On Tuesday, I went with my fabulous friend, Beatriz (www.beatrizacevedo.com) to the wonderful new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement, 1860-1900 (www.vam.ac.uk/collections/periods_styles/cult-of-beauty/index.html ) which is on until 17 July 2011. The exhibition contained just about every artist who had an influence on me during my formative years: Beardsley, Morris, Rossetti, Millais, Kate Greenaway, Albert Moore, Burne-Jones, Edward Lord Leighton, Whistler, Julia Cameron, Walter Crane, William de Morgan….. The only word for it was sumptuous. All those languorous Pre-Raphaelite beauties, all those peacock feathers and lilies and sunflowers. Fantastic.
I did my PhD on the 1890s, and so it has a very special place in my affections and I was really delighted that they included a reading of a poem by the person I did my doctoral work on, Arthur Symons,
I don’t want to go into a full lecture here, but he was an extraordinary man, who really ‘got’ the French Symbolist poets in the 1890s when no-one else had any real idea what they were about. He was a critic and a translator, although I always thought that his poems in the style of were better than his straight translations. He was an interesting character because although he was in the centre of the Decadent Movement – he knew Aubrey Beardsley and Ernest Dowson and Oscar Wilde, I don’t think he was really all that decadent himself. He came from good Welsh non-conformist stock, although he always wanted to be identified as Cornish. He also had a very sad life. The love of his life, Lydia, came to see him to tell him she was getting married, not to him, the following day, and he had no children with his wife, Rhoda, instead they had canine child substitutes. He had a terrible breakdown in Italy in 1908 and had to be rescued by his friends. I remember going to the British Library and reading the excited letters he sent to friends on the eve of the trip knowing that he was going to personal disaster. He never really recovered.
I think this is my favourite of his poems:
ON THE BEACH.
NIGHT, a grey sky, a ghostly sea,
The soft beginning of the rain:
Black on the horizon, sails that wane
Into the distance mistily.
The tide is rising, I can hear
The soft roar broadening far along;
It cries and murmurs in my car
A sleepy old forgotten song.
Softly the stealthy night descends,
The black sails fade into the sky:
Is this not, where the sea-line ends,
The shore-line of infinity?
I cannot think or dream: the grey
Unending waste of sea and night,
Dull, impotently infinite,
Blots out the very hope of day.
(From Silhouettes, 1896)
I love ‘the soft beginning of the rain’.
This is the one included in the V&A exhibition, also from Silhouettes:
WHITE girl, your flesh is lilies
Grown ‘neath a frozen moon,
So still is
The rapture of your swoon
Of whiteness, snow or lilies.
The virginal revealment,
Your bosom’s wavering slope,
‘Neath fainting heliotrope,
Of whitest white’s revealment,
Is like a bed of lilies,
A jealous-guarded row,
Whose will is
Simply chaste dreams:—but oh,
The alluring scent of lilies!
All this made me think of the two elements that I thought were missing from the V&A show: the profound influence of Walter Pater, and that of the French poets, Baudelaire and Gautier, and the prose of J K Huysmans. But, I suppose they had to limit the exhibition somehow.
I wanted to go particularly, because I am becoming really interested in William Morris and his ideas about craft. But that’s for another time. Meanwhile, Beatriz and I went on a Pre-Raphaelite walk in Chelsea which took us into Maharani (www.maharanitrading.com) which had the most beautiful embroidered silk jackets. Beatriz couldn’t resist, and here is a picture of the rack: