Our Lady of Saturday Night
Dissident dreamers, lovers of laudanum opium tincture. Rossetti and the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood were nothing without the Sisterhood
The more I read about the Pre-Raphellite Brotherhood (est 1848, burning out not long later), the more they’re like the original Sex Pistols. A group of anarchist absolutists with nothing to lose. They called themselves the Pre-Raphs in a romantic throwback to nature, to better times, when the renaissance painter, Raphael (1483-1520) stood as their last hero.
The PRB lived fast, some died young, and Victorian times would have been dull without them. Like punk, Christina Rossetti (1830-1894, the youngest sister) came out like Queen Vivienne Westwood, with the largest bank balance. She published over 900 poems in her lifetime, with Holst setting her Bleak Midwinter poem to music.
WHO WERE THE ROSSETTIS?
The Rossettis grew up within arms reach of Byron. The Rossetti elders were exiled scholars from Italy: mother Frances Polidori was sister of Lord Byron's friend and physician John William Polidori. The father, Gabriel was a poet and Roman Catholic from Vasto in the Kingdom of Naples. He was supporter of popular nationalism and had to flee, after receiving a grant from King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies got Canute-vibes and revoked the constitution (Canute’s the viking king who thought he could put his throne in front of the tide and his power would stop the waves rolling in). First exiling to Malta for three years, a British admiral of the Royal Navy sent Rossetti to London in 1824. He became a Professor of Italian at King’s College and taught Italian in schools. They entertained revolutionaries, artists and scholars in the Bloomsbury home of their four children. After going blind, house upkeep fell on his eldest son, William Michael, and he (like Scottish poet Robert Burns) took a day job in the Excise office, supporting mother Frances’ failed attempts at setting up schools with sister, Maria. All the siblings experienced work by the time they were 16. He also became the mastermind and Malcolm McLaren Svengali of the scene.
Day job frustration led a wild hunger for a more beautiful existence.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti had mid-sibling privilege to play free and loose. He swung between idealising himself as a poet and a painter, influenced by classic goth texts such as Goethe’s Faust and Poe’s The Raven. He wrote The Blessed Damozel in 1847 about longing to be joined in the afterlife,
The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
[. . .]
Yet now, and in this place,
Surely she leaned o'er me—her hair
Fell all about my face. . . .
Nothing: the autumn fall of leaves.
The whole year sets apace.
Dante was a teenager committing to life as an atheist and aware of rising French bohemia. He bought a William Blake notebook from a mate in the British Library and drew all over it. That’s on display at this landmark show at Tate Britain (running till 24 September), it is wonderful.
HAIL THE PRE-RAPHELLITE BROTHERHOOD
Around art school, at 19, in 1848, William Holman Hunt introduced Dante to John Everett Millais and together they proposed a new mode of working which would depart from the ‘mannered’ style of artists who came after the high renaissance of Raphael. Joined by Ford Madox Brown, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) set out to paint with originality and authenticity by studying nature, celebrating their friends and heroes, taking inspiration from the art and poetry about which they were passionate. It was multimedia modernism of its day
By the spring of 1849, the fruits of the three men's acquaintance appeared at the Royal Exhibition. These included Hunt's Rienzi and Eve of St. Agnes, Millais's Isabella and Christ in the House of his Parents, and Rossetti's Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini.
These paintings bore the Brotherhood’s PRB initials, and in these dudes naivety they stuck all their brushes up against the academic teaching and establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts, and start their own manifesto. One of my favourite quotes is from Kerouac about the Beats - “there weren’t any Beats, just a group of writers trying to get discovered”. Literary swipes, and schools are all trying to one up themselves sliding up slippery poles. It’s tribal, it’s war-like, and it’s nothing new. The PRB vs the Royal Academy. TikTok vs Meta, Blur vs Oasis was the Stones vs The Beatles, the Coldwar, all wars, one binary against the other with androgyny and non-binary narratives breaking taboos along the way, held up as objects of fear by states of control along the way. One side will claim modernism/mods, the other traditionalism/be it rock n roll. As I say in Psychomachia, “ambition’s twin is desperation”. That anger is an energy. One atom decays for another to fractal outwards.
Whether the Pre-Rafs rolled in on Vespas or Triumphs, or in pointy shoes, or some kind of medieval-styled felt folk-slipper, they began painting on a wet, white ground in order to produce striking colours that traversed the entire canvas, as in Holman Hunt's A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids (1850). They rebelled against the reigning rules of chiaroscuro followed by adherents of Sir "Sloshua's" (Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792) Rubens-esque “Grand Style” idealising the imperfect, disliking the money-ed glow. Many of their paintings, such as Millais's Isabella of 1849, broke from the prevalent pyramidic or triangular placement of figures which draws the viewer's attention to a central figure, smashing up eyelines. As we discover through the exhibition, like Degas and the rising inventiveness of Impressionism that would gather pace in Paris, many of the Pre-Raf compositions were influenced by their nearest and dearest posing in photo plates projected onto canvases by candlelight - it didn’t start with Banksy, Pure Evil and Warhol, baeby…
The Pre-Raphellite Brotherhood expressed their rudimental convictions in four declarations:
To have genuine ideas to express;
To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote;
And, most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.
Bless them, they were only young. The PRB also created a List of Immortals. These were past heroes (and the odd honorary heroine) which they claimed equal affinity to. Christ was at the top. Precocious? Oui, bien sur. But they certainly shot to the ceiling with their idolising…
“We the undersigned declare that the following list of Immortals constitutes the whole of our creed, and that there exists no other Immortality than what is centred in their names and in the names of their contemporaries in whom this list is reflected”
The Author of Job
Early English Balladists
Phidias (Greek sculptor)
Early Gothic Architects
Leonardo da Vinci
Author of Stories after Nature * [Charles Jeremiah Wells]
Joan of Arc
Casual ambitiousness, right? It’s a pop goth dream. So (of course) the Brotherhood burnt out faster than a crack pipe, but not before garnering some reputation, largely via swelling to include three more solid members: James Collinson, Frederick Stephens, Thomas Woolner, and William Rossetti.
FAME, GLORY, RENEWAL OF THE FALLEN ANGELS
Through their healthy distrust for wider society, William Rossetti became editor of four editions of an anarchist journal which appeared in 1850. Initial title ideas included The Seed, but they settled on The Germ (alas, I thought I was unique for criticising sanitisation for the nations - we’re all snowflakes here). They were tiny runs, the first not hitting 100 (Cold Lips began at 500 initially, more for the second and poster editions, the last (Cold Lips 05) was a very limited run of 20 when I put myself on the cover and we sold it on a tour of Europe). Although Christina Rossetti had been publishing her poetry since she was 16 and was 20 by this time, the magazine published seven of her poems across three issues, including Dream Land and An End. Although published under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyn. Christina Rossetti’s identity was known to her all-male contributors. At the dawn of the industrial revolution, these idealists wanted to express themselves with colourful art popping like the 14th and 15th century, but with a modish slant with more realism. The Germ is said to be closest in spirit to The Liberal. The brain-child of Byron, Shelley, and Leigh Hunt. It was unique among nineteenth century periodicals for emphasising literature over politics, despite publishing Hazlitt’s essay My First Acquaintance with Poets, which is deeply political with the poets offering a freedom away from the cult of church. Our Germ content creators were a cocksure gang, with Dante swivelling a flower sword with defiantly agnostic beliefs. Maria and Christina later worked within churches for “fallen women” exiled virgins/ ex-prostitutes, with Maria finally becoming a nun without much support from her brothers, but a nihilist zest ran throughout the others. The magazine sought to circulate the creative work and radical ideas of the Pre-Raphaelites as expressed in poetry, literature and art. In their own words, printed at the end of each issue, their mission was:
“to enunciate the principles of those who, in the true spirit of Art, enforce a rigid adherence to the simplicity of Nature either in Art or Poetry […].
Each issue included an engraving, poetry and historical or critical essays (on subjects such as early Italian artists, whom the group emulated). After two issues in January and February, the magazine’s strapline was changed to the more literal Art and Poetry: Being Thoughts towards Nature Conducted Principally by Artists, used in March and April.
SANITISATION FOR THE NATIONS
The Germ enabled them to become the young bright things of their day, calling out everything around them as passé for conformism and contrived rules. Their attention-seeking antics garnered a full frenzy Dickens calling their work “hideous”, brandishing Dante as a filthy social-climbing Italian. Dickens, the racist. Initially John Ruskin, a chief art critic in Oxford, was cruel, causing Dante Rossetti to say of him, “but where is your talent?”
Importantly, their rockstar-esque dilettante arrogance warmed Ruskin and got him on side. They made it through his tastemongering gates, and he introduced them to patrons.
As the Pre-Rafs grew from juvenile to more experimental, it all went a bit Performance. Etchings play in the shadows of characters, passing packets at parties that have gone on too long with monkeys on shoulders.
The Brotherhood were famed for stalking the streets for model Guineveres, coining the term ‘stunners’ for redheads. The look rebelled against the passivity of golden-haired angels of religious paintings before.
Modelling for medieval revolutionary reimaginings. There’s a call and response for fallen women. A possibility of change - of redemption. Relaxed sexuality births into renewal - and the kissed mouth renews itself. Bohemia and beyond!
These stunners often heralded from Cockney-backgrounds. Dante’s eventual wife, Elizabeth Siddal, inspired the Eliza Doolittle character in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and later My Fair Lady (the musical in 1956 and film in 1964).
Siddal was first famed for not complaining when the bathwater went cold as she posed for John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, but it gave her a terrible cough, and became prophetic. Dante later privatised her as his own model, and as she wanted marriage, it was in an off-period where he discovered alternative models, which added to her consumption, and self-medication of laudanum, the fentanyl or Oxy of the TB-rich, cholera pandemic times.
Ruskin spotted the fragile vulnerability of Elizabeth Siddal, offering to buy all of her work produced each year for £150. Enough to not need to do anything else. He did the same for Dante. In Ken Russell’s Dante’s Inferno (1967) there is a classic line from Siddal reacting to Ruskin’s offer of patronage: “But I don’t want to be an artist!”
It will be shrieked around this place on doom nights, but Siddal’s life was artful, even if not wishing to share the work ethic and drive of Dante. She was prolific. A set of 27 glass negatives were found post-death and have never been shared until this show at the Tate. Degas was playing with the same techniques over the water. Her technique of using photographic slides for set-ups was key to the drawings she made in ink. She was working in photography before it was seen as an art form. THE WORLD’S FIRST PHOTOGRAPHIC ARTIST WAS A WOMXN!!!
As their work canonised, Ruskin’s encouragement allowed their circle to expand, with Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and a wider net of patrons. Whilst Dante’s male privilege meant his peers could end up on the wrong side of a cartoonish sketch of his puerile, bitchy pen, such as a rotund William Morris pictured on a wobbly boat. He liked Morris’s wife more. And thus, the women’s dull acceptance of being minor parts in a wannabe fuck circle was inevitable, yet they became stars as models in the paintings. It is a layered experience of time immemorial for women, with new ‘stunners’ always showing up on a scene, competitive and offering the potential to become full of cum. It broke Siddal. Louche, bohemian, and overflowing with laudanum…Millais was engaged to Ruskin’s wife. Jane Morris, moved in with Siddal, and their husbands, and amid this there is an entire room devoted to the anger felt by Lizzie Siddal around her illustrations not being accepted for a collection of Alfred Tennyson, the poet laureate of the times that they adored. Dante got the gig. This is the kind of feminist-subtext that only a woman knows. It is the takeaway of this show. These women were not yet Suffragettes, they had to be liberal for their own survival. Marriage was the way out of the laundries. In France, unmarried women were rarely allowed out without chaperones yet Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, and Marie Bracquemond, the unsung Impressionists existed where Religion was the mass media, and crime was evolving from the stocks…feminism was building, but even their work in Paris was quickly critiqued for being too “feminine”. It is too easily done, and exactly what I did at the Expressionist Womxn show at the Whitechapel recently, falling into the cliches of thinking Expressionism was a male act, and women would not be as strident (the joy of proving oneself wrong!).
ORANGE-GLOW OF THE AFTERLIFE
Siddal also designed wallpaper for their home, only to have the William Morris Company begin producing such designs two years later. Hers was produced as the backdrop to the most gothic room of the Tate show, there are locks of hair. Bill Nighy speaks the lines of Dante, the words buried with his wife, through directional sound tunnels where participants step on circles which put the poetry schizophrenically into your ears. This begins in the first room, dedicated to Christina Rossetti’s poetry.
It is worth noting that work by Jane Morris and Siddal and other women was frequently attributed to William, “for the good of the company.” There would be no Arts and Crafts movement without the women. Without the talents of Francis Macdonald in Glasgow later, Charles Rennie Mackintosh may not have found his lilt towards Beardsley and Nouveau. The noise of male names cloud history with bass and macho-ego, war and dick-length competition. Yet, paintings by Dante are the main stars of the show at Tate Britain, despite reading it as a story of womxn. The most haunting gothic tale is Dante’s power wilting with the stillbirth of he and Siddal’s child after they married in Hastings. The orange glow which is more often attributed to Burne-Jones symbolises the afterlife, with opium doves surrounding his wife’s descent to death. After that, the backgrounds were generally shadowed in darkness.
Suicide notes are rumoured to have been destroyed and laudanum bottles are said to have been found empty upon her death - her pain fully transferred to his paintings thereafter, ever richer in symbolism. He was said to be going to the Working Men’s Club to help teach art, but in her mind he was no longer with her. Reaching their quest for authenticity, they became true tragic heroes. First he buried her in the family grave in Highgate, adding his poems in her tresses, this was in 1862. By 1869 he was digging them up to edit his poems.
Wait - wtf - he buried his poems in her hair and dug them up to do rewrites?
“The exhumation went ahead on 5 October 1869, during the dead of night so as to avoid offending any mourners at the cemetery. A large bonfire was built at the graveside to light the way and provide warmth. A lawyer, Tebbs was present to ensure no foul play took place and Dr Llewelyn Williams was engaged to receive the ghastly book and disinfect it to prevent any germs from the dead spreading to the living.
Howell was also present and reported, in what can only be a figment of his imagination, that when the coffin lid was removed Siddal was found ‘quite perfect’ – a myth which later grew to include reports that her golden hair had continued to grow until it filled the coffin.
Howell’s retelling puts a Gothic, supernatural spin on the exhumation but the reality soon unravels his storified version when we consider that the manuscript was quite sodden and had to be taken away to be disinfected. When Rossetti was finally reunited with the book two weeks later, it reeked of disinfectant and decay and had a number of large worm-holes obscuring some of the text. One can only imagine the very vivid illustration this offered of the reality of where the book had lain for the past seven years, and it is telling that once the poems were transcribed, Rossetti had the manuscript destroyed.
Citing rather damningly his ‘weakness of yielding to the importunity of friends, and the impulse of literary ambition’. Ultimately however, the vivid Gothic imagery of an uncorrupted Siddal over-shadowed the grim reality of the act and instead of damning Rossetti it fed into the myth surrounding this truly Victorian couple.”*
TRUTH & BEAUTY
Pairing with Delaware Museum, the largest holder of Pre-Raphellite works in North America, this show makes me think the Aesthetic movement applauds women as objects of celebrity, adored and made eternal by the brushes of the painters. The women are not objectified in the commodified ways of today. These 1850-1880 supermodels were more like freakishly anti-fashion Alexander McQueen muses, styled by Katy England, on the front page of Vogue, canvases glossy, oils mixed with varnish, because the women rule as glorious obsessions. Canonising beauty yes, but with big necks - big noses - big capable hands. Big profiles, tempers and moods as wild as their hair. Talent seeping out in frustration, forced to sit for hours by the damned patriarchy who the period in history enslaves them to. These paintings are of warrior women, before they were belittled and controlled by media, selling themselves out to brands through contemporary whoring of ‘public image’. They are the world. With today’s lens it is difficult to imagine women without the binaries of consumerism. Blowjob lips sucking the patriarch’s purse, as it’s the only way near the glass ceiling of the megarich. Eyebrows were pretty ‘scousebrow’ but were not shaped, make-up wasn’t used to make us look like submissive cats, we were not feminised. Faces of youth was not fetishished and infantilised with baby bald pussies. This is not a show of us enabling the paedo-gaze dominance. Dante Gabriel Rossetti may have castigated lovers as objects, but society does as behaviour allows. His reverence to beauty and the feminine was not narcissistic, it was an honest admiration towards an evolving image of an uncontainable femme fatale. Lillith wrapped in a snake. Their beauty may be an overpowering presence but at school I studied Keats, as did this lot – “beauty is truth, truth beauty”. Where I read i-D, The Face, Sky (proudly writing for them later) I also absorbed the images of the icons of music themselves, I’d cut out NME and Melody Maker and paste it to my wall, far away from the artwork they’d use for their releases (home-taping was illegal, so you rarely got to see the legit albums. I’ve been thinking a lot about memes and copies, and culture replicating stupidly. Simulacrum infinitum. I could write about both that Decoder film, and rap on about digital existentialism, again, but my point in bringing up early 90s was before supermodels popularised the media space, it was movie stars, saints before. And all of this exploits every trick in the medieval playbook of myth. It is nothing new, obsessions of perfection (and statements around it) have plagued aesthetes and creators of imagery for time immemorial. Of course this makes revisionism of movements all too easy. To superimpose contemporary culture on another patronises the past. To dust ones hands, a la The Guardian reviewer, Jonathan Jones, who infuriated me, potentially putting-off the public-at-large from the possibility of poetry and beauty, in this first retrospective of this kind in 30 years, swinging his dick claiming the feminist POV, saying there wasn’t enough Christina Rossetti (in a gallery) offering a snidey (and infuriating) 2 stars to this show. Perhaps being anti-ginger, or simply refusing to be seduced by the Aesthetes, for their populism, in the tone of Dante, he’s a bitter, miserable talentless fuck. This is a lesson to let go of bitter hacks and cheap critics who gossip without talent. Burn them from thy mind. I want to hack you, but you are far bigger than me, in ego, let alone power and girth. But for my sanity, to write this as I was prompted to in the comments, he failed to pick up the subtleties and big stories of this show, and I did find it comedy that there was another female review pegged out later, as a cover-up validation of his jaded slant.
BUT IS IT SEXIST, RACIST, ORIENTALIST?
Old media float in an acrid comfort like gout. The Guardian represents smug, “Look Mum-I-was-not-cool-at-university, but now I’ve got a job on a newspaper repping Neoliberal conservatism! Who cares about getting Julian Assange out of prison, or considering what the curators did to contemporise a leader in British art who clearly ADORED women and is destined to become a blockbusting show despite me!”
I am not going to get wrapped up in the patriarchal nature of Jonathan Jones’s attack here in the margins of media, he is bigger than me. Although I have to say I gain more faith each day in Substack as a medium against the clickbait co-opted mass media. Substack is growing, because it has to.
Nor will I hit the tired attack which followed by Laura Cummings. Calling Siddal a ‘Pre-Raphellite zombie’ is a good line, but it sure ain’t voting with the sisterhood. It’s a bore to read her lumbersome privilege of thinking the curators are presenting Rossetti as a racist without defining the times.
Sure, it’s easy to slag off these Tennyson obsessed, Victorian romantics with dilettante vibes and a fascination for the simpler times of medieval legends for using beauty as myth. They stole the fated sword of Guinevere from King Arthur (no, not the Guinnevere song by Crosby Stills & Nash, Google), realising that to call a woman barren takes no account of the King to be deposed, as he rode off to Avalon to fight the Roman leader Tiberius (where he would meet his true love (the fairy princess Lady Tryamour perhaps becoming a mirror of Jane Burden aka Morris), Guinevere fell for Modredus, who literally slays Arthur and takes over, Lancelot times allowed this previously fallen angel to offer that enemy of the state two children and be reborn. Perhaps that is the best summation of the Pre-Raphs, that they held womxn in such light, they praised for their rebirth - pre-Suffragettes. These were times when Oscar Wilde was yet to be imprisoned for sodomy. We break taboos every decade, and to use the language of today against the culture of the past is stupid.
The Brotherhood died by their mid-20s but anarchy is a serious matter. Not without work either. X-rays reveal the paintings were constantly rehashed. I realised through walking through this show that workoholicism is not the same as productivity. One is a need, the other relates to money. Satisfaction is wellness. But that does not mean we can buy satisfaction. We spend insane amounts on truth as beauty, co-opted to show up having spent our lives ‘enhancing’ our faces with creams, cosmetics and make-up tutorials — the beauty industry is now worth US$571.10bn worldwide, and $16bn in the UK. We are enabled to become vain bitches, commodified into competitive standards if we are part of any work-based society where judgement of success is in any way related to how we present ourselves. What I see on the walls are a pure beauty without make-up, posing as Joan of Arc, in swathes of rolling silk.
For me, this show says we do not need to be of that consumer world. We are captivating enough. We can invent our own worlds. Our physical presence is entrancing, we do not need to get into psychic or physical debt to feel like that.
Feathers, flowers, serpents - it is a show of beauty not bile, and the sun shone over the Thames, as I met with a friend (a muse to several heroes of mine) for the press curator’s tour. A few days before I’d supported the launch of Richard Cabut’s Disorderly Magic book (Far West Press) which zoomed up the Ingram’s poetry chart to number 1. I performed. Met the publisher. It was good to see friends, dine with Johny Brown, Gil and Inga Tillere after, take a morning in bed, watching The Square (dir. Ruben Östlund), a Swedish skit on the artworld, which led to Triangle of Sadness (by the same director, Ruben Östland) a day later, followed by Brandon Cronenberg’s way more collaboratively compromised yet Mandy-esque Infinity Pool, and All The Beauty and The Bloodshed, the Nan Goldin film by Laura Poitras (Ed Snowden/Citizen Four - which I used to use as a text in media ethics classes). That led me to purchase the Cookie Mueller re-issue of Walking Through Clear Water In A Pool Painted Black, but this exhibition has had my head in Evelyn Waugh’s first book, his biog of Dante Rossetti. It’s a brilliant insight into the writer and his absolute picante summations on characters which provide the depth to works like Vile Bodies. The strands of time and subcultural mycelia reveal themselves through exhibitions like this. Before the Stones at Cheyne Walk, there was a menagerie, the Pre-Raphs were batshit for wombats and anteaters, and keeping them all in gardens before stuffing them. Where William Morris had a peacock room, in Chelsea, around safari tents, William Morris’s wife, Jane, posed for Dante, with her profile beaming androgyny androgyny androgyny androgyny androgyny androgyny androgyny - you’ve all got it infamy - and a zillion animals. Affairs of the heart, did they need to share a bed?
There’s an opium arc to this show - of dull waifs pulling grief into the day, dying of addiction, but also ‘the weak’ being replaced by stronger bones fighting to hold that night accountable through each day. There is beauty and there is truth. There is commentary around the complex prettiness of pencil drawings. The Mona Lisa of the show portrays Fanny Eaton arriving in the UK - post abolition of slavery, the Blessed painting attempts to demonstrate the fascination with distant exotica of fantasy lands. Before globalised media myth and gossip attributed to wild stories of the lands reached by sailors and intrepid survival. The curators (Dr Carol Jacobi and Dr James Finch) add to orientalist discourse, holding a bracelet from Myanmar with equal pedestal as the lines of poetry strapped along the walls, at a similar height to the photo plate used to set up The Blessed. Our contemporary lens is forced into metadata questions about representation, asking whether there is privilege and a hint of racism because a model is black. I don’t believe it was done through the identity politics-reared hate distraction tactics of today. Rossetti had enough racism towards himself.
The myth of beauty continues. If we wish to slash the old times, and cancel rose-glow romanticism, we allow these brutal apocalyptic days to claim space, flower murderers!
(with Caroline Coon)
By the way, the title of this piece is taken from a painting in the Tate collection which was called Our Lady of Saturday Night (which I am copyrighting as a future song or book or something) by Ford Madox Brown but was renamed, Our Lady of Good Children…sick institutional fucks.