I mean by a picture a beautiful, romantic dream of something that never was, never will be – in a light better than any light that ever shone – in a land no one can define or remember, only desire – and the forms divinely beautiful – and then I wake up, with the waking of Brynhild.
― Edward Burne-Jones
The quotation above, from a letter, is probably a favourite not only with lovers of Victorian painting but with many for whom art creates other worlds to visit – it conjures up a magical, suspended time-and- space. The last sentence is often left out – which is a pity, because it makes it much more than just an invitation to a dreamy world: the rediscovery of the archaic Germanic heritage is one of the most interesting sides of the Victorian age (think of William Morris’ long alliterative poem Sigurd) , and recalling it here gives a backbone of steel and ice to the vision of beauty.
I have already said I love all Preraphaelites, the true Brotherhood members and the later followers; one of the elements I love is is the narrative quality of their pictures.
I am not saying anything original: with so many paintings based on mythology or literature (Hunt’s Claudio and Isabella, just to mention one.), it is hardly unexpected that we think of the subjects as of characters of stories. Millais’ The grey lady, for one: how did she die? Who betrayed her trust? Was she imprisoned in that tower, or was it her home? All we have is this beautiful, transparent figure, the ample gown, the dusky staircase.
But look at The order of release, by John Everett Millais:
It could be a frame from a film; the situation is clear: you have a Red-coat perusing the order of release for the imprisoned Highlander . The latter, in his kilt, with a wounded arm, rests his head on his wife’s shoulder. The woman is barefoot. Her expression is difficult to read, but hers is the only face we see: not the husband’s, nor the jailer’s or the baby’s. The dog, though: the dog’s pose indicates the animal is both anxious and happy, but maybe I am over-interpreting. They’re going home. It’s over. If only I knew why the wife doesn’t seem happier, or what the yellow flowers mean, but I am rubbish at flower symbolism.
Now look at this, again by Millais:
Here you do not immediately see the the actual subject of the the picture, especially in this day and age when we often look up images on tiny screens: you see a well dressed woman standing near a hollow tree, and you wonder why she looks worried. You only see the second figure, hiding in the hollow trunk, when you look again, possibly in a book or at least on a PC screen (or ideally, in person at the Birmingham art gallery. I haven’t got there yet). Then a variety of possible explanations come to mind: the hidden figure’s face may be a secret lover, or a runaway of some sort; he is male, the thin moustache shows that. The expression is grateful. The lady is helping someone she shouldn’t, she is alert, and we are free to imagine what the danger is, and what the bond between the two figures. When you turn your attention to the lady’s attire (such a beautiful yellow silk gown, the same colour as the leaves on the ground) again you realize that the large white collar means this is not a contemporary, 19th Century scene. The painting is called The proscribed Royalist, 1651. A Stuart supporter on the run.
Finally, Found, an unfinished picture by D.G. Rossetti. It is set in the renaissance, as the garments show. A man is trying to lift a distraught woman to her feet, he is holding her decisively, she looks unwilling or unable to cooperate. She is obviously a lost woman – Who is the man? A forgiving fiancee? A brother? And the woman: is she sick? She does look very pale, even livid. What happened to her? Did she run away with someone who cast her away later, like Lizzy in David Copperfield? Did the rest of her family turn her away for her misconduct, or did she leave her home in shame? The poor animal in the cart suggests a bleak ending, yet there may be hope for her.