The Pre-Raphaelite Sisters – an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London

“Bridge of Sighs”,  Georgiana Burned-Jones

Although the aims of the Pre-Raphaelite Society were to paint in a style reflecting art before Raphael, the main attraction for me is the subject matter – both the legendary material and the women who sat for the paintings and drawings. An exhibition, then, that promised to show how these women were often artists in their own right was going to appeal to me. And to hundreds of other women, too, judging from the crowds I rubbed shoulders with. A few men peered too at the small, framed sketches and information tiles.

I set off with expectations of undiscovered or overlooked paintings by Elizabeth Siddall, Annie Miller, Fanny Cornforth and their contemporaries. “Models, artists, makers, partners and poets. Discover the untold stories of the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters,” said the website. No, it doesn’t say painters. I find it interesting how we often remember impressions rather than facts, and in this case my impressions were coloured by my own interest in paintings over tapestry and ceramics. In fact, I came away feeling there were two types of women represented here: the wives and muses, who were also creative – I saw an embroidered purse, an unfinished tapestry, an unusual bodice, and lots of paintings of these women, by men– and the women who were more famous than their husbands, such as Joanna Boyce Wells and Evelyn de Morgan. At a quick glance, what divided them was class. The women painters had the money and the encouragement from family to take their art seriously. Perhaps also their class gave them the nerve to sell, not give away. And yes, dear reader, I am aware of my latent snobbery here, looking at embroidery and clothes-making as not real art.

I’m guessing that we want to remake the women involved in the Pre-Raphaelite movement into a model that fits early twenty-first century ideals and preoccupations. “Sisterhood”, for a start, suggests these women knew and supported each other. Some of them seem to have socialised together as one half of a couple, but others were less friendly; for instance, Rossetti’s sister Christina, and wife, Elizabeth Siddal, did not really get on, even though both were poets. There’s also the narrative of how dreadfully they were treated by the men who they modelled for – pulled from obscurity then thrown to the wolves when they got troublesome – and seen as tragic saints rather than talented beings. The radio play “Unearthing Elizabeth Siddall” (Radio 3) had Siddal climbing out of her grave and demanding, “Look at me” – as a woman in her own right, not just a muse. But this exhibition showed these women’s partners as supportive of their creative talents. Whether this support was undermined by flirting and infidelity  is another matter.

The thing I took away from exhibition, and from The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal by Jan Marsh, an acquisition from the shop, was this: how two people can look at the same thing and get quite different pictures in their heads.

Exhibit A: vaguely aware of the face of Fanny Cornforth from various calendars featuring Rossetti’s paintings, I was surprised to see that the sitter for the picture on the right here is the same as the sitter on the left. Rossetti’s Fanny has the same cupid lips as all his women, giving her the soulful he clearly admired, while Holman Hunt’s Fanny has a square, almost masculine forehead and a bold gaze.

“Thoughts of the Past”, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope  

Exhibit B: Here is Fanny again, this time painted by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope in “Thoughts of the Past.” The information panel tells us the title “invokes regret for lost innocence.” She certainly has an intense gaze, and her hands grip her hair and a hairbrush tightly. But that grip could mean a whole range of things. I rather thought she itched to brain someone with the hairbrush.

Exhibit C: a different Fanny here, Fanny Eaton. She was of Jamaican descent, daughter of a slave and a white man. Yet the roles she took in Pre-Raphaelite paintings make her, left to right, Indian, Arabian and Semitic.

I started reading The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal on exiting the gallery and am now a third of the way through it. So far it’s been fascinating. One woman, leaving little documentation of her own because of her obscure background, has been reinterpreted over and over in the decades after her death, each time to suit the obsessions of the age. Jan Marsh is quite clear that this is no attempt at a biography, rather a journey through the development of her legend.

I’ll finish this article with one observation and two pictures unrelated to my theme.

First, two designs by Georgiana Burne-Jones, called “Death and the Lady,” intended for a collection of Gothic stories that would be written and illustrated by Georgiana and by Elizabeth Siddall. They are delightfully macabre.

Death and the Lady, two designs by Georgiana Burne-Jones

Secondly, I loved this photograph of Marie Spartali Stillman and her son, Michael. That direct stare is neither Madonna nor Magdalen, just confidence in her right to look at the looker.


Last, a reflection on seeing “the real thing.” A quick Google search will bring up more works of art by these women than the exhibition contains, with no expense or travel. But there’s something special about seeing them face to face, so to speak. The cloakroom attendant told me he’d been most struck by the lock of hair kept from Elizabeth Siddal after death. For me, I replied, seeing a page of their own writing really brought home to me that these were living, breathing, imperfect, unique people. As are we all.

Boneless Vikings, Outrageous Quotes, a Literary Cat and Handel – Bookish Dublin

The Long Room, Trinity College
The Long Room, Trinity College Dublin

I’ve delayed so long in writing this blog post that I find it now coincides with Reading Ireland Month – a lucky coincidence for me!

City breaks are perhaps the best solution to the problem of a family holiday with two older teenagers keen to remind us of all the downsides to breaks in the UK. The Wade family all found something interesting here, although our tastes only collided at dinner time. It’s possible I made a mistake not visiting Dublin’s Leprechaun museum like our daughter did, but the city’s literary delights that I did visit offered me a wealth of visual and creative delights nonetheless. Photos can largely tell the story of this visit.


4. Oscar Wilde statue again
Oscar Wilde, Merrion Square

We arrived on a wet Sunday afternoon, and while our teenagers elected to make the most of their hotel beds, Rick and I visited Merrion Square, the park Oscar Wilde overlooked as a child. He’s honoured by a flamboyant statue (statues are big in Dublin) and a pillar covered in some of his outrageous and insightful quotes. Do I agree with the one second from bottom in this photo? If so, my day job is far less worthy than I thought!

3. Oscar Wilde quotes
Oscar Wilde quotes


Our trip back to the town centre took us past a sculpture commemorating Ivar the Boneless, founder of Viking Dublin. Viking surnames of the heroic era are rich and strange, and Ivar’s is one of my favourite. There are many stories and theories as to how he got his name, but I favour the wilder ones that have him carried into battle on a shield due to his inability to walk: in this one, his military daring was clearly stronger than his physical strength. The legends of Ivar link with those of Ragnar Hairy Breaches, whose murder purportedly caused the Viking invasion of England and through Ragnar to the Saga of the Volsungs (Ragnar’s wives included Sigurd and Brynhild’s daughter) and the rich family line of East Anglia (one of the legends of Ragnar’s death has him murdered by a courtier of Edmund, last in the royal line that might link back to Beowulf. There’s a story here I mean to write one day.

11. Ivarr the Boneless, Steine
Ivar the Boneless pillar

As well as statues, Dublin is rich in wall murals, and these too commemorate the literary heritage of the city.

27. Pub with Irish folklore paintings - figure from Ullyses
James Joyce mural
22. Irish folklore painting
Mural on a pub wall


82. great fresco near Victorian pub
A mural…
83. great fresco near Victorian pub
…and the caption

But the frontages are just as delightful.

24. Pub with Irish folklore paintings

A must for book lovers is the Book of Kells exhibition, housed in Trinity College Library.

53. Book of Kells exhibition
Book of Kells, c.800 AD

The book itself is under glass and so only one spread is viewable, but there is plenty of information in the exhibition, supported by large photos from this or other examples of medieval book illumination.

48. Book of Kells exhibition
The medieval publication process – professional vellum-maker

Here is one from the 13c, showing a professional vellum-maker showing a monk one of his sheets for book production, while another is being stretched on a frame waiting for the vellum-maker to scrape the hairs off it with the curved knife leaning against it. Another shows and illustrates a lovely poem about a writer and his cat. The bond it celebrates is celebrated today via social media, but the cat’s role as cat-catcher has been replaced by havoc-maker. As I write this, our cat is sitting on my folder of research.

50. Book of Kells exhibition
Pangur Ban, 9c poem, translated

The highlight of the exhibition, however, for me, must be the library itself, a celebration of books and authors. I want to climb a spiral staircase, pick a book and sit at the top reading.

55. The Long Room, Trinity College
How to fit more books into your space
104. St Patrick's Cathedral
St Patrick’s Cathedral

St Patrick’s Cathedral is full of visual delights, including a manuscript of Handel’s Messiah, which had its first ever performance here, in 1742. It went on to be a popular item at London’s Foundling Hospital, where the ticket fee went into the charity’s funds. Libby, in my novel ‘Foundlings‘, would have heard it many times. My photo of the music didn’t come out very well so here’s some street art to illustrate it instead.

41. Handel
Handel distracted from conducting a performance

Dublin is rich in architecture from the age of Handel, and Georgian doorways are everywhere.

However, for me the highlight of our holiday was a visit to Fourteen Henrietta Street, which deserves a blog post to itself. Watch this feed!