Dr. Sally-Anne Huxtable, Principle Curator of the National Museums of Scotland, presented a talk at the recent Reading Art and Poetry Conference in Birmingham. Huxtable’s talk ‘Her False Crafts’: Morgan Le Fay and the Wild Women of Sandys’ Imagination’ predominantly unpicked the jewelled coloured, symbolically intense Arthurian painting of the wonderful Morgan Le Fay by Sandys (1864, BMAG).
Initially providing the audience with context of the evolving character of Morgan, Huxtable explained how she went from a healing sister of King Arthur to a more complex character (certainly by the year 1485). Morgan’s trajectory culminates in her appearing in the role of necromancer, evil enchantress, wicked sister etc.
Huxtable’s reading of the symbols within the painting brought out the multi-faceted quality of Sandys’ rendering, one which appropriately fitted Morgan’s own multi-layered literary reputation. Huxtable first referenced the Pictish symbols on the Newton Stone of Aberdeenshire, which was illustrated in John Stuart’s book Sculpted Stones of Scotland (1856). The Pictish symbols can be seen on Morgan’s yellow robe. This air of the occult is just that, it is an air, it is an amalgamation, such is the rich symbolic tapestry of the painting that these symbols were readable by only those who would know (and remains so still).
Huxtable worked her way through some of the symbols, for example she pointed out the cabinet in the lower left of the painting depicts a green man or knight, and remarked that as a student at Norwich, Sandys would have been aware of, to use the proper term, the Cathedral’s foliate heads (i.e, the Green Man, a term only invented for such carvings in 1939).
Huxtable also drew our attention to Sandys’ use of the colour green, a favourite for Victorians although in this instance it is used in a manner more folkloric than dining room. Resonant of the folkloric so-called ‘Green Man’ and the fairy world, we are also prompted to remember Millais’ Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1850, Private Collection) (a sketch version of this work can be seen in Sudley House, Liverpool). These figures are in themselves liminal spectral ones, inevitably recalling and perhaps even reinvigorating the immaterial quality of Shakespeare’s lines ‘ i’ the air or the earth’. Note, the green underfoot, the grass-like thread strewn below Morgan’s feet, an inverted and de-Christianised St. Agnes perhaps?
Ganesh and Diva are also present in the work, and recall not only ‘wisdom’ but the wisdom of Morgan and clearly that of Sandys. Animals gods appear amid the skirts of Morgan and it is in the detail we find their symbols and even rich soft animal fur, even the brazier Morgan holds is animalistic.
The work recalls Hunt’s Lady of Shalott (1905, Wadsworth) for both women are weaving. Morgan’s weaving is somehow a little more calculated whereas the Lady of Shalott is more haphazard and wild, impassioned perhaps. The passion in Sandys work comes through Morgan’s expressionistic face and the extreme tension in her hands. Morgan’s weaving is portentous though, for her maid becomes the victim of her sorcery, and it is she who ends up in a heap on the floor.
Why does Morgan weave havoc on her bother? She is just as powerful but perhaps powerless to use her power wisely. Huxtable asked why she is not given any positive outlet for her powers, and remarked that neither Malory nor those painters who depicted her answered this conundrum. This being the case, we left to consider Morgan as being the stuff of fate, full of archetypal passions, of the occult, and of unseen forces. Perhaps it is the expression of this that we see in her face. This is not the only woman of this kind that Sandys depicted. There is also Medea (1868, BMAG) and King Pelles’ Daughter bearing the Sancgraal (1861, Private Collection).
Medea is abandoned by Jason, abandoned for another woman, a richer Princes of all things. Sandys used a gypsy model, Keomi Gray, whom he met in Norwich (as an aside: Sandys had a reasonably long term affair with Gray, who bore him two sons and two daughters). Interestingly he also used a gypsy for the Morgan Le Fay painting (and is thought to have had an affair with the girl). Medea was described by a contemporary critic as being ‘in the act of incantation, the baleful light of her chafing-dish playing in the folds of her robe, and making the pale cheeks look paler, and the ashy lips more ashy, and kindling the array of foul ingredients and witch’s properties that surround her tripod – foul toads and strange roots, and images of strange gods, and quaint shells filled with evil compounds’. Huxtable remarked upon these details, including the copulating toads and the belladonna, as well as the Japonisme which interested so many artists of the day. Medea looks agitated, she almost claws at her neck, as if her skin is irritated by the coral which sits upon her ashen skin. She claws at the delicate beads of the ever loosening necklace which threatens to break so easily, just like the potion she is creating which threatens like the wicked ‘fate that cuts the thread of life’. The thread that coils around the oyster shell on her alter of enchantment.
King Pelles’ Daughter (a drawing of which was in the recent Pre-Raphaelites on Paper exhibition at Leighton House) also used Keomi as the model. The scene is taken from the myth of the Holy Grail and focuses on that moment when King Pelles’ maiden daughter passes the Sancgraal, the sacred chalice containing the blood of Christ, to three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table. Huxtable pointed out how the chalice in this work was decidedly Neo-Gothic and akin with Pugin’s style. She also compared the chalice to that in Rossetti’s The Damsel of the Sanct Grael (1874, Lloyd Webber Collection) which, on reflection, is decidedly more Burgess in creation, as Huxtable rightly suggested.
One could say that Sandys’ conflated the image of Medea and King Pelles Daughter in his Ysoude with the Love Philtre (1870). Both have the coral and the philtre, and can easily be compared to Rossetti’s The Loving Cup (1867, Japan) and Blue Silk Dress (1868, Kelmscott Manor). Huxtable’s comparison to the Loving Cup was more successful and drew upon the relationships with the Pre-Raphaelites which underpinned her reading of Sandys’ position and much of our reading of his works.
When ‘A Nightmare’ was anonymously published in 1857, everyone recognised it as a caricature of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but the identity of the artist behind it was a unknown.
Based on Millais’ painting A Dream of the Past; Sir Isumbras at the Ford (1857, Lady Lever) which had been savaged by critics, it depicts Millais as the knight, Rossetti as the first child and Hunt as the small child clinging at the back. They are riding a braying Ruskin the donkey (‘JR’ appears on its fur) whilst on the far shore the figure of Raphael, the Renaissance painter considered must vulgar by the Pre-Raphaelites, stands weeping.
This rather acerbic and brave caricature certainly stirred things up, but it didn’t prevent a relationship from developing between the Pre-Raphaelites and Sandys when he owned up. In fact this sort of behaviour was perhaps characteristic of Sandys’ rather laissez faire attitude. His life was a little unconventional, he had three long-term relationships and at least thirteen children and in spite of the many debts he seems to have been rather light-hearted.
Despite his one-time acceptance into the Pre-Raphaelite circle though, Sandys was finally rejected because of a clash with Rossetti who accused him of plagiarism. Sandys clearly once had a place within the Pre-Raphaelite landscape and yet, like the gypsy Norfolk women he used as models, and the subjects themselves, Sandys remained, and remains still, an outsider.
Huxtable’s talk was a refreshing repositioning of Sandys and one step toward bringing him more within the Pre-Raphaelite landscape he clearly inhabited pictorially, regardless of who permitted or tolerated him within it.
Further writing on the talks from the Reading Art and Poetry Conference at Birmingham can be found here: