It’s time for another visit to Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. We’ve been here a few times before, looking at canvases depicting interiors, portraits, seascapes.
Now we look back to an imagined Middle Ages, courtesy of a Pre-Raphaelite painter, plus another artist influenced by that backwards-looking movement.
Finally in this post I cross the Bristol Channel to glance at another PRB painting in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, Amgueddfa Cymru. What is the appeal of this rosy-tinted view of the past?
The first canvas is by Edward Burne-Jones. Completed in 1894 (though begun a few years before) The Garden Court is one of four vignettes in the Legend of the Briar Rose series, based on the moment that the visiting prince arrives at the castle of Dornröschen (‘Little Briar Rose’), the Sleeping Beauty of the Brothers Grimm tales.
One version of the series of canvases, at the National Trust property of Buscot Park, was painted between 1885 and 1890. In the stately home are displayed the four vignettes, entitled The Briar Wood (where the prince appears), The Council Chamber, The Garden Court and The Rose Bower (where the Princess is sleeping). The Bristol canvas therefore duplicates the third in the sequence, and the scene is described in an attached verse by fellow Pre-Raphaelite William Morris thus:
The maiden pleasance of the land,
Knoweth no stir of voice or hand,
No cup the sleeping waters fill,
The restless shuttle lieth still.
The six maidens in the painting have rather elegantly fallen asleep where they were working, drawing water in pitchers and working at the kind of loom that Morris and the other Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood would have been familiar with in the Arts and Craft movement.
The Buscot version has colours which aren’t as pastel, and which instead of a garden appears to depict the courtyard of the Sleeping Beauty’s castle. But both paintings (and also the various sketches, which can be found with a little searching online) have the same basic composition, based on a double square.
Let’s take each square of the Bristol version in order. The left hand portion shows three women (as does the right hand one) but this trio has been drawing water from the well; this can be seen behind two of the maids, who are sitting on the octagonal stone plinth surrounding the well head, their pitcher and ewer thoughtfully positioned so they won’t spill their contents. The third female, her head wrapped in a scarf, a sash girdling her waist, has slumped to the ground and is leaning against the wooden pillar to the right.
They appear to be in some kind of rose arbour — until one looks more closely, when it’s evident that the cruel thorns, echoes of the sharp spindle which sent the princess to sleep, are part of the dense undergrowth which has grown up around the palace. The delicate pink of the rose petals is offset by the rich colours on the maidens’ robes — dark green, blue and rose pink.
To the left is a sundial swathed in a briar, a reminder that time has stopped for all within the palace, even as the mirrored marble reflecting the female to the right shows no trace of dust or dulling.
The right hand part of the painting is conveniently framed by the loom, but within it are three more figures — in emerald and leaf greens, blues and purple. The loom weights hang free, and the weft half completed. Feet are again reflected, and balls of yarns have fallen from the lap of the female in the middle of this group.
The postures of the young women accentuate the notion of them frozen in time: for instead of our eye being drawn, as in many compositions, from left to right, our gaze is taken back towards the figure on the far left (and to the sundial?) by the positions of the other heads. The red robe left of centre has this effect too. Yet notice the arcs created by the recumbent shapes and the curving brambles contrasting with the formal double square, softening the effect already suggested by the fabrics, the delicate limbs, the balls of yarn and the rounded water jars.
I must have been lucky to have seen this picture on my last visit: it was in storage for a few years until 2015.
The next image is also inspired by a fairytale theme: Sir Frank Dicksee (pronounced Dixie, ultimately derived from the name Benedict) painted La Belle Dame sans Merci in around 1901, and it also now resides in Bristol, where I used to see it regularly on the stairs as I ascended to an upper gallery. Completed as Victoria’s reign gave way to the Edwardian era, it depicts a garlanded woman riding sidesaddle and leaning down to kiss a clearly enthralled knight. His right hand grasps the horse’s breastcollar, just above his helmet which is strapped to the girth and round which is wound the lady’s scarf or favour.
Dicksee has based his subject on Keats’ 1819 poem La Belle Dame sans Merci, in which a knight is beguiled by a fairy lover, not realising that he is in danger.
I met a Lady in the meads
Full beautiful, a fairy’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
On the frame above the canvas is a plaque quoting a later stanza from the poem:
‘I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.’
She lulls the knight to sleep on a flowery hillside, but in a dream he sees “pale kings and princes too, | Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; | They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci | Thee hath in thrall!’”
Despite the warnings on their starved lips it is too late: when he wakes he roams alone and palely loitering on a hill by a lake as everything withers around him. In the painting our gaze is held by that intimate look with which she has beguiled him. But an intimation that all may not go well is indicated by petals fluttering from the garland he’d placed on her brow, and by the brown spots on the leaves by his left arm.
The metal rosettes on the breastplate and palmate decorations on the faulds are meant to remind us of natural forms in the meadow but they are, of course, sterile. In contrast, at bottom right we can see the live blooms of either a sweet briar rose (which begins flowering in late spring) or a dog rose (which appears in June or July).
As with Burne-Jones’ Briar Rose painting we ponder the significance of the thorny plants: as another entity which might also ensnare the unwary the bewitching fairy — with her withering rose garland — is someone to be extremely cautious of.
Before we leave Dicksee’s canvas it may be worth noting that the knight’s pose is reminiscent of sacred works: there is a kind of religious ecstasy to his look and stance that evokes saints icons. That the fairy is wearing a rose red dress suggests passion, either religious or sexual, though I should point out that in folklore fairies could be dressed in a variety of colours, including red. John Kruse’s blog, British Fairies, noted recent surveys of fairy sightings which reported that
one third of fairies seen are dressed in green. Twenty per cent wear brown, twelve per cent red and ten per cent white or cream. A scattering of other colours — blue, yellow, black — account for the rest.
The final image also involves a rose: Fair Rosamund, or rosa mundi, ‘the rose of the world’. She was the mistress of Henry II, supposedly sequestered in a bower away from Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. This ‘bower’ was most likely a timber-framed retreat by Woodstock in Oxfordshire, maybe even within some maze-like topiary gardens, since the legend has it that Rosamund de Clifford was enclosed within an impenetrable labyrinth (impenetrable, that is, to Eleanor).
The Cardiff painting is by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and entitled, naturally, Fair Rosamund. Here is the king’s mistress, standing on a balcony looking out for the approach of her lover. Behind her is a window with bluish bull’s-eye panes, before her a balustrade, thoughtfully decorated with a green-and-black pattern of repeated hearts surmounted by crowns, an indication of her status as Henry’s kept woman.
There are touches of other colours — green in the briar leaves, yellow in the coral necklace and gold rose attached to the balustrade — but otherwise the overall impression is of shades of red: the hair with the wild rose caught in it, the blush on the cheeks (from shame?), the pink of the lips, the roses in the dress worn décolleté, the beaded necklace doubled round the neck. Then there is the clew, the red thread designed to lead his majesty through the maze to his scarlet woman, which though held in her hand is also wound round the lifeless golden rose. Rossetti has invested the image with heavy symbolism; one might almost say, mixing metaphors, that he has overgilded the lily.
Before completing this painting in July 1861, the artist borrowed Georgiana Burne-Jones’s coral necklace at least twice for the sittings to suggest yet another favour from the king to his mistress. This detail almost echoes Rossetti’s own ménage à trois: Fanny Cornforth often modelled for Rossetti from 1858 but after his wife Lizzie Siddall died in early 1862 Fanny became his ‘housekeeper’.
In the guise of Rosamund Fanny, almost as if she’s peering around the viewer to catch sight of Henry, is depicted looking out to the right of the painting. Usually if a portrait’s subject is shown in a three-quarter view looking to the side the artist would allow extra blank space in the canvas to allow their sitter to gaze into; that this hasn’t happened here is disconcerting, to say the least, and is perhaps meant to say something about Rosamund’s state of mind. Whether she is anxious to see who her visitor is or is so ashamed of her status that she avoids any direct gaze may be up to the viewer to decide.
So, there we have it: three pictures harking back to a past in which history becomes legend and legend becomes fairytale. Burne-Jones, Dicksee and Rossetti have depicted different kinds of women — servants, a fairy temptress, a mistress — and invested them, according to their station, with some or no control. They are objects of desire, painted by males, existing in a dream world of the artists’ imaginings. The glamour of Dicksee’s fey has rendered her a subtle dominatrix, accentuated by her riding high on the charger, but Burne-Jones’s water-drawers and weavers, along with Rossetti’s royal mistress, are reduced to being compliant under the spell of an evil fairy or the command of a powerful ruler.
What does it say about us that, despite the gradual (but by no means there yet) evening-up of the gender balance, we can still be seduced by such images? Because they are arresting, and gorgeous, maybe? And because they have stories to tell?
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In the face of understandable anxiety over global developments, and the fact that most social media is absolutely focused on it, I offer this virtual tour as a way of keeping our spirits up — for a short while at least