July 26, 2017

Art That Follows You Home – Elizabeth Siddal and Anna Alma-Tadema

The image shown is Anna Alma-Tadema’s Girl in a Bonnet with Her Head on a Blue Pillow, 1902, watercolor and bodycolor with some graphite on board, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. 

BBC America’s Broadchurch and HBO’s Game of Thrones have descended on our household just in time to impact my impressions of the Princeton University Art Museum’s (PUAM) current exhibit, “Great British Drawings from the Ashmolean Museum.” 

What can Gainsborough and Turner offer against Broadchurch’s spectacular God’s-eye views of the Jurassic Coast or the epic chaos of the battle that closed out Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones? It helps, I know, to be standing in front of the art, but like it or not, my visual sense of the UK for the past few years has been delivered by highly skilled digital technicians: views of the Cornish coast in Poldark; Yorkshire by way of Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax; the Sussex coast in Foyle’s War; the Highlands of Scotland through time-travel in Outlander; Bristol, our home away from home, in the missing-girl mini-series Thirteen; and London old and new in Wolf Hall, Penny Dreadful, and the complete MI-5, along with the live cable coverage of terrorist attacks on the heart of the city, not least the Greenfell Tower fire that a Bristol friend calls “our 9-11.”

Character Counts

Actually, there’s an element common to my response to “Great British Drawings” and series television. The same way the sweep and splendor of framed artworks proved to be secondary to the humanity of Elizabeth Siddal and Anna Alma-Madema, two women I’d never heard of before, the sweeping visuals of Broadchurch count for less than the relationship between a compatibly incompatible man and woman who happen to be detectives. And while the sound and fury of Game of Thrones can take your breath away, it’s what the characters bring that keeps you watching: the grit of Arya Stark, the wit of Tyrion Lannister.

A Whirlwind Tour

Reviewing an exhibit as broad and complex as this one, you know at the outset there’s no way you’re going to come out of it with a plan that does justice to the diversity. Something or someone is going to take precedence. What follows is a whirlwind tour of my responses, based on some barely legible notes.

My first long look went, predictably, to two watercolors by William Blake, which might have become the focal point of the column, except I’d featured Blake in a spring 2016 review of PUAM’s “The British Passion for Landscape,” with its Blakean title, “Pastures Green & Dark Satanic Mills.”

For John Sell Cotman’s structurally adventurous A Ruined House (c. 1807-10), which serves as the exhibit’s poster image, I scribbled “Stand-out” and thought of Cézanne, an association confirmed by The Ashmolean commentary’s citing of a 20th-century art critic’s observation that there was “no need to invoke Cézanne, for Cotman was there to show the way.”

Several works attracted special attention because of personal history. Edward Dayes’s Durham Cathedral seen through an Arch of Ralph Flambard’s Bridge (1797) roused memories of crossing the bridge on my way into town during a month spent in Durham almost 40 years ago. Edward Lear’s view of Constaninople from September 4, 1848, sparked memories of youthful adventures in that magical city. The same thing happened with J.M.W. Turner’s Venice: The Riva degli Schiavoni (1840) and John Ruskin’s The Exterior of the Ducal Palace (1852).

I also flirted with the mad idea of spinning a Game of Thrones theme around works like Arthur Hughes’s The Knight of the Sun (1860-61) and Samuel Palmer’s extraordinary creation, Tintagel Castle: Approaching Rain (1848-1849), which inspired the scribble, “Like G of T: a swarm with doorway and turrets.”

When the Art Looks at You

Toward the end of my tour of “Great British Drawings” I found Anna Alma-Tadema (1865-1943). I’d already made a page of notes about Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s watercolors of scenes from his translation of his namesake’s La Vita Nuova featuring Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal (1829-1862), his muse, model, and wife. What appealed to me about Siddal besides her Pre-Raphaelite beauty was that she was a poet and an artist in her own right as well as, more famously, a model.

While Siddal came from a working-class London background, Alma-Tadema, whose parents were both successful artists, grew up in an exquisitely furnished home near Regent’s Park. When I saw her watercolor Girl in a Bonnet with Her Head on Blue Pillow (1902) it was as if I’d strayed into the private space of a bedridden stranger in distress. In “real life” I’d have been embarrassed, at a loss, inadequate. Instead, I stayed with her, kept her company, and forgot about making notes. I’d had a similar reaction 11 years ago when I saw and was seen by Zinaida Serebryakova’s self-portrait, Study of a Girl, in the PUAM exhibit, “Russia’s Age of Elegance.” Feeling emotionally engaged by the subject or style of a particular artwork is rare enough, all the more when you’re moved to prolong the relationship by keeping a small framed reproduction of Study of a Girl on your desk for years. “Look how her eyes follow you around,” a father at the show told his child. How special is it when you feel the art looking at you rather than the other way around?

It’s All About the Artist

The girl in the bonnet in Anna Alma-Tadema’s watercolor has no interest in you or anyone. If she’s looking anywhere it’s into herself. So haunted and haunting is her expression in this intimate moment, with her hands clasped together as if she has no one but herself to cling to, she stirs your sympathies, drawing you into her melancholy reverie. The exhibit label suggests that “the sitter is unknown,” mentions the “sensuous varety of textures—gauze, velvet, swan’s feather and silk,” and suggests that “she engages us as an individual.” But it seems odd to talk about the identity of the sitter when this work is so obviously all about the artist, a self-portrait in the profoundest sense. Online images of Anna show a bemused, uncomfortable, unprotected-looking teenager painted by her father Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and a dark self-portrait, all Medieval gloom, done when she was 20. Some reproductions of her brilliant work can be seen on the Eclectic Light Company website. Anna’s father’s portrait of her at 16 is reproduced on the cover of The Awkward Age in Women’s Popular Fiction 1850-1900.

Rossetti’s Beatrice

Born in the borough of Holborn in 1829, Elizabeth Siddal was employed in a milliner’s shop off Leicester Square when she was discovered. According to D.G. Rossetti’s brother William Michael Rossetti, she was “tall, finely-formed with a lofty neck and regular yet somewhat uncommon features, greenish-blue unsparkling eyes, large perfect eyelids, brilliant complexion and a lavish heavy wealth of coppery golden hair.” The qualities that made her an effective model for the austere Beatrice were an “air between dignity and sweetness with something that exceeded modest self-respect and partook of disdainful reserve,”

That wealth of hair became one of the signature images of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, figuring in an anecdote from the far side of morbid romanticism. After Siddal died at 32 of a laudanum overdose, Rossetti tucked into her hair the only copy of a journal containing all his poetry.  Some years later, determined to retrieve the book, he applied to the Home Secretary for permission to have her coffin exhumed. A witness said the body was “well preserved,” her “delicate beauty intact” — her hair, which had continued to grow, filled the coffin.

Siddal is the woman looking on in Rossetti’s Dante Drawing an Angel on the Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death (1853) and she’s the cool, remote Beatrice at a Marriage Feast Denying Her Salutation to Dante (1855). The “noble, glorious creature” described by John Ruskin, who imagined her as “someone in a medieval Florentine fresco,” is best seen in Rossetti’s watercolor portrait, Elizabeth Siddal (1854). These were among dozens of drawings of Lizzie, “God knows how many,” said Rossetti’s mentor, Ford Madox Brown: “it’s like monomania with him.”

Beatrice Drawing 

While Siddal’s own drawings, Pippa Passes (1854), from Robert Browning’s poem, and Two Lovers Listening to Music (1854), may seem crude compared to Alma-Tadema’s work, they impressed John Ruskin, who, in the words of the exhibit note, bought everything she produced and became her patron, “offering her quarterly allowances for art supplies in exchange for her work.” Most likely that’s Rossetti and Lizzie sharing a bench in Two Lovers, his arm around her, she leaning on his shoulder, eyes closed. The exhibit note says the scene may have been based on a cliff walk near the seaside town of Hastings, “where there is a spot known as ‘lover’s seat,’ visited by Siddal and Rossetti in 1854….The presence of female musicians resonates with the ballad-like quality of Siddal’s poetry.” When she made the drawing, Elizabeth may have had these lines in mind: “Love kept my heart in a song of joy/My pulses quivered to the tune/The coldest blasts of winter blew/Upon it like sweet airs in June.”

“Great British Drawings” will be at the Princeton University Art Museum through September 17. The Museum is open every day but Monday; admission is free.