thoroughly or so well drawn, I must take leave to remonstrate with you when you say sweepingly, that these men ‘sacrifice truth, as well as feeling to eccentricity.’ For as a mere botanical study of the water lily and Alisma, as well as of the common lily and several other garden flowers, this picture would be invaluable to me, and I heartily wish it were mine.

But, before entering into such particulars, let me correct an impression which your article is likely to induce in most minds, and which is altogether false. These pre-Raphaelites (I cannot compliment them on common sense in choice of a nom de guerre) do not desire nor pretend in any way to imitate antique painting, as such. They know little of ancient paintings who suppose the works of these young artists to resemble them. As far as I can judge of their aim—for, as I said, I do not know the men themselves—the pre-Raphaelites intend to surrender no advantage which the knowledge or inventions of the present time can afford to their art. They intend to return to early days in this one point only—that, as far as in them lies, they will draw either what they see, or what they suppose might have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent, irrespective of any conventional rules of picture making; and they have chosen their unfortunate though not inaccurate name because all artists did this before Raphael's time, and after Raphael's time did not this, but sought to paint fair pictures rather than represent stern facts, of which the consequence has been that from Raphael's time to this day historical art has been in acknowledged decadence.

Now, Sir, presupposing that the intention of these men was to return to archaic art instead of to archaic honesty, your critic borrows Fuseli’s expression respecting ancient draperies—‘snapped’ instead of folded,’ and asserts that in these pictures there is a ‘ servile imitation of false perspective.’ To which I have just this to answer: —

Millais' ‘Mariana’ (1851)
That there is not one single error in perspective in four out of the five pictures in question, and that in Millais' ‘Mariana’ there is but this one—that the top of the green curtain in the distant window has too low a vanishing point; and that I will undertake, if need be, to point out and prove a dozen worse errors in perspective in any 12 pictures containing architecture, taken at random from among the works of the most popular painters of the day.

Secondly: that, putting aside the small Mulready and the works of Thorburn and Sir W. Ross, and perhaps some others of those in the miniature room which I have not examined, there is not a single study of drapery in the whole Academy, be it in large works or small, which for perfect truth, power, and finish, could be compared for an instant with the black sleeve of the Julia, or with the velvet on the breast and the chain mail of the Valentine of Mr. Hunt's picture; or with the white draperies on the table in Mr. Millais' ‘Mariana, ’ and of the right hand figure in the same painter's ‘Dove returning to the Ark.’
And further: that as studies both of drapery and of every minor detail, there has been nothing in art so earnest or so complete as these pictures since the days of Albert Durer. This I assert generally and fearlessly. On the other hand,

I am perfectly ready to admit that Mr. Hunt's ‘Silvia’ is not a person whom Proteus or anyone else would have been likely to have fallen in love with at first sight; and that one cannot feel any sincere delight that Mr. Millais' ‘Wives of the Sons of Noah’ should have escaped the Deluge; with many other faults besides on which I will not enlarge at present, because I have already occupied too much of your valuable space, and I hope to be permitted to enter into more specific criticism in a future letter,

I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant,

John Ruskin

Sunday, 30 October 2011

A Passion for the Pre-Raphaelites by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber is best known for the musicals that made him a multi-millionaire. He was less well known for his passion in the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - until he presented a documentary where he talks about their work, their lives, and their long term influence.

Growing up in London in the 1960s, he visited local churches and saw the works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones in the stained glass windows. He then became a regular visitor to London's Tate Gallery collection in the Pre-Raphaelite gallery.

Interestingly, he explains that unfashionable Victorian paintings could be bought very cheaply at the time. He became wealthy after the hit musical Jesus Christ Superstar in the early 1970's and started what he calls 'serious' art collecting.

He is coy about what it has cost but he has paid record prices at art auctions, paying £17M for a Picasso and his collection includes A Vision of Fiammetta , one of Rossetti's last paintings. Pride of place, of course, goes to one of the eight versions of Rossetti’s ‘Proserpine’.

Andrew Lloyd Webber He makes a good case for their lasting impact not just on art, but also architecture and the way we now think about the Victorians. Disappointingly, he made no mention in the programme of John Ruskin, although there were several opportunities to do so.

The documentary should be available on this link until the 2nd November 2011

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Last Pre-Raphaelite

Fiona MacCarthy brings us a little closer to understanding Edward Burne-Jones.  You may know her from William Morris: A Life for Our Time and, once again, we are transported to the world of the Victorians.   

As Susan Engel wrote: Context is everything - and Fiona MacCarthy reminds us of the need to interpret Burne-Jones through an appreciation of the Victorian imagination.  It is no coincidence that Fiona Chose The Beguiling of Merlin for the cover - a painting about love and infatuation, entrapment and betrayal. 

The Last Pre-Raphaelite is available on Amazon UK and Amazon US 

Sunday, 17 July 2011

The Pre-Raphaelites Exhibition – London 2012

The Tate Gallery in London has announced a major exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite paintings between the 12th of September 2012 and the 13th of January 2013.

Open from 10am - 6pm daily, the gallery will be exhibiting over 150 works in different media, including painting, sculpture, photography and the applied arts.

The exhibition includes many famous Pre-Raphaelite works rarely seen in the UK,  including Rossetti's Found, (on loan from the Delaware Art Museum) Ophelia by John Everett Millais, The Scapegoat by Holman Hunt, the epic social panorama Work by Ford Madox Brown and Rossetti's Lady Lilith.

Rossetti wrote that his Lady Lilith ". . . represents a Modern Lilith combing out her abundant golden hair and gazing on herself in the glass with that self-absorption by whose strange fascination such natures draw others within their own circle."

The Tate also plans to re-introduce a number of rarely seen masterpieces, including Ford Madox Brown’s polemical Work from 1852-1865 and Philip Webb and Burne-Jones’s The Prioress’s Tale wardrobe of 1858.

The Pre-Raphaelites exhibition London event runs from Wednesday 12th September 2012 - Sunday 13th January 2013. Tate Britain is open from 10am - 6pm daily and is open late until 10pm on the first Friday of every month.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Fascination with The Lady of Shalott

John William Waterhouse

Alfred Tennyson was only 23 when he first published The lady of Shalott and said he got the idea from a 14th century Italian novella, Donna di Scalotta. Hunt and Rossetti were both inspired to illustrate the haunting poem, which tells how the tragic Lady of Shalott must remain in a tower, separated from the outside world and under a spell that means she dies when she escapes.

Abandoning Shalott, her mythical island, the Lady steals a boat and finds time to write her name on the bows before drifting down the river to Camelot to find love. Sadly the curse means she dies before she arrives and is found (too late) by the gallant knight Sir Lancelot.  It is this scene which Dante Gabriel Rossetti chose to illustrate, where all Lancelot's has to say on finding the body is "She has a lovely face".   Rossetti wrote in a letter to Hunt that "illustrated editions of poets, however good are quite hateful things" but this didn't seem to stop him as he made numerous preparatory sketches before he was happy with his woodcut.

Rossetti: The lady of Shalott (Woodcut)  Credit The Rossetti Archive

Hunt’s painting of The Lady of Shalott was his last work, completed at the age of 87 and captures a very different moment – when the mirror cracks and the spell is broken.

Hunt: The Lady of Shalott 
The theme of unrequited love and unattainable women prepared to surrender everything is an enduring concept – but the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's fascination with The Lady of Shalott has to be seen in the Victorian context. Tennyson's trick is to leave the reason for the curse a mystery and defines the ideally vulnerable Victorian woman who pays the price for her ambition.

Postscript:  Support Stephanie Pina

The husband of Stephanie Pina, creator of was recently injured in a motorcycle accident and the family face significant medical expenses. (see Stephanie's Blog)  You can help by buying The Lady of Shalott DVD

Monday, 16 May 2011

Supreme Surrender - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

To all the spirits of love that wander by
Along the love-sown fallowfield of sleep
My lady lies apparent; and the deep
Calls to the deep; and no man sees but I.
The bliss so long afar, at length so nigh,
Rests there attained. 
Methinks proud Love must weep
When Fate’s control doth from his harvest reap
The sacred hour for which the years did sigh.

Taught memory long to mock desire: and lo!

Across my breast the abandoned hair doth flow,
Where one shorn tress long stirred the longing ache:
And next the heart that trembled for its sake
Lies the queen-heart in sovereign overthrow.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Millais and Sophy Gray

Sophia (Sophy) Gray was just thirteen when she posed for this painting, which has been called one of the most remarkable realist portraits of the nineteenth century.

As well as being one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Millais married Ruskin's former wife Effie Gray, who was Sophy's older sister and there is evidence that Sophy was a 'go between' for her sister, taking messages to Millais and helped her Effie elope. 

Inevitably Millais fell in love with both sisters and began drawing Sophie when she was just 10 years old. Millais wrote 'What a delightful little shrewd damsel Sophia is. I think her extremely beautiful and that she will even improve, as yet she does not seem to have the slightest idea of it herself which makes her prettier - I am afraid that ignorance cannot last long.'

Sophy became the model for many of Millais' Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Their relationship eventually became unacceptable when she twenty four and Effie sent her sister away. The trauma of the separation led to Sophy having a nervous breakdown. It was five years before she recovered enough to meet and marry Sir James Key Caird, a wealthy businessman. It was not a happy marriage and Sophy, suffering from anorexia, committed suicide nine years later in 1882. Sir John Millais was knighted in 1885 and was the first artist to be made a Baronet. He became President of the Royal Academy in 1896 but sadly died the same year.

Friday, 29 April 2011

The Seed of David Triptych - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Llandaff Cathedral is a few minutes drive from where I live in Cardiff, so I have finally had a closer look at Rossetti’s triptych called “The Seed of David”.  It was commissioned in 1856 as a backdrop for the altar but was moved to safe storage during the war, which was just as well as the cathedral was severely damaged by a German landmine.

The triptych is found behind wrought iron railings in a small chapel to the left as you enter the main door. There was once a stern notice forbidding photography but this has now gone and the cathedral staff were happy for me to take some pictures.

As far as I can tell the work has only left the cathedral in 2003/4, when it was the centrepiece of a touring exhibition of Rossetti’s works which were displayed in Liverpool and Amsterdam.

The centre panel is an Adoration of the Magi, with David to the left as a young boy and on the right as a king. Rossetti wrote a letter to Charles Eliot Norton  in 1858 when he was working on the triptych, saying he was planning to paint "the Nativity; for the side pieces to which I have David as Shepherd and David as King — the ancestor of Christ, embodying in his own person the shepherd and king who are seen worshipping in the Nativity".

William Morris posed for David as a young man and Jane Morris was of course Rossetti’s only choice for the model for the Virgin Mary in the central nativity panel.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Rossetti's Proserpine

Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted this version of Proserpine in 1874 when he was aged 46.  His favourite model Jane Morris posed for Proserpine, who in classical mythology was kidnapped by Pluto, the god of the underworld, who took her as a wife. The pomegranate in her hand is a symbol of her captivity.

Rossetti and Morris at Kelmscott Manor
Jane was unhappy in her marriage to Rossetti’s friend William Morris so Rossetti fantasised about her as a captive goddess.  The date of this painting is significant as it was in 1874 that Morris had enough of Rossetti’s interest in his wife.  

Kelmscott Manor is a farmhouse near the Thames that William Morris used as a summer home. He signed a joint lease with Rossetti in the summer of 1871 but sent him away from Kelmscott in the July of 1874 and never allowed him to return.

Mary Shellley’s Play Proserpine

Rossetti would have known of Mary Shellley’s play Proserpine which she wrote in 1820 while the Shelleys were living in ItalyHere is the famous prose from Act 1:

I will away, and on the highest top
Of snowy Etna, kindle two clear flames.
Night shall not hide her from my anxious search,
No moment will I rest, or sleep, or pause
Till she returns, until I clasp again
My only loved one, my lost Proserpine

Rossetti's description of Proserpine

In 1888 Rossetti wrote  "She is represented in a gloomy corridor of her palace, with the fatal fruit in her hand. As she passes, a gleam strikes on the wall behind her from some inlet suddenly opened, and admitting for a moment the sight of the upper world; and she glances furtively towards it, immersed in thought. The incense-burner stands beside her as the attribute of a goddess. The ivy branch in the background may be taken as a symbol of clinging memory"

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

John Ruskin: Trust Thou Thy Love

TRUST thou thy Love
If she be proud, is she not sweet?
Trust thou thy Love
If she be mute
Is she not pure?
Lay thou thy soul full in her hands
Low at her feet;
Fail, Sun and Breath!
Yet, for thy peace
She shall endure.

Monday, 28 February 2011

The Formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

William Holman Hunt
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of young artists who, in 1847 joined together to resist what they considered to be ‘degenerate tendencies’ in the art of their time. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Holman Hunt shared a studio and through Hunt, Rossetti met Millais and helped to start what they called a " Cycle-graphic Society," for artists to contribute drawings to a portfolio which was sent round for all the rest to criticise.

Reaction to fashionable teaching

This idea was doomed from the start but led to a meeting at Millais's home, where they studied engravings of the frescoes in the Campo Santo at Pisa. They agreed that artists who preceded Raphael had a feeling for ‘earnest work’ which was worth more as an inspiration than the stereotyped painting fashionable in England at the time.

Formation of the Brotherhood

The brotherhood was originally a secret society founded in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais. Two more artists,  James Collinson and F G Stevens were admitted, as well as a sculptor, Thomas Woolson.   The main aim of their brotherhood was to reform the state of English painting.

Connection with Raphael

The way this ‘brotherhood’ became connected to the name of Raphael is therefore less about Raphael than it is the history of European art and the teaching of the day, which is summed up in the following passage by Ruskin :

"We begin, in all probability, by telling the youth of  fifteen or sixteen that Nature is full of faults, and that he is to improve her; but that Raphael is perfection, and that the more he copies Raphael the better; that after much copying of Raphael, he is to try what he can do himself in a Raphaelesque, but yet original manner: that is to say, he is to try to do something very clever, all out of his own head, but yet this clever something is to be properly subjected to Raphaelesque rules, is to have a principal light occupying one-seventh of its space, and a principal shadow occupying one-third of the same ; that no two people's heads in the picture are to be turned the same way, and that all the personages represented are to have ideal beauty of the highest order, which ideal beauty consists partly in a Greek outline of nose, partly in proportions expressible in decimal fractions between the lips and chin ; but partly also in that degree of improvement which the youth of sixteen is to bestow upon God's work in general."

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: 'La Donna Della Finestra'

Love's pallor and the semblance of deep ruth
Were never yet shown forth so perfectly
In any lady's face, chancing to see
Grief's miserable countenance uncouth,
As in thine, lady, they have sprung to soothe,
When in mine anguish thou hast lookd on me;
Until sometimes it seems as if, through thee,
My heart might almost wander from its truth.
Yet so it is, I cannot hold mine eyes
From gazing very often upon thine.
In the sore hope to shed those tears they keep;
And at such time, thou mask'st the pent tears rise
Even to the brim, till the eyes wast and pine;
Yet cannot they, while thou art present, weep.

Rossetti's model Jane Morris

First worked as a sketch in chalks in 1877, the version shown here is the oil painting completed in 1879.  The model was Jane Morris, who Rossetti had fallen in love with two years earlier.  It is claimed that Rossetti portrays Jane as 'La Donna Della Finestra' (The Woman in the Window) because she helped him overcome the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal – but that was fifteen years earlier in 1862.

A more likely explanation is that although they definitely had a deep emotional relationship, Jane Morris was the wife of Rossetti’s friend William Morris,  so their love allegedly was never sexual and Rossetti became totally obsessed with her. 

Inspiration for 'La Donna Della Finestra'

The idea of the woman in the window was inspired by Dante's Vita Nuova (The life of Nuova), which defined Rossetti's attitudes to love and was translated by him into English in 1850.  The woman appears at the window appears when Dante is grieving for the death of Beatrice and William Michael Rossetti wrote:

'Humanly she is the Lady at the Window; mentally she is the Lady of Pity. This interpretation of soul and body this sense of an equal and undefensible reality of the thing symbolized, and of the form which conveys the symbol this externalism and internalism are constantly to be understood as the key-note of Rossetti's aim and performance in art.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Visiting John Ruskin’s House at Brantwood

John Ruskin
It was a damp day but we had been looking forward to learning more about who John Ruskin really was, having been round the Ruskin Museum in Coniston a few days before.   The museum had been the idea of his assistant, the author and artist W. G. Collingwood and was really a memorial to Ruskin that raised more questions than it answered.

Ruskin’s later life

Brantwood is Ruskin’s house on the shore of Coniston Water, in the English Lake District, where he effectively retired to after a long and varied career.  For Ruskin, art was about truth above all things and, disappointed by the popularity of Impressionism, he turned to the support of philanthropic work such as the Arts and Crafts movement and Christian socialism. Sadly it is little known in the UK that Ruskin played an important part in the creation of the welfare state, pioneering the idea that the State should intervene to regulate the economy in the service of “social economy”, supporting charitable organisations and co-operatives.

Tour of Brantwood

As you approach Brantwood it is hard to get a sense of the whole building.  Designed to face the water of the lake, you only see the side view. It is immediately obvious, however, that this is no ordinary house, as there are turrets and embellishments typical of Ruskin’s love of the Gothic style.  Oddly, visitors are given a sticky blue label to wear - presumably to make it easy for the staff, before being ushered into a tiny viewing room to see an overlong video produced by the Ruskin Society that describes him as the greatest man who ever lived. Nice.

Escaping as quickly as we could, I found myself in Ruskin’s drawing room. At last I could really get a sense of being in his presence.  Although many of the original contents of the house were auctioned when he died, a lot has been tracked down by the Ruskin Society and returned, so it is easy to imagine him sat at his desk, looking out over Coniston Water.  Even more fascinating is his room upstairs, where he spent a long time suffering from ‘fits of melancholy’.  The effect was spoiled by a small notice that said the rooms had been switched round for some reason, so the room I was seeing was a ‘reconstruction’ from one of his sketches, rather than the real thing.

Ruskin’s bath chair

For me, one of the most poignant relics of John Ruskin at Brantwood was his wicker bath chair, waiting in the hall as if he may need it at any moment.  Until then, I had in mind the young and really quite handsome Ruskin, full of life and passionate about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  I suddenly realised that this house belonged to an older man, with a long white beard, who was frail and possibly lonely despite his many friends, really quite dependent on his staff.  I put my hand on the arm of the bath chair and felt a definite connection with him that was unexpectedly emotional.

Ruskin’s garden at Brantwood
It was still raining when we left the house but any visitor to Brantwood has to follow the narrow meandering path Ruskin built up the hillside to his ‘water reservoirs’ at the top.  Dug out under his precise supervision by a group of friends, these water catchments supply an ingenious irrigation system for the whole garden and run back down as little bubbling brooks that emerge quite naturally along the path.  I read later Ruskin’s garden had been over run by invasive Rhododendrons but was restored so that it is now much as he would have known it.

The Jetty

Ruskin’s stables have been imaginatively converted into a cafĂ©, with big pine tables in the stalls, so after a really good lunch we rounded off our visit by taking the short walk down to Ruskin’s private jetty on the lake.   In his dining room I had noted that some of the Victorian plates on display had been recovered from the water by the jetty (once again raising more questions than answers).  I stood there for a moment looking across the misty lake and thinking about John Ruskin.  It is impossible to come away from Brantwood without wanting to know more about him. Much more.  We should all be grateful to Emily Warren, John Ruskin's last pupil, who campaigned to have Brantwood made into a museum.