Professor John Holmes was the keynote for the ‘Reading Art and Poetry’ conference in Birmingham, May 2016.
Holmes joined Birmingham City University’s English department in 2015 as Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture. His research focuses on the relationship between scientific ideas and cultural forms in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including poetry, architecture and the visual arts. More widely, he works on and teaches a wide range of nineteenth-century literature, with interest given to poetry and poetic form, especially the sonnet and the epic; religious belief and doubt; and the history of sexuality. His talk was titled ‘The Knowing Hand of the Anatomist: Embodied Psychology in Pre-Raphaelite Poetry and Painting’.
Whilst The Germ discussed Art as in pursuit of methods of psychology, and suggested that Art should follow science (Stephens), Holmes takes his cue from Stephens’ Modern Giants essay which was written under the pseudonym Laura Savage (which Holmes suggested meant ‘in praise of savagery’. Laura is the feminine form of the Latin name Laurus, which means victory). Holmes quoted:
The greatest, perhaps, of modern poets seeming to take refuge from this, has looked into the heart of man, and shown you its pulsations, fears, self-doubts, hates, goodness, devotedness, and noble world-love; this is not done under pretty flowers of metaphor in the lispings of a pet parson, or in the strong but uncertain fashion of the American school; still less in the dry operose quackery of professed doctors of psychology, mere chaff not studied from nature, and therefore worthless, never felt, and therefore useless; but with the firm knowing hand of the anatomist, demonstrating and making clear to others, that the knowledge may be applied to purpose.
At this stage, Science was not yet codified or rigorous and in order to provide some context for the talk, Holmes set out some key dates / publications:
1846 – Daniel Noble, The Brain and Its Physiology (1846) (related to phrenology)
1847 – Ernst Freiherr von Feuchtersleben, The Principles of Medical Psychology (1847)
1848 – The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed.
1850 – The Germ
The time period in question was pertinent not just to artists like Rossetti and co., but to scientists as well. It suggests that there was a cusp on which those intellectuals of the day (I am obviously including artists in this) were engaged with the rise and changing thought process involved in psychology, science, and yes, also in phrenology (whether accepted or not, it was still of interest, even if only of interest enough to be considered and then disregarded).
On 4th October, 1851, William Michael Rossetti wrote in the Spectator that artists should pursue investigation for themselves on all points which have hitherto been settled. Holmes reiterated the Pre-Raphaelites scepticism about phrenologists (particularly Hunt’s, but then Hunt was always the least giddy of the circle).
In On the Mechanism of a Historical Picture (Part 1, February 1850) Brown wrote:
Here let the artist spare neither time nor labour, but exert himself beyond his natural energies, seeking to enter into the character of each actor, studying them one after the other, limb for limb, hand for hand, finger for finger, noting each inflection of joint, or tension of sinew, searching for dramatic truth internally in himself, and in all external nature, shunning affectation and exaggeration, and striving after pathos, and purity of feeling, with patient endeavour and utter simplicity of heart.
This passage in particular, as well as the whole Brown essay, looks for signs of emotion in the physical body, as well as acknowledging the importance and place of internal tensions. Brown wanted to find the ‘utter simplicity of heart’. The idea of seeking tension within the internal goes back to Browning (at least in this talk, Holmes used Browning as a referent and spring board: Browning being a poet who is regularly quoted as some sort of bench mark for Pre-Raphaelite ideas, perhaps over generously so on occasion).
Holmes reading of the internal and external within psychology, or the psychology of the body, was directly drawn from his understanding of poetry. He suggested that by looking at Pre-Raphaelite sketches we would come to experience or appreciate the experience of some of this physically tense engagement in final Pre-Raphaelite paintings. In order to argue this, Holmes presented three paintings which allowed him to examine the (changing) physical tensions and the psychology of the body / mind throughout the evolution of the painting and the context of the poem / narrative.
He commenced with Millais’ Isabella, also known as Lorenzo and Isabella (1849, Walker Gallery) a fine choice full of narrative tension. There are two preparatory sketches, one from the Fitzwilliam and another slightly earlier one from the British Museum.
The story is based upon a Keats’ poem, which is in turn based upon the pen of Boccaccio. Isabella’s head inclines the most in the first sketch. She is clearly bent towards Lorenzo and their love is jointly announced through body language and physiognomy (Lorenzo is positively doe eyed). The narrative, prophetically referenced (foretold for our benefit,) is evident in this earliest sketch through Millais’ depiction of the brother who appears riled by the lovers obvious disregard for Isabella’s male relatives dominance over Isabella’s life, e.g. their (his) plans for her future. He is clearly riled and ‘kicks’ the dog, which Holmes described as flinching although describing the action is a kick is far from conclusive although it worked for his argument.
Holmes argued that the slightly later sketch at the Fitzwilliam adapts the story, reshapes its antagonisms and tensions until they appear as less self0-conscious in the final oil version. For example, Holmes suggested the dog in the second sketch was lifting his front right paw as if he was being kicked although I would suggest the tension from the foot is less in the Fitzwilliam version. I would generally argue the foot is more suggestive of ownership than aggression toward Isabella due to the brother’s foot being balletic and not overtly aggressive in any version: despite the dog’s raised leg or expression, the foot is just a little too far away to cause damage, hence the brother having to lean on his chair. What Holmes argued gave weight to this reading of embodied psychology is the dog’s incline toward Isabella, not for affection but protection. The dog’s safety and allegiances are with her, the faithful lover, not the vengeful brother (whose own dog, which Holmes never mentioned, is fast asleep undisturbed by events). This could well complicate the application of Holmes theory and it is a shame he did not tackle the dogs as a contrasting pair.
By the time Millais produced the painting, the dog’s expression becomes even more anxious, and he is the one character who alerts us to what the other are oblivious too (the impending doom etc.) Isabella on the other hand has adopted a more modest aspect in the oil painting, her head is no longer inclined and her gaze falls away somewhere toward the symbolic piece of orange fruit she picks up. Lorenzo’s gaze is almost middle-distant, and whilst he remains distracted and love filled he is less doe-eyed than in the sketches. Holmes again argued that these subtle pictorial changes are evidence of a deepening of psychological acuity, and quoted from a William Michael Rossetti’s essay to provide evidence of a consensus of Pre-Raphaelite thinking and visualisation in relation to this embodiment (sadly, I am unable to provide that reference) as well as referring to Brown’s essay again. Millais’ alterations are gradual and subtle but Holmes is correct: the tension of a foot, or that of a stare does suggest an embodied psychology and Millais’ painting shows the knowing hand of an anatomist.
Holmes also applied this ‘psychological acuity’ reading to Hunt’s Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1851, BMAG). Holmes presented this painting as a sort of comparison to Isabella, and discussed the narrative transaction of the female body: Isabella and her brothers, and Sylvia and Proteus / Valentine. Like Isabella, Sylvia is transacted between men although she appears acquiescent in the finished oil. Hunt typically chooses an emotionally charged moment for his subject which is taken from Act V, scene IV of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
These lines from Act V, Scene IV of The Two Gentlemen of Verona are inscribed on the left spandrel of the original frame.
Valentine: Now I dare not say
I have one friend alive; thou would’st disprove me
Who should be trusted now, when one’s right hand
I’ve [ sic] perjured to the bosom?
Proteus:I am sorry I must never trust thee more
But count the world a stranger for thy sake.
These lines from Act V, Scene IV of The Two Gentlemen of Verona are inscribed on the right spandrel of the original frame.
Proteus: My shame and guilt confound me
Forgive me Valentine if hearty sorrow
Be a sufficient ransom for offence,
I tender it here; I do as truly suffer
As e’er I did commit.
In this scene, Proteus threatens Sylvia saying: “I’ll force thee yield to my desire.” Valentine then steps forward at the moment of imminent rape and intervenes, telling Proteus, who is a dear friend of his: “Ruffian, let go that rude uncivil touch; / Thou friend of an ill fashion!” The other character in the scene is Julia who is Proteus’ beloved. In her quest to see Proteus, Julia disguises herself as a male page in order to avoid inappropriate male advances, and in Hunt’s painting Julia leans against a tree looking wide-eyed although it is hard to tell if she is staring wide-eyed at Proteus or if her gaze is dislocated at the unfolding events.
Julia’s posture is awkward and although this is in keeping with Hunt’s style at the time, she barely seems able to hold her own weight in stood in that position. Her left knee juts out and she looks as if she is about to slide on her soft slippers. Her feet are so very nearly on Sylvia’s dress whose colours drip down into the autumnal leaves on the ground. Perhaps trying not to stand on the dress is a barely audible effort by Julia to dissociate herself from the scene before her.
In the sketch Julia’s expression is more suggestive of this desire to disassociate, she hangs her head in a way which belies shame or shock. Sylvia’s face is blank, Hunt did not delineate her features at all in the sketch but in the final version she is impassive. Is she resigned to her situation, her fate? Is she acquiescent because she knows she has no alternative? Sylvia’s body position is also vastly different between oil and sketch; in the sketch she pulls away, her body is arched and she leans back as if she is facing an assault. Her face may be blank but she conveys an animated refusal, a denial of Proteus’ violence. As Ruskin wrote: ‘Nay, even the momentary struggle of Proteus with Sylvia just past, is indicated by the trodden grass and broken fungi of the foreground’. I remain unconvinced by the intensity of the scene and Valentine’s role does nothing to correct this.
In the sketch, Valentine’s knee separates the pair and his arm firmly pushes Proteus away whereas in the oil, Valentine holds both Proteus’ hand and Sylvia’s. Holmes described him as becoming a self-righteous figure, binding the victim and perpetrator together. His painted expression is rather self-righteous and he looks like he has caught his daughter and her secret lover together, not a woman about to lose her reputation and virtue. The sketch offers more of this. As Ruskin pointed out, there were not two gentleman, only one and although his proportions are awkward, and his armour too big, and his self-righteousness bleeding into the scene, he is at least morally unblemished in this scene.
Proteus remains indifferent in the oil, and we can only barely detect a sense of shame in the sketch. The psychological acuity Holmes discussed so animatedly was clearly diluted from sketch to painting but to what effect? Even with Holmes’ insightful reading I remain unconvinced what we are gaining from his interpretation other than a clearer understanding of a gradual process of tempered down dramatic tension.
Holmes last painting of choice was Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1849, Tate). Holmes described ‘The Girlhood of Mary Virgin’ as providing a verbal cartoon for this work.
‘Till one dawn, at home / she woke in her white bed, and had no fear. / At all, yet wept till sunshine, and felt awed; / Because the fullness of the time was come.
The fullness being imitative of Mary’s pregnancy, and the prophecy. Mary has no fear in the sketch for this subject. Rossetti’s sketch imagines Mary as having a physical strength, as having the possibility of recoil, whereas the oil does not dramatise fear or physical strength. There is a collapse of the self. Holmes asked whether she could be seeing an internal vision and not one we as viewer see.
Holmes was brusque in his language and choice of terms when interpreting this picture, suggesting ‘sexual dominance’ ‘violence’ ‘control’ as being integral to the work. The final conclusion of any discussion about Mary’s role and the ultimate conception could result in such theories – after all she is chosen, not choosing. But Holmes overlooked or chose to ignore the joy described in the Magnificat (Gospel of Luke (1:46–55)), perhaps for consistency of theory alone. It should at least have been provided for balance. Rossetti’s Mary is regularly written about in terms of emotion but for Holmes his response was, one assumes, critical not spiritual. Holmes claimed, when asked in Q&As, that the painting critiques implications of the story, of the biblical narrative, and seemed rather unphased about his essential description of the immaculate conception as rape. He also seemed to confuse readings of the work between scripture and narrative, and altogether ignored Rossetti’s response to medieval manuscript illuminations when describing the look of the painting and the awkward postures within it.
In Holmes’ view Mary remains abused, or to co-opt Holmes’ word ‘transacted’: Mary is a token, a gift, a pawn, if one will, within the patriarchy – just like Isabella and Sylvia are between their male relatives. And whilst the oil version of Ecce Ancilla Domini! minimises and creates subtlety of tension, it does not have the same physicality as the sketch.
Holmes turned to both Rossetti’s ‘The Bride’s Prelude’ and William Michael Rossetti’s ‘Mrs. Holmes Grey‘ in order to reiterate the trade of the female amongst male relatives as well as the physical changes felt in the body which Rossetti describes in detail in ‘The Bride’s Prelude’:
‘He craved my pardon first,—all else; Wild tumult. In the end; He remained silent at my feet; Fumbling the rushes. Strange quick heat; Made all the blood of my life meet’.
This language recurs in ‘A Last Confession’ which is both a quasi-incestuous, quasi-paedophiliac poem that even today renders one uncomfortable.
When she was still a merry loving child…A child; and yet that kiss was on my lips… So hot all day where the smoke shut us in.
Whilst these three lines were pertinent to Holmes’ writing, they are actually distinctly separate and far part in the actual poem. I do not discount Holmes reading but his presentation is a little brusque, a little assumed and brief. Suggesting these three lines are continuous or close by does significantly reduce the pace and sentiment of the poem to something more intense and to our modern ears, more distasteful. The poem and potentially the painting are somewhat Lolita, and have pulsations of Browning’s poetry: she laughs- she performs as woman but returns to girl. She is half developed, and Rossetti makes us aware of this half-maturity in his poem. We are aware of this physical tension / sexual desire and Rossetti knows this is distressing. The poem captures both revulsion and repression, the projection of sexual threat, e.g. the ‘brown shouldered harlot’ of the Rossetti poem. ‘Woman’ becomes the harlot, or rather the girl becomes the harlot regardless of evidence. Even as the girl dies the male looks at her breasts unable to discipline his own sexuality.
Holmes described the painting as being like a holy thought, a prayer which has become a prayer before one even knows of it. The poem offers an attempt to sublimate desire into a transcendental meaning, and perhaps even tries to distance itself from or into religion. As William Michael Rossetti wrote to Bell Scott, 16th January, 1850: ‘I cannot but anticipate that you will find it very bold’.
‘Mrs. Holmes Grey’ is an interesting comparison to this idea of embodied psychology. The story runs that Mrs. Holmes Grey lays dead upstairs in a house of her ex-lover after running off and pursuing him. William Michael Rossetti then spends some three hundred lines detailing the incident like a news report. The doctors discuss Mrs. Holmes Grey’s death (a sudden heart attack) but not her mental state. Holmes Grey, himself a doctor, fails in his diagnosis of his wife’s psychology and Luton (the man Mrs. Holmes Grey pursues) fails in his duty of care (a) in keeping her at arm’s length and b) by not enlisting help for a woman clearly in distress and unbalanced. It is said she ‘died by the visitation of God’ which Rossetti isolates to ear and to eye. Failures throughout the poem, male / patriarchal failures, mean we are never given the whole of the story, we can never appreciate the entirety of Mrs. Holmes Grey’s world and her mental condition. We are unable to do this via Luton, the husband, science, the doctor’s reports, the news reports but Rossetti’s alternative suggestion by implication is that poetry can offer us a bridge between these disciplines. And this it seems is Holmes / Rossetti’s point, that poetry can offer the whole. Where the poem ends with the men being ‘equal and unknown’ they remain in a sense inferior to the poem – which views the story from all angles.
Psychology of the painted character and the often literary narrative is embodied in Pre-Raphaelite art and it was up to the poet and the artist to reveal all. This it seems is Holmes concern and I presume we will learn more about the thematic connectors and the in-depth relationship to nineteenth century Psychology literature in his impending book, which I look forward to.
Further writing on the talks from the Reading Art and Poetry Conference at Birmingham can be found here: