Black dogs and Lost Generations – Andy Farr, artist.

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Silent Witness by Andy Farr

Towards the end of last year my book, Shell Shocked Britain, prompted one of those serendipitous conversations that link creative projects together and potentially enhance them both. I was contacted by Andy Farr, an artist based in Coventry. His recent work has focused on ‘conflict’, most particularly as a result of war but also including the trauma caused by terrorism,  domestic abuse and the inner conflict that can lead to serious mental ill health.

I went to meet Andy in the glorious surroundings of Gloucester Services (which are actually quite plush). It was good to talk about how the personal stories of men and their families in Shell Shocked Britain might influence art.  He is collecting stories to inspire his latest project –   a body of work that will express the pain exhibited by those narratives of war; from the “shell shock” of the Great War through to the combat stress experienced by service personnel in the 21st century. An exhibition is planned for Nottingham in September and then, all being well, his work will ‘tour’ a number of other venues.

 

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The Response – Andy Far

This new work will extend the fabulous images Andy produced for the Lost Generations project, funded by Arts Council England and the Grimmitt Trust. During Lost Generations, he collaborated with young people across the UK to make the reality of WW1 relevant to today, something I have always been keen to do. My greatest fear at the moment is that the commemorative period will stop, suddenly, in November as we remember the Armistice; the legacy of the war and the importance of continued work to ensure members of the armed forces are supported if the trauma of 21st-century engagements becomes overwhelming, might once more fade away, as it did after 1918.

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100 Summers – Andy Farr

Young people have so many challenges to face today, and competition for their attention becomes ever more difficult, even when the subject is as important as this one. Working collaboratively with students of music, art and drama in this way has clearly worked for Andy. I hope his new project will have a similar impact and continue to ensure that the legacy of war is highlighted. I am currently studying the long-term impact of evacuation on the children of WW2 and it is clear that the horrors of the continuing wars in the Middle East will have a dramatic impact on the future mental health of those involved.

 

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Another day at the office – Andy Far

Mental health is also something important to Andy, who left a well-paid job, requiring an exhausting commute in order to pursue a career as an artist. His series of paintings entitled ‘Black Dog’ vividly depict modern mundanity, the stresses of a deskbound job, and the journies we make to get there. How far away is humanity from that tipping point when our connection to the world around us becomes totally reliant upon interactivity with some sort of screen? How much pressure is it possible to place on themind and brain (surely amounting to much the same thing) before we simply fall off the edge of the precipice, as so many men did in the trenches of the First World War? That endless merry go round? The black dog is waiting for us, all of us. Even those who think themselves immune…

 

CarouselSo do take a look at Andy’s work on his website – www.andyfarr.com – where you can see a moving video detailing more of the work undertaken for the Lost Generations project and find out more about what inspires Andy to choose the subject matter of his work.

Andy is a storyteller in art. His work takes the static memorial and brings it vividly to life and forces us to make the links between the past and the present that are the very best way to ensure future conflicts are avoided. For myself, as a parent, the images of the young people transposed onto the well-known images of the Great War have had as much, if not more, impact than the originals.

My thanks to Andy for allowing me to use these images on my blog. Do go to his website www.andyfarr.com and see them enlarged and further explained.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Albert and The Somme: From Idealism to Realism by Pamela Davenport

large3As we approach the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, it becomes more important than ever to recognise the sacrifices that were being made by the troops fighting at the Front. There were hundreds of thousands of casualties, and whilst researching Shell Shocked Britain, it became clear that post war estimates of approximately 60, 000 shell shock victims in that offensive alone, is still a significant underestimate. Many survived the battle only to return home undiagnosed, and mentally shattered. I am always interested in hearing stories from those who know something of the war-time experience of the men and women in their family, and here is a particularly interesting piece by No wriggling favourite Pamela Davenport, who has sought to understand her ancestor’s experience the better by studying art works of the period.

To his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren Albert Edward Davenport was a distant and cold person, preferring to spend the time after work in his local public house rather than at home. Little is known about Albert, except that he had joined the army in 1908, but never completed his 7 years’ service. Instead he was “bought out” of the army by his mother Emma two years later and returned to his family’s terraced home in Bury Lancashire. Four years later the world was turned upside down and Albert would be on the move again.

By August 1914 it had become inevitable that Britain would join forces with the Allies against a German Army that was determined to dominate Europe. When the war commenced, Britain was the only major European power not to have a mass conscripted army. In a wave of patriotic fervour, thousands of men were encouraged to volunteer for service in Lord Kitchener’s new armies. With nationalistic feeling strong, many British soldiers departed for training with a copy of Rupert Brooke’s poems tucked into their kitbags. Military service and death was seen as both heroic and noble.

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Meanwhile in Bury, Lancashire, Albert now aged 28, was a painter and decorator and a father of 4 children. He enlisted in October 1914, as a volunteer in the 2nd 5th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Whether he was attracted by Kitchener’s recruitment strategies, the valiant words of Rupert Brooke, or the fact that soldiers serving overseas would be able to claim additional money for his wife and dependants, it is difficult to know. By 6th October 1914 he packed up all his troubles in his ‘old kit bag and smiled, smiled, smiled’, as he headed off into the unknown.

unknown drummer and buglerAlbert, like other new recruits, would have had three months basic training, which was intended to build up physical fitness and confidence, instilling discipline and obedience, as well as teaching basic military skills. This image of the unknown Drummer and Bugler from the 2nd 5th battalion, provides a brief glimpse into the lives of young soldiers who were unprepared for the horrors to be faced on The Western Front. By May 1915 Private Albert Edward Davenport 200845, was on the way to France and possibly the greatest and most terrifying adventure of his life.

2016 marks the centenary of The Battle of The Somme, which was fought between 1st July and 1st November 1916 and was one of the bloodiest battles in history. On the first day alone Britain suffered more than 20,000 fatalities and over 57,000 casualties. It is difficult to imagine how the heroic sentiments, which had been displayed in 1914, could rest easily with the terrible devastation experienced on the Western Front. Although news would have reached Albert’s family about events in France, little is known of his life on the Western Front, as no letters or photographs survive. But Albert did survive this battle.
The overwhelming loss of life which was experienced in the Battle of the Somme was partly as a result of the German army proving to be more experienced in the tactics of defence against Allied offensives. This proved to be costly to the British and Allies on the Western Front and added significantly to the length of the campaign.

As they retreated in November 1916, the Germans left desolation in their wake. Not a shelter that might serve as a billet, not a road or a bridge, not a blade of grass or a wisp of hay that would feed horses; this was truly vandalism on a gargantuan scale. It is difficult to imagine how Albert coped with the havoc and destruction of both his battalion and the landscape.

To gain some insight into Albert’s experiences between 1915 – 1917, I have chosen the art of two of the most distinguished artists of this remarkable era of social and political change. In contrast to Brooke’s patriotic sonnets, as years of devastating losses and with no clear resolution to endless fighting, there was a general change in mood from idealism to realism. Many war artists offered a harsh realistic visual depictions of the death and destruction that resulted from combat. A current exhibition at The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester highlights some of the graphic images produced by C.R.W Nevinson and Paul Nash. The paintings convey the pathos at the plight and experience of the ordinary soldiers who became nameless heroes. Their “Visons of the Front 1916-1918” do not glorify war and were intended to shock public reaction to the losses in battle. These shocking images still resonate as much today as they did 100 years ago.

Both Nash and Nevinson emerged from a remarkable group of artists from the Slade School of Art and like many other artists, writers and poets ended up on the Western Front. Both saw themselves as messengers of the terrifying realism on the Western front. It must have been a sense of cruel irony that the destruction and depravity of the battle field fed the imagination of these incredible artists.

“I realise no one in England knows what the scene of the war is like. They cannot imagine the daily and nightly background of the fighter. If I can, I will show them…”

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© IWM (Art.IWM ART 518)

In Nevison’s painting Paths of Glory (above) the starkness and irony is apparent. The viewer is presented with the sight of two dead soldiers lying in the battlefield mud. It is difficult to identify or identify with these unnamed heroes, as their faces are obscured and their bodies merge with the murky earth. A death in a waste land, a dreadful sense of a loss of identity and a waste of young lives. It is little wonder the official censor of paintings and drawings, Lieutenant – Colonel A N Lee censored this painting, what type of message would the sight of rotting and bloated British soldiers convey to the British public? But these were the type of images which Albert would be faced with.

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© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2242)

Nash’s experience as an officer on the Western Front and an official war artist completely transformed the way in which he painted. His early work was romantic and light hearted. By 1917, as he travelled towards Belgium, he began to note changes in the landscape. In one of his most famous paintings, The Menin Road (above) we are drawn into a completely ruined landscape with an apocalyptic sky, a wasteland of mud and standing water. This is really a strange disturbing and alienating place. The scene shows a place of chaos, irrevocable change and wreckage. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could survive physically, emotionally and psychologically from this experience. It is estimated that over 750,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed in the trenches surrounding Ypres, but Albert wasn’t one of them.

Albert was to see action at Hallencourt, the 4th phase of The Somme and the first phase of the third battle of Ypres, but this was not an enviable European tour. Having survived the Battle of the Somme Albert was promoted to corporal in March 1917, but six months later he received an honourable discharge under the category “No longer physically fit”, and awarded the Silver War Badge.

Although awarded 3 medals, the Star Medal, the Victory Medal, the British Medal, Albert, a weary but resolute British Tommy, did not return to a “Land for Heroes”. Instead Albert returned to a country which had lost a generation. Wilfred Owen’s haunting elegy Anthem for Doomed Youth is a judgement on the experience of war, the impact on the “sad shires” and those who were left to mourn.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Albert returned to his family a changed man, dying aged 71 years in 1953. He never mentioned his experiences in France and Belgium, post-traumatic stress syndrome was a condition which was not recognised in 1918. But Albert would ruefully reflect and contemplate on “each slow dusk a drawing- down of blinds” and the many young men who became doomed youths.

Sadly his war records and his medals are missing, but it is thanks to the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury that I have been  able to provide some insight into Albert’s army life.

Guest post by Pamela Davenport: The Models & Muses of the Pre Raphaelites: Annie Miller

Back in January I was thrilled to welcome Pamela Davenport, a fellow lover of all things art and literature, as a guest blogger on No wriggling.  Millais – A compassionate portrait of Opheilia was such a success and, she assures me, an enjoyable experience for her,  that she has written another piece about the Pre – Raphaelite Brotherhood for me to share with my readers. Perhaps it would be fairer to say this post is about one of the ‘sisterhood’ of  women used (and, perhaps, abused) by the artists in that Bohemian group – one of, as Pamela says, the ‘bohemians and stunners’,  Annie Miller. Once again, I must thank Pamela for all the research she does to tell us more about this fascinating period in British art.

Annie MillerIn my previous guest blog I explored the way in which Millais, the golden boy of The Royal Academy, used inspiration from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet to produce a beautiful visual portrayal of the last moments of Ophelia’s life. The models and muses became an important part of the work of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). So how were these supermodels of the nineteenth century discovered? Annie Miller was there at the beginning of the Brotherhood and no doubt helped to shape their art. But how did Annie get her lucky break?

Born into poverty and orphaned as a child, she was brought up by her aunt and uncle, a laundress and a shoe maker, in the slums of London. With her wild and filthy hair and covered in vermin, William Holman Hunt, an original member of the PRB, saw a beauty to be rescued by a knight errant, from her life of poverty. Hunt wished to transform Annie, Pygmalion-style, and set about educating her. However, did he ever intend to marry her?

Annie made her first appearance as the model in The Awakening Conscience, 1853 (above). If one looks closely there are references to Annie’s relationship to William in the painting. and the sense that this woman is kept as a mistress, rather than a wife. However, there was always an ambiguity about their stormy relationship. After one of their many rifts, William repainted the face, using his wife Fanny Waugh. William considered himself Annie’s saviour, but he never proposed or showed much interest in her after a lengthy absence in the Middle-East. I like to think that she was fiercely independent; after all she came from an era when love was not a first priority, making a match was.

So what would you do if the man who pays your bills, pays for your education, and controls your life clears off to the Holy Land, with no promise that he would return, let alone marry you? In this case absence certainly did not make Annie’s heart grow fonder. Was this the wake-up call Annie needed? Apparently Annie had a mind of her own and in Hunt’s absence she was seen out socially with different men, including both Rossetti brothers, Dante Gabriel and William, and the artist George Boyce. Just as Henry Higgins lost his power and influence over Eliza Doolittle, Annie spread her wings and turned away from the staid and solid Hunt and sought a world of excitement

Although there are some Hunt images of Annie, there are admittedly more by other people, mostly Rossetti. Ah Rossetti, I wondered when we’d come to you! Although he helped her financially, Hunt also had to give his permission for her to sit for other artists, and the “bad boy” Rossetti was not one of them. Rossetti – yes there is a romantic view of him, this bohemian who probably was more exciting than the dour William Hunt;the man about town with his dark flowing hair, whose art and poetry contained sensuality and realism that captured the bohemians and stunners on his canvases.

With their voluptuous figures and loose luxuriant hair, Annie and other ‘stunners’ became an emblem of female sexuality , with a suggestion of loose morals. These breath-taking works, with their hidden secrets, high spirits and high aspirations, challenged Victorian morals and conventions. To me, Rossetti and his relationships with his muses and models became more interesting than any soap opera. In particular I found his relationship with Annie Miller fascinating. With her amazing blond hair and her curvaceous figure Annie had caught the eye and imagination of many artists and Annie soon became seduced by the glamour of the artists’ studios and the ‘reality show’ fame attached to the role. Just like Eliza Doolittle she never knew what made her role so exciting and why her heart took flight!

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Woman in Yellow – Dante Gabriel Rossetti

As with many Pre-Raphaelite women, Annie became the object of Rossetti’s infatuation and desires.  He used her as a model incessantly while Hunt was away. Unfortunately Rossetti was married to Elizabeth Siddal at the time and his obsession caused arguments and friction between Lizzie and Rossetti. Whether from sexual jealously or something deeper, it is thought that Lizzie felt her role as Rossetti’s muse was threatened. Was this really a love triangle? It certainly adds an interesting dimension to the drama. After Lizzie died, in 1862 Annie posed for Rossetti for two stunning paintings, Woman in Yellow (above) and Helen of Troy, showing how she had become briefly the supermodel of the nineteenth century.

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Helen of Troy

This image of Helen of Troy clearly demonstrates the Pre Raphaelite hallmark of women, with the rippling hair, full lips, the hair ornaments and jewellery. No wonder Mrs Gaskell referred to Rossetti as “not mad as a March hare, but hair mad”.  The loose luxuriant hair can be viewed as an emblem of female sexuality, but did this necessary equate to loose morals?

In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms; And none but thou shalt be my paramour!”

Although Annie has been immortalised on canvas there have been some critics who did not view her as the beautiful Helen of Troy. So why did Rossetti choose Annie to be his model for this radiant paining?  Does the poem Rossetti wrote to complement the painting, Troy Town, provide any more insight, with its emphasis  on love, desire and beauty?

Undeniably Annie came from a lowly background, so perhaps subconsciously Rossetti was elevating her status just as Holman Hunt had tried to do.

Just as the tabloid media now has a ‘field day’ with celebrities, there have been many people who viewed Annie’s lifestyle judgmentally, assuming that she was rather too free with her favours. This has been reinforced by several dramatic portrayals in the twentieth century, which included Ken Russell’s Dante Inferno in 1967, the Love School in 1975 and Desperate Romantics in 2009. Would it be more realistic to state that Annie was aware that her modelling career was short lived and that these  friendships were more to do with self-preservation?

By 1863, Annie’s career was on the wane as Rossetti, ever fickle with his emotional attachments, replaced Annie with the gregarious Fanny Cornford.  Finally Janey Morris, the wife of William, with her lean pale face and her mass of long dark brown hair, represented an alternative beauty to the ‘stunners’. The bohemian lifestyle was left behind as Annie chose a more sedate lifestyle and moved to Hampstead.

Like Eliza Doolittle, Annie married and settled down with Thomas Thomason, in Shoreham by Sea, employing a cook, housemaid and parlour maid. Annie and Thomas had one daughter who recalled her mother as “being lovely and ladylike, wearing exquisite handmade shoes and kid gloves”.

Annie overcame many barriers, from a Victorian childhood living in poverty with no hope for the future, to posing as the face that launched a thousand ships as Helen of Troy. Her relationship with Holman Hunt caused rifts and conflicts and eventually ties between them were severed. But Annie was assertive and she stood up to him and amazingly lived her own life on her own terms, as much as any woman in her position could do in such a restrictive and stifling era. “ I’ll never know what made it so exciting, why all at once my heart took flight, I only know when he began to dance with me I could have danced, danced, danced all night”.

Annie Miller was a fascinating woman, especially during an era when the social structure of society was different and the position of women in society was one of that being defined by the men in their lives.

What a journey Annie had travelled from the dirty unhygienic slums of London to the quiet Sussex coast. Annie lived until 1925 when she died at the age of 90.

0a9a86fPamela Davenport is an experienced Higher and Further Education teacher, who has substantial experience working with children and young people in social care, community and educational settings. Pamela has undertaken 8 European visits, to Germany, Belgium, Spain and Finland, as part of the British Council’s Erasmus/Socrates Teacher Mobility Project. Writer on Social Care Values in Practice, Human Development Across The Lifespan, Working in a Multi-cultural Society, The Invisible Child, The Rights of Children and co-author for Teacher’s Handbook for HUGS Charity. She is a passionate lover of art and literature, in particular Shakespeare, the Romantics, the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, The Impressionists and Picasso.
Join her on twitter @pameladav3 and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pameladav

Millais – A compassionate portrait of Opheilia – a guest post by Pamela Davenport

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896
Ophelia 1851-2 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Today on No Wriggling I am thrilled to host a guest piece by Pamela Davenport, a fellow lover of all things art and literature and, like me, an author on The Wordsworth Trust blog. Find out more about her at the end of the post, and let us know how you feel about this painting and the work of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. We would love to hear from you.

While at University in the mid-1980s, I made regular visits to Manchester City Art Gallery and became fascinated with the ‘boy band’, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. So many questions came to mind, amongst them – where did they get their vision, creativity, insight and most of all inspiration? I soon discovered that literature was an important aspect of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, taking their inspiration from the Romantic Poets, including Keats as well as Ovid and Shakespeare. The three original members of the group, the charismatic Rossetti, the serious theorist Hunt and Millais with his prodigious talent, become known as The Young Ones who wanted to modernise art.  Led by Rossetti this unique band became known for their pranks, midnight jaunts around London’s streets and pleasure gardens and late night drinking sessions.

MilliasThis Band of Brothers, with their “military” action against the art establishment, was brought together with the intention of painting serious subjects taking inspiration from the artists of the middle ages and the great works of literature. This revolutionary artistic group was to be faithful to nature and paint outdoors, and in this Shakespeare’s plays offered ideal subject matter. Not only does Shakespeare describe beautiful natural scenes, but he writes scenes of emotional and moral complexity. This juxtaposition of art and literature totally captivated me.

It was his fascination with the females in Shakespeare’s plays that is obvious in Millais’ work. From the beautiful, rich and intelligent Portia, in the Merchant of Venice to the witty, fun, loyal, ingenious and decisive Rosalind, in As You Like It, Millais clearly adds depth and character to his compositions. But it was the image and the story of Ophelia which took my breath away when I first saw the painting in the Tate.

Initially I was drawn to Arthur Hughes’ interpretation of Ophelia’s contemplating death. This delicate pale young girl, with long fair hair, with a crown of reeds and flowers on her head and dressed in white drapery intrigued me. With her deep sorrowful expression Ophelia is seated in the centre of the painting in a dark, swampy woodland setting. But nothing could compare to Millais representation of this Shakespearean heroine. It was like stepping out into sunlight, with the clarity of colour and heartfelt emotion that made my heart skip a beat.

I have seen various productions of Hamlet and what has always struck me is that  through his poetry and prose, Shakespeare with his universality, and his realism, can  create drama from human emotion. This is particularly apparent in Hamlet. Ophelia’s portrayal is a passive, sexually vulnerable posture, linking to Hamlet’s association of “woman” with “fragility” and Laertes calling Ophelia a “document in madness”.

In his book, Madness and Civilisation, Foucault considers the links between water and madness. He discusses how drowning was associated with the feminine, female fluidity rather than male aridity.  If the drowning of Ophelia is considered, it represents the truly feminine death which is represented in many dramas of literature, art and life. Thus water becomes symbolic of the liquid woman whose eyes are drowned in tears as her body is slowly deprived of life.

It is Shakespeare’s representation of his female characters that is both interesting and thought provoking, especially in the way in which he represents Ophelia. As the character evolves it appears that she is defined by and wholly at the mercy of the male figures in her life. Although Hamlet is not totally to blame for the tragedy of the play, his innocence must be questioned if we consider the death of Ophelia. Hamlet’s attitude towards Ophelia swings from undying love and cruelty, as in Act 3 scene 1 “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old shock but we shall relish of it: I loved you not”. This suggests that Hamlet used Ophelia as part of his revenge plan. In Act IV Scene v it becomes apparent that Ophelia can no longer cope with the dilemma and conflict she has had to endure. “Look at my flowers, there’s rosemary, that’s for remembering….pansies…. they’re for thoughts…..”, as melancholy descends.

Although we never get to see Ophelia in the stream we do have Gertrude’s description to Laertes of the drowned Ophelia in Act IV Scene VII in the brook, “There with fantastic garlands did she come, Of crow-flowers, nettles, daises and long purples……When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook, her clothes spread wide….”

In his representation of Ophelia Millais clearly conveys her ethereal beauty. Millais’ painting is almost frighteningly realistic, with vivid colours of nature, her billowing dress and chaotically floating hair and flowers. This is how I always visualised Ophelia’s tragic death, in my imagination this work of art perfectly complements Gertrude’s description. Ophelia is shown holding her arms out in the shape of a cross, with the ivy in the painting symbolising Ophelia’s melancholy and decay.

Millais places Ophelia in exotic surroundings which are enhanced by bright colours and thick brush strokes to paint trees. Apart from the inert passivity of Ophelia, a closer look at her posture and face conveys the moment of death as an almost orgasmic ecstasy. The painting shows a clever use of symbolism and colour clearly represents Ophelia’s descent into madness and the tragic loss of her life, as she lies “Mermaid-like awhile they bore her up…… As one incapable of her own distress,…Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, Pulled the poor wretch from her melodies lay to muddy death”.

I have returned to this painting many times and see something new each time. The way in which Millais interprets and captures Ophelia’s expression as she is retreating into her madness, lying motionless and emotionless obvious of her fate, is pure understated drama. The painting is regulated in a way to highlight the natural details of the scene. The grassy water plants and the bed of weeds in which she floats look almost like a piece of exquisite embroidery. Driven insane by the murder of her father by Hamlet, Ophelia is portrayed singing in her madness as she drowns. To me this truly captures Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death.

When I first introduced my daughter to this wonderful picture she was drawn to the flowers and the wild life. Most of the flowers are included because they are mentioned in the play or are symbolic. Millais began the background in July 1851 at Ewell, Surrey with the main aim of close observation of nature. Millais observed these flowers growing wild over a period of five months, hence there are flowers that bloom at different times of the year. Looking closely at the painting there is a robin in the branches of the willow tree, which refers back to the line, “For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy”, which Ophelia sings as she loses her mind in Act IV Scene V. Birds are symbolic of the spirit. It could be a reference to Ophelia floating down the river and her spirit flying away. A poignant and beautiful creative work, a timeless tribute to Ophelia.

Once the background was completed Millais moved into his studio, where his model Lizzie Siddall was required to pose in a bathtub, with the water begin kept warm by lamps underneath, over a 4 month period. My daughter was fascinated by the story, and this started her own  fascination with English Literature as well as a love for art.

0a9a86fPamela Davenport is an experienced Higher and Further Education teacher, who has substantial experience working with children and young people in social care, community and educational settings. Pamela has undertaken 8 European visits, to Germany, Belgium, Spain and Finland, as part of the British Council’s Erasmus/Socrates Teacher Mobility Project. Writer on Social Care Values in Practice, Human Development Across The Lifespan, Working in a Multi-cultural Society, The Invisible Child, The Rights of Children and co-author for Teacher’s Handbook for HUGS Charity. She is a passionate lover of art and literature, in particular Shakespeare, the Romantics, the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, The Impressionists and Picasso.
Join her on twitter @pameladav3 and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pameladav

Love poems you wish you had written 2015 #2 – W.H. Auden

220px-AudenVanVechten1939For the second of my posts, specially written as we approach St Valentine’s Day, I focus on a poem by W.H. Auden. Anyone who has seen Four Weddings and a Funeral will know the poem which starts ‘Stop all the clocks…’, so movingly read by John Hannah at the funeral of his dead partner, played by Simon Callow. It is chokingly good, and bitterly sad.

However, for this week, as requested by historian Jessica Meyer on Twitter, I am reproducing another great love lyric by Auden – Lullaby. Sometimes referred to by the first line ‘Lay your sleeping head my love…’ it is about time passing, the inevitable fading of beauty and the enduring nature of love. Auden was born in 1907 and is now regarded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.  He was a great poetic technician, but also wrote remarkable prose on profound topics. He is a poet I love to read, although I have never studied his work in depth. So I simply respond, and in this poem I like the way a classic meditation on love is subverted – most particularly by the lover’s ‘faithless’ arm. Is this a reference to atheistic beliefs? Is this about a night spent making love to someone other than the poet’s regular partner (with a further reference to fidelity in the third stanza)? Or is it simply a recognition that we are all frail, imperfect human beings when it comes to love and that in that moment there is no-one more entirely beautiful and adored than the sleeping lover? What do you think?

Lullaby
W. H. Auden, (1907 – 1973)

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

Again, I have found a reading  – sometimes it helps to hear a poem read aloud (although I always like to read it to myself, under my breath or out loud and proud if I am alone in the house!) and this version is accompanied by some sweet music. I would love to know what you think, and as always do let me know your own favourite poems.

Comic-book Keats – a new way to prevent the ‘end of poetry’?

labelledame11I may be coming late to the work of Julian Peters. It is possible his illustrative work has been bringing young people to poetry for some time without me realising it. However, there may be some others out there, like myself, who have not yet come across an artist who, in my opinion, has found a way to ‘re-package’ the poetry of the 19th and 20th century in a way that might just convince  the cynical that there is life in poetry yet.

Julian Peters is based in Montreal and has translated a number of familiar poems into comic-book recreations so striking that they have been widely exhibited. However, even though I am a member of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, I missed Peters’ inclusion in the 2012 exhibition ‘Illustrating Keats’ at the House in Rome. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is wonderful, with a young man  (looking, purposely I am sure, rather Keatsian) recounting his seduction by the beautiful woman – ‘La belle dame’ – who casts her chilling spell over him, as she has done many another ‘pale knight’. See the whole piece here on Peters’ website.

couverture1On that site you will also find his other work, which includes Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe,  The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot and a terrific manga-style presentation of  When You Are Old by W B Yeats.

I read an article recently in The Skinny, in which Bruce Sterling & Jon Lebkowsky discussed the apparent ‘death of poetry’.  Bruce Sterling said:

“If you’d asked John Keats if there was any ‘truth’ in the journalism of his day, Keats would have said no, that all the newspapers were organs of party faction, and that the ‘truth,’ and also the beauty, was in poetry. Our own society doesn’t have ‘Poetry.’ Poetry is already gone. We don’t miss it any more than those un-novelled societies miss novels.”

That statement feels like a punch in the stomach to me. I disagree so forcefully that I could shake Sterling (although in the article he is really expressing his views on the future of the mass-media and there is at least some recognition that poetry is older, and more ‘needed’ than journalism as it is practised at the moment). There is much to be enjoyed and gained from reading poetry, even if poets are no longer the Byronic celebrity super-heroes of the 19th century.

I really enjoyed browsing Julian Peters’ website and seeing some of my favourite poems in a new light. The comic strip versions are utterly different from the Pre-Raphaelite representations of Keats’ work but they are striking nonetheless. What do you think?

John Keats’ death mask inspires an art installation..or does it?

virgilHmm…I have been wondering how to respond to the news from artdaily.org that artist Virgil Marti has opened his exhibition  MATRIX 167 / Ode to a Hippie at Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut. I admit I had never heard of Virgil Marti before I read the piece, but it was first sent to me by wonderful artist Amanda White and then came through on a Google Alert for John Keats. Why? Because Marti was unveiling work  ‘that examines the connections between Romanticism and the hippie culture through the tragic figures of John Keats (1795–1821), an English Romantic poet, and Paul Thek (1933–1988), an American painter, sculptor and installation artist.’

Apparently Marti’s work has been inspired by John Keats’ death mask (see centre image above). The article says Marti ‘discovered’ the mask in the  Wadsworth Atheneum’s collection, although images and reproductions of the mask are easy to find and certainly it is no new ‘discovery’, donated as it was to the museum in 1924.  The mask, according to artdaily.org is  ‘a morose plaster cast of the poet’s lifeless face’. Well I don’t think Keats really needs to apologise for being morose in death, or indeed ‘lifeless’. He had a pretty shocking time in his last weeks after all.

Continue reading “John Keats’ death mask inspires an art installation..or does it?”

The most beautiful words ever written?

The Eve of St Agnes - Millais
The Eve of St Agnes – Millais

I have been on my own for two days. The family is away being athletic – not a talent I can share with them. So who could I turn to for company but John Keats?

Yesterday I re-read Isabella: or the Pot of Basil and was struck not by the undoubted flaws it contains, but by the wonderful storytelling and the way Keats lets his personality and his political views sneak in to some of the stanzas.

Today though, I have taken the reading of his poetry to another level, with The Eve of St Agnes.

I didn’t want to undertake a long analysis here, but to encourage you to read the poem, but put simply it is a poem populated by stock characters (young lovers, warring families, old nurses) but packed with description. It isn’t a story that rattles along; it lingers on detail and draws the reader in from the bitter cold of both the weather and the hearts of the violent families into the warmth of the chamber belonging to a young woman – Madeline – who undertakes the rituals of St Agnes’ Eve in order to dream of her future love. That lover appears in physical form as young Porphyro who bribes Madeline’s old nurse to allow him access to the bedroom where Madeline sleeps. He enters her dream, and when she wakes (here there is some doubt as to whether they consummate their love – an addition that shocked some readers at the time and worried Keats’ publisher enough to ask him to tone it down) Porphyro declares her his bride and they run away from the castle into the storm.

So does this old story oft repeated justify the title of this post?  I will tell you why I believe so. It is because of  stanza XXIV, in which Keats describes Madeline’s chamber….

A casement high and triple-arch’d there was,
    All garlanded with carven imag’ries
    Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass, 
    And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
    Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
    As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings;
    And in the midst, ‘mong thousand heraldries,
    And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
  A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings.

The Flight of Madeline & Porphyro - Holman Hunt
The Flight of Madeline & Porphyro – Holman Hunt

I would encourage you to read this aloud, or just under your breath. Feel and enjoy the words as if they were a plate of the most delicious food you can imagine. It is no surprise that Keats was a significant influence on the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian poets such as Tennyson. The poem as a whole is a visual delight, the colours sparkle through the text and it is as if Keats has had a vision of Millais’ or Holman Hunt’s representations of the story as he writes – he is literally creating a work of art on the page.

j-keatsI think these literally are the most beautiful words in English Literature. A controversial assertion I am sure but one I feel confident making. A close second, and of a similar sensual nature, are also by Keats (you can tell I am not in the least biased…) from the second verse of Ode to a Nightingale..

O for a beaker full of the warm South! 
 Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
  With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
   And purple-stainèd mouth;

So what do you think? Challenge me by all means! I know there are passages in Shakespeare and many other poets that might be quoted but I stand by these as words I could literally consume. They send a tingle down the spine. Beat them if you dare!

Let’s focus on the words: Peter, Tony, and a Portrait of Keats

The 'new' portrait of John Keats
The ‘new’ portrait of John Keats

Two weeks ago (yes, I am a little slow getting this blog post written) the papers offered some interesting headlines for those, like me, who are fascinated by the life and writing of the poet John Keats. A ‘rare lifetime portrait’ of Keats has been found by Bonhams in America and alongside five drawings by Constable will go on sale in the summer.

One of the early posts I wrote on this blog was entitled ‘Picturing John Keats: Image or Imagination?’, and it has been one of my most-read pieces over the last two and a half years. I was curious to know, particularly in light of Ben Wishaw’s portrayal of Keats in the wonderful 2009 film ‘Bright Star’ , how important it is to us to have an ‘image’ of the physical Keats in our mind as we read his poems and letters. There are so many portraits, both contemporary and posthumous, of him that the ‘real’ John eludes us; the sensitive, frail romantic poet, dying young and eulogised by the likes of Shelley so unlike the written descriptions of the man. So when this apparently ‘unique’ new image appeared it was more than intriguing.

Bonhams believe the painting was acquired by the owner, recently deceased, in the 1950s, but other than that its journey to auction is unclear. It was reproduced as a frontispiece to a biography, published by Stanford University Press, in 1933 but the artist is not known. It has been attributed, loosely, to a circle of painters around Charles Hayter, an artist of miniatures famous in the early years of the 19th century but this is by no means certain. In fact, it seems we know little about it at all, other than the ‘technique and framing’ are contemporary with the final years of Keats life.

In ‘Picturing John Keats’ I concluded that for me, the very best way to form a true and lasting ‘picture’ of Keats is to read his poetry and, most particularly, his letters. As a teenager I adopted the Hilton portrait ‘after’ a miniature by Joseph Severn as my ‘photo’ of the poet I literally adored, but as I grew older I understood more about the context behind such work, and other portraits that often spoke more of the artist than the poet himself.

keats2Having discussed this latest portrait with many others who know something of the poet and his life, it seems I am not alone in thinking it rather feeble. Some writers have suggested he is ‘young’ and that perhaps it is an image of him whilst he was studying medicine. There are two points to consider when considering that possibility: a) he was only 25 when he died so any portrait would show him as ‘young’ and b) why would such a miniature have been taken of him, Byronic collar and all, at that stage in his life? If one examines it alongside the Severn Miniature (reproduced to the right), painted in 1818, it looks like rather a poor copy. As my Facebook friend, artist Amanda White, noticed, the parting on the hair, the collar and jacket, all show marked similarities to Severn’s work, which WAS painted from life.

In fact, it was most noted that in this portrait he has a resemblance to correspondent of the Right, Peter Hitchens, or to ex-PM Tony Blair. Neither comparison deeply flattering to Keats, in my opinion anyway.

As with the recent sale of a fragment of Keats writing, it is a testament to Keats that his life and work can still create a media stir – more so probably than many of his fellow Romantics – but I for one hope this chubby image, lacking any of the fiery passion Keats was known for, is not one that becomes a commonly used or lasting one.

It is interesting to me to try and understand why we are so keen to have an image of writers before our eyes as we read. I often flick to the back inside cover of a book to see if there is a photo of the author; I love to examine the difference between portraits, thinking about what aspect of the subject’s personality the artist was looking to convey. Am I the only person to feel this curiosity?

But going back to this portrait, and ignoring that inner voice that wants to visualise the ‘real’ Keats writing, or reading with one foot resting on his other leg, I go back to my original plea to anyone who wants to ‘know’ Keats: focus on the words, his work. Not on the imagination of others…

Bronze bulls on pianos, or ‘On first Looking into Chapman’s Homer’

I haven’t written about  John Keats for a few weeks and have been meaning to start a series of posts on his circle of friends; many of whom were key to his development as a poet. However, an article via a Google Alert caught my eye last week and having read a little around the story, it is so unusual and the meaning so obscure (for me in any event) that I wanted to share it on this blog. I think it raises some issues about how inclusive both art and poetry are, and who the work involved is actually aimed at and why. I hope to elicit comments from those interested in poetry or art; both or neither.

In 2011 a devastating earthquake hit the city of Christchurch in New Zealand. Although shocks are regularly felt across the country, this was of such magnitude that it devastated the city. Many of the buildings  are having to be  demolished, leaving patches of wasteland waiting for the city authorities to authorise a rebuild.

However on one such area now sit two life-sized bronzed bulls, atop two concert grand pianos.

Continue reading “Bronze bulls on pianos, or ‘On first Looking into Chapman’s Homer’”