Pre-Raphaelite adventures continued…

Last night, in the most recent chapter of my own personal Pre-Raphaelite season, I visited the Wandsworth Museum again to see the screening of a short film produced by Ken Russell for the BBC in 1961.  It starred Mrs Wilhelmina Stirling, sister of the painter Evelyn de Morgan, showing visitors around her house – Old Battersea House, looking like an idyllic country retreat (where is this? it is not the Battersea I know…) – where she had collected the paintings of her sister and the ceramics of her brother-in-law which are now exhibited at the Museum.  Mrs Stirling, aged 96, appeared in a white fur hat, strings of pearls around her neck, and generous folds of white lace at her cuffs; she began to recount with glee tales of the ghosts with whom she shared her home.  Recalled to the true purpose of the interview, she told of the young Evelyn making such a mess in the nursery with her paints that water was banned; young Evelyn stole water from the dolls’ tea party.  Eventually she made it to the Slade and so came into being the porcelain ladies and diaphanous fairies who represent her myths and morals, dreams and realities… We left Wilhelmina, however, seated in all her dated finery before a typewriter – sole acknowledgement of modernity in a house lit by oil lamps – zealously punching out a follow-up to her 37th book, ‘Ghosts Vivisected’.

I did see the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Tate Britain this week too.  I took three hours to get round 7 rooms – a record exhibition-viewing time for me!  Hunger and tired feet were forgotten thanks to the splendid company and the splendid paintings.  Admittedly, there was no discernible curatorial ‘argument’ and the themes assigned to each room were decidedly arbitrary (a clearly secular portrait in the room entitled ‘Salvation’?  A beautiful, transcendental, but clearly unpopulated Scottish landscape by Millais in a room dedicated to ‘Mythology’??) – but taken as a blockbuster survey of the Pre-Raphaelites it was a winner.  Note: to be seen with girls in a reasonably romantic frame of mind.  The tragic love story of ‘The Huguenot’ and other such tales of chivalry, passion and despair will then make you sigh with an indefinable emotion – to the extent that I almost missed lunch.  A total aberration.

Into a Victorian Imagination

ImageAt the weekend I saw Lord Leighton’s House, which I would like to move into immediately.  Could there be a house more perfectly designed for entertainment?  From the middle-eastern souk that dominates the ground floor to the vast studio above with ample space for dancing, and piano on a stage, accompanied by endless cushion filled alcoves and wide sills, everything demands an audience – or a cast. Only the bedroom was disappointing; sleeping was clearly too mundane and unworthy of Leighton’s exotic and sumptuous tastes.  Or perhaps sensibly he just wanted a good rest from time to time, and admittedly the pale blue Morris wallpaper is a peaceful choice after swamp-green silk and turquoise tiles.

These tiles were designed by William de Morgan (in his ‘Persian style’), and I visited the foundation dedicated to him the next day.  The stylised animals were a joy, particularly the squirrels with vicious teeth.  Iznik patterns mixed together with creatures who appear to have escaped from English folklore – via the Pre-Raphaelite imagination – works very well I think.  (Would look good behind an Aga.  NO!, no, Wandsworth is creeping back into my consciousness… behind a divan draped in silk, obviously, in my Mediterranean villa.)

These glorious ceramics were shown alongside Evelyn de Morgan’s paintings.  These were very accomplished, though some verged on the chocolate-box rim of Pre-Raphaelitism – a few too heavily moralistic and sentimental, with a few too may rainbow pastel shades and faces of pious porcelain beauty.  I spent longer in front of the scenes of witch-like women brewing ‘love’ potions, whose faces expressed more character – even if this was mostly of a bitter and malevolent sort.  In the case of Queen Eleanor, on her way to poison Fair Rosamond, an angular profile and thin lips was not enough – her evil intent is driven home by ghostly flying snakes and monkeys, which pursue the ethereal forms of small cherubs and doves, leaving several crying on the floor.  A poor effort by Rosamond I thought – or rather a poor choice of ‘daemons’.

Anyway, all this Pre-Raphaelite decadence and melodrama has whetted my appetite for the Tate’s blockbuster… (to be continued)