E R Hughes: Painting Poetry

Night with her Train of Stars

Night with her Train of Stars

I mentioned in my previous post on the ‘Enchanted Dreams’ exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery that Edward Hughes was inspired by a number of poems. I’m really interested in the interactions between art and literature, and how poetry and painting are often entwined. For the Pre-Raphaelites, many of whom were known to Hughes, poetry and painting were ‘sister arts’, mutually inspirational, and their painting is often very literary – sometimes narrative, usually symbolic, often very detailed so that it can be ‘read’. Many of their paintings were directly inspired by poetry, and of course several Pre-Raphaelites wrote poetry too, most notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose poems and paintings go hand in hand.

It’s no surprise, then, that Hughes was inspired by contemporary poets in his work. He tends, however, to take a much less narrative approach than many of the Pre-Raphaelite-affiliated painters, and instead produces something which captures a feeling or a mood, inspired by an image from the painting, perhaps. He is, however, still interested in symbolism, in drawing on a wider web of intertextual references, whilst offering an image that is also very concerned with aesthetics. I find this fascinating: when we read, we ‘see’ in our mind’s eye. When a painting is inspired by a poem, are we seeing the artist’s mind’s eye? How does this affect our reading of the literary work – do we then ‘see’ it differently?

Oh what's that in the Hollow...?

Oh what’s that in the Hollow…?

Although I’m very familiar with Christina Rossetti’s work, the ways in which I ‘see’ her poem ‘Amor Mundi’ is very influenced by Hughes’s Oh What’s that in the Hollow…? ‘Amor Mundi’ is inspired by the traditional Rossettian theme that life is a struggle but we should embrace that struggle or risk damnation. The poem is written in a rapidly moving irregular metre, describing a couple following a downhill path which, metaphorically, leads to Hell. Signs appear along the way to warn them – ‘a meteor … dumb, portentous’, ‘a scaled and hooded worm’, and, finally, ‘in the hollow’, ‘a thin dead body which waits the eternal term.’ It is this last omen which Hughes paints; the painting was unpopular when first exhibited, considered macabre and lacking in explanation, but read in conjunction with Rossetti’s poem it is literally a symbol of the fate which awaits us – a memento mori. The couple see the signs, but determinedly ignore them to the last, even when one of them realises the destination of the path. Hughes’s depiction of the body, pale and emaciated, the eyes half closed in death, surrounded by thorny briar roses which ironically echo Burne-Jones’s Sleeping Beauty, is an imaginative recreation of Rossetti’s image, adding a vicious-looking raven to add to the discomfiting picture. Yet the image also suggests that the body is reclaimed by nature, seeming almost to sink into the earth as the leaves grow over it. The painting is very much in keeping with the poem, which is rich in visual description despite its metaphorical nature.

One of Hughes’s most famous paintings, Night with her Train of Stars, above right, is influenced by a much less famous poem, William Ernest Henley’s ‘Margaritae Sorori‘ (To my Sister Margaret). Henley is now mostly remembered as the poet of ‘Invictus’, but was a prolific and influential writer, critic and editor in his time. Once again this is a visually rich poem, glowing with colours ‘luminous and serene’. It is descriptive of a time and place, opening with birdsong watching the sun fade: the poem begins by drawing on the senses to appreciate the scene, but it becomes clear by the end of the poem that the senses are  fading: this is a poem about death, and the narrator’s desire for a peaceful end which is reminiscent of Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’. The painting, so often reproduced that it can be seen as sentimental or chocolate-box (unfairly, in my view), depicts ‘Night with her train of stars/And her great gift of sleep’ – this is, in essence, the Angel of Death, gently folding an infant in her arms, her finger to her lips as she hushes the cherubim who throng round her. The colours of the painting are as beautiful as those of the poem, indicating a monochromatic scale of blues with the pinpoints of light which Hughes painted so beautifully, and capturing the essence of a peaceful night. Night scatters poppies, symbolising sleep, and it is eternal sleep which she brings.

Fra Lippo Lippi

Fra Lippo Lippi

A very different literary engagement can be found in Hughes’s remarkable portrait, ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’, inspired by Browning’s poem of the same name. Hughes’s red chalk portrait is minutely detailed, appearing photographic at first sight, which offers a pleasing parallel with the nuanced and equally descriptive poem. ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ is one of Browning’s wonderful dramatic monologues, in which we learn a great deal about the speaker, through his garrulous explanation of himself and his actions. Brother Lippo is a reluctant monk, who took his vows through necessity rather than conviction, and remains there for a place to live. His character shines through in the poem as he describes his exploits to attempt to excuse himself after being stopped by the police outside a brothel – his amorous adventures and also his painting are explained; and his character is equally present in Hughes’s work. The combination of poem and painting here provides a great back-and-forth of ideas in art and literature. Browning’s monk says that he ‘made a string of pictures of the world/Betwixt the ins and outs of verb and noun,’ when describing his painting, indicating these twin arts of word and paint, art and poetry. He says that he must ‘Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!’ And it is the soul, perhaps, of a vivacious, energetic monk trying to escape the bondage of the monastery, that Hughes has painted: his Fra Lippo doesn’t look at the viewer, but just past us, as though already moving on to the next thing. Though the young man in the drawing looks in repose, there is a life to his face that suggest he may at any moment begin to regale passers-by.In the poem, he argues his case for realism, for attempting to paint people as they are, for looking closely in order to paint the very essence of life (which reflects the fast-paced realism of Browning’s verse, too), and this is just what Hughes has done, too; he has produced a portrait that the fictional Fra Lippo would have been proud of.


The Poetry of Form, inspired by Barbara Hepworth

Visiting the Hepworth exhibition at the Tate, I began to think about form. Hepworth’s fascination with form and structure is obvious in her sculptures: she looked, we assume, at a lump of marble or a piece of wood and began to perceive, however dimly, the form it might take in her hands. Sometimes the eventual form it takes is smooth, closed, irreproachable (and perhaps a little unapproachable, too). Sometimes it is open, inviting, offering unexpected glimpses and perspectives. In either case, the form invites us to consider it, ‘read’ it, re-evaluate it and our relationship with the world. Hepworth, as both a sculptor rooted in the English landscape and also a part of an international Modernist movement, was aware of the way in which form affects people, how sculpture interacts with us, with landscape, with the world, and the effect that a deceptively simple form might have upon the viewer.
How, I have been wondering, might I bring this concretised idea of ‘abstract’ form to bear upon poetic form? Bear with me; these are metaphors which might seem fanciful, but equally, I hope they may illuminate. Perhaps the poetic process might be equated in some way to the artistic one; a poet sees the kernel of an idea forming and develops it until it takes a form. This is isn’t a woolly idea; I’m talking about prosody, the very shape of a poem and the way in which it is held together, structured, devised from building blocks which include not only language but also poetic devices such as metre and rhythm, alliteration, rhyme, imagery, metaphors and so on. (For more on prosody see here, a piece I wrote a while ago for The Virtual Theorist).

If the poet carves out a poem well from the raw material (which is the words, the ideas, which are developed using the poet’s tools of poetic devices) then it may appear deceptively simple, though when viewed from other angles we can catch sight of unexpected complexities. Using a poetic structure (say, sonnet form or the villanelle) is not about pouring the words into a mould any more than Hepworth’s sculptures were created this way (even works that were moulded were always finished by hand, indicating her anxiety with artistic integrity); rather, it’s about the poet carving out ideas into a form that is meaningful, chipping away – a word here, a comma there. Like a sculpture, its imperfections reveal its humanity, giving it tactile appeal which makes us pause.

I’m not really talking about ‘concrete’ poems here, which take a particular shape on the page (such as George Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’), but about poetry more generally. After all, poetry is primarily defined by form: we can look at a page and see the difference between poetry and prose, but the rhythm which holds it together and the structure it employs makes it a more complex matter than just the length of the lines.


Enough of abstraction; I’d like to try to apply this idea. Look at Hepworth’s ‘Oval Sculpture’ (1943). It has a clear, distinct shape, the oval defined by its colour, as though it was once a smooth, closed form. The carving has opened it up, so that now we get a fresh view of the material and also of the world around us: look through it at different angles and you see things differently. It’s a complex form, difficult to see exactly how it works, yet it’s also tactile, pleasing to the eye and tempting to the touch. Moreover, you can read into it the metaphors of the enfolding landscape of Cornwall which Hepworth abstractly depicts; the idea that something does not need to be figurative to make us think of something. Its curves and waves echo the sea and the hills; moreover, in its smoothness and seeming randomness it also recalls the shapes of stones washed smooth by the sea.

A poem can be an object, a thing, in a similar way. The Modernist poet H.D. wrote poems which are artefacts, too. This is ‘Oread’, one of her more famous works:

Whirl up, sea—

whirl your pointed pines,

splash your great pines

on our rocks,

hurl your green over us,

cover us with your pools of fir.

The Oread is a sea nymph, the speaker of the poem who seems to be conjuring up the powers of the sea. The poem is short and deceptively simple; it doesn’t take much thought to penetrate its central metaphor of the sea as a forest. The poem is a good example of Modernist poetry which aims to reduce language and ideas to a minimum, to focus on the image not the words, and the beautiful simplicity of this poem is one of the reasons for its popularity. But it still retains a structure: the first line is simple, one-syllable words calling on the sea like an ancient poet summoning his Muse. The dash causes us to pause (try reading it aloud) before the spiky consonants of the ‘pointed pines’ cause the sibilance of ‘splash’ to break over the rocks of the reader. ‘Pines’ is repeated, linking the two, and the language intertwined sea and land, as though the sea is surging inland and taking over. The glimpse of the sea breaking over the rocks, just as the words are rushing over the reader, provides us with a surprising view, of a world covered with the deep green of the water, ‘pools of fir’, a very unexpected image. It’s as though the nymph is invoking the end of the world, the destruction of the land as the water embraces it.

This is a fairly quick reading of the poem, and of course I have chosen a sculpture and poem which have some similarities to focus on, but the idea of seeing form as a concrete thing which can be given literal shape in sculpture and read in a similar way in poetry is one I rather like. I’d be interested to know what others think.

Discussing these ideas with a friend, the poet Sarah Doyle was enlightening, hearing the views of a poet on her writing. She said:

I take a fairly architectural approach to the writing of formal poetry. For example, I will compose the first and last two lines of a sonnet, and then generally write (build) inwards, or at least ‘jump around’ until the poem is ‘filled in’. I almost never write a poem ‘in order’.

I consider that I create/form, as much as write, poems. And the crafting/drafting/editing stage is perhaps not dissimilar to a sculptor removing excess material. But I take a very pragmatic view of writing, which I am not sure others share. I am fascinated by form and prosody generally, and frequently perceive poems as physical things, with all the hallmarks that implies. Curves, contours, textures…

This sculptural or even architectural way of writing is one which enables the poet to scaffold ideas around a structure, and to play with that structure and shape it as required. I find this a helpful way of thinking about poetry.

X-Ray Audio

IMG_2393Over the weekend I went to have a look at a very unusual exhibition, hosted by Vivid Projects in Digbeth. ‘X-Ray Audio: Forbidden Music Bootleg Technology 1946-1964′ explores the way in which bootleg music flourished in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The exhibition includes a number of different approaches to distributing music, including beautiful flexi-discs and objects which look nothing like a record. The objects displayed were collected by musician Stephen Coates and photographer Paul Heartfield, and are, as the exhibition flyer points out, examples of the (often surprising) aesthetic of low culture. Most interesting, though, was the X-Ray discs. Bootleggers ‘repurposed used X-ray films to copy forbidden jazz, rock and roll and banned Russian music.’

The exhibition was full of images of bones: the X-ray discs have a ghostly, unexpected and rather Gothic appearance that is both disturbing and beautiful. In the context of this exhibition, the X-ray films become art, projected onto the walls, shown on slides, as well as displayed in cases. The exhibition information describes them thus:

They are images of pain and damage inscribed with the sounds of forbidden pleasure, fragile photographs of the interiors of Soviet citizens overlaid with the ghostly music that they secretly loved.

It’s a fascinating metaphor for the required secrecy of bootlegging that these discs contain images of people that are rarely seen. A broken bone here, a skull there, these are the secret interiors of people, and, though macabre, they are also strangely beautiful.

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Book review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I must adjacksonmit, I bought and read this book entirely on a whim. Recently republished by Penguin Modern Classics, I idly read an excerpt on the Penguin website and decided I deserved to read something for fun. Besides, it sounded Gothic, and I have a bit of an obsession with Gothic castles. Shirley Jackson is a cult name in modern Gothic fiction, I think, but although I’m aware of her short stories and, most famously, The Haunting of Hill House, this is the first of Jackson’s books I’ve read, though I’m interested to read more now.

The novel is narrated by Mary Katherine Blackwood, known as Merricat to her family. There aren’t many of her relations left, though, because they were all poisoned several years before the start of the novel. Merricat and her sister, Constance, live alone in the Gothic Blackwood house, isolated because of the local conviction that Constance was a murderer. The sense of loneliness combined with the remarkable family unity of Merricat, Constance and elderly Uncle Julian, living a peaceful but deeply peculiar life barricaded into the house is brilliantly evoked: early on we see Merricat going into the village, suffering the stares of the neighbours as she changes her library books and buys groceries, and the disdain in which she holds them and the fear and suspicion they emanate towards the Blackwoods sets up a creepy atmosphere. This is heightened by the very gradual discoveries that the novel allows us to make.

The house itself, the castle of the title, is hugely significant. I’m always telling students that the castle is virtually a character in Gothic; the castle is ‘where Gothic happens’, and provides a metaphor for both the bodies and the minds of the characters. This is equally true here. The events of the novel are focused entirely on the house, as a ‘castlesafe’ place away from the threatening outside world, and yet it is also the scene of murders, anguish and – it becomes increasingly clear – complex psychological disturbances. The house is both source of life and shelter to the Blackwood sisters, and equally a place of darkness and danger, and as the events of the novel unfold the house itself undergoes dramatic transformations (but I don’t want to give too much away). Merricat’s obsession with her home becomes clearer as her unique and idiosyncratic narration explains the rituals and forms of magic with which she attempts to defend the house from the outside world, and though she is clearly an unreliable and rather disturbed narrator who seems much younger than her eighteen years, she is also, in her combined innocence and naive madness, both appealing and convincing. In this, the castle parallels her psychology.

Shirley_Jackson_PortraitThe threat from the outside world appears much greater than that inside, however, when a long-lost cousin appears and tries to persuade Constance to resume a normal, public life. Castles offer claustrophobic spaces for terrible deeds to happen, thresholds to cross which lead to knowledge one might be better off not knowing, and represent the history that always comes back to haunt us in Gothic literature. This is all true here: it is all the more eerie for the happy moments of homemaking which the sisters share; after all, when something attacks the place where you live, where you think you are safest, what can you do? And this is even more of a problem when that threat comes from within.

What is particularly surprising, perhaps, is that this is also a wickedly humorous novel. Merricat and Constance are likeable, though clearly highly unusual, and they play jokes on each other and other people (for example, offering them cups of tea which they imply might be poisoned). It also raises questions about fear and what we are, or should be, afraid of; how we demonise those we don’t understand, and how happiness is sometimes found in the most unexpected places. As an example of mid-century Gothic, it’s both a period piece and timeless, and I couldn’t put it down.

Exhibition Review: Enchanted Dreams

1915 P100The new exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, ‘Enchanted Dreams: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of E. R. Hughes’ is the first ever exhibition entirely focused on Hughes’s work. Though some of his paintings, especially ‘Night with her Train of Stars’ (1912), are reasonably well-known, his work tends to be overlooked. BMAG own quite a few, but many more have been assembled here from far and wide, and the exhibition draws out aspects of his work which are not always obvious from the few one usually sees. Not to be confused with Arthur Hughes (his uncle), Edward Robert Hughes was also associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, having been brought up among his uncle’s Pre-Raphaelite friends, and these associations have clear implications for his work which are evident in the exhibition. There is a good effort at providing some of this Pre-Raphaelite context in some of the other works included in the exhibition, by Arthur Hughes (‘The Long Engagement’) and Simeon Solomon (‘Bacchus’), for example. Hughes is perhaps most famous for his ‘tCanzianiwilight’ paintings, of which more later, but his earliest known work, ‘Evensong’, already indicates his interest in the effect of twinkling lights in painting, and the shadows cast by light. Though this domestic scene is perhaps a little sentimental, even immature, it is still beautiful, and shows the promise of his work.

Hughes’s early career as a portrait painter is explored, demonstrating how his works are considerably more than pot-boilers: the double portraits of the Gray Hills, for example, are rich in every sense, depicting a well-fed, middle-aged wealthy couple, and yet in their debts to earlier styles of work, the richness of colour used and the evident complexity of the relationship between the couple, the painter and the viewer, these suggest a psychological intensity which a jobbing painter doesn’t usually manage. Similarly, those of children, such as ‘Dolly Francis’, are unsentimentalised, managing to both respect the conventions of Victorian portraiture of children whilst permitting the child her individuality, staring unsmiling at the viewer. Hughes’s influence on Estella Canziani is mentioned, with the portrait of a woman in mourning costume (right) on display: her portraits of figures in folk dress made on her European travels are a fascinating example of the art of an intrepid woman of the period.

Hughes_OhWhatsThatintheHollow_highresHughes’s engagement with literature also interests me. ‘Study for a Picture: Fra Lippo Lippi’ is a wonderful, red chalk portrait with a remarkable life to it, inspired by Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’. The realistic style advocated in the poem is echoed in the portrait, and the idiosyncratic and dramatic character of Browning’s monk shines through the eyes of Hughes’s work. Similarly, ‘Oh What’s that in the Hollow’ (left) is based on Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Amor Mundi’, reminding the reader/viewer of the transience of life, and that to neglect the spiritual aspects of life is to risk eternal damnation. The painting is peculiarly macabre, the figure clearly corpse-like, and overgrown with brambles and briar roses, indicating the continuation of the world in the face of human mortality.

“Oh what is that glides quickly where velvet flowers grow thickly,
   Their scent comes rich and sickly?”—“A scaled and hooded worm.”
“Oh what’s that in the hollow, so pale I quake to follow?”
   “Oh that’s a thin dead body which waits the eternal term.”ERHughes_MidsummersEve_lores

For many the highlight of the exhibition will be the ‘Blue Room’ of late watercolours, containing not only ‘Night with her Train of Stars’ but also ‘Midsummer’s Eve’ (right). Here, the majority of the paintings are in beautiful blue tones, with Hughes’s signature spots of light giving a dreamy, twilight feel to the whole room. Mostly painted in the early days of the twentieth century, the aesthetic approach of the paintings suggests, nostalgically, a  lost innocence in the years before the First World War. Though a few are ‘fairy pictures’, the exhibition as a whole indicates that Hughes is much more than a painter of sentimental fairies; his technical and emotional as well as aesthetic accomplishment is manifest in this exhibition which, finally, does him credit as an artist.

Incidentally, I attended the exhibition this week with a large number of students (I’ll blog about this another time!) who were equally drawn to Hughes’s work, in very different ways; they are writing creative responses to some of the paintings, which I’ll share on here in a few weeks’ time. There is also a fun ‘Fairy Glen’ for children visiting the exhibition!

Testament of Youth

images (4)One of my favourite books is Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which I’ve read at least five times. I’ve read all of Brittain’s novels, diaries and letters available, as well as those of her friend Winifred Holtby, and other contemporaries who appeal to me. In fact, because I find it so interesting, I make a point of not including this as something I work on; this isn’t a ‘research interest’; it’s just an interest. There is something in the way Brittain writes which speaks to me; I think it probably has a lot to do with her descriptions in the book about her education, as a bookish girl who was desperate to go to university, which struck a chord with me when I was sixteen and first read it. Her response to the events she experiences during the First World War – the death of young men close to her, the blighting of her own opportunities (in the short term, at least), the physical struggles of nursing wounded soldiers – are described clear-sightedly, and her growing political convictions (pacifism, feminism) have evident experiential roots. The myth of the ‘golden age’ of Edwardian life before the war is one which has been repeatedly proved untrue; for downloadmany in Britain, 1913 wasn’t much easier than 1914. But for some, particularly idealistic, middle-class women such as Brittain, it’s easy to see that the shattering of ideals by war did make the period before seem like a never-to-be-recovered time of innocence. Brittain is clear that this golden glow was imparted as much by ignorance as innocence, though, and the book is careful not to romanticise anything, though it has become (mistakenly, in my view) seen as a kind of romantic classic of war due to Brittain’s engagement to Roland Leighton.

That’s the book, then – and if you haven’t read it, then do, while we are in the centenary period of the Great War; Brittain wrote to show the devastating effect of war on young people and the way in which it blighted the lives of a generation, and her work has much wider implications for politics and is worth images (2)considering even if you’re not interested in the period.

As you can imagine, then, I approached the film with some trepidation. I’m probably too much of a purist and am almost always disappointed with films of books, perhaps because I don’t know enough about cinema, adaptation etc to understand why they have to change my favourite bits, etc… And some of this is changed for dramatic effect too, including some seminal scenes (I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I won’t say more!) The review by the Guardian criticises the film for drifting into ‘heritage inertia’, avoiding the ‘necessary’ pain and anger, but I don’t think this is fair; the film unavoimagesidably has a ‘period drama’ look about it (to change that would undermine the essential historicity of the narrative) and, of course, it will have an appeal to lovers of period drama and heritage cinema. But the restraint for which the review criticises the film is also present in the book; Brittain is determined to change things, to make the world a better place, by writing a book which explains how she feels, and being excessively emotional is not how that works. In the film, we see her cry, anguished, several times, we see her frustration and anger, and while it isn’t excessive, the restraint rings true, and all the more because earlier in the film we see her restrained happiness, too. Excessive display of emotion is what women were criticised for, and Brittain, well aware of that, reined hers in, images (1)publicly at least, and Alice Vikander’s (and others) beautifully restrained performance reflects that mood.

The film is one of those where everyone watching it will know that the eventual fate of the happy teenagers we see at the beginning will not be so cheerful, and therefore there is a hubristic feeling hanging over the characters from the beginning, again a trope shared with the book. I suppose my conclusion is that the film, while not strictly true to every detail of the (long) book, is true to its mood and its convictions, and of that I approve. Though I must admit I did spend quite a bit of the film wondering about knitting a new beret (see picture above).