Pre-Raphaelites on Film: Ken Russell’s ‘Dante’s Inferno’ (1967)

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The British director Ken Russell’s documentary-style biopic of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the wider Pre-Raphaelite circle, titled Dante’s Inferno, has been beautifully restored and released on DVD/Blu-Ray in the UK, thanks to the BFI. The film – one of several documentaries on the lives of artists and composers that Russell made for the BBC throughout the 1960s – was produced for the BBC’s Omnibus series, and first aired on BBC2 in December 1967. It remains one of Russell’s early masterpieces, appearing only two years before Women in Love (1969) and four years before the notorious The Devils (1971), and one can see in it the genesis of the director’s favourite traits and themes: artistic excess, madness, hallucinations, desire/eroticism and performances which are occasionally (but deliberately) camp, over-the-top or amateurish. (All these are especially evident in Gothic, Russell’s bonkers 1986 interpretation of the Byron-Shelley gathering at the Villa Diodati which gave birth to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.) Moreover, Dante’s Inferno marks the Pre-Raphaelites’ first outing on the small screen; The Love School followed in 1975, Desperate Romantics in 2009. The screenplay, by Austin Frazer, undoubtedly drew much from William Gaunt’s influential biography The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy (1942), a title Russell originally hoped to use for the film.

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The film’s opening shot establishes a mood of gothic melodrama: a coffin is drawn out of its grave and prised open to reveal a woman’s rotting corpse, before a hand reaches in, draws back the burial shroud and extracts a mouldered book (later we will learn that the corpse is Elizabeth Siddall, while the book, containing all Rossetti’s poems, was placed there by Rossetti after her death). Given Russell’s interest in fantasy it is surprising that he opts for the grisly truth of Siddall’s exhumation, dispelling the popular myth that her body was found to be untouched by decay even after several years in the ground. This suits the realism of the documentary genre, but also suggests that we are about to witness, or even to confront a story which has been literally unearthed from the past.

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Immediately after this is a bonfire scene, intended to encapsulate the Brotherhood’s hatred of all things stale and Academic. ‘Down with the pretty ladies and Gainsboroughs!’ they cry, as they throw saccharine paintings by Reynolds and others onto the fire. The voiceover – another documentary technique – draws clear parallels with the spirit of Revolution happening in France when the PRB was founded in September 1849. Oliver Reed’s Rossetti (I should here note that Reed is more ruggedly handsome than Rossetti actually was) leaps through the flames and yells at the camera, before experiencing a vision of a medieval damozel in armour towering over the pyre – a shot which could be lifted straight out of a German silent film by Fritz Lang or F. W. Murnau, and which introduces Judith Paris as Elizabeth Siddall as a Joan of Arc figure. Of course it is highly unlikely that any such bonfire actually took place, but this is one of the many licences which Frazer’s script takes with the truth; history is stylised to explain the Brotherhood’s artistic motivations to the audience as succinctly as possible (the film is only 88 minutes long, so there’s a lot to fit into a short running-time).

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I shan’t now proceed to analyse the film scene by scene. Instead it’s best to present some stills and let the images speak for themselves (and also to show the beauty of the BFI’s restoration).

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Siddall and Rossetti share a kiss; the shot brings to mind Rossetti’s medieval watercolours such as The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra (1857)

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Isa Teller, bearing a striking resemblance to Christina Rossetti
Isa Teller, bearing a striking resemblance to Christina Rossetti

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Siddall models for Rossetti’s Joan of Arc
Caroline Coon as Annie Miller, posing for Hunt's The Light of the World
Caroline Coon as Annie Miller, modelling for Hunt’s The Light of the World
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Clive Gordon as John Ruskin, posing for the famous Millais portrait
Rossetti meets Ruskin
Rossetti meets Ruskin. It would be great to find out where this scene was filmed; the room is hung with a number of large paintings and decorated tiles which appear to be by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope.
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The film does depict Siddall at work on her own art. Here Rossetti is shown posing for her watercolour Clerk Saunders (which he actually did) – see below.

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Siddall’s frosty first meeting with Christina and William Michael Rossetti

Siddall

Guess who's being depicted here?
Guess who’s being depicted here?
Rossetti at work on Found
Rossetti at work on Found
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Pat Ashton as Fanny Cornforth

Dante’s Inferno does manage to include characters who were bafflingly absent from Desperate Romantics – Christina Rossetti for one, and her brother William Michael (though he hardly says a word). It also uses original, untampered reproductions of the many artworks, rather than the frankly dodgy reconstructions used in certain other shows (for which see Kirsty Walker’s interesting blog post). Real Pre-Raphaelite locations are also used, notably Red House:

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For me, one of the film’s real successes is its portrayal of William Morris. Despite the sheer number of historical characters jostling for attention on screen, Andrew Faulds’s performance stands out, capturing Morris’s dual qualities of boyish enthusiasm and romantic sensitivity: in one scene he cavorts around the garden of Red House pretending to be a chicken, while in another he softly recites his poem ‘Praise of My Lady’ to Jane Burden whilst punting down the river in Oxford. (This is another of the film’s interesting features, with many original Pre-Raphaelite poems by the two Rossettis, Morris and Swinburne read aloud either in voiceover or by the characters themselves.) It also helps that Faulds bears some resemblance to Morris.

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Morris and Burne-Jones (Norman Dewhurst) admire gothic gloomth
Morris and Burne-Jones (Norman Dewhurst) get gothic; this scene, which also brings Jane Burden into the picture, conveys the two young artists’ interests in medieval architecture, as seen in their trip to Northern France to tour cathedrals in 1855.

In the film’s second half, which introduces the ‘second wave’ of Pre-Raphaelite artists and models, there is a noticeable shift in tone from light, jovial antics to the brooding melancholy which was foreshadowed in the macabre opening sequence of the coffin. Velvety shadows and low lighting predominate, and at times the film has a quality of 1920s German Expressionism (NosferatuThe Cabinet of Dr Caligari), the aforementioned Fritz Lang, or even films from the Czech New Wave such as Juraj Herz’s The Cremator (1969), with its wide-angle lenses and moody, black-and-white cinematography. These visual elements mirror the narrative itself, as Rossetti descends into madness and despair and declines in health following the death of Elizabeth Siddall and the presence of a new ‘muse’ in the form of Jane Burden (Gala Mitchell).

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The composition of this shot is presumably to reference Rossetti's Dante's Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice
The composition of this shot is presumably to reference Rossetti’s Dante’s Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice; the pure intentions of that painting are turned profane by Rossetti’s lust for Jane Burden

Russell was originally keen to film Dante’s Inferno in colour, as Brian Hoyle in the DVD booklet explains:

Russell passionately lobbied the BBC to allow him to shoot the film on colour stock. He scouted locations in Scotland and the Lake District, which he said contained colours he ‘didn’t think existed outside the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites’. He also wrote that the film ‘cried out for colour more than any subject I have yet come across’, and even went so far as to suggest how he could colour-coordinate the palate of the film to match the personalities and work of the four protagonists. Scenes with Rossetti and Millais would be ‘lush and over-ripe’, those with Holman Hunt would be bright, light-headed and hallucinatory, and those with Morris would be ‘ominous, dark, deep and brooding’. The BBC, however, had only recently begun investing in colour and due to the increased cost they were reluctant to take a risk on a feature-length project directed by someone as unpredictable as Russell.

Of course, the film is not perfect. Though centred on Rossetti, Austin Frazer’s screenplay does perhaps cram too much into its short running-time, with the result that some incidents feel rushed or jumbled. Characters such as Emma Brown (wife of Ford Madox) are suddenly introduced, only to vanish from the film a few scenes later, while Ford Madox himself is never shown; nor is it immediately clear to those unfamiliar with the Pre-Raphaelite history who exactly is being depicted. As a result, many of the characters – except for Rossetti, Siddall and Morris – feel one-dimensional, popping up in short, random cameos. This can be particularly problematic for the women in the film: for example Jane Burden, my favourite of the Pre-Raphaelite models, spends much of her time reclining or standing in the same mannered postures as John Robert Parsons’s famous photographs of her, speaking little, frowning often and never breaking out of her role as a kind of artist’s lay figure. Gala Mitchell, who plays Jane, was herself a professional fashion model, so any moody posing is done very well, and she certainly looks the part; her dark, heavy features are an appropriate contrast to the bright-eyed Siddall.

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Some viewers may find the performances stilted, hammy, wooden or other words of that ilk, though this is down to Russell’s preference for using untrained actors. The director’s trademark moments of zaniness – see the scene where Algernon Charles Swinburne (played anarchically by the British poet Christopher Logue) prepares to ravage an automaton in a decadent gin house – could also be perceived as unnecessary or over-indulgent. Still, this doesn’t seem all that strange given that the personal histories of the Pre-Raphaelite men and women are often baffling in themselves, with their numerous affairs, obsessions, foibles, decadent lifestyles (exotic menageries included) and occasional bouts of grave-digging; these seem tailor-made for a Ken Russell film, in which, very often, anything goes.

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A historically inaccurate rendition of the Oxford Union murals – still, it’s closer to the truth than Desperate Romantics

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Anyone with an interest in the Pre-Raphaelites should definitely watch Dante’s Inferno. Despite its flaws, inaccuracies and anachronisms the film evokes its Victorian milieu with a kind of carnivalesque joy, while its handheld documentary style does create a sense of intimacy with its audience – something that other, more measured BBC productions tend to lack. In focusing on Rossetti, whose life was the most classically tragic of the ‘big three’ Pre-Raphaelite Brothers, Russell ultimately addresses the failure of artists to live up to their own ideals of life and love. Muses waste away, friendships and relationships sour, mental and physical health deteriorate, painting and poetry are frustrated. Art is a struggle.

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Dante’s Inferno is included in The Great Passions, a set of three art documentaries by Russell – the other two focus on the French painter Henri Rousseau and the dancer Isadora Duncan. BFI.

 

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‘In Memory’s mystic band’: Jonathan Miller’s Victorian ‘Alice’

Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), 'Self-portrait', 1857. National Portrait Gallery, London.
Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Self-portrait, 1857. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll have been close to my heart since I first read them, when I was about 8 years old. Like many children before and since I was simultaneously fascinated and disturbed by their unpredictability, their frenetic madness and surreal logic — all enhanced by John Tenniel’s immortal illustrations (the image of Alice with the long neck, her eyes wide with surprise, was particularly startling). As I grew older I was keen to learn more about the books themselves, their Victorian social-historical context, as well as becoming interested in the life of the man himself, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. The eventual outcome was that I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Carroll’s literary and artistic connections with the Pre-Raphaelites, exploring not only his writing (prose and poetry), but also his photography and illustrations — looking to assert Carroll as an accomplished visual artist, besides being a mathematician and children’s author.

Title-page of the original manuscript of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, titled Alice's Adventures under Ground. Hand-drawn by Lewis Carroll, c. 1862-4.
Title-page of the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, titled Alice’s Adventures under Ground. Illustrated by Lewis Carroll, c. 1862-4. British Library, Add MS 46700.

Carroll created this gorgeous title-page for the manuscript which would eventually become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, then titled Alice’s Adventures under Ground. His inspiration clearly comes from medieval manuscripts, with its border of forget-me-nots, the widths different around each edge, and its delicate gothic lettering interlaced with foxgloves and trailing ivy. This is Carroll the book designer at work; the handwritten, illustrated pages, which took about two years to complete, were eventually bound in leather and gifted to Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church who is often inevitably labelled the ‘real’ Alice. It is interesting that William Morris, who attended Exeter College, Oxford from 1852-6, was also closely examining medieval manuscripts and practicing illumination and decoration (the earliest examples, illuminating poems and tales by Robert Browning, himself and the Brothers Grimm, date from 1856-7). Although they lived in Oxford at the same time, however, there is no mention in Carroll’s meticulous diaries that he ever met a Morris, or a Jones — although he did meet Arthur Hughes while the artist was staying in Oxford to assist with the Union murals.

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The Alice in these drawings is a melancholy Pre-Raphaelite girl, whose flowing hair and wide eyes bear little resemblance to Alice Liddell. Like Rossetti, Carroll lavishes particular attention to the waves of her hair — in fact in October 1863, when Carroll was midway through drafting these illustrations, he visited the Rossetti family at Chelsea to photograph not only their portraits, but also several drawings of women in D. G. Rossetti’s studio. Thus, the Alice of under Ground is the closest we can get to seeing Carroll’s own original vision of his heroine and the Wonderland she dreams up — like the drawings of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, we are afforded a glimpse into a private, personal world of fantasy.

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The melancholy, matter-of-fact oddness of Carroll’s illustrations fed into what is both the best Alice adaptation (in my view) and my all-time favourite film: the 1966 version, directed for the BBC by Jonathan Miller. This film, which I first watched in 2007, entranced me from the opening shot — Alice, tousle-haired and sullen, peers out from among vine leaves and recites the first lines of Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode in voiceover. This was an interpretation of Lewis Carroll unlike anything I had seen before, and it has stayed with me ever since. Gothic, brooding and deeply Victorian in design and tone, it intersperses its hazy summertime atmosphere with moments of Pythonesque silliness supplied by Peter Cook’s Hatter and Peter Sellers’s King of Hearts. I later learnt that the opening titles and end credits (seen above and below) were lovingly copied from Carroll’s under Ground manuscript.

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Miller’s film conjures the vanished world of nineteenth-century Oxford through the lens of a dream — as dreamt by the daughter of a dean. Julia Trevelyan Oman, the set designer, opted for a High Victorian approach, cluttering the interiors with bric-a-brac and taxidermy. Dick Bush, the cinematographer, purposefully shot in crisp, silvery black-and-white to evoke the work of early photographers such as Roger Fenton, Julia Margaret Cameron and of course Carroll himself — also using wide-angle lenses to distort proportions during the growth and shrinking scenes.

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All the scenes, with the exception of the final trial scene, were filmed on location at various country houses and estates in southern England, as well as at Sir John Soane’s Museum (for the Caterpillar, dusting architectural models). This approach, which differs significantly from the studio-based settings of most Alice films, creates a landscape of crumbling rectories, dusty churches, sculleries, meadows and walled gardens at the height of a Victorian summer.

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At the centre is a young actress whose performance as Alice has divided opinion over the years. Anne-Marie Malik, age 13, the daughter of a barrister, wanders through Wonderland with a characteristic silence and solemnity, a kind of detached, bohemian moodiness. This is completely at odds with almost all other adaptations, which portray Alice as a neat, rather cutesy sort of girl. Indeed, Miller chose Malik out of many other hopefuls precisely because of her sullen, nonchalant, seen-and-not-heard attitude, which he felt fitted his chosen Victorian mood. True to this notion, many of Alice’s lines are delivered in voiceover, without her opening her mouth — the dialogue with the Cheshire Cat, for example, is conducted as an imaginary conversation in her head as she strolls through a dappled forest. She appears to have little time for the absurdities of the (animal mask-less) adults around her, gazing into the distance and delivering her words in deadpan fashion.

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Her face is frequently framed with leaves and vines — this Alice is a child of nature, soon to mature into adulthood. Close-ups are reminiscent of Cameron portraits and Rossettian studies of the female face; there are so many arresting images and carefully composed tableaux that it is impossible to screenshot them all without essentially showing you the entire film. More than other Alice adaptations it achieves the authentically surreal atmosphere of a dream, but does so through simple feats of editing (cross-fading, for example), cinematography and sound.

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Another memorable aspect of the production is its soundtrack, composed of natural sounds (cooing wood pigeons are especially recurrent) and a score by Ravi Shankar, the Indian sitarist who most famously worked with the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released only months after Miller’s film was broadcast in December 1966. The clip below shows Shankar at work on recording passages for the film.

Miller has stated that he used sitar music to hark back to the British Empire in India, and also because the languid droning of the sitar echoes the buzzing of insects, the texture of dry grass, on a hot day. These intentions have been slightly lost on contemporary reviewers and bloggers, who tend to view the Shankar soundtrack as an attempt at ’60s psychedelica. Certainly it’s very much of its time, and sounds remarkably similar to ‘Within You, Without You’, the woozy, sitar-led song by George Harrison on Sgt. Pepper. Lewis Carroll, of course, appears among the cast of faces on Peter Blake’s album cover.

This has only been a short look at one of the more memorable and original Alice in Wonderland adaptations, a film whose details and subtleties repay multiple viewings. Thankfully it’s available on DVD, though in a slightly different release to the BFI disc from 2003 (which includes a highly informative commentary by Miller himself). Miller’s Alice, like the brilliant and equally distinctive 1988 film by Jan Švankmajer, remains something of a curio alongside the bigger, better-known versions by Disney, Hallmark and Tim Burton (not that Burton’s film was actually any good). However, anyone with an interest in Carroll and his Victorian milieu will, after seeking it out, certainly find the film a treat.

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Malcolm Muggeridge (Gryphon), Anne-Marie Malik (Alice) and John Gielgud (Mock Turtle). BFI.

Debussy and Rossetti: ‘La damoiselle élue’

I first heard this particular piece of music by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) through Ken Russell’s biopic of the composer, The Debussy Film (1965). It stars Oliver Reed as an actor playing Debussy in a film about the composer’s life — a most ‘meta’ plot. Pre-Raphaelite fans will know Russell’s other film from the 1960s, Dante’s Inferno: The Private Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Poet and Painter, released in 1967 and once again with Reed at its heart. The genesis of this Rossetti film can be seen in The Debussy Film, in a scene filmed at Tate Britain explaining the influence of Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist poetry and painting — both from England and France — on Debussy’s music (clip below).

Russell introduces the lovely La damoiselle élue in this scene by playing it over a medley of Pre-Raphaelite images, from the 1875-9 version of Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel, to Burne-Jones’s King Cophetua and The Golden Stairs, Millais’s The Knight Errant and Rossetti’s women of the 1860s. These paintings date from the later stages of Pre-Raphaelitism, after it had merged into the Aesthetic Movement; the famed ideals of art aspiring to the condition of music, which are often seen as fundamental to Aestheticism, were espoused in the writings of Walter Pater in England and Charles Baudelaire in France. Indeed, Debussy even set five of Baudelaire’s poems to music in the late 1880s, at around the same time he composed La damoiselle.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Blessed Damozel', 1871-9. Oil on canvas, 111 x 82.7 cm. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Blessed Damozel, 1871-9. Oil on canvas, 111 x 82.7 cm. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.
Fair copy manuscript of 'The Blessed Damozel', copied out by Rossetti and given to Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning in 1855. Morgan Library, New York / Rossetti Archive.
Fair copy manuscript of ‘The Blessed Damozel’, copied out by Rossetti and given to Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning in 1855. Morgan Library, New York / Rossetti Archive.

I discussed Rossetti’s first painted version of The Blessed Damozel (now in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard), and its relationship to his poem of the same name, in a previous post. It is interesting to consider, then, that Debussy’s La damoiselle élue can be doubly associated with both a painting and a poem, creating a kind of triangular relationship between three works of art by two different artists. According to Caroline Rae, however, Debussy is unlikely to have seen the original Blessed Damozel painting in person (I’m not sure if reproductions of Rossetti’s paintings were in circulation on the Continent at this time).

Debussy probably read a French translation of Rossetti’s ‘Damozel’ in a newly published anthology of English poetry, Poètes modernes d’Angleterre (1883), translated by Gabriel Sarrazin. Using Sarrazin’s text as the libretto, he composed La damoiselle élue from 1887-8; it was published in 1893, and first performed at the Société nationale in Paris in April that year. The opening notes of the piece beautifully evoke Rossetti’s image of the Damozel leaning out on the gold bar of heaven, her eyes deeper than the depth of waters stilled at even, with three lilies in hand and seven stars in her flowing hair ‘yellow like ripe corn.’ With the introduction of rising wind instruments, layered over the strings, comes the suggestion of looking heavenwards and seeing the heavenly lady in her place. The same effect is had when one stands before the painting, placed slightly above eye level like an altarpiece. This is followed by a heavenly chorus of female voices, echoing Rossetti’s lines ‘Her seemed she scarce had been a day / One of God’s choristers,’ as well as the angel attendants surrounding the Damozel in his painting.

Maurice Denis, Frontispiece to the score of Debussy's La damoiselle élue, published 1893.
Maurice Denis, frontispiece to the score of Debussy’s La damoiselle élue, published 1893.

It’s only a shame that Rossetti himself had died in 1883, and so would never have heard the music his art and poetry inspired.

The Kubrick Connection: some Pre-Raphaelite references in ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

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Stanley Kubrick’s final masterpiece, Eyes Wide Shut, was first released in July 1999, only a few months after the director’s death. It quickly gained notoriety because of its strong sexual content and its unusually long shooting period which ran from November 1996 to Feburary 1998. On a more gossipy note its two stars, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, were still married at the time. Critics and audiences were left baffled; its deliberate languid atmosphere and slow pacing is mesmerising to some but frustrating to others, while it was (and still is) alternatively viewed as an art film or pornography, or both. More recently Eyes Wide Shut has been subject to various Illuminati theories, often focusing on the infamous ritualistic masked orgy which takes place in a secluded country mansion halfway through the film (heavily censored in US releases). When I re-watched the film a while ago, I noticed some interesting Pre-Raphaelite details and thought I’d share my ‘findings’. Caution: there will be spoilers, and some images may be NSFW.

As the film’s striking poster makes clear (above), Eyes Wide Shut is adapted from the 1926 German-language novella Traumnovelle (often translated into English as Dream Story) by the Viennese doctor and dramatist Arthur Schnitzler. To quote the blurb of the 1999 Penguin edition: ‘Like his Viennese contemporary Sigmund Freud, Schnitzler was a bold pioneer in exploring the dark tangled roots of human sexuality.’ In adapting the novella Kubrick relocated the story from fin-de-siècle Vienna during Carnival season to modern-day New York during Christmas, though the central characters and narrative thread remain virtually the same. Kubrick’s reputation as an archetypal perfectionist director who controlled the details of every aspect of production, from sets to sound design, goes without saying. It is therefore intriguing that when Cruise’s character Dr Bill Harford (named Fridolin in Schnitzler’s book) enters a cafe near the end of the film, our attention is directed to two reproductions of Pre-Raphaelite paintings hanging on the walls. The first is John William Waterhouse’s Ophelia (1894) by the door when Harford walks in; the second is Rossetti’s Astarte Syriaca (1877) prominently placed over the table at which Harford sits (below).

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John William Waterhouse, Ophelia, 1894. Private collection.
John William Waterhouse, Ophelia, 1894. Private collection.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca, 1877. Oil on canvas, 185 x 109 cm. Manchester City Galleries.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca, 1877. Oil on canvas, 185 x 109 cm. Manchester City Galleries.

Both paintings echo events in the film’s narrative, also reflecting its mood of sensuality, ritualism and exoticism. The cafe scene takes place the night after the masked orgy, during which Harford, having infiltrated a secret society, is unmasked and sworn to keep silent about what he has seen (below).

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During his inquiries into the strange events of the previous night, Harford is followed through the Manhattan streets by a man who is apparently keeping an eye on him — as a distraction he stops at a newspaper stand before going into the cafe. Kubrick’s mis-en-scène often reflects the psychological states of his characters, through the use of colours, camera angles and intertextual references. As a clear example of this, the black-and-white print of a reclining woman directly behind Harford when he sits down changes to what looks like a more chaotic, nightmarish image in the next shot (below).

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Knowing Kubrick this is far from being a continuity error. The second picture brings to mind the lustful revelries he witnessed the previous night, and foretells the newspaper’s revelation in the next shot — the masked woman who saved his life at the orgy has apparently been found dead of a drug overdose (below). As in Schnitzler’s Dream Story, Harford then visits the city morgue and sees her body. Unlike Schnitzler’s novella, it also transpires that this is the same woman Harford had encountered at a party at the very beginning of the film, a prostitute unconscious from an overdose in an upstairs bathroom. Are you confused yet? Waterhouse’s Ophelia, depicting the tragic moment before a woman’s death by drowning, is therefore an apt inclusion in the film’s decor.

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Rossetti acknowledged that Astarte Syriaca, one of his late monumental masterpieces, was influenced by Eastern mythology. Astarte, the ancient Syrian goddess of love more formidable than Aphrodite or Venus, looms large from a 6-foot canvas against a solar eclipse, symmetrically flanked by two torch-bearing angels. With her broad shoulders, long limbs and neck, heavy lips and abundant wavy hair, she is an imposing, Michelangelesque figure. Viewers who stand before the painting are placed on a lower level; ‘with the face removed to the top of the tall canvas,’ writes Prettejohn, ‘the viewer feels abject or subordinated, like a kneeling worshipper before a religious image.’ Jane Burden Morris’s facial features and bodily proportions were heavily stylised by Rossetti, almost to the point of abstraction, and we wrote a strange sonnet to accompany the picture:

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 spheres’ 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.

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It is possible that Kubrick intended the reproduction of Astarte Syriaca hanging in the cafe to refer back to the sensual ritualism of the masked ball, in which a man dressed in a red cloak and hood and carrying a staff and smoking censer paces the circle of women, in a large hall with Middle-Eastern architecture (below). The masked woman who sacrifices herself to save Harford is also symmetrically framed in a statuesque manner against a flattened, abstracted background from a similarly low vantage point — though this is a rather more tenuous link to Rossetti’s painting. In a more general sense, the inclusion of Astarte Syriaca is in keeping with the film’s dreamlike tone, which uses repetition (of locations, characters, music, colours, camera shots) to lull viewers into its slow rhythm.

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Eyes Wide Shut is also rich with references to the Viennese art of the 1900s which inflects Schnitzler’s original literary text. The paintings adorning the walls of Bill and Alice’s large apartment are reminiscent of Klimt and the Symbolists, and Kubrick’s continual, strategic use of mirrors, reflections and masks carry clear connotations of fantasy and identity. As a final point, for some reason one of the final shots of Kidman in the film reminded me of Rossetti’s Helen of Troy, or indeed any of the artist’s studies of  women with long feathery curls.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Helen of Troy, 1863. Oil on panel, 31 x 27 cm. Hamburger Kunsthalle.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Helen of Troy, 1863. Oil on panel, 31 x 27 cm. Hamburger Kunsthalle.

William Morris’s ‘The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems’: a neglected classic?

William Morris in his early 20s, photographed by Walker & Boutall, 1855-7. Source: National Portrait Gallery.
William Morris in his early 20s, photographed by Walker & Boutall, 1855-7. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Victorian poetry is still widely studied in schools and universities in the UK. Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy and Lewis Carroll usually crop up somewhere, and particular poems, such as Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott’, Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’, Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ and Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’, have entered the public imagination. But where, I tentatively ask, is William Morris? Certainly his visual art gets recognised — I remember a friend at undergrad telling me she studied Morris patterns in school art lessons — and more recently his wide-reaching political ideals were the subject of the National Portrait Gallery’s Anarchy and Beauty exhibition. The poetry for which he was equally well-known in his lifetime apparently never made the same leap into twenty-first century recognition and understanding. Today it seems many people are unaware that Morris wrote and published a prodigious amount for most of his life — so much so that after Tennyson’s death in 1892 he was offered the title of Poet Laureate, but declined. If he had accepted, perhaps things would’ve gone differently for his poetry. However, I may be completely wrong in assuming that the only people who still read Morris’s poetry today are the keen scholars and enthusiasts of Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite culture (there are a lot of us!).

Title-page of Morris's first published book of poems. Source: William Morris Archive.
Title-page of the first edition of Morris’s first published book of poems, 1858. Source: William Morris Archive.

Morris’s first collection, The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, has fast become one of my favourite books of poems by a single writer. He was only 24 years old when it was published in 1858, and had written many of the poems while an undergraduate at Exeter College, Oxford from 1852-6, and while he assisted Rossetti with the Oxford Union murals in 1857. On first entering Oxford, as is well-known, he instantly found a lifelong friend in the young Edward Burne-Jones. The two deepened their shared love of the history, architecture, art and literature of the Middle Ages, and devoured Robert Southey’s 1817 reprint of Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century collection of Arthurian legends, Morte d’Arthur. In 1855, while visiting the house of Thomas Combe at Oxford, the young men saw their first Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Hunt, Millais and Rossetti — but it was the latter’s watercolour Dante drawing an Angel on the First Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death (1853) which enthralled them most. Burne-Jones was able to meet the artist in 1856, and Rossetti recruited him and Morris to paint the Arthurian murals the following year (Morris chose to depict Sir Palomides’s Jealousy of Sir Tristram and La Belle Iseult). Under these very specific conditions, in this rarefied atmosphere of high-spirited medievalism particular to Oxford in which, Georgiana Burne-Jones later recalled, ‘Edward and Morris were alone and communed with each other in their own world of imagination,’ Morris began to write poems glimmering with strange, vivid impressions of medieval life. The tendency had clearly started young: as a child, apparently, he took to dressing in replica armour and riding through Epping Forest on a small pony to admire the faded tapestries in Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Blue Closet', 1856-7. Watercolour on paper, 35.4 x 26 cm. Tate.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Blue Closet, 1856-7. Watercolour on paper, 35.4 x 26 cm. Tate.

For some reason I find the poem titles as beautiful as the poems themselves, establishing an alliterative, sing-song, fairy tale quality from the outset: ‘Sir Galahad: A Christmas Mystery’, ‘Rapunzel’, ‘The Gilliflower of Gold’, ‘The Eve of Crecy’, ‘The Little Tower’, ‘The Blue Closet’, ‘The Tune of Seven Towers’, ‘Golden Wings’, ‘Two Red Roses Across the Moon’, and so on. Already an enigmatic, dreamlike atmosphere suggests itself — for we wonder what on earth is a gilliflower of gold, or a blue closet, or a tune of seven towers? What would the tune of seven towers sound like? Perhaps the word ‘suggests’ is the most important here: these poems rarely reveal everything at once, but often remain tantalisingly elusive, withholding solutions, even at their end. They are more like mood-pieces than articulations of particular narratives — as if, instead of simply retelling the types of chivalric stories Morris found in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, he was keen to evoke the colours, sounds and emotions one might experience inside a medieval romance. Indeed, his characters are often entrapped or enclosed in mysterious, isolated locations — an castle on the sea, a tower in a thick wood, a ruined chapel at night — and the reader is drawn momentarily in with them. The general tone, then, is akin to Pre-Raphaelite visual art of the mid-to-late 1850s, especially the watercolours and drawings of Rossetti and Burne-Jones which also act as windows onto imagined medieval worlds populated with melancholy knights, damozels and courtiers. The Rossetti watercolour above, The Blue Closet, directly inspired the Morris poem of the same name, and Morris actually dedicated The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems to Rossetti.

Edward Burne-Jones, The Knight's Farewell, 1858. Pen and ink on vellum. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Edward Burne-Jones, The Knight’s Farewell, 1858. Pen and ink on vellum, 17.6 x 24.2 cm.. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Another Rossetti painting which intrigued Morris enough to write a poem is the watercolour The Tune of Seven Towers (below). We must be cautious, however, about attempting to understand the picture through the poem, and vice versa; each is a separate imaginative work in its own right, and apart from sharing the same title the two actually bear little resemblance to one another. Many years later, in 1872, Rossetti himself famously wrote of Morris’s work: ‘the poems were the result of the pictures, but do not at all tally to my purpose with them, although beautiful in themselves.’ Morris’s ‘The Tune of Seven Towers’ is a perfect example of the kind of lyrical mysteriousness (excuse that vague phrase) outlined in the previous paragraph — very little actually happens in it, but there is much dreamlike, even gothic imagery as well as (like Rossetti’s watercolour, actually) an air of sadness, isolation and entrapment. The best way to explain it is to show it:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Tune of the Seven Towers, 1857. Watercolour on paper, 31.4 x 36.5 cm. Tate.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Tune of the Seven Towers, 1857. Watercolour on paper, 31.4 x 36.5 cm. Tate.

No one goes there now:
For what is left to fetch away
From the desolate battlements all arow,
And the lead roof heavy and grey?
‘Therefore,’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

No one walks there now;
Except in the white moonlight
The white ghosts walk in a row;
If one could see it, an awful sight,–
‘Listen!’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

But none can see them now,
Though they sit by the side of the moat,
Feet half in the water, there in a row,
Long hair in the wind afloat.
‘Therefore,’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

If he will go to it now,
He must go to it all alone,
Its gates will not open to any row
Of glittering spears — will you go alone?
‘Listen!’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

By my love go there now,
To fetch me my coif away,
My coif and my kirtle with pearls arow,
Oliver, go to-day!
‘Therefore,’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

I am unhappy now,
I cannot tell you why;
If you go, the priests and I in a row
Will pray that you may not die.
‘Listen!’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

If you will go for me now,
I will kiss your mouth at last;
[She sayeth inwardly]
(The graves stand grey in a row.)
Oliver, hold me fast!
‘Therefore,’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

What, then, can we be certain of in this poem? Already the opening images of ‘desolate battlements’, ‘the lead roof heavy and grey’ and ‘white moonlight’ in which ‘white ghosts walk in a row’ do not fit with the rich, glowing colours of Rossetti’s watercolour. In stanza 4 there is a subtle shift from a third-person to a first-person narrator, though their speech is not in speech marks: ‘If he will go to it now, / He must go to it all alone, / […] Will you go alone?’ The remaining stanzas are apparently spoken by this unnamed woman, whom we might take to be the lady in red sitting in the peculiar chair in Rossetti’s Seven Towers; while Oliver, the man she addresses, is surely the figure dressed in green and gold sitting mournfully beside her. Again, we can’t be certain of this. In stanza 5 the lady engages Oliver on some sort of quest to retrieve her coif and her kirtle ‘with pearls arow’; if he does go, she says in the next stanza, she and the priests will pray he may not die. In the final stanza she promises to kiss him if he returns — but he apparently does not, and after a rather cinematic cutaway shot in parentheses of ‘(The graves stand grey in a row)’ she cries ‘Oliver, hold me fast!’ and the poem ends. Has he died? Has she died? Have they now become the white ghosts mentioned at the start, sitting by the edge of the moat with ‘long hair in the wind afloat’? Or were they always ghosts, doomed forever to enact the same empty ritual? The refrain at the end of each stanza (a common feature of Morris’s poems), ‘ “Therefore/Listen!” said Fair Yoland of the flowers, / This is the tune of Seven Towers.”‘ gives no clues.

William Morris, La Belle Iseult, 1857-8. Oil on canvas, 71.8 50.2 cm. Tate.
William Morris, La Belle Iseult, 1857-8. Oil on canvas, 71.8 50.2 cm. Tate.

In today’s age of clear-cut answers and thirsted-for fact, ‘The Tune of Seven Towers’ and the other poems in Morris’s Defence of Guenevere are self-contained mysteries which repay quiet, contemplative readings and re-readings. Some do have more of a narrative focus: the title poem, ‘The Defence of Guenevere’, was inspired by Robert Browning’s psychological dramatic monologues and is told from the perspective of Queen Guenevere as she recounts her affair with Sir Launcelot in a long speech of self-vindication. Its prominence within the collection led to Morris’s only surviving easel painting, La Belle Iseult (above) being frequently mis-titled as Queen Guenevere over the years. Admittedly I’m a fan of literary works with ambiguities and open-endings — the two examples I always use are Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Joan Lindsay’s novel/Peter Weir’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock, both of which resist the traditional tell-all ending and are all the more memorable for it (people still speculate what ‘went on’ with the governess; people will always be wondering what on earth happened to the three schoolgirls and their teacher on Hanging Rock).

Edward Burne-Jones (left) and William Morris, photographed by Frederick Hollyer in 1874. Platinum print. National Portrait Gallery.
Edward Burne-Jones (left) and William Morris, photographed by Frederick Hollyer in 1874. Platinum print. National Portrait Gallery.

Victorian critics were mostly baffled by, and disparaging of Morris’s book. In April 1858 the Athenaeum rejected Morris’s ‘book of Pre-Raphaelite minstrelsy as a curiosity which shows how far affectation may mislead an earnest man towards the fog-land of Art.’ To add to this, the work was not a commercial success — although, as Dinah Roe points out, contemporary observers did identify it as the first book of Pre-Raphaelite poetry. In 1933 Laurence Houseman (brother of A. E.) published a lecture he had given in 1929, titled ‘Pre-Raphaelitism in Art and Poetry’. Describing a passage from Morris’s ‘Sir Peter Harpdon’s End’, he declares: ‘This is your Pre-Raphaelite picture, with its strange blend of detailed externality and intense inwardness of feeling.’ Near the end he singles out The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, ‘partly because I think its beauty is insufficiently recognised, partly because in no other does the spirit of the Pre-Raphaelite movement so clearly declare itself.’ The book therefore stands as an important landmark in English poetry as the first cohesive literary product of an art movement whose influence is still felt today.

Although the book itself is now out of print, a generous selection was included in the Penguin Classics anthology The Pre-Raphaelites: From Rossetti to Ruskin, edited by Dinah Roe. A particularly good edition to get is Volume 1 of The Collected Works of William Morris, edited by William’s daughter May and first published in 1910. It includes not only The Defence of Guenevere in its entirety, but also Morris’s equally haunting, dreamlike early short stories, such as ‘The Story of the Unknown Church’, ‘Lindenborg Pool’ and ‘The Hollow Land’, from The Hollow Land and Other Contributions to the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. A reprinted facsimile of this edition is available on Amazon through print-on-demand. I’ll leave you with this beautifully simple passage from ‘Rapunzel’, of course based upon the fairy tale and which inspired Morris to decorate a medieval-style chair with a now-faded image of ‘Glorious Guendolen’s golden hair’ (below):

THE PRINCE
For leagues and leagues I rode,
Till hot my armour grew,
Till underneath the leaves
I felt the evening dew.

THE WITCH
Rapunzel, Rapunzel,
Weep through your hair!

RAPUNZEL
And yet — but I am growing old,
For want of love my heart is cold,
Years pass, the while I loose and fold
The fathoms of my hair.

William Morris and D. G. Rossetti, Glorious Guendolen's Golden Hair, c. 1856-7. Painted chair. Delaware Art Museum.
William Morris and D. G. Rossetti, Glorious Guendolen’s Golden Hair, c. 1856-7. Painted chair. Delaware Art Museum.

Pre-Raphaelites at the Fogg Museum, Harvard University

It is difficult to find substantial collections of Pre-Raphaelite art outside the UK. The largest is at the Delaware Art Museum, which I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, and I’d long been aware that the Fogg Museum at Harvard University also has a brilliant collection of works by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Hunt. When I first visited Boston, last August, the Fogg was at the very end of its six-year, multi-million dollar redevelopment and so was closed — but last month I was able to return to Cambridge, MA, and finally see it for myself.

Level 2, Room 2013 of the Fogg. From left to right: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Blessed Damozel' and 'A Sea-Spell'; Edward Burne-Jones, 'Day' and 'Night'.
Level 2, Room 2130 of the Fogg. From left to right: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Blessed Damozel’ and ‘A Sea-Spell’; Edward Burne-Jones, ‘Day’ and ‘Night’.
Level 2, Room 2013 of the Fogg.
Level 2, Room 2130 of the Fogg. Left to right: Gustave Moreau, ‘The Infant Moses’; William Holman Hunt, ‘The Triumph of the Innocents’; Daniel Chester French, ‘Spirit of the Waters’; Edward Burne-Jones, ‘Venus Epithalamia’, ‘Helen of Troy’, ‘Perseus and Andromeda’ and ‘Danaë watching the building of the Brazen Tower’.

The above photos give an impression of the museum’s light, uncluttered galleries, and also of the large proportions of Rossetti’s masterwork The Blessed Damozel, of which the Fogg version of 1871-8 is the original (below). One of the few paintings Rossetti based on one of his own poems (he usually worked the other way round), it is a synthesis of his favourite themes: love, death, female beauty, ‘floral adjuncts’, a kind of sensual, even pagan spirituality. The aforementioned poem, also titled ‘The Blessed Damozel’, was one of his earliest — the first draft dates from 1847 — and was particularly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ in its exploration of a beautiful heavenly lady mourned by her earthly lover. The latter occupies the narrow predella below, reclining in a shadowy grove; the predella format, a common feature in medieval and Italian Renaissance altarpieces, heightens the viewer’s sense of participating in the worship or veneration of beauty. Certain details of Rossetti’s literary work — those featured in the stanzas inscribed along the bottom of the frame he designed himself (below) — correspond with the painting, such as the three lilies held by the Damozel, the (almost) seven stars haloing her head, and the ‘newly met’ lovers embracing around her in Paradise. An especially striking feature of the picture is its thick, fluid brushwork, characteristic of Rossetti’s ‘Venetian’-inspired style from the 1860s onward, and a glistening quality to the paint presumably caused by the glazing.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Blessed Damozel', 1871-8. Oil on canvas, 212.1 x 133 x 8.9 cm (framed).
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Blessed Damozel’, 1871-8. Oil on canvas, 212.1 x 133 x 8.9 cm (framed). Source: Harvard Art Museums.
The earthly lover in the 'Blessed Damozel' predella.
The earthly lover in the ‘Blessed Damozel’ predella.
Poem by Rossetti, 'The Blessed Damozel', inscribed on the lower frame
Poem by Rossetti, ‘The Blessed Damozel’, inscribed on the lower frame.

Also on display is Rossetti’s A Sea-Spell, another large, opulent oil from the 1870s (below). As became the artist’s standard practice, the picture is paired with a sonnet inscribed on the frame and first published in his collection Ballads and Sonnets (1881). It’s hardly surprising that the mythology of the siren appealed to Rossetti’s artistic and poetic imagination — a motif in which female beauty proves devastating, fatal, in luring mariners to their deaths on the rocks. The sonnet itself is a beautiful arrangement of hypnotic alliteration:

Her lute hangs shadowed in the apple-tree,
While flashing fingers weave the sweet-strung spell
Between its chords; […]
She sinks into her spell: and when full moon
Her lips move and she soars into her song.

In both poem and painting the siren is trapped in an endless cycle of becoming mesmerised by her own song. Her tensed hands and wistful expression (modelled, like The Blessed Damozel, by Alexa Wilding) betray a sadness and ennui, while her lavish tresses of coppery hair, entangled in the branch above her head, further entrap her and indicate the passage of time through their long length. The composition is flat, claustrophobic and airless despite the outdoor setting, with only a hint of the sea between the leaves on the far left — in fact, without this small section of water, the seagull and the accompanying poem, there is no indication that the lady’s bower is by the ocean.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'A Sea-Spell', 1875-7. Oil on canvas, 111.5 x 93 cm (unframed).
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘A Sea-Spell’, 1875-7. Oil on canvas, 111.5 x 93 cm (unframed). Source: Harvard Art Museums.

Two rich, impressive paintings by Hunt are also on show on the second floor: a version of The Triumph of the Innocents (below), and The Miracle of the Holy Fire, Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While both works are deeply religious, they each express a different facet of Hunt’s artistic programme. The Triumph vividly depicts the supernatural moment from the New Testament when the souls of the infants slain during the Massacre of the Innocents frolic jubilantly round the Holy Family fleeing Bethlehem (an event commonly referred to as the Flight into Egypt). With its visionary atmosphere, and being essentially an imagined scene, it is in the same vein as Hunt’s The Light of the World.

William Holman Hunt, 'The Triumph of the Innocents', 1870-1903. Oil on canvas, 75.3 x 126 cm (unframed).
William Holman Hunt, ‘The Triumph of the Innocents’, 1870-1903. Oil on canvas, 75.3 x 126 cm (unframed). Source: Harvard Art Museums.

On the other hand The Miracle of the Holy Fire (below) attempts to record, with a meticulous realism characteristic of the artist, a ceremony which still happens annually on Holy Saturday at Christ’s tomb in the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem — as observed by the Greek Orthodoxy. An Orthodox patriarch enters the tomb alone and prays, before emerging with what is believed to be the miraculous Holy Fire which is then disseminated to the gathering of candle-bearing worshippers. Contemporary photographs of the event illustrate how little the scene has changed since Hunt painted it. His composition is so panoramic and lively that the miraculous fire seems secondary to the many other figures and interactions within the crowd. Therefore, any sense of supernaturalism and religious awe evoked by the ceremony must also compete with Hunt’s microscopic interest in real people (each face could be an individual portrait), real lives and historical, anthropological authenticity. However, it could ultimately enforce the idea that without human belief, human worship and human interaction, miracles such as the Holy Fire could never take place — a meeting-point between man and the divine.

William Holman Hunt, 'The Miracle of the Sacred Fire, Church of the Holy Sepulchre', 1892-9. Oil and resin on canvas, 92.1 x 125.7 cm (unframed).
William Holman Hunt, ‘The Miracle of the Sacred Fire, Church of the Holy Sepulchre’, 1892-9. Oil and resin on canvas, 92.1 x 125.7 cm (unframed). Source: Harvard Art Museums.

Prior to my visit I had asked to see specific works not on public display. This was actually easily done — Harvard Art Museums have made their collection as accessible as possible, allowing anyone (not just Harvard students) to view particular works on request in the new study rooms upstairs (though for practical purposes the really large paintings and sculptures can’t be brought up from storage). It just so happens that the Fogg holds an impressive number of Rossetti works on paper, which, for my MA dissertation on his watercolours, were fascinating to examine up-close in a well-lit and quiet surrounding. I’d expected the works to be simply mounted in the usual archival fashion — instead, they were hung along the wall in their distinctive original frames. Among them were a large watercolour replica of DGR’s famed Beata Beatrix (the first version, painted in oils from 1864-70, is at Tate Britain), and the watercolour Lucrezia Borgia, a replica of an earlier watercolour of 1860-1 now also in the Tate. It was encouraging to see one of the driving points of my thesis — that Rossetti continued producing watercolours long into the 1860s and ’70s — so much in evidence, and it would be great to see the Fogg make more of their superb collection in future.

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D. G. Rossetti, ‘Beata Beatrix’, 1871, watercolour version (left); ‘Lucrezia Borgia’, 1871.

The above works ensure that the Fogg is one of the best places to see Pre-Raphaelite art outside the UK. No P.R.B. or general Victorian art pilgrimage in Boston is complete without a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, home to Rossetti’s pivotal painting Bocca Baciata (below), Burne-Jones’s Hope, Leighton’s The Painter’s Honeymoon and William J. Webbe’s charming Rabbit amid Ferns (below); then to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, an enchanting poem of a house containing a Rossetti panel, Love’s Greeting, as well as Whistlers, Sargents and art objects from throughout history.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Bocca Baciata', 1859. Oil on panel,
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Bocca Baciata’, 1859. Oil on panel, 32.1 x 27 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
William J. Webbe, 'Rabbit amid Ferns and Flowering Plants', 1855. Oil on canvas, 35.6 x 35.6 cm.
William J. Webbe, ‘Rabbit amid Ferns and Flowering Plants’, 1855. Oil on canvas, 35.6 x 35.6 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Pre-Raphaelites at the Ashmolean: ‘Great British Drawings’

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Prosperpine' (detail), 1871. Pastel on paper, 97 x 46 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Twitter.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Prosperpine’ (detail), 1871. Pastel on paper, 97 x 46 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Twitter.

The Ashmolean Museum at Oxford holds one of the best collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in the country. Gems by John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Hughes, Ford Madox Brown and Frederick Sandys, among others, occupy the walls of the upstairs gallery (see rather poor-quality iPhone photo below), as well as sculptures by Alexander Munro and the impressive Prioress’s Tale Wardrobe painted by Burne-Jones. A frequent haunt of my undergraduate years at Oxford Brookes, this week I returned to the museum to see drawings and watercolours by Rossetti in the Western Art Print Room (strangely enough, though I didn’t realise it at the time, on the artist’s birthday) and also the brilliant current exhibition Great British Drawings.

The Pre-Raphaelite galleries at the Ashmolean Museum. From left to right: Millais, 'The Return of the Dove to the Ark'; Hunt, 'A Converted British Family sheltering a Missionary'; Charles Allston Collins, 'Convent Thoughts'.
The Pre-Raphaelite galleries at the Ashmolean Museum. From left to right: Millais, ‘The Return of the Dove to the Ark’; Hunt, ‘A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids’; Charles Allston Collins, ‘Convent Thoughts’.

The exhibition showcases some of the Ashmolean’s finest drawings and watercolours by British artists from the seventeenth century to the present day. It’s divided into five sections: Likeness, Sensibility & Vision: 1650-1830Travel & TopographyRuskin & the Pre-RaphaelitesDiversity & ConflictCaricature and Satire. For the purposes of this blog I will highlight a few of the works in the third section which appealed to me most.

Arthur Hughes, 'The Knight of the Sun', 1860-61. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper, 22.3 x 31.6 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
Arthur Hughes, ‘The Knight of the Sun’, 1860-61. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper, 22.3 x 31.6 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.

Arthur Hughes painted The Knight of the Sun as a watercolour replica of an oil painting of the same name, which had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860. According to Frederic George Stephens the picture ‘illustrates a legend, an incident of which declared how an old knight, whose badge was a sun, and who had led a Christian life throughout his career, was borne out of his castle to see, for the last time, the setting of the luminary he loved.’ To some degree, then, the picture is underpinned with a narrative, albeit an obscure one (the exact source of this legend is never described); but the concern here is much more with mood and atmosphere, with the gentle melancholy of sunset symbolising the passing of life. As with Millais’s Autumn Leaves (1855-56), Hughes heightens this sense of transience through an autumnal setting, as indicated by the spindly branches against the twilit sky in the top-right corner — these counterbalanced with the deep forest of evergreens from which the solemn medieval procession emerges. On a more technical note, his opaque, rich handling of his watercolours reflects the influence of Rossetti’s own paintings in that medium — more on that shortly.

John Everett Millais, 'The Death of the Old Year', illustration for 'The Moxon Tennyson', 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.7 x 8.4 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
John Everett Millais, ‘The Death of the Old Year’, illustration for ‘The Moxon Tennyson’, 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.7 x 8.4 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
John Everett Millais, 'Mariana', illustration for 'The Moxon Tennyson', 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.6 x 7.9 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
John Everett Millais, ‘Mariana’, illustration for ‘The Moxon Tennyson’, 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.6 x 7.9 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
John Everett Millais, 'St Agnes Eve', illustration for 'The Moxon Tennyson', 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.7 x 7.2 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
John Everett Millais, ‘St Agnes Eve’, illustration for ‘The Moxon Tennyson’, 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.7 x 7.2 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.

Above are three of the five original pen and ink illustrations Millais produced for the 1857 edition of Tennyson’s Poems, published by Edward Moxon — hence the frequently-used title of The Moxon Tennyson. It proved to be one of the most influential illustrated books of the Victorian period, with other drawings by Rossetti (for ‘The Lady of Shalott’, ‘The Palace of Art’, ‘Sir Galahad’) and Hunt (for ‘The Lady of Shalott’, ‘Godiva’, ‘Oriana’), among other radical artists. For their very small size Millais’s illustrations are highly finished and detailed. He had already depicted Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’ in his gorgeous oil painting of 1851 (now in the Tate), but the drawing has a far more despondent, derelict tone — gone are the vivid colours and upright woman — in keeping with Mariana’s woeful speech repeated throughout the poem:

She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, weary,
I would that I were dead!’

My favourite detail in the ‘St Agnes Eve’ drawing is the little breath of mist from the mouth of the poem’s narrator — exactly what could be expected from standing in a cold convent staircase in the middle of winter and wearing only a nightgown!

Deep on the convent-roof the snows
Are sparkling to the moon:
My breath to heaven like vapour goes;
May my soul follow soon!

‘The Death of the Old Year’, as the title suggests, is a meditation on life’s eternal cycle:

Full knee-deep lies the winter snow,
And the winter winds are wearily sighing:
Toll ye the church-bell sad and slow,
And tread softly and speak slow,
For the old year lies a-dying.

There is a sense of optimism in the poem; in the final stanza a ‘new foot’ is heard and a ‘new face’ seen at the door, that of the New Year. Millais’s drawing has the wintery landscape with snow piled at the belfry window, and an air of quiet stillness before the bell rings out in animated life — at which point the owl will presumably take wing and flee. As a side note, I liked the curatorial decision to frame the five drawings together under one mount.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Elizabeth Siddal', 1855. Pen and brown and black ink on paper, with some scratching out, 13 x 11.2 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Facebook.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Elizabeth Siddal’, 1855. Pen and brown and black ink on paper, with some scratching out, 13 x 11.2 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Facebook.

Of the many drawings Rossetti made of Elizabeth Siddall this is undoubtedly my favourite, and it was a treat to finally see it in person; its small size, smaller even than a postcard, surprised me. To scrutinise it under the lens of the Rossetti-Siddall romantic biography is almost to distract from its power as a solo, full-face, head-and-shoulders portrait of a woman — though undoubtedly Rossetti’s affection for her is manifested in the drawing’s sense of intimacy and its tender delineation of Siddall’s downcast eyes and pursed lips. The exhibition catalogue makes the interesting observation, easy to forget, that the portrait was probably drawn by gaslight, and also that Rossetti scratched away some of the ink to achieve the effects of light and shadow.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Ruth Herbert', 1858. Graphite on paper framed as an oval, 50.8 x 43 cm (frame). Source: artfund.org.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Ruth Herbert’, 1858. Graphite on paper framed as an oval, 50.8 x 43 cm (frame). Source: artfund.org.

This beautiful drawing of the Victorian actress Louisa Ruth Herbert was acquired by the Ashmolean last year, along with a few other Rossettis (I was fortunate enough to be shown another portrait of Herbert, in watercolour, in the Print Room). Rossetti first saw Herbert at the Olympic Theatre in London in February 1856, only a few months after her official stage debut — as with Siddall, Jane Morris and Fanny Cornforth he sketched Herbert in numerous poses and varying degrees of decorum. The above has all the qualities of a Rossetti ‘stunner’, with abundant wavy hair, a long-throated neck, full lips and heavy-lidded eyes, lending it a definite air of sensuality despite the neat collar of her dress beneath. The drawing itself is finely detailed (note the stray strands of hair) with an overall softness.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Dante drawing an Angel on the First Anniversary of Beatrice's Death', 1853. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper, 42 x 61 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Facebook.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Dante drawing an Angel on the First Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death’, 1853. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper, 42 x 61 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Facebook.

I have Rossetti’s watercolours on the brain at the moment, so it was a joy to examine one of his largest and most sumptuously coloured pictures at my leisure. The subject is related to Dante Alighieri’s 13th-century autobiographic text La Vita Nuova, one of Rossetti’s favourite pictorial sources which he also translated from the Italian in the 1840s. His brother William Michael posed for the figure of Dante, who, as the title suggests, has been drawing an angel a year after the death of his beloved Beatrice Portinari. What really came home to me in standing before the picture is that it presents the act of the visionary painter: rather than sketching the Florentine cityscape visible through the window, Dante has turned his gaze inwards for a far more unearthly vision, though one perhaps suggested by the curious angel heads lining the cornice of his chamber. Like Rossetti, too, Dante becomes both poet and painter; the latter is evident from the flasks of colour on the windowsill. The exhibition catalogue succinctly describes the artist’s highly inventive watercolour technique: ‘Rossetti painstakingly applied the almost dry pigment, giving a deep saturation of colour quite unlike the effect of traditional watercolour washes, but akin to the appearance of medieval manuscript illumination.’ The traditional layering of broad transparent washes, usually associated with the landscapes of Turner and others, are represented elsewhere in the exhibition, and it is a rare opportunity to compare such equally radical but aesthetically and technically different watercolour techniques.

Great British Drawings is on at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 31 August.

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