Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Of Changelings and Mermaids

First, apologies for my horrendous absence from The Beautiful Necessity! It seems time has slipped away from me lately, and all sorts of projects just aren't getting done.

Today, I wanted to share a post someone made on a LiveJournal group. I have her permission to share, and the rest of this post is quoted verbatim from her. All credit goes to LJ user daoinesidh.

If we recognize that there is a fictive element in all historical narrative, we would find in the theory of language and narrative itself the basis for a more subtle presentation of what historiography consists of than that which simply tells the student to go and 'find out the facts' and write them up in such a way as to tell 'what really happened'."

Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse

"... 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 ..."

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898) ... on the narrative structure of his paintings

"Study of a girl's head" (1883), Edward Coley Burne-Jones

In 1883, the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward Coley Burne-Jones spent a short vacation at Walden, the country estate leased by his solicitor, Sir George Lewis. During this trip, as well as numerous other visits to the Lewis' London home, the artist formed a particularly close bond with the Lady of the house, Elizabeth Lewis, whose salons were famous amongst the prominent writers and artists of the late Victorian period. An intellectual and art enthusiast, Lady Lewis was a formidable and witty conversationalist, and Burne-Jones was not alone in his admiration of her.

"Mrs. George Lewis (Elizabeth Eberstadt)" ... by John Singer Sargent, date unknown

For several years of their decades-long friendship, Burne-Jones and Lady Lewis maintained a very active correspondence, a huge portion of which is stored today at the Modern Manuscripts Room of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. From his frequent and rather whimsical complaints regarding his work and health, to the heartbreaking confidences he sent her regarding the illness and death of his longtime friend, William Morris, Burne-Jones' letters exhibit the profound level of trust and respect that he had for Lady Lewis. He also sent letters for a short period of time to the Lewis' daughter, Katie, which were published by Macmillan in 1925 under the title Letters to Katie.

The following letter is a wonderful example of the many illustrated notes that Burne-Jones sent to Lady Lewis and her daughter throughout these years. In it he states: "My Dear Mrs. Lewis ... You see how hard I am pitching into my work - plunging into it ..."

And indeed, he has already stepped through three canvases, and is on to his fourth. One can imagine the laughter this little sketch evoked, upon its arrival at the Lewis home.

In addition to these letters, the Bodeian also holds a number of other documents from Lady Lewis' estate, including a handwritten "memoir" that she composed for Philip Burne-Jones after his father's death. It is a lovely piece, full of sweet recollections of her many visits with Burne-Jones, including some very particular and interesting details about his stay at Walden in 1883. Here is a very magical bit of what I copied from the manuscript in 2005:

"When he was painting the Mermaid & staying at Walden we once went for a walk (in 83) through the woods of Fox Warren. As we passed one of the Keepers' cottages we saw seated on the rim of a hill a girl of about 12, a lovely creature with fair hair & gray eyes, slim & tall, dressed in a scarlet gown. She struck his fancy & we went near to try & get speech of her. But answer made she none & only looked up at him with a merry smile, not too shy to meet his eye but was much so to speak. She had bare feet & legs; he was as under a spell & when he came home at once made a drawing of her from recollection, just like her too; & he never altered it, but used it for the head of the Mermaid. After he spoke of her, said he felt sure she was a sprite & had come up from the hill. 'And oh! I do hope she will not come across my Phil some day and rob him of his peace of mind,' he would add."

The drawing at the beginning of this entry is one of many studies that Burne-Jones did of this changeling child, and the resemblance between her face and that of the mermaid in "The Depths of the Sea" (started in 1885 and completed in 1887) is striking ...

Lady Lewis finished her brief account of their experience at Fox Warren with the following recollection of an encounter that Burne-Jones had with the owner of Walden:

"Strange to say, he met Mrs. Charles Burdon (to whom the place belongs) at dinner at Ashley Cottage in 95 & asked her about the child. But she never knew or heard of a girl answering to the description & maintained, that the Keeper's own children were dark and plain. So he was more sure then ever, that she was a pixie."

An enchanting tale indeed; one can only hope that no historian will ever uncover any piece of evidence that might change Burne-Jones' vision of this mysterious fairy-like creature.

And who knows, perhaps the next time you happen to be strolling through the woods at Fox Warren, you will encounter an impish little sprite, wearing a red dress, barefoot no matter what the weather, and silently watching those who pass by. If you do, just give her a little smile, and then move on and stay quiet about it, for it is advisable not to disturb the inhabitants of Faerie, nor the peaceful rest of the artist who believed.

Short Bibliography:

'Recollections of Edward Burne-Jones' by Elizabeth, Lady Lewis, Dep. d. 840, Bodleian LIbrary

Letters from Edward Burne-Jones to Elizabeth, Lady Lewis, Dep. c. 832, Bodleian Library

Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, Volumes 1 & 2 by Georgiana Burne-Jones, published by Macmillan and Co. Limited, 1904

Edward Burne-Jones by Penelope Fitzgerald, with forward by Christopher Wood, paperback edition published by Sutton Publishing, 2003


Hermes said...

What a fascinating post - a lot of thought provoking things ion that.

Goyokiki said...

Hello my name is Daniel. I LOVE your blog and thank you for your deep insight I am a North Carolina Native now living in Ney York. I work in antiques and stumbled upon The Pre Raphaelites thru the types of furniture I was selling in our shop. It started with EastLake then Asthethic Movement then. Now I am obsessed. So much I named my new band The Pre-Raphaelites. I dont claim to know a lot about them, but I am thirsty to know more and live up to having such a wonderful name ane influences behind us. I would like to know more if there are others that are willing to tell me and show mw key things. I even went as far as selling ALL my Ikea stuff to getting new Astethic peices. Well I've rambeled enuff I hope to her from you. If there are others that wold like to support this cause of spreading this knowledge,please contact me at Daniel.Chavis or pre-raphaelites.

Grace said...

Hi Goyokiki! Thanks for your kind words about the blog! What a wonderful way to discover the Pre-Raphaelites and Arts & Crafts movement!

To be honest, the best place I can think of to start is a) the links from this blog to other wonderful blogs on the topic of the PRB, b) books! There are tons of amazing books out there available at the library on the Brotherhood. I especially recommend anything by Jan Marsh.