Desperate Romantics by Franny Moyle

Dante Gabriel Rossetti,Lizzie Siddal,pre-raphaelite

Franny Moyle’s new book, Desperate Romantics, catalogues the lives and loves of the Pre-Raphaelites, while occasionally touching on their art. The book, which serves as the inspiration for the upcoming BBC miniseries of the same name, sounds like it will be a delight for those looking to dwell on the shallower aspects of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

First, I will confess that the bohemian lifestyle of the Pre-Raphaelites has held a certain fascination for me ever since I first picked up Beth Russell’s Traditional Needlepointand suddenly found myself entranced by the beauty of Morris and Rossetti’s art and the sordid details of their personal lives. Whether for good or ill, the countless affairs, intrigues, love triangles and suicides that pepper the Pre-Raphaelite movement have undeniably added to their allure.

It still seems a shame that the book ignores the Pre-Raphaelites’ art almost entirely, in favour of tabloid coverage of their exploits. There is so much more to the Pre-Raphaelite vision than sultry models and randy artists. William Morris himself was a fascinating man with beautiful ideas that are still pertinent today. The same is also true for the inspiring John Ruskin, who is sidelined as a mere deviant in Moyle’s work. In her defence, however, I notice that Moyle is a television producer, which probably explains her conviction that sex is the best way to sell art. And perhaps she’s right. It certainly worked for me. Today my interest in the Pre-Raphaelites goes far beyond their sordid personal lives, but in the beginning, their fascinating lives were instrumental in drawing me into their world.

For more information, read the Times review of Desperate Romantics

Astarte Syriaca

Rossetti Astarte Syriaca Pictures, Images and Photos
Painted between 1875 and 1877, Astarte Syriaca was originally entitled “Venus Astarte,” in honour of the Syrian Love Goddess. Rossetti composed the painting on an immense six-foot (1.83 m) canvas, so that it was long enough for a full-length portrait. This is probably the most “revealing” portrait of Jane Morris, and its composition was partially based on Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

The painting drew criticism when it was displayed, due to its erotic content. Victorian audiences were shocked by its overt sensuality. Venus’ hands are positioned to draw attention to her fertility (use your imagination!), and are identical to the hand position of Botticelli’s Venus. Furthermore, as Rossetti’s poem (below) indicates, her girdle also highlights her voluptuousness(“her twofold girdle clasps the infinite boon of bliss whereof the heaven and earth commune”). The girdle also functions in much the same way as the hair of Venus in Botticelli’s version, but is a bit more subtle.

If you compare the way Jane looks in Rossetti’s portrait (strong and sensual) to a photograph taken of her during roughly the same period, you can easily see that Rossetti has chosen to alter her appearance significantly. In fact, in a letter written a few years after Astarte Syriaca was finished, Jane complained to Rossetti that he probably didn’t want to see her because she’d “grown too thin.” Even at the time this painting was composed, you can see that she was hardly the robust figure that Rossetti painted. Nevertheless, isn’t that what artistic license is for?

Rossetti wrote the following sonnet to accompany the painting:

Mystery, lo! betwixt the sun and moon
Astarte of the Syrians: Venus Queen
Ere Aphrodite was. In silver sheen
Her twofold girdle clasps the infinite boon
Of bliss whereof the heaven and earth commune:
And from her neck’s inclining flower-stem lean
Love-freighted lips and absolute eyes that wean
The pulse of hearts to the sphere’s dominant tune.

Torch-bearing, her sweet ministers compel
All thrones of light beyond the sky and sea
The witnesses of Beauty’s face to be:
That face, of Love’s all-penetrative spell
Amulet, talisman, and oracle,-
Betwixt the sun and moon a mystery.

Source Consulted: Tim Barringer. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: The Everyman Art Library, 1998.

Possessed: Announcing a New Pre-Raphaelite Musical!

What do you get when you combine Pre-Raphaelite art, an infamous love affair, and music? Possessed is a new musical that examines the life of Jane Burden, from her discovery by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to her meteoric rise to become one of the most popular and iconic models of her age, almost omnipresent in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly those of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Possessed focuses on the relationship between Jane, her husband William Morris (“Topsy”) and Rossetti. The full cast also includes Bessy, the Morris’s housekeeper, Lizzie Siddal, Mr. Carter (the foreman of Morris & Co.), and Jane and William Morris’ two daughters, Jenny and May.

Playwright Teresa Howard became inspired to research Jane’s story following a William Morris exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum back in 1996. For Possessed, Howard (who has written a number of other plays) has teamed up with composer and arranger Steven Edis, who has written and arranged music for numerous theatre and television productions.

Not surprisingly, art plays a central role in the production. During the course of the musical, stained glass windows depicting the tale of Tristan and Isolde are constructed on stage, symbolising the close relationship between art and life and alluding to the link between the story being played out on stage and the story of Tristan and Isolde.

The musical was presented on April 27 at the Oxford Playhouse and was a great success, generating a great deal of interest in the project. Hopefully full scale production of the musical will begin at the end of next year…I can’t wait!

To learn more about this production, visit the The musical’s official website. For up to the minute news and information, visit their blog, Putting it Together.

Rehearsal photo of Anna Francolini as Jane Morris and Joseph Millson as Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Rehearsal Photo by Charles Girdham © 2008, reprinted with permission of Teresa Howard

William Morris’ La Belle Iseult

La Belle Iseult is the only painting by William Morris that exists today. The subject of the painting is Tristram’s lover Iseult, and it was painted around the same time that his first book of poetry, The Defence of Guenevere , was published. It is probably for this reason that the subject of this painting is often believed to be Guinevere (both date from 1858).

William Morris composed several sketches prior to executing La Belle Iseult. In addition, the painting is believed to be partly inspired by a mural he painted in the Oxford Union in 1957.

The model for the painting is Jane Burden, who married Morris the following year. The work reveals that Morris was not as accomplished in working with oils as his friend Rossetti, as Jane appears rather pale and stiff in this rendering. Morris, who was well aware of his shortcomings as a painter, wrote with charming humility on the canvas, “I cannot paint you, but I love you.”

Like many of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings, La Belle Iseult depicts a romanticised vision of the Middle Ages. And while the figures appear a bit uninspired, the textures of textiles the painting are quite striking. This work was finished long before the advent of William Morris’ decorating company, but the details evident in the painting, such as the wall, bed and floor coverings–not to mention the lovely pattern on Iseult’s dress–all bear witness to Morris’ unparalleled talents as a draughtsman and foreshadow his involement in textile design. You will also notice that the book on the nightstand has also been carefully designed.

I adore this work. While Rossetti was much better at capturing the sensuous qualities of Jane and his other models, I think Morris’ painting does an incredible job of envisioning a creative, romantic space. It gives one quite the “scope for the imagination”–don’t you think?

Source Consulted: The Essential William Morris by Ian Zaczek, p. 16
Photo courtesy of the Tate Gallery

William Morris’ Daisy Wallpaper

Morris designed both Daisy and Trellis in the early 1860s while he and his family were living at Red House, thought the designs were not officially registered until February 1864. Morris and Company was in its very early stages at that time and so the wallpaper blocks were manufactured for Morris by Jeffrey & Company of Islington, London. The design is made up of four clumps of flowers that are arranged on horizontal lines.

The design for Daisy was inspired either by a daisy wallhanging Jane Morris embroidered, or by an illumination in a medieval manuscript (Froissart’s Chronicles)–no-one is absolutely sure.

Whatever the inspiration for the design, it is clear that Morris was influenced by medieval artwork. “Daisy” utilizes some of the medieval design elements discussed by
In “Of Medieval Landscapes” John Ruskin observed that medieval art paid attention to “what was graceful, symmetrical, and bright in colour,” and that artists in the Middle Ages tended to reduce the complexity of floral elements to “disciplined and orderly patterns.” Daisy demonstrates adhereance to this and other medieval design principles, including the “law of growth” (by showing the buds developing on the plants) and “the law of proportion,” which can be seen in the symmetry of the plants (for example, each plant has three flowers and an equal number of leaves).

Personally, I’m not sure what I think about all this symmetry! I love the elements in both “Daisy” and “Trellis,” but when they’re on a wall it can be a bit overwhelming. I think it’s interesting to note that while Morris designed many wallpapers, he used them somewhat sparingly in his own home.

Sources consulted: William Morris Gallery and Writing on the Image: Reading William Morris
Daisy Wallpaper courtesy wikimedia commons