Pre-Raphaelite Sisters

Most people have heard of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young British artists active in the nineteenth century who aimed to return to the style of art produced in Italy before the High Renaissance – i.e. before Raphael (1483-1520). Their artworks are recognised by the use of bright colours and young women with long, (usually) red hair dressed in flowing garments. The question is, who were these women and how did they come to be models for the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers? What were they like in real life? How were they related to the painters? What were their lives like? This year, the National Portrait Gallery decided to find out, resulting in a major exhibition that looks at the lives of twelve women who fulfilled various roles including model, muse, studio manager, housekeeper, wife and even artist.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters examines the type of role the women depicted in paintings and how this compared to their status in real life. A Pre-Raphaelite wife tended to assist her husband in a variety of ways, both at home and in the studio. Some men looked for women elsewhere to inspire them, often resulting in romantic affairs. On the other hand, a few men became supporters of wives or sisters who worked as artists alongside the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The National Portrait Gallery looks at each of these women in turn, celebrating their importance.

Effie Gray Millais (1828-97) Model, Wife, Manager

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Effie Ruskin by Thomas Richmond

The first woman in the exhibition is Euphemia (Effie) Gray who was born in Perth, Scotland and was encouraged by her father to marry family friend John Ruskin in 1848. Unfortunately, the couple’s personalities clashed and Effie was often ignored by her husband who preferred to concentrate on his solitary studies. To relieve her boredom, Effie modelled for the artist John Everett Millais (1829-96) who used her for the Scottish woman securing the freedom of her wounded Jacobite husband in his painting The Order of Release 1746. She had previously modelled for the artist Thomas Richmond (1802-74) at the request of her father-in-law. As a result, Millais was invited to visit the Ruskin’s in Scotland where he and Effie became close friends.

After five years of marriage, Effie Ruskin was still a virgin, her husband having put off consummating the marriage to allow him to concentrate on his studies. Due to the lack of common ground, Effie decided to have their marriage annulled and eventually married Millais in 1855. She became Millais’ business partner, which involved sourcing clients, costumes, locations and keeping a record of payments. She also dabbled in watercolour painting.

Millais and Effie had a happy marriage, which resulted in eight children: Everett (1856), George (1857), Effie (1858) Mary (1860), Alice (1862) Geoffrey (1863), John (1865) and Sophie (1868). Their youngest son John went on to become a notable artist. Throughout the marriage, Effie also sat for many portraits.

Due to her annulment from Ruskin, Effie and Millais were barred from any event involving the presence of Queen Victoria. Being a rather socially active couple, they were disheartened by this, however, when Millais was dying, the Queen relented and awarded him a baronetcy, thus giving Effie the title Lady Millais.

Christina Rossetti (1830-94) Poet, Sister, Model

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Christina Rossetti – Rossetti

Christina Georgina Rossetti is a fairly well-known poet in her own right who was also connected to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Born in London to the Italian poet Gabriele Rossetti (1783-1854), Christina was brought up in a creative atmosphere and her two older brothers went on to become founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Her most famous brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) is known for the typical paintings associated with the Brotherhood. William Michael (1829-1919) Rossetti, on the other hand, was a writer and critic who ran the Pre-Raphaelite magazine The Germ, in which Christina had several poems published. Christina’s older sister Maria Francesca (1827-76) was also a writer but became a nun in later life.

Christina sat for many of her brother’s artworks, including a quick sketch when she was sixteen and, most famously, as the Virgin Mary in Ecce Ancilla Domini! Dante also produced a cartoon based on one of his sister’s tantrums, which were quite frequent as a child.

In 1858, Christina began working at a home for girls who were considered to be sexually “at risk”. The experience inspired her famous poem and masterpiece Goblin Market, for which Dante provided a couple of illustrations. Christina also produced a handful of illustrations herself, designing some of the pages of poems and devotional writings she had written.

From her thirties onwards, Christina spent most of her time looking after family members whilst also suffering from a thyroid disorder. Dante needed a lot of attention, often suffering from mental ill-health. During his worst periods, focusing on drawing portraits of his mother and sister aided his recovery and return to the art world. Whilst Christina was a blessing to her family, her health began to deteriorate rapidly after a near-fatal heart attack in the early 1870s. In 1893, she developed breast cancer and, although the tumour was removed, she died the following year.

Elizabeth Siddal 1829-62 Model, Artist, Poet

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Ophelia [detail] – John Everett Millais

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Eleanor Siddal is mostly recognised for her portrayal of Ophelia in John Everett Millais’ painting of the same name. She is also remembered as the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and for being an influential poet. After leaving school, Lizzie began working at a dressmakers and millinery shop in Cranbourne Alley, London and produced drawings and poems in her spare time. On one occasion whilst at work, Lizzie’s drawings were seen by a man who put her in touch with his son, Walter Deverell (1827-54). As a result of this meeting, Lizzie became a model for Deverell who introduced her to other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She became a model for a couple of other artists, including Millais, eventually becoming Rossetti’s model and muse.

As well as helping Rossetti with his paintings, Lizzie practised art alongside him, producing a handful of sketches, drawings and paintings. John Ruskin subsidised her art career by paying her £150 per year in exchange for all the work she produced. Her artwork was inspired by a variety of different poets, including Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92), Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832).

During this period, Lizzie also wrote many poems, often on the theme of heartbreak. For Lizzie, however, heartbreak was far from her mind when Rossetti, who particularly admired Lizzie’s verses, proposed and married her in 1860. Besotted with each other, the couple became rather anti-social, however, Lizzie’s health soon began to deteriorate. There are several suggestions for the cause of her frailness, such as tuberculosis, an intestinal disorder, anorexia or addiction. Another idea is the prolonged effects of pneumonia, which she contracted after posing for Millais in a bath of cold water for his painting Ophelia.

Whether as a result of her poor health, Lizzie gave birth to a stillborn daughter in 1861, which led to severe post-partum depression. In February the next year after overdosing on laudanum, Lizzie passed away. Shortly after her death, Rossetti discovered several draft poems that may have been an indication of the state of her mental health leading up to her suspected suicide.

O Mother, open the window wide And let the daylight in;
The hills grow darker to my sight
And thoughts begin to swim.
And Mother dear, take my young son, Since I was born of thee
And care for all [its] little ways
And nurse it on your knee.
And Mother, wash my pale pale hands And then bind up my feet;
My body may no longer rest
Out of its winding sheet.
And Mother dear, take a sapling twig And green grass newly mown,
And lay it on my empty bed
That my sorrow be not known.

At Last, by Elizabeth Siddal

Annie Miller (1835-1925) Model, Muse

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Annie Miller – Rossetti

Annie Miller was a popular model for the Pre-Raphaelites who first posed for William Holman Hunt at the age of 18 for his The Awakening Conscience. Before she began modelling, Annie was a barmaid and had a fairly lowly upbringing as the daughter of a wounded soldier and a cleaner. As well as providing Annie with a job as a model, Holman Hunt planned to marry her and arranged for her to be educated in literacy. During this time Holman Hunt needed to travel to Palestine and left Annie under the care of other artists, such as Millais, who she could sit for in his absence.

The Pre-Raphaelite artists loved using Annie as their model, however, Holman Hunt believed she had become frivolous and wilful, so broke off their engagement. Shortly afterwards, Annie became engaged to Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Heron Jones, 7th Viscount Ranelagh (1812-1885) who she married in 1863. The couple had two children, Annie Helen and Thomas James, and moved to the south coast, thus ending her time as a model with the Pre-Raphaelites. She lived to the age of 90 and is a prime example of someone who had risen significantly on the social scale, beginning in poverty and ending in comfort.

Fanny Cornforth (1835-1909) Model, Lover

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The Blue Bower by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Sarah Cox, who renamed herself Fanny after her sister who died in infancy, was the daughter of a blacksmith from Surrey. Whilst visiting the Surrey Pleasure Gardens in London, Fanny met Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) who took a liking for her appearance. She became Rossetti’s model in 1856 and there are rumours she may also have been his mistress. Fanny married Timothy Hughes, a mechanic, in 1860 but the marriage did not last long. For reason’s unbeknownst to anyone, she adopted the surname of her ex-husband’s step-father, Cornforth.

When Rossetti’s wife died, Fanny moved in as his housekeeper and lover. For over a decade, she sat for Rossetti’s paintings, often posing as a fallen woman. Rossetti was also able to support Fanny financially during this period, however, after he became seriously ill, she was forced to move out by his family. Fortunately, Rossetti was well enough at the time to purchase a house for Fanny and gave her several of his paintings.

No longer Rossetti’s lover, Fanny married the publican John Schott who ran the Rose tavern in Jermyn Street, Westminster. After Rossetti’s death, she and her husband opened a gallery in his honour to sell some of the works he had given her. After John’s death in 1891, Fanny lived with her stepson until he died in 1898 when she moved to Sussex to stay with her in-laws. Unfortunately, Fanny was soon diagnosed with dementia and forced into a Workhouse in West Sussex against her will. Following this, she was admitted to the West Sussex County Lunatic Asylum where she remained for the rest of her life.

Joanna Boyce Wells (1840-61) Artist

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Elgiva – Joanna Boyce Wells

As the name of the group suggests, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were predominantly male artists, however, there were a couple of female painters who were just as accomplished. Joanna Boyce Wells became a successful artist after her painting Elgiva, which was modelled by a family friend, was displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1855.

Joanna was the sister of the watercolour painter George Boyce (1826-97) and the wife of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Tamworth Wells (1828-1903). Despite these connections to the art world, Joanna worked hard to become an artist in her own right, studying at Francis Cary’s (1808-80) art academy at the age of 18 before studying at the atelier of Thomas Couture (1815-79) in Paris.

Although Joanna and her husband created an artistic partnership in Britain, many considered Joanna to be the head of the firm. She painted emotional scenes, such as a mother bidding farewell to her young sons as they leave on a crusade to Jerusalem, and exquisite, imaginative portraits, such as a child depicted as an angel.

Joanna gave birth to three children, the first Sidney (1859-69) whose portrait she painted during his first year. Sidney did not live past the age of ten, however, Joanna never got the chance to see any of her children grow up, having succumbed to obstetric fever after the birth of her third child, Joanna Margaret.

Fanny Eaton (1835-1924) Model

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Portrait of Mrs Fanny Eaton – Simeon Solomon

Considering the period the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was active, it is unsurprising that there was a lack of black women in their paintings. Fanny Matilda Eaton née Entwistle is the only black woman featured in the exhibition. Originally born in Jamaica, Fanny came to England with her mother during the 1840s where they found work as domestic servants. At some point, Fanny met the London horse-cab driver James Eaton who she married in 1857. They had a long and happy marriage, resulting in ten children.

The Eaton family were not well off, which led Fanny to seek modelling work to take on alongside her job as a charwoman. Her distinctive features and ethnicity were sought after by artists wanting to depict female characters from the Bible or Egyptian, Indian and other “exotic” scenes. Her children often featured in paintings alongside Fanny, for example, as baby Moses in The Mother of Moses by Simeon Solomon (1840-1905).

In her later years, Fanny worked as a seamstress and a domestic cook until around 1911 when she settled in Hammersmith with her daughter Julia and her family. She eventually passed away in 1924 at the age of 89 from dementia and syncope.

Georgiana Burne-Jones (1840-1920) Model, Artist, Wife

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Georgiana Burne-Jones with Philip and Margaret – Burne-Jones

Georgiana Burne-Jones née Macdonald became engaged to Edward Burne-Jones at the tender age of fifteen. As well as being a model for her husband, Georgiana became an artist, studying briefly at the Government School of Design in South Kensington before having lessons from Ford Madox Brown. Her artwork mainly consisted of small illustrations and woodcuts and she was never as successful as her husband.

Georgiana put her art to one side after the birth of her son Philip in 1861. Her daughter Margaret was born in 1866, which coincided with her husband’s affair with one of his models. Nonetheless, Georgiana focused on being a good mother and continued to help run the home and studio until her husband repented and returned to her.

As well as being focused on her home life, Georgiana assisted the local community by supporting the South London Art Gallery, voicing her opposition of the Boer war and working as a parish councillor in Sussex. She also made major contributions to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, writing a biography of her husband and helping her son-in-law put together the Life of William Morris.

Maria Zambaco (1843-1914) Model, Muse, Sculptor

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Study for Head of Cassandra – Burne-Jones

Maria Zambaco, born Marie Terpsithea Cassavetti, was the model with whom Edward Burne-Jones conducted an affair. Maria had been born into a wealthy Anglo-Hellenic family and was the niece of the Greek Consul patron of art Alexander Constantine Ionides (1810-90). In 1861, Maria married Paris-based physician Demetrius Zambaco and moved to France, however, the marriage had broken down by 1866 despite having two children. On her return to London, her mother arranged for her to pose for Burne-Jones, which sparked a three-year affair.

Despite her pleas, Burne-Jones refused to leave his wife and their affair ended. Following this, Maria threw herself into her artwork, studying at the Slade School under the French painter Alphonse Legros (1837-1911) and the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Some of her most successful works include portrait medallions, which were exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon.

Although she was working as an artist and no longer in a relationship with Burne-Jones, Maria still modelled for some of his paintings. Some of Burne-Jones’ biggest and well-known paintings feature images of Maria, for example, The Beguiling of Merlin and The Tree of Forgiveness.

Jane Morris (1839-1914) Model, Muse, Craftsperson

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Study for ‘The Hour Glass’ – Evelyn De Morgan

Jane Burden is best known for being the wife, model and muse of the British painter and craftsman William Morris (1834-96). Born into poverty in Oxford, Jane did not have much of a future ahead of her until she met the Pre-Raphaelite painters who were decorating a chamber at Oxford University. She quickly became the prized model of many painters and was considered the embodiment of beauty.

Jane and Morris married in 1859 and she became a partner in the decorative arts firm known as Morris & Co. She undertook a few embroidery commissions for the company and experimented with calligraphy and bookbinding.

After the birth of her daughters Jenny and May, Jane began modelling again, particularly for Rossetti, with whom she embarked on an affair until his mental breakdown in 1876.

Since she was one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters’ favourite models, Jane appears in many artworks and has posed as a whole range of literary and mythical characters including Iseult, Queen Guinevere, Pandora, Beatrice and Proserpine.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) Model, Artist

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Marie Spartali – Madox Brown

Marie Euphrosyne Spartali is another female painter associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. She was born to a wealthy Greek family in London and was introduced to the art world by the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79) who wished to take her photograph. Marie then set her sights on painting and became the student of Ford Madox Brown in 1864. By 1867, her artworks were already being exhibited and she began to pursue painting as a professional career.

Against her parents’ wishes, Marie married the American journalist William J. Stillman (1828-1901) who worked for The Times. His career meant the couple needed to travel regularly to Greece and Italy whilst also bringing up their three children and the three from Stillman’s previous marriage.

Despite the unsettled lifestyle, Marie was able to keep in contact with her Pre-Raphaelite friends and developed a distinctive style of painting. Her artwork featured mainly female figures from the writing of Shakespeare, Petrarch and Dante as well as Italian landscapes. She took part in several exhibitions and also sent some of her work to the USA.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) Artist

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Jenny Morris – Evelyn De Morgan

As the granddaughter of the Earl of Leicester, Evelyn Pickering did not need to worry about earning a living, however, she was determined to become a professional painter. Following in the footsteps of her uncle, the Pre-Raphaelite painter J.R. Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908), Evelyn became a prize-winning art student and exhibited works alongside Marie Spartali.

In 1887, Evelyn married ceramicist William De Morgan (1839-1917) and used her earnings to support her husband’s pottery business.

Evelyn’s works were typically figural and brightly coloured, often resembling Baroque-style art. She focused on a range of subjects, including medieval and classical legends, allegories and the afterlife. Her passions and experiences were often reflected in her artwork, for example, her support of the suffrage movement and life during the First World War.

Arguably, Evelyn De Morgan is one of the best Pre-Raphaelite painters, although she is constantly overlooked on account of her gender. Particularly impressive paintings include Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund, which is based on a medieval legend about Henry II and his lover, and the allegorical piece Night & Sleep.

“YET if you should forget me … do not grieve …
Better by far you should forget and smile,
Than that you should remember and be sad”

‘Remember’ by Christina Rossetti

The National Portrait Gallery successfully provides an alternative insight into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In recent years, the PRB has come back in favour and their paintings have proved to be popular at other exhibitions in which they have featured. Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, however, reveals there is far more involved with the artwork than meets the eye. The female artists have every right to be remembered and respected as their male counterparts. The other women in the exhibition deserve to be commended for tirelessly standing by the artists whilst they drew, painted and attempted to establish themselves.

With many famous paintings on display, Pre-Raphaelite Sisters is a fantastic exhibition for art lovers, particular fans of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Alongside the well-known works are the lesser-known paintings by women and visitors are almost certain to leave with a new favourite painting in mind. Coinciding with the recent centenary of woman’s suffrage, this exhibition is the perfect way to celebrate the women who did not receive the acknowledgement they deserved during their lifetime.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters is on display until 26th January and tickets are priced between £17 and £20. For more information, visit the National Portrait Gallery website.

Blake: Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary

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William Blake by Thomas Phillips (1807)

For years, Tate Britain has had a small room dedicated to the English poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake (1757-1827). Now until 2nd February 2020, Tate Britain is offering visitors the opportunity to experience Blake’s visionary art in his largest show in a generation. Detailing his life chronologically, 300 original works illustrate Blake’s talents, personal struggles, innovation and vision.

Blake’s art and poetry continue to influence and inspire many people regardless of profession, religion and nationality. Although produced during a period of unrest involving war, the British Empire and industrialisation, Blake’s work resonates with the present world and the struggles people face today.

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Portrait of William Blake, 1802

William Blake was born on 28th November 1757 at 28 Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) in Soho, London, the third of seven children to James and Catherine (née Wright). His father, a hosier, and mother thoroughly encouraged Blake’s aspiration to become an artist. Although he attended school long enough to learn to read and write, he was educated from home by his mother after the age of ten. The Bible was an important aspect of his studies, which remained a source of inspiration for the rest of his life.

Blake was encouraged to practise his drawing ability by producing engravings of well-known artworks for his father. Alongside this, he attended classes at Pars’s drawing school in the Strand and explored the art of poetry, reading works by Ben Jonson (1572-1637) and Edmund Spencer (1552-99) as well as the Book of Psalms. In August 1772, Blake was apprenticed to James Basire (1730-1802), a significant British engraver, for seven years. By the age of 21, Blake was working as a professional.

In 1779, Blake enrolled at the Royal Academy of Arts, which at the time was situated in Old Somerset House. He may have attended with one of his brothers, Robert, whose illustrations are briefly featured in the exhibition. The Royal Academy taught its students to draw by studying and copying classical sculptures, prints, live models and paintings, such as those by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Blake, on the other hand, rejected these teachings, preferring to use artworks by classical artists, such as Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520).

Despite rebelling against the traditional teaching methods, Blake participated in six exhibitions at the Royal Academy. Unfortunately, since he did not conform to the typical oil paint-format the Academy expected, Blake’s watercolours were often consigned to a smaller room.

Students were encouraged to paint serious subject matters, often resulting in portraits and landscapes. Blake, on the other hand, chose to focus on Biblical stories, for instance, the story of Joseph and his brothers. Written in the Book of Genesis, Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. The series of events that follow result in Joseph having significant authority in the land of Egypt and, during a famine, his brothers end up begging him for help.

Blake produced three watercolours that express the latter part of the story of Joseph. In the first, the brothers, unaware who Joseph is, bow down before him, pleading for help to survive the famine. The second, Joseph Ordering Simeon to be bound, shows one of Joseph’s older brothers willingly being arrested for a crime he did not commit to spare the life of another brother. Noting that the attitudes of his brothers have changed since they sold him into slavery, Joseph reveals his true identity and welcomes his brothers with open arms, as shown in Blake’s third painting.

Similar to his Joseph paintings, Blake’s early work typically involved sweeping lines of ink or watercolour, revealing dainty characters full of grand gestures. These tended to have a strong visual impact, evoking emotion and communicating a message or story. Subjects were often drawn from Bible passages, although not necessary the well-known ones, and other literature, such as Shakespeare. As time went on, however, Blake’s works became more obscure and harder to decipher.

Shortly after Blake’s time at the Royal Academy, he met Catherine Boucher (1762-1831), the daughter of a market gardener in Battersea on the south side of the River Thames. At the time, Blake was suffering from a rejection of a previous attempt at love and Catherine proved to be a good ear to listen to his tales of heartbreak. This led to the pair falling in love and marrying on 18th August 1782 in St Mary’s Church in southwest London. The couple had a long, invaluable marriage with Catherine helping her husband to print some of his later works and Blake teaching his wife to read and write.

As well as illustrating existing stories, Blake began to write and illustrate his own, for example, the epic poem Tiriel, although this was never published. Blake borrowed ideas from Shakespeare, Greek tragedies and Gaelic stories to pen the narrative of an aged king, Tiriel, who had been exiled from his land. In the past, Tiriel enslaved one of his brothers and cursed his children and now seeks solace from his misrule and arrogance. Frail and blind, Tiriel tries and fails to make amends for what he has done, thus receiving his comeuppance for his acts of tyranny.

The illustrations Blake produced to accompany the poem Tiriel were engravings rather than paintings. Having trained as an engraver before joining the Royal Academy, Blake found this technique a preferable way of earning an income. Engravings involved copying or drawing an image with fine cuts onto a metal plate, which could then be inked, printed and reproduced several times. This was a technique Blake used for many commissions, such as those delivered to the print shop he temporarily opened with his friend James Parker in 1784. He also worked for a range of London publishers, including the radical Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), who published works by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) and Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) amongst other feminists and religious dissenters.

Etching and engraving were time-consuming and limited, which Blake found frustrating. In 1788, Blake developed what he termed “relief etching”, which allowed him to print in colour and combine text and images. Over time, Blake printed numerous books in this manner, many of which he had written himself and continue to be some of his most famous work. This style of engraving combined “both Letter-press and Engraving in a style more ornamental, uniform, and grand, than any before discovered.” It was also a cheap and efficient method of printing, although the stories and poetry the illustrations accompanied often baffled Blake’s readers and supporters.

From 1790 to 1800, Blake and Catherine lived in North Lambeth, less than twenty minutes from his childhood home. Although the property has been demolished, a nearby tunnel of Waterloo Station is decorated with a series of 70 mosaics resembling illustrations from Blake’s illuminated books. These books reflect Blake’s thoughts during a turbulent time in Britain. Both French and American revolutions occurred during Blake’s lifetime, leading him to become vocal about freedom and liberty, and argue against slavery and the empire.

Despite his strong views, Blake was rather cryptic in how he portrayed his thoughts in his poetry and illustrations. Had his views been expressed more clearly, Blake would have been at risk of arrest, however, his symbolism was too obscure to attract the attention of the authorities.

Tate Britain displays a range of examples from Blake’s radical illuminated books including Visions of the Daughters of Albion, which condemns forced marriage and defends the rights of women. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell expressed Blake’s revolutionary beliefs using biblical prophecy as a basis. Rather than Hell being a place of punishment, Blake depicts it as a place of chaos and irrationality.

Blake also created his own mythology, for instance, The Book of Urizen, from which his recognisable illustration The Ancient of Days comes. Urizen, depicted as a bearded old man, is the personification of reason and law. Considering himself to be god-like and holy, Urizen traps people in webs of law and conventional society. He is often shown with some form of architectural tool, such as a compass, with which he creates his universe. Urizen’s only opposition is Los, who can be likened to a fallen angel, representing imagination. Blake’s myth is almost a reversal of Christian beliefs, with Urizen serving as a Satanic force.

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Little Girl Lost – Songs of Innocence and Experience

Amongst all the books represented in the exhibition is one of his most well-known works Songs of Innocence and Experience, which includes the famous poem The Tyger. “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night…” Published in 1794, the book of poems is a combination of Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1793). Although the illustrations are suggestive of children’s books and the poems deal with themes of childhood, they also tackle morality, suffering and injustice, which are topics usually deemed unsuitable for that demographic.

Although Songs of Innocence and Experience is famous today, Blake only sold about 30 copies during his lifetime. For income, he relied heavily upon commissions and patronage, including fellow artists. John Flaxman (1755-1826) was a sculptor and draughtsman Blake met at the Royal Academy. Flaxman supported Blake’s publication of Poetical Sketches in 1783 and his wife, Ann, commissioned Blake to produce illustrations for the poems of Thomas Gray (1716-71).

A civil servant, Thomas Butts was one of Blake’s biggest patrons, purchasing over 200 different works. Many of these were watercolours on biblical themes. Whilst typical scenes involving Jesus, the crucifixion and well-known Old and New Testament characters were popular, Butts was also interested in Blake’s more imaginative works, representing the prophecies of Ezekiel or the Book of Revelation.

The Reverend Joseph Thomas (1765-1811) of Epsom, Surrey was another keen purchaser of Blake’s biblical work. He was also interested in the works of Shakespeare and John Milton and commissioned Blake to produce illustrations for various plays and poems. For Milton’s hymn On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, Thomas paid Blake two pounds for each drawing – a total of six – which was more than Butts paid for individual watercolours.

Thomas Butts also purchased a series of large coloured prints that Blake produced by experimenting with monotype. This involved using thick, tacky ink on the metal etching plates, which was then transferred onto paper by applying pressure. Once printed, Blake added watercolour and ink washes to finish the illustration. This gave the prints the initial appearance of a painting, however, many elements are impossible to achieve by hand.

The twelve large prints included in the exhibition relate to a range of themes. As usual, Blake depicted biblical scenes, for example, the madness of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, whose humiliating suffering was predicted in the Book of Daniel. Blake produced an illustration of God judging Adam, whereas most artists focus on Eve’s sin. Other biblical images include Lamech and his Two Wives and Noami Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab.

Amongst the prints is a portrayal of the famous English mathematician and scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1727), albeit a rather young and muscular one. Unlike the older figure most people imagine when thinking of Newton, Blake drew Newton as a Michelangelo-esque character crouched naked on a rock. The figure’s attention is fully focused on a piece of parchment at his feet on which he draws a diagram with a compass.

Blake chose to illustrate Newton as a reproach rather than praise. The artist was critical of Newton’s scientific approach, which followed precise rules rather than taking in the bigger picture. The figure’s focus on the compass represent’s Newton’s methods, which makes him oblivious to the beauty in the colour of the rocks on which he is sitting.

In 1800, Blake and his wife moved to a cottage in Felpham, (West) Sussex, where he illustrated works for the poet William Hayley (1745-1820) until 1804. Hayley is best known for his biography of his friend William Cowper (1731-1800) whose work was among the poems Hayley wished Blake to illustrate. Mostly, however, Hayley expected Blake to produce miniature portraits, which was something Blake was not keen on due to the lack of inventiveness.

Hayley had recently established a new library in The Turret, his house in Felpham, and commissioned Blake to produce long canvases to decorate the room. Each canvas represented a famous poet, including William Cowper. In the centre, Blake reproduced a likeness of the poets based on existing portraits and engravings and used the remains of the canvas to be more creative. Other poets included William Shakespeare (1564-1616), John Milton (1608-1674), Dante Alighieri (1265- 1321) and Edmund Spenser (1552-99).

As time went on, Blake began to resent Hayley, who he believed did not appreciate art. Fortunately, Hayley was still on Blake’s side and able to bail him out when he was arrested following a physical altercation with a soldier. After his acquittal, Blake returned to London.

In 1806, Blake began planning pictures for Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1343-1400) The Canterbury Tales. This is a collection of 24 short stories written by the “father of English literature”. Mostly written in verse like Blake’s own work, the tales tell the story of a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket (1119-70). Blake envisioned a frieze-like composition, which he completed in 1808 and published as an etching in 1810.

Unfortunately, Blake could not enjoy his work on The Canterbury Tales because he felt he was competing against two friends who were also producing work for the same book. He felt betrayed by these friends, believing that their work would overshadow his artistic vision. He claimed his so-called friends were more interested in making money than producing great art.

Around the same time, Blake was working on illustrations for the 1808 edition of Robert Blair’s (1699-1746) poem The Grave. The commission came from the newly established publisher Robert Cromek (1770-1812), and not wanting to let Cromek’s new career flounder, Blake took the project very seriously.

Blake was attracted to the poem’s themes of death and the afterlife, which were often topics of his own writings. He quickly produced twenty drawings for Cromek, which the publisher began to promote widely in public places, touring London, Birmingham and Manchester. Whilst this gave Blake the attention he deserved, he felt betrayed when Cromek employed someone else to print the illustrations.

The disappointments and supposed betrayals of the early 1800s led Blake to break contact with some of his friends and set up an independent exhibition in 1809. Using the upper rooms of his childhood home, now belonging to his brother James who used the lower rooms for his hosiery shop, Blake displayed several of his paintings, which were accompanied by a Descriptive Catalogue. It was a rather strange location for an exhibition – rather modest in comparison to Blake’s gigantic ambitions – and only a handful of visitors attended. In the only public review written about the exhibition, Blake was branded “an unfortunate lunatic”.

Tate Britain excels itself by recreating one of the rooms in the Blake family home, complete with fake flooring, ceiling, windows and walls, upon which a handful of paintings are hung. Many of Blake’s original paintings have been damaged over time, losing their colour and becoming dark and difficult to decipher. Every 20 minutes, two of the paintings are illuminated to appear as they would have done in 1809 and a disembodied voice reads out Blake’s words from the Descriptive Catalogue.

“The two Pictures of Nelson and Pitt are compositions of a mythological cast, similar to those Apotheoses of Persian, Hindoo, and Egyptian Antiquity, which are still preserved on rude monuments, being copies from some stupendous originals now lost or perhaps buried till some happier age.”

Blake’s solo exhibition took place during a period of war and upheaval. Although his paintings appear to be disconnected from politics, featuring allegorical and spiritual elements, they are full of hidden meaning. Two paintings are based on national figures who had both led Britain in the war against France. These figures, the late Prime Minister William Pitt (1759-1806) and naval hero Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), are shown alongside biblical monsters, bringing chaos and destruction to the world. Blake likens these heroes to mythological and biblical characters, for instance, Hercules and cherubim. Although the paintings are representing destruction, Blake is hinting at the potential new freedoms and spiritual rebirth that could follow.

In the next room, a projection shows close up details of these two paintings. He had once dreamt that they would be executed on a large scale and displayed on public walls. After the failure of his solo exhibition, Blake knew this dream would never come to fruition and became increasingly withdrawn and bitter. Tate Britain tries to do Blake’s aspirations justice by showing the paintings at such a large scale.

Having withdrawn from society for a few years, Blake returned with a burst of creativity for the final decade of his life. In 1818, he met the artist John Linnell who provided him with moral and material support. During this time, Blake produced relief-etchings for new and old books for a variety of purchasers, including engravings for the Book of Job.

Throughout his life, Blake reportedly had visions of spirits with whom he conversed. Encouraged by a friend, Blake began to draw these spirits for a series he titled “Visionary Heads”. Over six years, Blake drew more than a hundred of these vision, often attending séance-like sessions to study the details of these characters. Whilst, on the one hand, some people believed in Blake’s visions, others debated whether they were real or a sign of mental ill-health.

One of Blake’s most bizarre characters was The Ghost of a Flea. Depicted as a muscular, nude figure – part-man, part-vampire, part-reptile – the Flea is using its tongue to drink out of a bowl of blood. In its left hand is a thorn and acorn, which are typical icons of fairies and similar mythical characters. Whether or not Blake saw this figure, his painting magnified a flea, which is usually associated with uncleanliness, into a monstrous, bloodthirsty creature.

As well as his personal monsters, Blake was commissioned by Linnell to illustrate the creatures in The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The poem, which describes a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, leant itself to Blake’s typical style of illustration and preference of theme. Blake used dark, menacing colours to illustrate the depths of Hell, contrasting it with the luminous shades of Paradise.

Although he intended to illustrate the poem in its entirety, Blake passed away before he could finish. Another unfinished work was John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come, which was a popular religious text during Blake’s lifetime. Again, it suited Blake’s style, dealing with the realms of dreams, destruction, sins and heaven.

Before Blake’s death in 1827, he managed to complete and illustrate one final epic poem, which is probably his best-known work today. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion is the longest of Blake’s prophetic books and tells the story of the fall of Albion – Blake’s personification of Britain and the western world. The narrative, however, can be confusing and does not have a linear plot.

Jerusalem is not to be confused with the famous hymn of the same name with music written by Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918), which was used by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1917. Although Blake wrote the words of this hymn, it comes from the preface of his epic poem Milton: A Poem in Two Books.

Blake’s magnum opus, on the other hand, is a 4500 lined poem that his first biographer called “a chaos of words, names and images.” Albion (England) has been infected by “soul disease” and her “mountains run with blood” as a result of the Napoleonic wars. Religion is being used to exploit the lower classes and those in charge of the country are full of greed. If Albion can be reunited with Jerusalem once more, then all humanity will survive and be bound together in love.

Jerusalem, like some of Blake’s previous works, summed up his philosophical thoughts, particularly concerning the Age of Enlightenment, which dominated Europe during the 18th century. Enlightenment focuses on ideals of rationalism and empiricism (the theory that knowledge comes from experience), which went against Blake’s beliefs that imagination was the most important human element. Previous paintings showed that Blake was opposed to the Newtonian view of the universe and unimpressed by the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds and other members of the Royal Academy who looked at art with a “vegetative eye”. Jerusalem was Blake’s final attempt at expressing his strong views.

“I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.”
– Excerpt from Jerusalem

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William Blake Wearing a Hat – John Linnell

Blake spent his final years living with his wife at Fountain Court off the Strand, near to where the Savoy Hotel is situated today. It is reported that on 12th August 1827 Blake was working on his Dante series when he stopped, turned to his wife and insisted he drew her portrait. Afterwards, he sang hymns and recited verses of poetry until 6 pm when, after promising Catherine he would always be with her, he died. Five days later, on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, Catherine buried her husband in Bunhill Fields, the same burial ground as his parents.

Catherine continued to sell Blake’s work until her death in October 1831 when an acquaintance took up the job. Although only a mere handful of his works sold during his lifetime, William Blake became posthumously famous and in 1949, the Blake Prize for Religious Art was established in his honour. He is also recognised as a saint in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica and, in 1957, a memorial was erected in Westminster Abbey for both him and his wife.

William Blake is the type of figure whose name is recognised worldwide and yet very few know much about him. His name is associated with various titles of books and poems but knowledge of his private life is less common. Tate Britain rectifies this by providing a chronological timeline of Blake’s life alongside his works. We learn who he was, how he lived, how he thought and what he believed. Although many will disagree with his philosophies and controversial ideas, Blake is an interesting character who is worth knowing about.

The William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain is open until 2nd February 2020. Prices are £18 for adults, £17 for concessions and £5 for 12-18 years olds. Whilst under 12s may visit for free when accompanied by an adult, some of Blake’s work is unsuitable for younger children.

Tiddely-Pom: Exploring a classic

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bump, bump, bump … Is that the sound of a teddy bear being dragged down the stairs? No! It is the sound of a famous bear of very little Brain making his way into the Victoria and Albert Museum. In a unique exhibition, the Best Bear in All the World is celebrated in Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic along with all of his friends. Now in his 90s, Pooh has become a timeless character with universal appeal, however, without the creative partnership between author A. A. Milne and illustrator E. H. Shepard, Pooh’s legacy would not have come to anything at all.

Pooh knew that an Adventure was going to happen …

Stepping through the tall double doors, visitors are instantly transported to the fictional setting of Winnie-the-Pooh (1926). From above, Winnie-the-Pooh dangles at the end of a string amongst a barrage of large, pretend, blue balloons – an allusion to the narrative in which Pooh attempts to steal honey from the bees at the top of a tree. Wall illustrations and huge three-dimensional letters warmly welcome everyone Hallo, and thus, the spellbinding adventure begins.

Winnie-the-Pooh first appeared in a book titled When We Were Very Young in 1924. It contains a selection of poems aimed at young children by the author Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1956). It was also the first instance that Milne and E.H. Shepard collaborated together. The pair had met through the British satirical magazine Punch, which Milne was the assistant editor.

Previous to his child-oriented books, Milne had successfully written humorous verse, social satires, fairytales and plays, however, Pooh was destined to quickly overshadow these works. Likewise, Ernest Howard Shepard (1879-1976) had also achieved a lot before the advent of Pooh. The Punch contributor was already well-known for his pen and ink drawings, including the anthropomorphic illustrations of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows (1908).

The Trinity College, Cambridge graduate, Milne, first experimented with juvenile stories after the birth of his only child Christopher Robin Milne in 1920. The name Christopher Robin has become synonymous with Winnie-the-Pooh and other characters, such as Eeyore and Piglet, but what some people may not realise is that the character was based on the author’s son. By observing Christopher playing in Ashdown Forest, Sussex, near the family’s weekend retreat, Milne concocted ideas for the adventures the fictionalised boy would go on with his favourite zoomorphic toys.

In order to produce the illustrations that would soon be greatly adored throughout the world, Shepard was invited to spend time studying and drawing Christopher’s toys. Sketch after sketch was produced – some of which are on display – until the perfect versions of the characters had been attained; thus, Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Owl, Rabbit, Kanga, and Roo were born.

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A map of the Hundred-Acre Wood

Shepard also spent time in Ashdown Forest drawing the trees and landscape and inventing homes for the funny creatures. The illustrator put in a considerable amount of effort to produce a clever and detailed map of Pooh’s home, The Hundred Akre Wood [sic], which helped to create a consistency throughout the illustrations in Winnie-the-Pooh and its sequel The House at Pooh Corner (1928).

What made Winnie-the-Pooh successful and cause A. A. Milne, to be regarded as the “laureate of the nursery”? Milne’s writing follows the first, although unofficial, rule of children’s fiction: get rid of the parents, then we can begin. Being the only human character, it is likely that children mostly relate to Christopher Robin, an adventurous boy who is usually much cleverer than his silly old bear. However, Milne has given human traits to all the toys/animals.

By using a mixture of thick and thin pen nibs, Shepard subtly conveyed the facial expressions and personalities of each character. Pooh is often striking a pose of mild bewilderment for he is a “Bear of Very Little Brain, and Long Words Bother Me.” Likewise, Piglet often sports a look of surprise at all he encounters.

Milne also gives his characters minor vices, proving that even fictional beings are not completely perfect. The rotund Pooh is a strong example of gluttony with his penchant for honey. As the cupboards in Pooh’s house midway through the exhibition reveal, he can get through ten jars of honey in four days. Bother!

Eeyore is full of self-pity and has since been diagnosed with depression by older readers, whereas, Tigger, the hyperactive tiger, is the vainest of the bunch, falsely believing that there is nothing that Tiggers cannot do – a claim that is disproven time and again. The names of these characters have become adjectives used in everyday life. Melancholy folk are often regarded as Eeyorish, and the sanguine, Tiggerish.

Other vices that appear are idleness (“What I like doing best is Nothing“), evasiveness, self-preservation, and suspiciousness. Being small and defenceless, Piglet is prone to the latter. He has many fears that he bravely faces in quite a few of the stories.

Rabbit, Owl, Kanga, and Roo are secondary characters but each has their own flaws, although, of course, they have virtues, too. Rabbit’s personality is not dissimilar to the stereotypical old man. He is usually portrayed as irritable and has little time for the other toys.

“Hallo, Rabbit,” he said, “is that you?”
“Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.”

Owl is considered by the others to be wise and is often sought out for advice. Readers will instantly pick up on the inaccuracies of Owl’s intelligence and chuckle as Pooh and friends innocently believe his every word. “Owl hasn’t exactly got a Brain, but he knows Things.”

Kanga is the “mum-friend” of the group and always looks after everyone, including her excitable child, Roo. Whilst Rabbit is making plans and Tigger is causing hullabaloo, Kanga tries to keep everyone in check, although some may accuse her of spoiling all the fun.

Yet, it is not only a good set of characters that make a book an international sensation; the storyline has to attract the minds of its target audience, too. The overall theme is childhood innocence, which would both resonate with youngsters and amuse the adults doing the reading. Each story has its own issue from mishap and misunderstanding, and friendship and falling out, to problem-solving, and learning to read, count or write. In their own special way, each adventure in Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner is as educative as it is entertaining.

As for the written storyline, Milne simplifies the language for the benefit of children, even going as far as to invent words that youngsters may use instead of correct terms and phrases. Many of these are words Pooh has misheard Christopher Robin pronounce and some are spelt phonetically rather than accurately, for example, Hallo, and Hunny.

The animals’ ability to spell is atrocious, as emphasised in both the text and the illustrations. Wol and Eor replace Owl and Eeyore, and letters are often switched around in the simplest of words. Fortunately, the intelligent reader can determine what these words are meant to say. Milne spices up the text even more by including random capitalisation of nouns. This adds to the child-like narrative and alludes to the characters learning the correct way to read and write.

Poetry is a common feature in the Pooh stories, which adds further hilarity to the story. On his walks around the Hundred Acre Wood, Pooh hums to himself “umty-tiddly, umty-too,” and makes up songs about nature, friendship, and the world around him. The majority of these are nonsense rhymes due to the fact that Pooh thinks Good Thoughts to himself about Nothing … However, the poems rhyme and have since been added to music by Harold Fraser-Simson (1872-1944), a neighbour of the Milne family in Chelsea. Now everyone can sing Tiddle-um-tum and tra-la-la. 

Unfortunately, Milne’s style of prose did not sit well with everyone in the 1920s and 30s. Despite its growing success, Constant Reader, a.k.a Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) claimed in The New Yorker that the word hummy “marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”

The books’ harshest critic, however, was the real Christopher Robin, who purportedly hated the stories. Despite this, his restoration and renaming of Posingford Bridge, now Pooh Sticks Bridge, suggest he may not have been as averse as the media claims. A cardboard replica of the bridge is included in the exhibition for visitors to cross over, whilst pretending to play Pooh Sticks over an animated, digital river.

It is clear from the family photographs displayed in a nursery setting that Milne loved his son very much, and it is unlikely that he would have wished to upset Christopher by borrowing his name and toys for his literature. Pictured sitting on his father’s knee, and in another, with his mother Daphne, Christopher Robin poses for black and white photographs. He is also pictured in the woods with his toy bear who was about to become famous throughout the world.

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Teddy bear, manufactured by Margarete Steiff, 1906 – 10. Museum no. MISC.10-1970. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Examples of bears that were similar to Christopher Robin’s are on display, including ones made specifically for the recent film Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017). Another bear, similar to the one belonging to E. H. Shepard’s son, sits beside Christopher’s. The reason for this is Shepard used both bears as visual references when developing the iconic illustrations.

Throughout the writing and publishing process, Milne and Shepard were in close contact, with letters being sent back and forth containing new ideas and suggestions. A few of these have been acquired by the V&A, and visitors are invited to read them if they are able to decipher the tiny, almost illegible, writing.

By working together on Winnie-the-Pooh, the original book became one of the first of its kind in which text and illustration worked together. Traditionally, an illustrator was given a completed manuscript to draw scenes for, which would then be placed in strategically positioned sections of the page. What Milne and Shepard achieved were instances where text and illustration combined to make a complete image. In some instances, Milne refers to the pictures or refrains from mentioning the character’s name because the reader can already see to whom is being referred.

The entirety of the exhibition is made up of temporary walls containing enlarged versions of E. H. Shepard’s illustrations. By making them life-size, the museum has created a playground for children where they can walk through tiny doors, ring bells, open cupboards, climb into Piglet’s house and slide back out, sit at a table in a pretend forest and draw their own trees, and so on.

Whilst the children are having a fun, enjoyable experience, the adults are able to study some of the original manuscripts and illustrations. Over 270 drawings, letters, proofs, and photographs make up this extensive collection. The museum has gone even further to explain the techniques Shepard used to create atmospheric scenes, suspended animation, and the all-important human traits. Artists and illustrators may benefit from taking note of the use of lines and shading, and the clever trick of adding white gouache to create a snowy effect.

Before the exhibition really gets underway, a corridor fitted with a lengthy glass case reveals the many faces of Winnie-the-Pooh from the 1920s up until the present day. Winnie-the-Pooh had only been on bookshelves for four years when the father of the licensing industry Stephen Slesinger (1901-1953) began designing products featuring the increasingly popular illustrations.  The ‘Teddy Toycompany founded by B.C. Hope and Abe Simmonds made some of the earliest Pooh merchandise, including a golden teddy bear.

The commodification of Pooh escalated further in 1966 when Disney produced its first animated film based on Milne’s stories. For this, art workers simplified the black and white drawings to fit their house style and gave Pooh the red t-shirt he is often seen wearing today. Alongside the film came a whole host of paraphernalia with new ideas being developed every year.

The books themselves have been translated into over 30 languages, including Latin. Not only that, new books have been published with simplified stories containing updated illustrations. Pooh has also been the face of cookery books, political satire, and a whole host of other things. Examples of these are situated in the primary section of the exhibition.

The final section of the exhibition reveals how E. H. Shepard’s black and white illustrations became the coloured versions that many children are familiar with today. Disney had already brought the stories into the colour world and determined the shades of each character, specifically Pooh and his redshirt. When the publisher Frank Herrmann (b1945) decided in 1970 to add colour to the originals, Shepard was already in his 90s and rapidly losing his sight. Nevertheless, with the aid of enlarged copies of his drawings, he developed coloured versions, however, due to the popularity of the Disney Winnie-the-Pooh, had to conform to the colours the public had grown to expect.

25463903_10212824881688294_1466548422_nThe coloured versions are bold and bright like many illustrations in the 1960s and 70s. Unfortunately, this removed the delicacy of the original hand-drawn lines, making them less detailed and gentle. This may have been the norm for illustrations of that era, however, in hindsight, the originals were already perfect.

Here, the exhibition comes to an end. After a superb adventure through the minds of both the author and illustrator, visitors are much more informed about the silly old bear and his origins. Winnie-the-Pooh is much more than a story for children, he has found a permanent home in the world and it is difficult to imagine a life without him.

The Victoria and Albert Museum has excelled in its curation of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic. Not only is it a grand display of illustration, it is like entering a different world. It is hard to believe that the same gallery hosted the Pink Floyd exhibition mere months ago.

Suitable for anyone between the ages of two and 102, Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic is worth the visit. It brings fresh insight into children’s literature and will hopefully ignite a passion for reading within the younger generation.

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So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on top of the hill, a little boy and his bear will always be playing.

This multi-sensory and playful exhibition, Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classicwill be open at the V&A until Sunday 8th April 2018. Tickets are £8 but children under the age of 11 are free when accompanied by a paying adult. 

Art in the Park

It has already been five years since London held the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. Years of preparation took place beforehand, building new venues and creating a sporting complex for an event that would only last a few weeks. However, unlike the situation in Rio after the last Olympic games, London has not abandoned this expensive project and is continuing to use and develop the Olympic Park today.  Christened the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in commemoration of the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, the area was developed into the largest urban park in Western Europe by restoring wetland habitats and cultivating native plants.

Of course, the original Olympic arenas are still in use and sit within the park in all their quirky architectural glory. The London Aquatics Centre has been open to the public since 2014 as has the Lee Valley VeloPark at the opposite end of the park. The Olympic Stadium, now known as the London Stadium, is home to West Ham United Football Club and British Athletics, both making use of its multi-purpose arena.

During the construction of the Olympic Park, designers and landscapers were fully aware of the impact the project would have on the local area. In order for Londoners to benefit from the park, they chose to incorporate creative features so that the final outcome would not be completely sports oriented. In 2011, The Legacy List charity was set up to support the games but also to create connections with the general public by commissioning art installations and educational enterprises.

The art installations are still displayed in the park, reflecting on the landscape, history and local memories. Artists from far and wide were invited to participate, resulting in some unconventional outcomes. Some may not be much to look at whilst others may be easily overlooked, however, they all have interesting stories behind them.

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ArcelorMittal Orbit

Due to its 560 acres, it is not possible to see all the artworks in the park on one visit, but there are a few that are unmissable from the moment of entry. In fact, one can be seen from a distance and has attracted many visitors since its re-opening to the public in 2016. The ArcelorMittal Orbit stands at 114.5-metres and is the tallest sculpture in the United Kingdom. Originally commissioned by the Mayor of London in 2012. Sir Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond’s intricate continuous loop of recycled steel has been converted into a 178-metre tunnel slide that takes daring visitors spinning around the structure twelve times at the same speed it takes World Record Holder Wayde van Niekerk to run 400-metres.

The Mayor, Boris Johnson, originally commissioned the construction because he thought the park needed “something extra”. Designers were given the task of blueprinting ideas for an Olympic Tower from which Kapoor and Balmond’s concept was chosen as the winner. This brings about the question as to what the other designs looked like and why this contemporary eye-sore was selected above them all. At least the views from the top promise to be impressive.

The other fairly noticeable artistic feature in the park is Keith Wilson’s Steles. Thirty-five coloured poles ranging in height between 3 and 5-metres are found along the side of the Waterworks River which flows through the park before joining up with the River Lea. Although 8-kilometres of waterways flow through the park, Wilson’s Steles are only situated in a small section. Painted in the colours of the Olympic rings, these Steles look like giant crayons, however, are meant to resemble nautical waymarkers. These were the first art installation to be completed in the park and have a physical function as well as an aesthetic one. Due to their position in the water, they can easily be used as mooring posts for barges and small boats that float along the river. Alternatively, they make good roosting posts for the local black herons.

Other art installations are less noticeable until you stumble across them whilst exploring the park. Some may not even be noticed unless you are aware of them, to begin with. Hidden behind the Aquatics Centre is a utility building that has been used as a canvas by the artist DJ Simpson. Commissioned by the Olympic Delivering Authority, Simpson’s peculiar artwork, Open Folds, was installed in March 2012 to represent the contours of the neighbouring landscape. Constructed of dark anodised aluminium, Open Folds hugs the outside walls of the building. Simpson has punched out holes and formed patterned lines to emphasise the varying shape of the surrounding terrain.

In the main section of the park, another building has been used to display an installation of 2000 wooden cubes. One wall of the Podium Café is the location of Pixel Wall by the London-based design collective known as Tomato. The interactive wall allows visitors to turn the cubes, which have a mix of light and dark surfaces, in order to create different pixellated images or words. This is something that appeals to most visitors who cannot resist touching and playing with the cubes and discovering their creative potential. Despite clear instructions not to, vandals have unfortunately written on the cubes, ruining the overall aesthetic of the artwork.

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The Fun Palace by Caroline Bird.

All forms of art were involved with the development of the Olympic Park and, although they all resulted in something tangible, they did not necessarily begin that way. As well as artists and designers, poets were invited to contribute their thoughts and words. On a wooden shed by the South Lawn is an engraved verse from a poem written by Caroline Bird.

Titled The Fun Palace, Bird’s poem narrates the life of Joan Littlewood (1914-2002), a theatre director who was heavily involved with the Theatre Royal in Stratford. During her career, she dreamt up the idea of a “Fun Palace” – an arts and education centre. She envisioned this building on the site of the park, however, her ambition never came to fruition. In honour of what would have been her 100th birthday in 2014, Caroline Bird penned this poem in celebration of everything she did for the artistic community in Stratford.

Other poets have also produced verses to be displayed around the park that reflect on the local area and its history. Lemn Sissay, a local author, was the first to be commissioned to write for the London Olympics. He provided three poems – Living Is In; Spark Catchers; and Spark – which are all exhibited in a similar manner to Bird’s poem. Carol Ann Duffy, who was appointed the Poet Laureate in 2009, also contributed with a poem about Eton Manor, a former leisure centre in the area.

John Burnside, a Scottish poet, was inspired by the suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst, who was known to cycle around the area whilst campaigning for women’s equality. With this significant piece of history in mind, Burnside wrote Bicycling for Ladies, which has also been etched into wood, along with visual imagery.

Sylvia Pankhurst

I dreamed you came again

through the smog of time,

match-girls and broom-makers,

cycling from street to street

with The Women’s Dreadnought;

the houses lit for miles,

like beacons

and a true friend

– Extract from Bicycling For Ladies

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Made of glass and steel, and standing 9-metres high, Monica Bonvicini‘s artwork is hard to miss from the road passing the Copper Box Arena. Functioning as a mirror by day and sporting neon lights by night, the Italian artist’s contribution has an ambiguous meaning. Is it referring to the athletes at the Olympic Games, or is it instructing people to run for their lives?

 

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Freeze Frame by Neville Gabie

 

Not all the artwork that has featured in the Olympic Park remains on public display. In 2012, Neville Gabie was appointed artist in residence for a period of 16 months. During this time, he created a series of work using film and photography. In one film, he recorded his attempt to sit on every seat in the stadium. His most imaginative outcome, however, is the recreation of George Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884). By carefully placing people in high visibility jackets, Gabie reimagined the famous painting in the modern setting of the Olympic Park.

Although not commissioned as an art installation, there are two famous structures that attract many visitors and make great photograph opportunities. These are, of course, the Olympic Rings and the Paralympic Agitos. Located either side of the River Lea, these relics from the Games will remain as a reminder that the park was where the majority of the events took place. For whatever reason that you have gone to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, seeing the Rings and the Agitos is a must.

Despite being transformed into a recreational public parkland, it is impossible to erase the success London had in being the host city of the Olympic Games. Along with the Rings, Agitos, and arenas, facts and memories of the Games have been dotted around the park. The entrance near the Aquatics Centre has a series of facts spread over the pathway, reminding people what London and its athletes achieved, as well as informing the future generations. There is also an opportunity to try and beat Greg Rutherford’s long jump world record of 8.31-metres.

The park has been made child-friendly with the addition of playgrounds containing several different climbing frames, swings and slides to enjoy. These have been designed as abstractly as the buildings and structures surrounding them, in keeping with the contemporary appeal of the area. During the summer, Children can enjoy racing through the water fountains as they turn on and off at great speed.

The park, architecture, and artworks have not appealed to everyone, resulting in a lot of criticism, including in the national papers. The architecture critic for The Guardian expressed the opinion that “There is a frenzy of wacky light fittings, of playground installations, of seats, tree species, sculptural lumps of granite, kiosks, railings and coloured surfaces…It suffers from an Olympic syndrome, where everyone wants to be a Mo or a Jessica and make their mark … Great care was taken to make the Athletes’ Village aesthetically orderly, to the point where it began to resemble Ceausescu’s Bucharest: this eruption makes such efforts futile.”

It appears that the developers have tried too hard to make everything look modern and have ultimately created something that looks obscure and slightly alien. Unlike the natural parks around Britain, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park feels false and overcultivated. Attempts have been made to produce gardens of foreign plants, including those from Asia and the Southern Hemisphere, however, this increases the unnatural feel of the park. Granted, the park is clean, neat and well looked after, but it looks too perfect to be considered parklands. It does not help matters that between the arenas and different “green” sections is an abundance of concrete pathways. The roads crisscrossing the park are a nuisance too; it is impossible to forget you are in London.

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is still being developed as new installations and areas are added to improve visitors’ experience. No doubt more artwork and perplexing architecture will be added to the area over the coming years. With different events happening throughout the year, there is always something new to attract tourists to the area, making the park a worthy project.

Whether or not contemporary art appeals, it is still worth taking a trip to the Olympic Park. We are fortunate to have free access to a place where British history was made and, hopefully, always be remembered.

The park is a short walk from both Stratford Station and Stratford International Station. There are also many buses in the area, making the park easily accessible. Facilities are available for children, adults and disabled to ensure that everybody gets the most out of their visits. Numerous cafés and restaurants are on site and there are plenty of staff to help if you need directions or would like a tour of the park.

Download the Art in the Park field guide for more information about the art installations and where to find them.