Losing and finding ourselves in books

Chris Dunn

"We use the expression 'being lost in a book,' but we are really closer to a state of being found," writes Carol Shields. "Curled up with a novel about an East Indian family, for instance, we are not so much escaping our splintered and decentered world as we are enlarging our sense of self, our multiplying possibilities and expanded experiences. People are, after all, tragically limited: we can live in only so many places, work at a small number of jobs or professions; we can love only a finite number of people. Reading, and particularly the reading of fiction, allows us to be the other, to touch and taste the other, to sense the shock and satisfaction of otherness. A novel lets us be ourselves and yet enter another person's boundaried world, share in a private gaze between reader and writer. Your reading can be part of your life, and there will be times when it may be the best part....

"We need literature on the page because it allows us to experience more fully, to imagine more deeply, enabling us to live more freely. Reading, you are in touch with your best self; and I think, too, that reading shortens the distance we must travel to discover that our most private perceptions are, in fact, universally felt."

Chris Dunn

In fantasy stories especially, writes Jane Yolen, "we learn to understand the differences of others, we learn compassion for those things we cannot fathom, we learn the importance of keeping our sense of wonder. The strange worlds that exist in the pages of fantastic literature teach us a tolerance of other people and places and engender an openness toward new experience. Fantasy puts the world into perspective in a way that 'realistic' literature rarely does. It is not so much an escape from the here-and-now as an expansion of each reader's horizons. A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged?"

Night-time Reading by Chris Dunn

The great James Baldwin once said: "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive."

It was the same for me.

Mice Carol Singers (from Wind in the Willows) by Chris Dunn

Bedside Visit and Autumn Scribe by Chris Dunn

The wonderful watercolour paintings today are by Chris Dunn, a young artist based in Wiltshire whose work I completely adore. Please visit his website and blog to see more.

Settling In by Chris Dunn

Just Married by Chris Dunn

The Carol Shields quote is from Startle and Illuminate (Random House Canada, 2016). The Jane Yolen quote is from Touch Magic (Philomel, 1981; August House, expanded edition, 2000). I'm afraid I don't know the original source of the James Baldwin quote. All rights to the text and art above reserced by the authors and the artis


Saint Valentine's Day

Bluebell Honeymoon by Rima Staines

Rima Staines
Epithalamium

by Adam Zagajewski
translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh

Without silence there would be no music.
Life paired is doubtless more difficult
than solitary existence -
just as a boat on the open sea
with outstretched sails is trickier to steer
than the same boat drowsing at a dock, but schooners
after all are meant for wind and motion,
not idleness and impassive quiet.

A conversation continued through the years includes
hours of anxiety, anger, even hatred,
but also compassion, deep feeling.
Only in marriage do love and time,
eternal enemies, join forces.
Only love and time, when reconciled,
permit us to see other beings
in their enigmatic, complex essence,
unfolding slowly and certainly, like a new settlement
in a valley, or among green hills.

It begins in one day only, from joy
and pledges, from the holy day of meeting,
which is like a moist grain;
then come the years of trial and labor,
sometimes despair, fierce revelation,
happiness and finally a great tree
with rich greenery grows over us,
casting its vast shadow. Cares vanish in it.


* An Epithalumium was composed to celebrate a wedding in ancient Greece and invoke good fortune from the gods.

My valentines

Today's post is for my valentines, one of whom is off doing theatre work in Edinburgh and London right now, while the other (furry and four-footed) pines for his return.

Happy Valentine's Day to each of you too, and to all the people, animals, trees, birds, books, fictional characters and magical places you've given your heart to.

Howard & Tilly 2015

Pictures: The beautiful art above is by Rima Staines, who spreads art, music, and magic all across the UK through Hedgespoken, the house-on-wheels she shares with poet & storyteller Tom Hirons. They're out on Dartmoor for the winter months, close to their community here in Chagford, preparing for further adventures. Go here to see more of Rima's artwork.

Photographs: husband and hound, in the garden and in my studio on World Book Day.

Words: "Epithalamium" by Adam Zagajewski is from The Atlantic magazine ( June 2010).  The poem excerpts in the picture captions are from: "The Country of Marriage" by Wendell Berry, from his book of the same name (Counterpoint, 1971/2013); "The moon rose over the bay, I had a lot of feelings" by Donika Kelly (The American Academy of Poets, November 2017); "Separation" by W.S. Merlin, from his collection The Second Four Books of Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1993); and "Wedding Reading" by Ben Okri, from his collection Wild (Rider, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Related post: "The Narrative of Marriage."


Tunes for a Monday Morning

“June in the Artist's Garden” by Violet Oakley (1874-1961)

Today, women's voices from America....

Above: "Little Lies" by I'm With Her, a trio comprised of bluegrass & folk musicans Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O'Donovan. The song is from their much-anticipated first album as a trio, See You Around, which comes out next month.

Below: "Émigré" by Alela Diane, a singer/songwriter from Portland, Oregon. The song appears on her fifth album, Cusp, due out next month. The album, she says, is an exploration of motherhood in many different guises, inspired by her second daughter's birth.

Above: "Let Them Be All" by Kyle Carey, a singer/songwriter inspired by both the American and Gaelic folk traditions. It comes from her fine second album, North Star. Carey's third album, The Art of Forgetting, is just about to be released.

Below: "At The Purchaser's Option" by Rhiannon Giddens, the brilliant young singer/songwriter/fiddler/banjo player from North Carolina who was awarded a MacArthur "genius grant" last year. (And well deserved too.) The song comes from her new album Freedom Highway (2017).

Above: Tish Hinojosa's now-classic song about migrants on the American/Mexican border, "Donde Voy (Where I Go)."  She's accompanied by Mavin Dykhus in this performance, which was filmed on tour in Germany.

Below: "Going Home" performed by singer/songwriter/banjo player Abigail Washburn with Wu Tong, Yo-Yo Ma, and The Silkroad Ensemble, a group dedicated to music "sparking radical cultural collaboration." The song -- first popularized by singer & civil rights activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976) -- is performed in Chinese and English as part of the Poem for You project. To learn more about it, go here.

Above: Abigail Washburn again, this time performing "Don’t Let it Bring You Down” with her husband, fellow banjo player Béla Fleck. The song is from their terrific new album, Echo in the Valley (2017).

Below, to end with: "True Freedom" by Native American musician and activist Pura Fé, of the Tuscarora Nation. This lovely performance was filmed two years ago at The Alhambra in Paris.

Mural study by Violet Oakley

The art today is by American painter, illustrator, muralist and stained glass designer Violet Oakley (1874-1961). Oakley was one of The Red Rose Girls: three women artists who lived and worked communally at the Red Rose Inn near Philadelphia in the early 20th century. (The others were Jessie Willcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green.) Read "The Exceptional Life & Polictical Art of Violet Oakey" by Carrie Rickey if you'd like to know more about Oakley, and Alice A. Carter's book wonderful book, The Red Rose Girls.


Little gods of the field

The Haywain by Constable

In her essay "Crex-Crex," Scottish poet & essayist Kathleen Jamie reflects on a print of Constable's The Haywain hanging in her B&B on the island of Coll. When Constable packed up his easel after finishing the painting, she imagines:

"what he would have heard as he walked home through the fields  -- indeed, what we could hear if we could step into his painting -- would be the call of the corncrake. A corncrake is a brown bird, a kind of rail, not ten inches tall, which prefers to remain unseen in tall damp grass. It's call -- you'd hardly call it a song -- is two joined notes, like a rasping telephone. Crex Crex is the bird's Latin name, a perfect piece of onomatopoeia. Crex-crex, it goes, crex-crex.

"Perhaps, as he strolled home, Constable had a bit of fun trying to pinpoint the sound in the long grass. Perhaps he thought nothing of it, the corncrake being such a commonplace. 'Heard in every vale,' as John Clare said in his poem. The vales of Northamptonshire, the New Town of Edinburgh, in Robert Burn's Ayrshire, it was recorded in every county in the land from Cornwall to Shetland. In the last century, though, it has been utterly eliminated from the mainland, and if you'd like to hear or even see this skulking little bird of the meadow, you must set sail to the Hebrides."

Corncrake hidden in the meadow grasse

Ballyhaugh Coastline  Island of Coll; photograph by Allan McKechnie

Jamie does precisely this, traveling to Coll in the Inner Hebrides -- where she is met by Sarah Money, warden of the RSPB reserve on the island. One night, Money takes her to a distant field, which the two women quietly enter by torchlight:

"Hear them?" she whispers, and I nod.

What does is sound like? Like someone grating a nutmeg, perhaps. Or a prisoner working toward his escape with a nailfile. Crex-crex, crex-crex. We move forward a few paces at a time...it's almost impossible to tell where the sound is coming from. It's obviously on the ground -- you'd swear it was right under your feet, but it seems to jump and flit ahead. We walk on carefully, speaking in whispers until we've crossed the whole field, but the sound heard so clearly from the gate is still, somehow, ahead of us.

"It's unchancy. Fairy music is said to do this; to lead a man on in his confusion and drunkeness, to start, then stop, then begin again from another place, ever luring him on. This was not a beautiful music, it has to be said; hardly the art of the fairies. Mind you, it could be a goblin carpenter, sawing away at his little workbench, if you've had too many at the island disco and were of a fanciful mind."

Corncrake on the Isle of Coll

Explaining the corncrakes' demise, Jamie writes:

"The grim reaper came for the corncrake in the form of the mechanized mower. In the days of the scythe, when hay was long and cut later in the year, then heaped on slow-moving wains, the corncrake had long grasses to hide and breed in. The chicks would be fledged before the meadow was mown, and had plenty of time to escape the swinging blade. With mechanization, however, and a shift toward earlier cutting for silage, corncrakes, eggs, fledglings, and all have been slaughtered wholesale.

"The corncrake has long been in relationship with humans, its fortunes have waxed and waned as our own farm practices changed. When prehistoric people cleared woodland and developed agriculture, the bird's range extended: corncrake bones have been discovered in Stone Age middens. Indeed, Mrs. Beeton gives a recipe for roasted corncrake. You need four, and should serve them, if liked, with a nice bread sauce. But since Clare's 'mowers on the meadow lea' were likewise banished before the machine, the corncrakes' range has been reduced to a few boggy meadows on the islands. They are the same islands, ironically, whose human populations suffered such decline as ideas on farming changed. But old mowing practices lingered longer in the Hebrides, the fields being too small for machines, so this is where the bird is making it's last stand, and where conservation efforts are taking effect."

Corncrakes in the grass  RSPB photograph

The Isle of Coll

Jamie is determined to see, not merely hear, her bird, so she plants herself on an RSBP "corncrake viewing bench," with a view of two lush meadows, and waits.

"Corncrakes don't feature on Christmas cards, or sing after the rain. Their migration has none of the romance of swallows', though they cover the same distance. They arrive in spring, but we've forgotten that they are spring's heralds. They skulk in the grass like guilty things, hardly encouraging us to look to the skies. They offer us no metaphors about fidelity, or maternal dedication; they are just medium-sized brown birds. Nonetheless, I feel robbed -- denied one of the sounds of summer, which all our forebears would have known, that irksome little crex-crex. Why conserve them, other than it being our moral duty to another life form on this earth? If there is no 'clam'rin craik,' no 'noisy one of the rushes,' it betokens something out of kilter with the larger ecosystem on which ultimately, in as-yet-undiscovered ways, we all depend.

"That's what the ecologists and scientists will tell you. But there are things which cannot be said -- not by scientists, anyway. Another person arrives at the viewing bench...a man in young middle age, a holiday maker. We fall into conversation -- he obviously knows his stuff about birds. He has a young family with him on the island and, while they're on the beach, he has slunk off for an hour in the hope of spotting a corncrake. So here he is, an Englishman of higher education with a professional job, a family, a cagoule and good binoculars.

" 'Can I ask you why you like them? Corncrakes, I mean.'

" 'Well,' he said. 'They're like...little gods of the field, aren't they?'

"I could have punched the air. If corncrakes are rare, animism is rarer still. Anyone can clear his throat and talk about biodiversity, but 'Corncrakes...little gods of the field' will not get you published in ornithologists' journals. That's how I picture them now, however: standing chins up, open-beaked, like votive statues in the grass....

"There is talk of reintroducing corncrakes to England, so it might again crex through Constable's Dedham Vale. Till then the mainland's a diminished place; a thousand miles of country without one little god in the field."

Essays by Kathleen Jamie

Last photograph: Tilly snoozing on her fleece on the studio sofa, with Sightlines and Findings by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books/Peguin, 2012 & 2005). Both essay collections are highly recommended. The passages above are from Jamie's corncrake essay "Crex-Crex," from Findings. All rights reserved by the author.


Wild communion

Charlotte by Laurence Winram

In a post last week, I recommended Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt -- a fascinating book about Mozart's bird companion (Star), the writer's own pet starling (Carmen), and reflections on this common bird, widely detested in North America for being nonnative and invasive. Today, I'd like to quote a beautiful passage from the latter chapters of the text looking at the nature of our wild relationships with the more-than-human world, a subject that often comes up in our discussions in the Mythic Arts field.

Haupt writes:

"When I set out to follow the story of Mozart and his starling, I saw in its center a shining, irresistible paradox: one of the greatest and most loved composers in all of history was inspired by a common, despised starling. Now I muse upon the many facets of this tale, and it is wonderful, yes, even more wonderful than I had imagined. But looking back at the trail that I have wandered with these kindred birds -- one in history and one in my home -- I see also that, as both humans and animals so often are, I have been tricked by my attraction to the shiny little object. For in the end, it is not the exceptionality of this story that is the true wonder. It is its ordinariness.

"In the creatures that intertwine with our lives, those we see daily and those that watch us from urban and wild places -- from between branches and beneath leaves and under eaves and stairwells and culverts and the sides of walks and pathways -- we share everything. We share breath, and biology, and blood. She share our needs for food and water and shelter. We share the imperative to mate and to give new life and to keep our young safe and warm and fed. We share susceptibility to disease and the potential to suffer and an inevitable frailty in the face of these things. We share a certain death. We share everything, constantly, every moment of the day and night, across eons. And in this shared earthly living, when we give our attention to it, we find the basis of our compassion, and our empathy for other creatures....

Each creature has its particular ways and wiles. Each being has its own presence, voice, silence, song, body, place. We are bound by our sameness and uniqueness in equal measure -- both spring from our shared being on a vital, conscious earth. This is wild communion. And it is in this recognition that we move beyond simple compassion to a more certain, more essential sense of relatedness, of kinship.

Mihaela 1 by Laurence Winram

"Mozart felt this, I know. Like me, he was drawn at first to the shiny thing -- in his case it was Star's singing back to him the song he himself had written. But in his elegy poem [written upon Star's death] we see that a different relationship evolved. The bird's mimicry is not once mentioned. This is a poem to a kindred creature whose presence brought play, sound, song, joy, and friendliness to the maestro's life. And in the work that Star inspired, this is what we see too. A shared sense of mischief, music, and delight. The word kinship comes from the Old English -- of the same kind, and therefore related. Kindly and kindness also grow from this root -- the bearing toward others that kinship inspires.

Nikita II by Laurence Winram

"I have always thought of all creatures -- all organisms really -- as relations. Whether wandering alone in deep wilderness or just leaning against a tree growing beside an urban sidewalk, I have no difficulty feeling, as if in a dreamtime, the roots of our relatedness -- ecologically, yes, but also with an overlay of the sacred, the holy. Starlings, though pretty, were a rift in this vision. They fluttered outside this wholeness. But my thinking has evolved. Ecologically, it is true -- starlings do not belong in this country, this city; but relationally, it is not true. We live together in a tangled complexity. I listen to the starlings mimic back to me my own profound ecological shortcomings. Carmen is a creature with a body, voice, and consciousness in the world. In this, we are sisters. And all these unwelcome starlings on the grassy parking strip? Yes, they are my relations too.

Charlotte 1 by Laurence Winram

"The Cartesian belief in the absolute separateness of lives, bodies, and brains maintains a foothold in the traditions of our modern culture. We see it in the ways we are pitted against one another in commerce, in education, and in the small, daily jealousies of our own minds. We see it in the ways that we continue to find it culturally acceptable to diminish animals in agriculture, in entertainment, and in scientific experimentation. And yes, when we are attentive, we find that we are not separate, not alone. We are not isolated little minds wandering on a large, indifferent earth. We are surrounded by our kin, by all of life, beings with whom we are wayfarers together. Instead of walking upon, we walk within, and this within-ness brings our imaginations to life. We are inspired -- literally "breathed upon" -- together.

"Our creativity and our connection to other beings is tangled in a beautiful etymology. The words creative and creature spring from the same Latin root, creare, "to produce, to grow, to bring into existence." It was Ged, Ursula Le Guin's beloved young wizard of Earthsea, who learned after the fall of his individual pride that the wise person is "one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the slow gestures of trees." Through such understanding we arrive at a new wholeness. We become more receptive and free in body and imagination, and our unique potential for creative magnificence is enlivened. We become the listening artists of our own lives and culture."

Yes, indeed.

Fiona I by Laurence Winram

The art today is by Scottish photographer Laurence Winram, whose work appears on Karine Polwart's Wind Resistance album (recommended last week). The imagery here is from his Shadow, Conemen, and Mythologos series. Visit Winram's website and blog to see more.

Coneman III by Laurence Winram

"The ancient Greeks made sense of their world not only by logic but by myth too," says the artist. "They saw it was necessary to view things in these opposite ways in order to have a balanced understanding of their lives. I feel we have moved out of that balance, unconsciously letting go of that mythic element to our lives. As a result we've lost touch with our own personal vision and creativity. We let a dogmatic scientific perspective rule everything, from our dreams to our notions of the spiritual.

"I try to reflect on this, creating images that sometimes imagine a world where logic has been sidelined by the mythic, or images that mock our need to analyse and break down those parts of our life that we should truly respond to more intuitively."

Hazel Flew by Laurence Winram

Otto's Flight II by Laurence Winram

The passages above is from Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown & Co., 2017); all rights reserved by the author. Thanks again to William Todd Jones (via composer Hillary Tann) for passing the book on to me; and to Steve Toase for recommending Laurence Winram's work. All rights to the photogaphy above reserved by the artist.


When we had wings

Metamorphosis by Christian Schloe

From When Women Were Birds: 54 Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams:

"Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated."

Perhaps it's time to re-claim our wings and song, men and women alike.

The Jungle Book (detail) by Christian Schloe

The Gentleman by Christian Schloe

The magical imagery today is by Austrian digital artist Christian Schloe.

Fairy Tale Night by Christian Schloe

The quote above is from When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams (Picador, 2012). This thoroughly gorgeous "poetic memoir" is a sequel to Williams' Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. All rights to the text and art in this post reserved by the author and artist.


Magpie Moon

Blodeuwedd Night by Jackie Morris

Magpie and Raven by Jackie Morris

From Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams:

"Flocks of magpies have descended on our yard. I cannot sleep for all their raucous behavior. Perched on weathered fences, their green-black tales, long as rulers, wave up and down, reprimanding me for all I have not done.

"I have done nothing for weeks. I have no work. I don't want to see anyone much less talk. All I want to do is sleep.

Drawing by Jackie Morris

"Monday, I hit rock-bottom, different from bedrock, which is solid, expansive, full of light and originality. Rock-bottom is the bottom of the rock, the underbelly that rarely gets turned over; but when it does, I am the spider that scurries from daylight to find another place to hide.

Owl Wore the Moon as a Halo by Jackie Morris

"Today I feel stronger, learning to live with the natural cycles of a day and to not expect so much from myself. As women, we hold the moon in our bellies. It is too much to ask to operate on full-moon energy three hundred and sixty-five days a year. I am in a crescent phase. And the energy we expend emotionally belong belongs to the hidden side of the moon."

This is something I constantly forget: that not every day can be a full-moon day, no matter how many plans and schedules I make. There are cycles in everything, including writing and art-making. I am trying to work with and not against my natural rhythms. To ebb and flow; breathe in, breathe out. My goal is not to push, push, push, but to gently stay in motion....

They Nested in a Porcelain Bowl by Jackie Morris

The art today, of course, is by Jackie Morris, who lives in a house full of books, animals, and nature's magic on the coast Wales. I highly, highly recommend her new book, The Lost Words: a breath-takingly beautiful collaboration with Robert Macfarlane.

The Lord Words

Solstice Badger by Jackie Morris

The passage above is from Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams (Random House, 1991) -- a wonderful book that weaves personal memoir with bird lore and natural history. All rights to the text and art in this post reserved by the author and artist.


Vade mecum

Girl Holding a Book by Gwen John

Robert Macfarlane's "Word(s) of the Day" is one of the delights of Twitter (a medium that swings from soul-enriching to soul-crushing, depending on how you curate your Twitter feed). Yesterday Robert offered vade mecum: a Latin term, he explained, meaning: "literally 'go with me'; figuratively a book that one keeps by one’s side or close to hand -- so that it may be readily consulted for guidance or inspiration. A lodestone text to which one returns. What’s your vade mecum?"

Study for The Convalescent by Gwen John

Despite my fierce passion for books, his question is one I find difficult to answer. There are just so many books that I return to again and again -- from fantasy to realist fiction, from folklore studies to nature writing, from artist and writer biographies to poetry. To chose a single lodestone text is impossible for me: influence and inspiration is everywhere. As soon as I come up with single title, a dozen others crowd close behind it, and then a dozen more.

I like these words by British novelist Ali Smith, who was posed a similar question in an interview last year:

"What book has most inspired me? The question just made my brain explode into fizzing little pieces. I can't choose one. There are so many. I think I've been by everything I've ever read one way or another, and I don't mean just books, I mean things on hoardings, things on the sides of pencils, things that catch your eye on the sides of buses, the words FRAGILE BREAK GLASS on the front of a firehose cabinet in an Italian hotel. My partner Sarah just said, stop being inspired by everything. Is this piece of newspaper really inspiring to you? Yes, I said, so don't throw it away. (She threw it away anyway, but that was inspiring too, because it inspired me to write this paragraph.) Inspiration is everywhere. It's as everday as what it means, which is literally in-breath, the act of breathing in. If we think about it like that, inspiration becomes not just natural, first nature, but how we live, how we stay alive -- a matter of heart, blood, rhythm."

Indeed.

Tabby cat by Gwen John

What do you think, dear readers? Do you have a vade mecum (or two, or three), and if so, what? 

Or does the question make your brain go into meltdown, as it does to mine? 

Interior of the Artist's Room by Gwen John

The imagery today is by the great Welsh painter Gwen John (1876-1939), who is one of my all-time favourite artists. I wrote more about Gwen back in the autumn of 2011. You can find the post here.

Gwen John by Susan Row

Girl Holding Cat by Gwen JohnWith thanks to the good folks at #WomensArt, who reminded me today of my love for Gwen's work. And, of course, to Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places, The Lost Words, etc.


Fantasy & the Pre-Raphaelites

Mariana by John Everett Millais

This text of this post comes from a talk I gave at the annual 4th Street Fantasy gathering in Minneapolis, way back in the 1990s, in response to the question: "Who were the Pre-Raphaelites and why are so many fantasy writers interested in them?"

Irish poet William Butler Yeats once said: "I made a new religion of poetic tradition, of a fardel of stories, and of personages, and of emotions, inseparable from their first expression, passed on from generation to generation by poets and painters. I wished for a world where I could discover this tradition perpetually, and not in pictures and poems only, but in tiles round the chimney piece and in the hangings that kept out the draft."  

In Victorian England, a group of idealistic men and women dreamed of creating such an ideal world, spinning their bright, richly colored dreams against the drab, smoky background of the Industrial Revolution. Although they came from different walks of life and different artistic disciplines, today we tend to group all these artists together as the Pre-Raphaelites: followers of an aesthetic ideal that also inspired (and overlaps with) the Arts & Crafts movement. Those of us drawn to their art are often drawn as well to its encompassing vision: the idea that art is not just something to look at, or to find in a book, but is (or can be) a way life — a religion of Beauty, of Romanticism, that surrounds one (as Yeats would say) right down to the tiles round the chimney piece.

 The Forest Tapestry designed by William Morris  Philip Webb and John Henry Dearle  woven at Merton Abbey  1887.jpg

Bird & Pomegranate wallpaper designed by William Morris

The Pre-Raphaelite movement was officially begun in the middle of the 19th century by seven young artists* who were barely into their twenties at the time. Painting, as it was generally taught back then (at London's Royal Academy and other such schools) was bound by a strict series of rules, formulas, and conventions which determined what these artists could paint and exactly how they could paint it. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Millais were at the core of this group of friends who defied the art establishment by exhibiting subversive, scandalous paintings signed with the mysterious letters PRB. The initials stood for the group's nom de guerre: the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They chose this name because they worshipped early Italian and Flemish art: the art before Raphael. The Brotherhood never set out to mimic the style of this early art; rather, they sought to evoke a similar spirit of freedom and simplicity: primarily by the radical concepts of painting directly from nature, out of doors; and by painting with bright, translucent colors straight onto a white background, rather than with the subdued Academy palette, painted light on dark.

Ophelia by Millais

Ferdinand Lured by Ariel by John Everett Millais, Frederic George Stephens was the model

This hardly seems radical to us today, but when the group began to exhibit such work, the paintings deeply appalled Academy officials and the viewing public. Looking at Pre-Raphaelite art today, what we see are quaintly historic images dripping with romanticism -- but what viewers saw in the waning years of Victorian England was something rather different. The colors these young painters employed were considered vulgarly bright (a number of the paintings have faded with age; we can only imagine their impact now); and, worse, they blythely ignored the prescribed list of "respectable" subjects. Instead, the Brotherhood painted and sculpted images drawn from Celtic legends and English folklore, and poems by Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson; or else they treated traditional subjects in shockingly untraditional ways. Millais' luminous painting of Christ's childhood, for instance, horrified Victorian viewers because it placed a barefoot Christ-child in a common carpenter's workshop.

Isabella (from Keats' ''Isabella  or the Bot of Basil'') by John Everett Millais

Christ in the House of His Parents by William Holman Hunt

The following review from the London Times was typical of the notice they received:

"We cannot censor at present as amply or as strongly as we desire to do that strange disorder of the mind or eyes that continues to rage with unabated absurdity among a class of juvenile artists who style themselves the PRB. These young artists have unfortunately become notorious by addicting themselves to an antiquated style and an affected simplicity in painting which is to genuine art what the medieval ballads and designs in Punch are to Chaucer."

The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Though taken aback by the fury of these attacks, the Brotherhood then received a stroke of luck. The influential critic John Ruskin, who admired the young painters' fidelity to nature, wrote to the Times in their defense, concluding that "with all their faults, their pictures are since Turner's death the best, the incomparably best, on the walls of the Royal Academy."

Strayed Sheep by William Homan Hunt

Arthur Huges, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Dicksee

The Wedding of Saint George and Princess Sabra by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Now the tide began to turn. With Ruskin's invaluable (and often meddlesome) patronage, the Pre-Raphaelite style of painting proceeded to change Victorian ideas about art, and to buck the old establishment. Over time, these artists grew famous, wealthy, and became the art establishment themselves, against which the next generation of students (the Modernists) would rebel.

La Pia de' Tolomei (from Dante's Purgatorio) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  The model is Jane Morris

Morgan Le Fay by Frederick Sandys

Although the term Pre-Raphaelite is now applied to a broad spectrum of artists, the original Brotherhood itself lasted only a few years before its querulous members went their separate ways.

John Everett Millais, the most accomplished painter of the group, became a highly fashionable Society artist; the frothy, sentimental canvases of his later years were widely viewed as a betrayal of the cause -- but earned him the money needed to support the many children he had after running away with Ruskin's wife in a widely publicized scandal. William Holman Hunt became obsessed with Palestine, traveling to the Holy Lands to paint religious subjects from life. In this he stayed true to the PRB ideals, painting long hours in the hot desert sun -- and carrying a pistol in his belt (he claimed) to discourage the local bandits. Dante Gabriel Rossetti's work largely abandoned the early PRB ideals: his palette grew darker, his compositions more formal, and he rarely painted out of doors as he focused, almost exclusively, on the female face and form. His lushly allegorical portraits scandalized and mesmerized the Victorian public. Indeed, so popular were Rossetti's ladies, with their wistful gazes and cascades of crinkly hair, that this is the image most people now associate with Pre-Raphaelitism -- rather than the plein air paintings of the original Brotherhood.

Bocca Baciata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Rossetti was an eccentric, passionate man with great personal charisma, and he drew around him an extraordinary circle of artists, poets, and acolytes whom he fired with his Romantic ideals. The big brick riverside house he rented in London's Chelsea neighborhood was shared with the poet Algernon Swinburne, the novelist George Meredith, Rossetti's patient brother Michael (who often ended up paying all the bills), and a menagerie of pets including peacocks, marmots, deer, armadillos, hedgehogs, a vicious kangaroo, and some rather disgruntled wombats. This was the London of Oscar Wilde's day, when Whistler, or Browning, or shy Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) might drop in for tea and the latest gossip, and Thomas Carlyle's rather shabby figure could be seen strolling along the Thames. In one famous story, the inspiration for the dormouse in the teapot in Alice in Wonderland is said to have come from a pet rodent fast asleep in Rossetti's soup tureen; in other stories, visitors to the house related how Swinburne would go into fits, throwing off his clothes and dancing naked while reciting his poetry.

A drawing of Lizzie Siddal by Dante Gabriel RossettiDescriptions of this lavishly Bohemian household are at odds with the usual image of the Victorians as sexually repressive and morally tight-laced. While it's true that respectable women (like Rossetti's sister, the poet Christina Rossetti) would not have been allowed to frequent the house or take part in the creative camaraderie, these rules did not apply to working class girls -- particularly those who modelled for the painters, considered little better than whores whether they kept their clothes on or not.

One of these models was Elizabeth Siddal, a cutler's daughter from the wrong side of the river with artistic ambitions of her own. "Lizzie," as she was known, is the tall woman with long straight golden hair who sits, sleeps, dreams, and combs her locks in so many of Rossetti's early drawings and paintings. She was his Muse, companion, painting partner...and eventually his wife (much to the horror of his middle-class family).

Drawings of Elizabeth Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lovers Listening to Music by Elizabeth Siddal

Growing up poor and female, Lizzie would have had no access to artistic training had she not fallen in with Rossetti and his friends. She blossomed in this company, producing  drawings and paintings which won Ruskin's praise, and financial patronage. To Rossetti's credit, at a time when women's art was severely marginalized he had genuine faith in Lizzie's work and took great pains to promote it -- but she died before her art matured, and little of it survives today. Physically frail, prone to depression, and never certain of Rossetti's constancy, she died of an overdose of laudanum (an opium tincture) after the stillborn birth of their only child. Officially listed as an "accidental death," rumors of suicide were spread; and to this day no one really knows the truth of the situation. Distraught with grief, Rossetti buried his unpublished poems in his wife's coffin, wrapped up in her long gold hair. Years later, in an incident now famous in literary history, he reconsidered this romantic gesture and dug the coffin back up again, retrieving the poems and publishing them. Legend has it that Lizzie's famous hair was just as bright as always.

By this time, however, Rossetti had a new Muse: tall, dark, enigmatic Jane Morris. She too was of working class origins, and the wife of one of his closest friends.

Proserpine (Persephone) by Dante Grabriel Rossetti. The model is Jane MorrisWilliam Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were students together at Oxford University; Rossetti was older, famous now as both a painter and poet, and the younger men idolized his work. They wrote him a letter, and were duly invited to visit Rossetti in his London digs. "Topsy" Morris was a rather bearish young man, blessed with an inherited income and a prodigious amount of energy. Unlike Burne-Jones (known as plain "Ned Jones" then), Morris wasn't much of a painter -- but there was very little else the man couldn't do. Turning his talents to decorative arts, he worked to create a world around him as romantic as any Pre-Raphaelite painting, designing medievalesque furniture (hand-painted by Burne-Jones and Rossetti), tapestries, textiles, ceramics, metalwork, silver-work, stained glass, and anything else that caught his fancy.

Morris was the force behind Morris & Co., a firm dedicated to making and marketing objects of Pre-Raphaelite design. It was Morris's dream to thus bring art into the daily life of the common man; it was his belief that filling a man's soul with beauty was as important as filling his belly with food. Appalled by the cheap ugliness produced by new methods of industrial mass production, Morris championed the beauty of handcraft methods based on medieval craft societies. So strong was this vision that Morris is still a force in British design over one hundred years later: his furniture is treasured by collectors (particularly the famous "Morris chair"), his wallpaper designs are still widely used; his unique wool dye recipes are still followed; his beautiful type designs are classics of the form; and the hand-printed books of his Kelmscott Press sit in museum collections around the world. In addition, Morris was one of the fathers of modern British socialism; and many fine old English houses still exist thanks to the Society for the Preservation of Antique Buildings which Morris founded. This tireless man also wrote popular books of poetry and prose -- including translations of old Icelandic sagas, and magical tales such as Well at the World's End (considered by some literary historians to be the first modern fantasy novel).

The Kemscott Chaucer

Morris' boundless creative energy disguised a complicated private life: his wife Jane and Rossetti had fallen passionately in love. Although famous for his temper, in this regard he seems to have shown an extraordinary patience. Together with Rosetti, he rented Kelmscott Manor in a quiet corner of Oxfordshire; thus the lovers were able to be together without actually breaking up the Morris marriage.

A photograph of Jane MorrisIt was about this time that Morris wrote his poem cycle The Defence of Guenevere -- the only clue we have of his feelings about this painful period of his life. His patience paid off some years later when two tragedies drew Jane and Topsy back together: their eldest daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy (untreatable then, and devastating); and Rossetti's mental health (always a bit unstable) began to collapse. Convinced he was stalked by enemies, and haunted by his dead wife's ghost, Rossetti retreated to his Chelsea house -- where he took great quantities of laudanum and wrote plaintive letters to Jane. His other mistress, Fanny Cornforth, looked after him there until the end of his life. A model (and former prostitute), Fanny was considered so vulgar by the Rossetti circle that she was not invited to his funeral, although she'd been the steadiest, truest friend he'd had in those last years.

With Rossetti's departure, Kelmscott Manor became a more tranquil home for Morris, Jane, and their two daughters, Jenny and May (an influential textile artist and designer). Jane eventually bought the house outright and it passed to her daughters after her death.  In Kelmscott churchyard, Morris and Jane are buried in a single, simple grave.

News From Nowhere

Topsy and Ned remained fast friends from their Oxford days to the end of their lives. Shy, lanky Ned Jones evolved into Sir Edward Burne-Jones, a widely celebrated painter of mystical, dream-like imagery. His work, especially, inspired many of the "second wave" of Pre-Raphaelite painters -- such as John William Waterhouse, Evelyn de Morgan, Arthur Hughes, John Melhuish Strudwick, Maria Spartali Stillman, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, and Frank Cadogan Cowper.

The Wedding of Psyche by Edward Burne-Jones

The Sea Maidens by Evelyn de Morgan

Burne-Jones had his own flamboyant mid-life love affair, with the fiery Greek sculptor Maria Zambaco (cousin to painter Maria Spartali Stillman): her striking face and long dark hair can be seen in many of his best drawings and paintings. In the end, Burne-Jones reneged on his vow to leave his marriage and returned to his quiet and practical wife, Georgiana, while the angry, heart-broken Zambaco threatened to drown herself in Thames. The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-JonesTo complicate things further, there is evidence to suggest that Georgiana may have been in love with William Morris, and Morris with her -- but these two, despite their unconventional lives, had been raised with high Victorian ideals. Faithful Georgie remained at her husband's side, enduring Zambaco and her husband's penchant for surrounding himself with pretty young women; Morris remained with Jane, bound by convention, their children, and a mutual affection that had survived many years of trial.

  * * * 

Perhaps it's the drama of these entwined lives, as much as the beauty of the art itself, that makes the Pre-Raphaelites so irresistable to many of us in the fantasy field; we writers love a good story after all. But I think it is also significant that late-19th century Pre-Raphaelites and late-20th century fantasists tend to hold these things in common: a love of myth and mysticism, of Celtic legends and epic Romance, of imaginary worlds and the natural world, of symbolism, metaphor, and magic. There is magic in the Arthurian paintings of Burne-Jones, and the jewel-toned panels of of his Briar Rose series (based on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale). There is magic in Rossetti's pensive women, in Millais' Ophelia, in Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott. There is magic in Morris' utopian fantasy novels, now classics of our genre.

Briar Rose

The Death of King Arthur by Edward Burne-Jones

The Heart of the Rose by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

In fantasy literature, as in Pre-Raphaelite art, we find a deep nostalgia for the landscapes of the rural past: in the rolling Shires of Middle Earth, the island villages of Earthsea, the unspoiled forests of Narnia, Islandia, and Mythago Wood. As editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden has pointed out, it is probably no accident that the explosive popularity of Tolkien's books and the subsequent birth of the modern fantasy genre occurred at the same time as the growth of the modern ecology movement. In an age of urban expansion and aggressive suburban development, many of us long for simple green fields, clear waters, and the timeless beauty of winding woodland trails -- a hunger fed by journeys through the untamed woods of fantasy.

One hundred years ago, William Morris watched as his beloved English countryside disappeared under rapid industrialization; his art and politics express an impassioned appeal for a rural way of life -- for a return to an idyllic, chivalric medieval past that had never been.

The Lady of Shallot

A study for The Mystic Wood by John William Waterhouse

One final link joins modern fantasists with the unconventional painters and poets who lived, loved, worked, and dreamed one hundred years before us: Like the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, before the tides of fashion turned in their favor, fantasists must work outside the approval of the art establishment. Fantasists use themes that are once again considered beneath the notice of serious artists: myth, magic, fairy tales, and stories unabashedly Romantic. William Morris and his followers in the Arts & Crafts movement explored forms derided as decoration, not serious art: ceramics, weaving, embroidery, jewelry-making, furniture, book design, etc.,  just as today we work in forms that are rarely accepted as serious literature: genre fiction, children's fiction, book illustration, and comics.

The Pre-Raphaelites ignored the conventions of their day, and the critics quick to dismiss them. They refused to change their vision to suit the times -- they changed the world around them instead. Perhaps those "tiles around the chimney piece and hangings that keep out the draft" may seem like small, inconsequential ways of going about changing the world...and yet these things still influence the art, the dreams, the daily lives of men and women over one hundred years later. The Pre-Raphaelite vision is still alive to inspire many of us today.

Perhaps some day we'll be able to say the same about the best of the mythic art and fiction created in our own century. In the meantime, we can take heart from the timeless work of the Pre-Raphaelites: from those seven original rebellious young men; from the men and women who followed them; and from all steadfast, visionary souls who have walked this road before us.

John Meluish Strudwick and Maria Spartali Stillman

The Deceitfulness of Riches by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale

Footnote: The original seven members of the Brotherhood were: James Collinson, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Michael Rossetti, Frederic George Stephens, and Thomas Woolner.

Pictures: The art above is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the pictures to see them.)

Words: This article originated as a talk given at the 4th Street Fantasy convention in Minneapolis (at the request of Steven Brust). It subsequently appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 1997, and The Journal of Mythic Arts. To learn more about the Pre-Raphaelites, I recommend these sites: The Pre-Raphaelite Society, The William Morris Society, the online archives from the Tate's Pre-Raphaelite Visions show (2004); plus these wonderful blogs: The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood and The Kissed Mouth.


In the gift-giving season

True Friends by Terri Windling

On Black Friday and in the holiday season ahead, please help make the world a better place by supporting independent bookstores, artists, musicians, craftspeople, local farms, & small businesses -- rather than big, non-ethical, tax-avoiding corporations (like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Walmart, Disney, Mattel, etc....and even, alas, the Waterstones book chain. Go here for the worst offenders.)

And please recommend some good online & offline shops, including your own (don't be shy), in the comments. I'll start us off here:

Tired bunnyFor Art, Craftwork, and Jewelry from the magical hills of Dartmoor: Virginia Lee, David Wyatt, Danielle Barlow, Angharad Barlow of Atelier Bee, Rima Staines & Tom Hirons of Hedgespoken, Miriam Boy Hackney of Silver & Moor (who made our wedding rings), Jason of England (who made our anniversary rings), Linda Limeux of Wood & Rush, Yuli Somme of Bellacouche, Suzi Crockford, Eleanor Ludgate, Lunar Hine, and Alexandra Dawe.

Plus visit the Artisan Gallery here in Chagford (which carries local arts, and is also the home of Leaf Leather), check out the online artisan shop Gifts from Dartmoor, and then head north to Exmoor to see exquisitely magical things at Number Seven Dulverton.

More mythical, magical jewelry: Parrish Relics, Hannah Willow, Alchemy From the Hedge, Bauble Yaga's Hut, and Lioness.

More artwork (paintings, cards, prints, etc.) with mythic or naturalist themes: Jeanie Tomanek's EveryWoman Art and EasyBeast Designs, Kathleen Jennings, Jackie Morris, Catherine Hyde, Hannah Willow, Greta Ward, Rick Berry, Angela Harding, Karen Davis, Flora McLachlan, David Hollington, Jessica Roux, Julianna Swaney, Julia Jeffrey, Rovina Cai, Hazel Ang, Amy Bogard, Susan Sorrel Hill, Xine Ann's Artsy Craftsy (classic fairy tale prints). Plus Lynn Hardaker when her Etsy shop fills again.

Sculpture and glass with mythic or naturalist themes: Beckie Kravetz, Rossi Studios, Sophie Ryder, Ellen Jewett, Tamsin Abbott, and (if you've got very deep pockets) Adrian Arleo and Tricia Cline.

Fabric arts, critters, dolls, and masks: Mister Finch, Celestine & the Hare, MossMea, The Pale Rook, Anna Brahms, Friedericy Dolls, Claire Smith, BK Mask Studio, and Mythical Designs. Plus The Fernie Brae gallery in Portland, Oregon carries work by Wendy Froud, Chandra Cerchione Peltier and others.

Ceramics and homeware of various kinds: Lush Designs, Guy Veryzer, William Morris Tiles, and Hannah Nunn.

Photography: Stu Jenks, Juliette Mills, Rachel Lauren, and Ashley Lebedev.

I could go on listing artists I love all day, but I must get back to work on my manuscript-in-progress...so if I haven't yet listed you here, or any other artist whose work you'd like to recommend, please do so in the comments below.

Some bunnies

For those who have kindly asked: No, I  don't have an online shop for my own art this year -- I haven't had the spare time and funds to cover the expense of running one (printing costs, office help, etc.). But if you'd like to support the creation of a Bumblehill Shop for 2018, perhaps you'd consider becoming a Bumblehill Patron? Funds raised through my Patreon page are precisely for these sorts of endeavors.