Sex lurks in the shadows of the Pre-Raphaelites – phallic symbols in Isabella by Millais

FAIR Isabel, poor simple Isabel! 
Lorenzo, a young palmer in Love’s eye! 
They could not in the self-same mansion dwell 
Without some stir of heart, some malady; 
They could not sit at meals but feel how well 
It soothed each to be the other by; 
They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep 
But to each other dream, and nightly weep. 

So reads the first stanza of ‘Isabella, or The Pot of Basil’ written by John Keats in 1818. It is a poem I liked very much as a teenager, before I learned a little more about how rapidly Keats developed as a poet and how much more satisfying overall were poems like ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ and the great odes of 1819. Simply expressed it is a story of love, jealousy, murder and corruption; a young woman, Isabella, falls in love with an employee in the family firm and the young man, Lorenzo, returns her love. Their passion is thwarted by her jealous brothers who want her to marry some noble man for clearly commercial reasons. They murder Lorenzo, whose ghost appears to Isabella in a dream and directs her to where his body is buried. She takes his decomposing head and re-buries it in a pot of basil, which she tends lovingly as she pines away.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who are the subjects of new show at Tate Britain, were always attracted to the subject matter in Keats’ poetry and his lush, sensual descriptions of medieval settings and stories summoned from Dante and Boccaccio. One of the paintings inspired by Isabella has been the subject of some discussion in the press this week. A curator of the exhibition, Dr Carol Jacobi,  claims to have uncovered a ‘dirty secret’ that has so far escaped expert eyes and unsurprisingly Tate Britain have realised that sex sells.

Isabella was painted in 1848 when Millais was 19. Claims have been made that this new analysis of the painting will ‘dramatically change the way we see the work’ and ‘give us a different view of the Victorians’. Hmm…

What is all the fuss about? Take a look at the painting above. In the foreground, one of Isabella’s brothers sits aggressively, leaning towards Isabella with a foot extended as if to kick the dog at her knee. He is cracking nuts with apparent savagery, using a nutcracker that casts a shadow on the table.

Dr Jacobi has said: “The shadow is clearly phallic, and it also references the sex act, with the salt tipped into the shadow…”

I am not expert enough to know about the salt reference, but I have to admit that having seen the shadow my eyes are now drawn to it over everything else in the painting. It certainly wasn’t painted in accidentally….

But does it really give us a ‘different view’ of the Victorians? The Tate wants to show the Brotherhood as avant-garde but early reviews of the exhibition suggest they have offered little that is new, and have failed to pick up on the truly radical aspects of their work; the fact that they took as their inspiration a little known ‘working class’ poet such as Keats and took Browning over Byron for example. So is this enthusiasm for the shocking an attempt to draw in a broader audience? How many people interested in the Pre-Raphaelites don’t know that they were a bunch of highly sexed and passionate young men? The BBC serial Desperate Romantics from 2010 focused on little else.

Other analysis of this work sees the spilled salt that Dr Jacobi interprets as indicative of the sexual act as more representative of the imminent spilling of blood, to tie in with the images on the plates in the painting, which are hard to see in such small reproductions.  Who is right?

Dr Jacobi is to publish a paper called Sugar, salt and curdled milk; Millais and the synthetic subject in the next few weeks. It is likely to be way above my level of art criticism, but I knew of the reputations of Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais from studies at the Open University twenty years ago and I have loved their work ever since. Admittedly, I didn’t originally see penises in this picture, but there is sexual imagery a-plenty in their work.

I actually prefer William Holman Hunt’s painting inspired by the same poem. It is stronger, more real for me. I thought Millais painted Lorenzo as a bit soppy to be honest. He is better left to the imagination.

This is an exhibition I am keen to see. The opportunity to view more than 150 originals of paintings only ever seen as small-scale reproductions is too tempting. But I don’t need to have a giggle over a pretend penis to pay up for the£14 ticket.

But I will anyway….

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2 Responses to Sex lurks in the shadows of the Pre-Raphaelites – phallic symbols in Isabella by Millais

  1. Viv says:

    Once I saw it I couldn’t unsee it either and I roared!
    And yes, I prefer the other painting.

  2. Gev Sweeney says:

    That painting’s more sexually charged than the historian thinks: The shadow in the corner of the wall on the right is a silhouette of a woman’s bust.

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