Victorian Representations of Cleopatra

'Cleopatra', John William Waterhouse (1888)

‘Cleopatra’, John William Waterhouse (1888)

Although not technically a Pre-Raphaelite, it is obvious that the work of John William Waterhouse was heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite style.  His Cleopatra is reminiscent of Rossetti’s half-length portraits, complete with the unwavering gaze of a stunner.  He portrays her seated on her throne in a position of power rather than choosing to illustrate the scene of her suicide, as so many artists have done.

Waterhouse displayed Cleopatra along with a quote from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra:  “Where’s my serpent of Old Nile? For so he calls me.” (Act I, Scene V)

In 1866, Frederick Sandys illustrated Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poetic vision of Cleopatra.

She treads on gods and god-like things,
On fate and fear and life and death,
On hate that cleaves and love that clings,
All that is brought forth of man’s breath
And perisheth with what it brings.   (Cleopatra by Algernon Charles Swinburne, full text at ArtMagick)


Fredrick Sandys, engravied by the Dalziel Brothers

The Victorians loved Shakespeare, so their perception of Cleopatra must have been shaped by Antony and Cleopatra.  The play revolves around Cleopatra, who appears as a femme fatale.  Such a woman was no doubt dangerous and, as such, was in direct contrast with what the proper Victorian woman should be.  She could be admired from afar by an audience, but the thought of such a woman who would control her own destiny and manipulate others was not to be encouraged or tolerated within their own households.  Cleopatra, a sensual and decadent ruler, provided an antithesis for the grave and wholesome influence of Queen Victoria.

'Cleopatra', Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1877)

‘Cleopatra’, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1877)

'Antony and Cleopatra', Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1883)

‘Antony and Cleopatra’, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1883)

Both Waterhouse’s painting and Sandys’ engraving show Cleopatra in gauzy free-flowing gowns that are not restrained by corsets.  In Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s works, she is decadently adorned in leopard skin. The actresses below (Sarah Bernhardt and Lily Langtry) portrayed the Egyptian queen a bit later than the Pre-Raphaelite heyday.  Their costumes are still a bit risque’ and they certainly look exotic.  Yet they still cling (barely) to Victorian ideals of respectability.

Bernhardt as Cleopatra. Photograph, ca. 1899.

Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra. Photograph, ca. 1899.

Lily Langtry as Cleopatra

Lily Langtry as Cleopatra

Cleopatra still fascinates us, even though her legend has grown so much in over 2000 years that much of what captivates us is due to dramatic license.  For many of us, Cleopatra is Vivien Leigh.  Or Elizabeth Taylor.  Both women gave commanding performances, which may bear little resemblance to the life of Cleopatra herself.   That should not deter us, however.  It was productions such as these that encouraged my own love of history as a child, and hopefully these tales still intrigue us enough that we still seek, read, and pursue.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra

Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra



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‘Mariana’, Sir John Everett Millais

'Mariana', Sir John Everett Millais

‘Mariana’, Sir John Everett Millais

When Millais first exhibited this painting at the Royal Academy, he displayed it with these lines of Tennyson:

She only said, ‘My life is dreary-

He cometh not’ she said

She said ‘I am aweary, aweary –

I would that I were dead.’

–From Tennyson’s poem Mariana

The subject of Mariana was visited twice by Tennyson, in his 1830 poem ‘Mariana’ and again in ‘Mariana in the South’. Both poems are inspired by Shakespeare’s character Mariana from Measure for Measure. Poor, rejected Mariana. When her dowry was lost at sea, she was abandoned by her fiance Angelo. See my previous post To live forgotten, to die forlorn. 

Since I love scouring Pre-Raphaelite images for items used repeatedly, here is a silver pillar seen in the back of Mariana that is also prominently displayed in The Bridesmaid.

Pillar seen in the background of Millais' 'Mariana'

Pillar seen in the background of Millais’ ‘Mariana’

The same silver pillar appears in the foreground of Millais' 'The Bridesmaid'

The same silver pillar appears in the foreground of Millais’ ‘The Bridesmaid’

The autumn leaves scattered across the floor in Mariana indicate the passage of time.  If you look closely, you’ll see a scurrying mouse.  The little critter is mentioned in Tennyson’s poem and Millais especially wanted to include it.

All day within the dreamy house,
The doors upon their hinges creaked;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
Behind the mouldering wainscot shrieked,
Or from the crevice peered about.
Old faces glimmered through the doors,
Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices called her from without …(Mariana, Tennyson)

The poor little mouse was sacrificed for art.

The poor little mouse was sacrificed for art.

Poor little mouse.  Sacrificed for art and immortalized on canvas.

 “But where was the mouse to paint from? Millais’ father, who had just come in, thought of scouring the country in search of one, but at that moment on obliging mouse ran across the floor and hid behind a portfolio.  Quick as lightning Millais gave the portfolio a kick, and on removing it the poor mouse was found quite dead in the best possible position for drawing it.”–Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais

Detail of window in Merton College Chapel, via Medieval Stained Glass Photographic Archive

Detail of window in Merton College Chapel, via Medieval Stained Glass Photographic Archive

“The window in the background of Mariana was taken from one in Merton Chapel, Oxford.  The ceiling of the chapel was being painted, and scaffolding was of course put up, and this Millais made use of whilst working. “–Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais

It is interesting to note that Mariana rises from her embroidery.  This is a detail imagined by Millais; weaving does not appear in Tennyson’s poem.  The similarity with the Lady of Shalott is obvious.  Both lead a life of seclusion, both were subjects of Tennyson.  Or perhaps Millais simply wanted to depict Mariana weary from a physical act, such as embroidery, while also weary from her solitary life.

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I stretch my hands and catch at Hope

According to myth, after Prometheus stole fire from the gods, Zeus wanted to punish mankind. He ordered Hephaistos and other gods to create a woman that they would endow with gifts and beauty. Hephaistos created her lovely form; the Four Winds breathed life into her. Her beauty was given to her by Aphrodite. Zeus bestowed upon her the gift of curiosity. He also gave her a sealed jar and warned her to never open it. Her name was Pandora.

'Pandora' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Model: Jane Morris

‘Pandora’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Jane Morris.  See other versions of Rossetti’s Pandora here.

Pandora became the bride of Epimetheus. Epimetheus was the younger brother of Prometheus, who had warned him that Zeus was full of tricks and was not to be trusted. Epimetheus was infatuated by Pandora’s beauty and talents, however, and felt he had to marry her.

Pandora and Epimetheus had a happy marriage. Yet Pandora was often haunted by the jar and the thought of what it might contain. Surely Zeus would not mind if it was opened just once? Her overwhelming curiosity forced her to take one quick look. Upon opening the jar, unexpected evils were unleashed. Envy, disease, revenge, anxiety, misfortune and more enveloped Pandora. Pandora struggled to replace the lid and in doing so, hope did not fly out. Hope remained the only thing in the jar, giving us something to hang on to when the evils of the world plague us. Hope gives us the ability to endure.

'Pandora' (detail), Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Pandora’ (detail), Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Using Jane Morris as a model, Dante Gabriel Rossetti depicts Pandora holding the fateful box.  The smoke cocoons her and was described by poet Algernon Charles Swinburne as “the smoke and fiery vapour of winged and fleshless passions”.    This is one of Rossetti’s double works in which he wrote a sonnet to accompany the painting. At the end, the speaker of the sonnet questions whether or not hope is a living entity in the box or if it has died:  /Thou mayst not dare to think: nor canst thou know/If Hope still pent there be alive or dead./

With photography becoming more common, artists were able to use photographs of their models.  ‘Pandora’ is believed to be based partly on this photograph staged by Rossetti and taken by John Robert Parsons in 1865.

Jane Morris, photograph by John Robert Parsons

Jane Morris, photograph by John Robert Parsons

How much Hope did Rossetti have in his life when he painted Rossetti as Pandora?  His wife, artist Elizabeth Siddal, had died.  He was paranoid and on the brink of a mental breakdown.  He was also in love with Jane, the wife of his longtime friend William Morris.  It was at this stage in his life that he painted many of his most beautiful works; works in which women appear as goddesses and women of myth.  It is hard not to look at his work and not read it as autobiographical on some level.

Pandora’s name literally translates to “all gifted” in Greek and perhaps this is how Rossetti saw Jane.  Maybe he painted her while holding on to Hope because it was all that he had.


John William Waterhouse used a different physical attitude entirely with his Pandora.  Kneeling, Pandora opens the box tentatively.  Cautiously.

'Pandora', John William Waterhouse

‘Pandora’, John William Waterhouse

The evils unleashed on the world appear as the slightest wisp, not the all-engulfing smoke seen in Rossetti’s work.  I think I prefer Waterhouse’s.  When misfortune comes our way, we rarely see it coming.  This sneaky little wisp is a perfect metaphor.

Let’s set Pandora aside and focus on Hope itself.  Evelyn De Morgan personified Hope in her painting Hope in the Prison of Despair.

'Hope in the Prison of Despair', Evelyn De Morgan

‘Hope in the Prison of Despair’, Evelyn De Morgan

Can Hope exist in the presence of despair?  Perhaps only if you consciously decide to focus on it, to give life to even the smallest glimmer of Hope.  Hope must be nourished, because if we focus on the negative thoughts instead, they will take root.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones portrays Hope as a female.  Looking up.  Reaching up.

'Hope', Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

‘Hope’, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

Perhaps the most famous allegory of Hope is by artist George Fredric Watts.  Hope is seen seated on a globe, blindfolded, with only one string in her lyre.  Yet even with that one string, music still has to be possible.  I may only have one note left, but I will play it and sing loudly.  Hope will always find away.  Sounds cliche, but sometimes you have to cling to that.

“Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord”–G.F. Watts

'Hope', G.F. Watts

‘Hope’, G.F. Watts

De Profundis by Christina Rossetti

Oh why is heaven built so far,
Oh why is earth set so remote?
I cannot reach the nearest star
That hangs afloat.

I would not care to reach the moon,
One round monotonous of change;
Yet even she repeats her tune
Beyond my range.

I never watch the scatter’d fire
Of stars, or sun’s far-trailing train,
But all my heart is one desire,
And all in vain:

For I am bound with fleshly bands,
Joy, beauty, lie beyond my scope;
I strain my heart, I stretch my hands,
And catch at hope.

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Burne-Jones on Portraiture

'Portrait of Katie Lewis', Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

‘Portrait of Katie Lewis’, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

'Portrait of Carolyn Fitzgerald' by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

‘Portrait of Carolyn Fitzgerald’ by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

I am guilty of often overlooking Burne-Jones’ portrait work in favor of his narrative paintings.  However, this morning I read a passage in which his wife discusses the artist’s opinions of the use of expression in his portraits:

Another portrait painted this year, that of Miss Fitzgerald, a young American girl.  The art of portraiture he [Burne-Jones] considered very seriously from the point of what “expression” was allowable–a question that he had settled with regard to his imaginative pictures at an early date.  Speaking of this in later years he said:

“Of course my faces have no expression in the sense in which people use the word.  How should they have any?  They are not portraits of people in paroxysms–paroxysms of terror, hatred, benevolence, desire, avarice, veneration, and all the ‘passions’ and ‘emotions’ that Le Brun and that kind of person find so magnifique in Raphael’s later work–mostly painted by his pupils and assistants by the way.  It is Winckelmann, isn’t it, who says that when you come to the age of expression in Greek art you have come to the age of decadence?  I don’t remember how or where it is said, but of course it is true–can’t be otherwise in the nature of things.”
“Portraiture,” he also said, “may be great art. There is a sense, indeed, in which it is perhaps the greatest art of any.  And portraiture involves expression.  Quite true, but expression of what?  Of a passion, an emotion, a mood? Certainly not.  Paint a man or woman with the damned ‘pleasing expression’, or even the ‘charmingly spontaneous’ so dear to the ‘photographic artist’, and you see at once that the thing is a mask, as silly as the old tragic and comic mask.  The only expression allowable in great portraiture is the expression of character and moral quality, not of anything temporary, fleeting, accidental.  Apart from portraiture you don’t want even so much, or very seldom: in fact you only want types, symbols, suggestions. The moment you give what people call expression, you destroy the typical character of heads and degrade them into portraits which stand for nothing.”

He gave as an illustration the instance of the three Queens he was then painting in the Avalon picture–Queen Morgan le Fay, the Queen Northgalis, and the Queen of the Waste Lands.

“They are queens of an undying mystery,” he said, “and their names are Lamentation and Mourning and Woe. A little more expression and they would neither be queens nor mysteries nor symbols, but just–not to mention baser names in their presence–Augusta, Esmeralda, and Dolores, considerably overcome by a recent domestic bereavement. And that, my dear, as you are aware, is not what I mean: but put in the ‘expression’ these good people clamour for, and there is where you would be landed.” –Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, vol. II, Georgiana Burne-Jones

Photogravure of a portrait of Edward Burne-Jones by his son Philip Burne-Jones, 1898

Photogravure of a portrait of Edward Burne-Jones by his son Philip Burne-Jones, 1898

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Music in The Bower Meadow

'The Bower Meadow', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘The Bower Meadow’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

For years, when I would see this piece I would focus on the women in the foreground. What’s their story? They play music and dance, yet there is a sense of sadness. Each of them looks in a different direction. They are in a group, but they seem alone.



Now my focus has shifted to the lone woman in the background. I could feel sorry for her but understanding an introvert’s need for solitude, maybe she is exactly where she wants to be. Not participating with the group, but close enough to hear the music. Perhaps it is the music she seeks.

Music is a catalyst. It evokes an intense emotional response. In Rossetti’s day, before recordings, it was an experience the listener had to be present for. So, in painting The Bower Meadow he is not merely painting beautiful women, he is capturing a moment. The musicians perform their art, the listeners respond physically with dance and the woman in the distance is the only witness to this exchange. Except for ourselves,of course, on the other side of the canvas.

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Pyramus and Thisbe

'Thisbe', John William Waterhouse

‘Thisbe’, John William Waterhouse


The tale of Thisbe comes from book four of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In ancient Babylon, the families of Pyramus and Thisbe live in separate houses that share a roof. Over time, the two youths fall in love but are forbidden by their parents to see each other. Undaunted, the lovers use a crack in the wall to communicate.

Eventually, they plan to meet at a mulberry bush outside the city to elope. Thisbe arrives before Pyramus and while she waits, she is frightened by a lioness whose jaws drip with blood from a recent kill. Thisbe escapes to safety and in her haste, she drops her veil. The lioness picks up the veil, staining it with the blood on her jaws. When Pyramus arrives and sees the bloody veil, he mistakenly assumes that Thisbe has been killed. In his grief, he falls upon his sword. Thisbe returns to find her love dying and kills herself with the same sword. They die together under the mulberry tree, their spilled blood turning the white berries red.

Shakespeare reworked Pyramus and Thisbe into the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, but he also used it in comedic form in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His different approaches to Ovid’s story in both plays demonstrates that there is always more than one way to interpret a work. While it is an obvious tragedy in Romeo and Juliet, it is a farce in Midsummer. The slain lovers are presented as a somewhat silly play-within-a-play in Act 5, the setting of which is a wedding celebration. Pyramus and Thisbe is an odd choice to celebrate nuptials, perhaps Shakespeare is using it as a veiled message to overbearing parents since Theseus, the father in Midsummer, has expressed displeasure in his own daughter’s choice of groom.

The play-within-a-play may not be the only reference to Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The very framework of the plot has similarities. Like Pyramus and Thisbe, the group of lovers meet outside the city and the many errors that threaten to keep them apart are echoes of the original tale, presented in a lighthearted romantic comedy (complete with mischievous fairies). In both Midsummer and Romeo and Juliet, we see issues of parental control, clandestine meetings, all consuming passion and twists of fate. Whether comedy or tragedy, I think the important lesson for us to learn can be summed up by Lysander’s line to Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”

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Exploring Rossetti’s Home

“I was ushered into one of the prettiest and most curiously furnished old-fashioned parlours that I had ever seen. Mirrors and looking-glasses of all shapes, sizes and design lined the walls. Whichever way I looked I saw myself gazing at myself.”–Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his circle (Cheyne walk life), Henry Treffry Dunn.

Henry Treffry Dunn, who was at one time Rossetti’s studio assistant, gives us an intimate glimpse into the artist’s home. Rossetti moved into Tudor House at 16 Cheyne Walk (located in Chelsea) soon after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, from an overdose of Laudanum.  His years at Tudor House are often described as bohemian and his behavior did become quite eccentric.  It was in this home that he began collecting a menagerie of exotic animals and developed a passion for hoarding antique furniture, blue-and-white china, and vast amounts of bric-a-brac. His former lover and model Fanny Cornforth became the housekeeper of Tudor House and the household also consisted of poet Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Algernon Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Fanny Cornforth, and William Michael Rossetti posing in a sort of mock family portrait in the garden of 16 Cheyne Walk.

Algernon Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Fanny Cornforth, and William Michael Rossetti posing in a sort of mock family portrait in the garden of 16 Cheyne Walk.

It was an almost all male existence at Tudor House and it does not seem to have been a haven of peace.  Whistler, who lived nearby, visited often. One morning the excitable Swinburne flung an egg in the face of novelist George Meredith during a disagreement about Victor Hugo.  Apparently Meredith didn’t fare well at Rossetti’s house at all, since Wilfred Scawen Blunt’s diary also describes Rossetti throwing a cup of tea in Meredith’s face in a similar argument.  Visitors were reportedly disgusted by Rossetti’s large breakfasts; Hall Caine wrote that Rossetti ate six eggs and half a dozen kidneys. A story also persist about Swinburne sliding down the banisters naked.  In the midst of all of this ribald behavior, there were elements of sadness.  Rossetti’s displayed his late wife’s art in the drawing room, as mentioned by Georgiana Burne-Jones in Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones:

“No Thames Embankment had reached Chelsea then, and only a narrow road lay between the tall iron gates of the forecourt of 16, Cheyne Walk, and the wide river which was lit up that evening by a full moon.  Gabriel had hung Lizzie’s beautiful pen-and-ink and water-colour designs in the long drawing-room with its seven windows looking south, where if ever a ghost returned to earth hers must have come to seek him: but we did not sit in that room, the studio was the centre of the house.”–Georgiana Burne-Jones (more of GBJ’s memories of Lizzie can be found here.)

Not only did Dunn give us a written account with his Recollections, but his watercolours of Tudor House provide us with a unique look at several rooms.

Rossetti’s sitting room:

'D.G. Rossetti and Theodore Watts-Dunton in the sitting room at Cheyne Walk.  Watercolour by Henry Treffry Dunn

‘D.G. Rossetti and Theodore Watts-Dunton in the sitting room at Cheyne Walk. Watercolour by Henry Treffry Dunn

In his Recollections Dunn states that the mantelpiece seen on the far right was an “original make-up of Chinese black-lacquered panels bearing designs of birds, animals, flowers and fruit in gold relief.”  Blue Dutch tiles decorated each side of the fireplace. In addition to the mirrors Dunn mentioned at the beginning of this post, we can also see Rossetti’s portraits of his mother and sister on the wall.  On the left is the portrait of Rossetti’s mother Francis Polidori Rossetti with his sister Christina.  On the far right is his portrait of Christina, author of Goblin Market.

Christina Georgina Rossetti; Frances Mary Lavinia Rossetti (née Polidori)

Christina Georgina Rossetti; Frances Mary Lavinia Rossetti (née Polidori)

Portrait of Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Via the Rossetti Archive.

Portrait of Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Via the Rossetti Archive.

Rossetti’s Drawing Room:

'Rossetti's Drawing Room at Cheyne Walk', Henry Treffry Dunn

‘Rossetti’s Drawing Room at Cheyne Walk’, Henry Treffry Dunn

“When the party was an exceptional one, I mean for the number of friends invited, the table was laid in the so-called drawing room — an apartment comprising the whole width of the house, boasting of five windows giving an extensive and interesting view of Chelsea reach…”–Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his circle (Cheyne walk life), Henry Treffry Dunn.  Although Dunn says five windows, I do believe this is the same seven-windowed room mentioned by Georgiana Burne-Jones that contains Elizabeth Siddal’s art.  Sadly, I can’t see any discernible details in the art on the walls in Dunn’s painting.

Rossetti’s bedroom:

'Rossetti's bedroom at cheyne Walk', Henry Treffry Dunn

‘Rossetti’s bedroom at Cheyne Walk’, Henry Treffry Dunn

Dunn gives us a look at Rossetti’s bedroom as seen through a mirror.  His description of the bedroom sounds oppressive and claustrophobic: “I thought it a most unhealthy place to sleep in.  Thick curtains heavy with crewel work in designs of print and foliage hung closely drawn round an antiquated four-post bedstead.” In fact, Rossetti’s bedroom sounds exactly as I imagined it would, as Dunn also mentions it is cluttered and filled with ‘Chinese monstrosities in bronze’, blue china vases filled with peacock feathers, lots of shelves filled with brass repousse’ dishes and that the only modern thing in the room was a box of matches.

16 Cheyne Walk today

16 Cheyne Walk today

Stories from Tudor House have added to Rossetti’s eccentric reputation, this is the Rossetti we see as a mad collector of animals, the bohemian artist living with the decadent Swinburne.  It all seems a bit wild and lascivious, but is it all the truth?  I honestly don’t believe that Rossetti was in search of a frat-boy existence in the years following the loss of his wife.  Where others may want to see him as a crazy libertine, I see hints of sadness. As much as it was a house of frivolity, it was also the house in which Rossetti experienced deep depression and paranoia.  It was during this time when his obsession for Jane Morris reached its pinnacle, for Rossetti was the kind of artist who desperately needed a muse.  Which brings me to another of Dunn’s representations of Tudor House. Rossetti’s Studio.  We can see several works depicting Jane Morris, notably Proserpine at the right.

'Rossetti's Studio', Henry Treffry Dunn

‘Rossetti’s Studio’, Henry Treffry Dunn

'Proserpine', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Proserpine’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Also see Forbidden Fruit, Katabasis, and Those Rossetti Lips

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Her enchanted hair

Lady Lilith, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lady Lilith, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Alexa Wilding

And  her enchanted hair was the first gold./And still she sits, young while the earth is old –from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnet Lady Lilith

Lilith appears here with pale skin and clad in a white gown, making her luxurious hair the most vivid thing in the room.  In this painting, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is not showing us a simple image of a beautiful woman. He’s giving us Lilith, the first woman, the witch, the goddess.  Her face seems strangely passive as she looks at her own reflection, until we read Rossetti’s sonnet and understand that even while she gazes at herself she is fully capable of tearing you apart: And,subtly of herself contemplative/Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave/Till heart and body and life are in its hold. Look at the mirror that hangs on her wall and you will see that all is not right here.  Where the room should be reflected, we glimpse an enchanted world.  Beware Lilith and her enchanted tresses before you fall under her spell.

Rossetti created a similar work in his 1864 Woman combing her hair, except this time there is no sonnet or title to warn us of her intent. Instead of gazing at herself, her thoughts appear elsewhere.  This time, the mirror on the wall performs its proper and mundane function so that we can see the room’s reflection.  There is no threat here. These tresses are merely pretty, not enchanted.  Although, you could still fall under her spell.

'Woman combing her hair', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Woman combing her hair’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Fanny Cornforth

It is impossible not to notice similarities between Lady Lilith and Woman combing her hair with Fazio’s Mistress (Aurelia).

Fazio's Mistress, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Fanny Cornforth

Fazio’s Mistress, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Fanny Cornforth

Hair figures strongly in many of Rossetti’s works and is important symbolically in many Pre-Raphaelite pieces.  The Victorians attached great importance to hair:  only children would normally be seen with theirs unbound.  Married women would not wear their hair down in the presence of men other than their husband.

It has been said that when model Elizabeth Siddal posed for Rossetti as Delia, he began to develop feelings for her when she happily took her hair down to get into character.  How ironic that hair should be mentioned at the impetus of their relationship.  A decade later they would marry, with their marriage cut short by her overdose of Laudanum.  Seven years later when he had her coffin exhumed to retrieve poems he had buried with her, the false and strange rumor spread that her famous hair had continued to grow after death.

Study for Delia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Study for Delia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Study for Delia, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Study for Delia, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Another example of ‘enchanted’ hair is William Holman Hunt’s The Lady of Shalott.  Many Pre-Raphaelite artists painted the Lady of Shalott, some of them repeatedly.  But only Holman Hunt depicted her hair whipping wildly, perhaps by supernatural means, when the Lady has fallen in love with a vision of Lancelot and decides to ignore the curse that has come upon her.

'The Lady of Shalott', William Holman Hunt

‘The Lady of Shalott’, William Holman Hunt

The Lady of Shalott', William Holman Hunt

The Lady of Shalott’, William Holman Hunt

Isabella and the pot of basil is another supernatural, yet gruesome, tale in which hair is used symbolically.  Based on the poem by Keats, Isabella’s lover was murdered by her brothers. His ghost later appears to Isabella and he leads her to his buried body.  She digs him up, removes his head and buries it in a pot of basil.  She then cares for the pot of basil obsessively, pining away and consumed with grief. She is seen here, in William Holman Hunt’s painting, her hair mingling with the leaves of the basil plant. (Also see Love, Death, and Potted Plants)

'Isabella and the Pot of Basil', William Holman Hunt

‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’, William Holman Hunt

Victorian hair was meant to be up, put away, private. When I see images such as these it strikes me that there is this sense that, like Samson, perhaps a woman’s hair was a source of power.  To have it free was to resist boundaries and rules.  Years later, women would take their hair into their own hands, drastically cutting it into the bobbed and shingled styles of the 1920s.  Now, we’ve become the complete opposite of the Victorians and our society seems surprised when we see a woman over 35 or 40 who dares to keep her hair long.  I say wear your hair however you think it suits you, regardless of societal norms.

'The Bridesmaid', Sir John Everett Millais

‘The Bridesmaid’, Sir John Everett Millais

No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid lightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.–Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret

Also see:

The Beautiful Necessity: Pre-Raphaelite Tresses

The Kissed Mouth: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite

Hair Adornment in Rossetti Paintings

Posted in Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Fanny Cornforth, Lady of Shalott, Millais, William Holman Hunt | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Millais’ Ghostly Apparition

When it comes to ghost stories, the Victorians were absolutely the best. It was an era that birthed Industrialism and scientific discovery, yet people held firmly to superstition and folklore. Death closely hovered around every family, regardless of wealth or class. Mourning was so common that there were societal rules about it that were to be strictly observed. When death is an almost palpable part of a culture, it is inevitable that it would be reflected in their literature and art. Ghost stories were embedded in the fabric of Victorian life and neither science nor rational thought could inhibit the lure of a supernatural tale. The possibility of an apparition both frightened and delighted in equal measure. Which, of course, brings me to Sir John Everett Millais’ ghostly painting, a concept that had been on his mind for forty years before he began to paint it.

'Speak! Speak!', Sir John Everett Millais

‘Speak! Speak!’, Sir John Everett Millais

“The picture tells its own tale. It is that of a young Roman,who has been reading through the night the letters of his lost love; and at dawn, behold, the curtains of his bed are parted, and there before him stands, in spirit or in truth, the lady herself, decked as on her bridal night, and gazing upon him with sad but loving eyes.  An open door displays the winding stair down which she has come; and through a small window above it the grey dawn steals in, forming, with the light of the flaring taper at the bedside, a harmonious discord, such as the French school delight in, and which Millais used to good effect in his earlier picture, ” The Rescue”. — The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais

Like his fellow Pre-Raphaelite artists, Millais took great pains to find just the right furniture and props to create his work.  You may be familiar with the extremes he took when painting Ophelia, where model Elizabeth Siddal almost drowned (see my site  For Speak! Speak!,Millais purchased an old four-poster bed and attempted to borrow an antique lamp from a museum.  Upon learning that borrowing the lamp was forbidden, the artist drew the object and had an iron worker create a facsimile.  Millais’ son remarked that from beginning to end of the work, his father took a romantic interest in the picture.

Punch had an amusing note on the painting that Millais used often to chuckle over, the suggestion being that it represented a young man whose wife had run up a fearful bill for diamonds, and this so haunts him that he has a nightmare in which she appears in a her finery. –The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais

The painting, for me, also brings to mind Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. It’s one of my favorite Victorian mysteries and the author and Millais were great friends. Here Millais has created that same spectral presence of a startling woman in white. For more on The Woman in White and other paintings using the symbolism of white-clad ladies, see Gowns so White and Fair. 

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Nature as Feminine

'Listening to My Sweet Pipings', John William Waterhouse

‘Listening to My Sweet Pipings’, John William Waterhouse.  Earth reclines as Pan serenades her.

In Listening to my Sweet Pipings, Waterhouse has shown the figure of Earth reclining as Pan serenades her.  Notice that Earth holds a poppy in her hand while Pan wears one in his hair.  The title of Waterhouse’s painting is taken from Hymn of Pan by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The notion of Nature as feminine is an ancient one, dating back to Gaia of Greek myth. Gaia is probably the first ‘Mother Nature’ figure and she is depicted as a Primordial Goddess.

Gaia with her four children (the four seasons).  The god Aion is seen in the background. (Mosaic tile from a Roman villa in Sentinum, first half of the third century BC,)

Gaia with her four children (the four seasons). The god Aion is seen in the background. (Mosaic tile from a Roman villa in Sentinum, first half of the third century BC)

Sir Edward Burne-Jones shares his vision of the goddess of nature in Earth Mother.

'Earth Mother', Sir Edward Burne-Jones

‘Earth Mother’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones

'At the First Touch of Winter, Summer Fades Away', Valentine Cameron Prinsep

‘At the First Touch of Winter, Summer Fades Away’, Valentine Cameron Prinsep

In Prinsep’s At the First Touch of Winter, Summer Fades Away, the vivid contrast of the two figures gives us a dramatic representation of Winter touching Summer.  Summer drops her flowers and they cascade around her.  Her end has come, nature’s cycle continues to turn.

It’s common to see Pre-Raphaelite artists’ and their followers depict the seasons as female.  Walter Crane depicted them together in The Masque of the Four Seasons while Burne-Jones depicted them individually in a series.

'The Masque of  the Four Seasons', Walter Crane

‘The Masque of the Four Seasons’, Walter Crane

Burne-Jones Four Seasons:

'Autumn', Burne-Jones

‘Autumn’, Burne-Jones

'Winter', Burne-Jones

‘Winter’, Burne-Jones

'Spring', Burne-Jones

‘Spring’, Burne-Jones

'Summer', Burne-Jones

‘Summer’, Burne-Jones

In an era that was the birth of Industrialism and scientific reason, to see Nature personified as Divine Feminine was perhaps a way to hold on the the magic of Nature.

I sang of the dancing stars,
I sang of the dedal earth,
And of heaven, and the Giant wars,
And love, and death, and birth.
And then I changed my pipings,–
Singing how down the vale of Maenalus
I pursued a maiden, and clasped a reed:
Gods and men, we are all deluded thus;
It breaks in our bosom, and then we bleed.
All wept–as I think both ye now would,
If envy or age had not frozen your blood–
At the sorrow of my sweet pipings.  (excerpt from Shelley’s Hymn of Pan)

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William Morris and Fantasy

William Morris’ fantasy books resonate with my bibliophile heart. Epic voyages told through folkloric narratives, his fantasies contributed to the birth of the Fantasy genre as we know it. As if that weren’t enough, he presented these works to the world in breathtaking volumes that are the epitome of typography and ornament.

'The Water of the Wondrous Isles'

‘The Water of the Wondrous Isles’


It is his character Birdalone that intrigues me.  The heroine of The Water of the Wondrous Isles, Morris seems ahead of his time in her characterization.  Avoiding gender stereotypes, Birdalone is both educated and brave. Unlike the usual damsel in distress, she is assertive and self aware.  She embraces hard work of both body and mind in a way that many nineteenth century women fought to achieve.  Furthermore, she experiences her own longings instead of being a mere object of desire.

Morris not only wrote his fantasies during a time when realist novels were extremely popular, but he wrote them in an archaic style that sets them apart from other Victorian literature.  His unusual prose later inspired the fictional worlds of both JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, authors whose works enjoy a large fan base to this day. Readers unfamiliar with Morris’ works may lament the archaic language upon first reading, but I believe that this is his way of immersing us in his created worlds. Morris’ syntax pulls us elsewhere and we are one with the world of Romance.

Burne-Jones illustration for 'The Wood Beyond the World'

Burne-Jones illustration for ‘The Wood Beyond the World’

Many works by William Morris are available to read at Project Gutenberg.  The William Morris Archive offers a web-based and text-searchable scholarly edition of the poetry and selected prose of William Morris.

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The Lost Pre-Raphaelite: The Secret Life & Loves of Robert Bateman

RoL jacket v1

If you have even the slightest interest in the Victorian era, I highly recommend The Lost Pre-Raphaelite.  It’s a unique hybrid of biography, mystery, and architectural restoration that is unlike any book I’ve ever read.

'The Pool of Bethesda', Robert Bateman

‘The Pool of Bethesda’, Robert Bateman

The book has been compared to A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession and as a devotee of Byatt’s work, I tell you that it lives up to the comparison. When Nigel Daly and his partner Brian Vowles purchased Biddulph Old Hall, the restoration process led to more than resurrecting bricks and mortar. From the rubble of this once stately home, they uncovered questions about the life of artist Robert Bateman.  Assembling the facts of his life gave birth to an intriguing puzzle:  what is the truth behind many of the artist’s works and the inexplicable dates included in them?  Why did Bateman abandon his artistic life?  Does the relationship with his wife hold a secret that has been kept for over a century?

The questions raised about Bateman’s life are compelling and it’s the way that Nigel Daly presents it all that delighted me most.  He takes us along for the journey, allowing us to view each new question and each new discovery as it happens.  The reader takes on the role of the proverbial fly on the wall, so that Daly’s interest into Bateman’s life becomes our own.  It’s fascinating.

'Three Women Plucking Mandrakes', Robert Bateman

‘Three Women Plucking Mandrakes’, Robert Bateman

I’m frightened of accidentally including spoilers in this post so, at the risk of being annoyingly enigmatic, I will end here. It’s a superb book and I hope that it raises interest in Bateman’s works.  He is definitely deserving of renewed interest.

Visit the author’s website at and follow on Twitter at @dalygroup1

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Welcoming Autumn

I’m particularly happy to welcome Autumn this year, with its crisp breezes and the promise of adventure.  Autumn Leaves, painted by Sir John Everett Millais, is a wonderful example of the beauty I find in the season.  It is an impressive example of a Pre-Raphaelite twilight and Millais has captured an unmistakable Autumn glow.  His models included his sisters-in-law Alice and Sophie Gray, a Miss Smythe of Methven, and an unidentified local girl.

'Autumn Leaves', Sir John Everett Millais

‘Autumn Leaves’, Sir John Everett Millais


That it was highly appreciated by Mr. Ruskin may be gathered from the Academy Notes, 1856, in which he refers to it as “by much the most poetical work the painter has yet conceived; and also, so far as I know, the first instance of a perfectly painted twilight.  It is easy, as it is common, to give obscurity to twilight, but to give within its darkness is another matter; and though Giorgione might have come nearer the glow, he never gave the valley mist.  Note also the subtle difference between the purple of the long nearer range of hills and the blue of the distant peak.”  –The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais

John Ruskin’s description of Autumn Leaves dates from 1856, and he should be lauded for writing so objectively about Millais’ work considering that it was not too long after Ruskin’s wife Effie left their marriage in order to marry Millais.  This dramatic affair is mentioned quite often when discussing scandalous relationships among the Pre-Raphaelites (see Pre-Raphaelite Marriages: Ruskin, Effie and Millais and Playing Ruskin’s Advocate).

After a few delays, Emma Thompson’s film about the Ruskin/Effie/Millais triangle is slated to be released in the UK in October.  The US release of Effie is reportedly in November.

Effie-Gray-posterOphelia, one of Millais’ most famous works, is an unexpected addition to the movie poster.  Unexpected in that his model was Elizabeth Siddal, not Effie.  Are Pre-Raphaelite women interchangeable?  Most certainly not. However, Ophelia is an image full of pathos and drama and is instantly recognizable as a Pre-Raphaelite work, so I assume these are the reasons why it was chosen.  By the way, you can read about Elizabeth Siddal’s chilling experience posing for Ophelia at  Other related posts include Ophelia’s Flowers and the lure of water-women.

Pre-Raphaelites on the big screen?  Count me in.  I fully expect a few inaccuracies and mind-boggling dramatic license, but the cast includes many actors I enjoy and admire, so I’m prepared to appreciate the film and will review it here soon.  Don’t miss Kirsty Walker’s recent post about the film, in which she wonders why situations such as this demand a “victim” and a “culprit”.


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Obligatory photo of a cat.


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Exploring the Beauty of Melancholy

“Our sweetest songs are those that tell of the saddest thought” –Percy Bysshe Shelley

At what point in human history did we decide that in music, a slow tempo is sad while upbeat music with a faster beat is happy?  Instinctively we have always known that certain music and art reflects a sense of melancholy.  While many people try to avoid it, there are those of us who embrace the beauty that can only be expressed and understood through melancholy.  It is an emotion often explored by artists inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites.

Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words) Frederic, Lord Leighton

Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words) Frederic, Lord Leighton

Art allows us to process feelings we may have thought we were successful in avoiding.  Opening yourself up to melancholy can be healing.  Do people avoid it because they are perpetually happy?  Or because they hide from what they are not ready to face?  I would argue that it is for these people that melancholy art exists.  Perhaps they have become so skilled at avoiding their emotions in an honest,forthright way that fictional melancholy allows a safe way to explore these necessary emotions.

'Mariana in the South', John William Waterhouse

‘Mariana in the South’, John William Waterhouse

The very creation of it can be cathartic.  Frederic, Lord Leighton was already ill with heart disease when he painted his melancholy painting Lachrymae, the title of which literally translates into tears.

Lachrymae, Frederic, Lord Leighton

Lachrymae, Frederic, Lord Leighton


Is melancholy to be avoided?  Can it not be aesthetic? A haunting, captivating image most assuredly captures my attention more than a happy, motivational poster of flowers and rainbows.  Not that I am disparaging sweet and cheerful images.  But it is worth pointing out that some people may gravitate towards saccharine images when the opposite may contain a wealth of emotion to explore. Happiness is simple and while melancholy may be complex, one does not preclude the other.

Isabella and the pot of Basil, George Henry Grenville Manton

Isabella and the pot of Basil, George Henry Grenville Manton

When we are drawn to a melancholy painting, we don’t necessarily experience sadness or grief.  It is deeper than that.  It is a slowing down, a stillness.  A sense of calm that allows us to recognize “this is beautiful, this resonates with me.” Then, if we desire, we can explore why it spoke to us.  Or not.  Sometimes it is enough to acknowledge its beautiful truth and then walk away secure in the knowledge that we can return to it when needed.  Whenever we want, it is there to nourish, to heal, to attend our soul.

Broken Vows, Philip Hermogenes Calderon

Broken Vows, Philip Hermogenes Calderon


Life has a rhythm.  Sometimes the beat is up, we can ride the wave as it crescendos, not realizing the extent of our happiness until it has passed.  Other times the tempo is slower, we linger in the downbeat wishing things would pick up again.  Don’t wallow in it, but don’t long for that crescendo again either.  It comes when it comes.  In the meantime, find the beauty that exists in a melancholy tune. Without it, there’d be no Moonlight Sonata, no moving Requiems. Explore it.  Understand it; demand its truths without letting it own you.

'Boreas', John William Waterhouse

‘Boreas’, John William Waterhouse

Melancholy deserves to be differentiated from depression.  It is not merely another word for sadness.  I am fully aware that Freud described melancholy as a state of dejection and that elsewhere it has been described as mourning that has failed to be resolved.  My personal definition of melancholy is that it is a contemplative period–a period that may include elements of sadness without being sadness.  It is a necessary decompression of the spirit, an introversion.  It may be darker, but it is a thoughtful time. It is not an abyss.  Neither is it pessimistic.  It is the moment before the phoenix rises again.  A rest, a respite.

Thoughts of the Past, John Rodham Spencer Stanhope

Thoughts of the Past, John Rodham Spencer Stanhope

Sometimes a sense of melancholy can surface when you least expect it.  Learn how to use it.  If you experience it when hearing an old love song, for example, that reminds you of a long-gone relationship, do not use it as an excuse to languish in glowing memories or interpret it as a sign to renew what was already gone.  That is an inexcusable waste of melancholy. Do not go backwards in your life. You want to know how to use melancholy?  It is your fuel.  We are all artists, even if you have not yet discovered your medium.  When melancholy knocks at your door, welcome it in, explore and create.

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