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November 2017

The Pre-Raphaelites, re-imagined

Venus Verticordia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Venus Verticordia by Donna Stevens

The Blue Bower by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

from Love Letters to Rossetti

Today, let's look at contemporary photography inspired by Pre-Raphaelite art: images based on specific paintings by Rossetti, Millais, and others; and those that simply conjure the spirit of the art, with a moden twist.

Above, for example, Australian photographer Donna Stevens re-creates "Venus Verticordia" and "The Blue Bower" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti for her Love Letter to Rossetti series.

Below, English photographer Tom Hunter sets two classic Victorian paintings -- "Ophelia" by John Everett Millais and "Home from Sea" by Arthur Hughes -- in the Hackney Marshes of London. (For other works in this series, see: Reinterpreting the Pre-Raphaelites.)

from Life & Death in the Hackney Marshes

Ophelia by Millais

from Life and Death in Hackney

Home from the Sea by Arthur Hughes

And here are a few more art and fashion photographers who have come under the Pre-Raphaelite spell...

Below: Fashion shoots for Italian Vogue by American photographer Annie Leibovitz and Polish photographer Małgorzata Maj (now based in London).

Annie Leibovitz and Małgorzata Maj

Małgorzata Maj

Below, fashion shoots for Italian Vogue by English photographer Miles Adridge .

Pre-Raphaelite inspired photograph by Miles Adridge

Miles Aldridge

Below, "The Forgotten Duchess" and "The Fishmonger's Widow" by American photographer Caroline Knopf.

Caroline Knopf

The Fishmonger's Widow by Caroline Knopf

Below, two darkly Pre-Raphaelite images by German photographers Billy & Hells (Anke Linz and Andreas Oettinger).

Billy Und Hels

Billy Und Hels

Below, "Ophelia" by Russian photographer Ekaterina Belinskaya.

Ekaterina Belinskaya


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.


Doing it for love

Love is Enough

From "Doing It for Love," an essay by novelist, poet, and memoirist Erica Jong:

"Despite all the cynical things writers have said about writing for money, the truth is we write for love. That is why it is so easy to exploit us. That is also why we pretend to be hard-boiled, saying things like: 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money' (Samuel Johnson). Not true. No one except a blockhead ever wrote except for love.

"There are plenty of easier ways to make money. Almost anything is less labor-intensive and better paid than writing. Almost anything is safer. Reveal yourself on the page repeatedly, and you are likely to be rewarded with exile, prison or neglect. Ask Dante or Oscar Wilde or Emily Dickinson. Scheme and betray, and you are likely be be reward with with wealth, publicity and homage. Tell the truth and you are likely to be a pariah within your family, a semi-criminal to authorities and damned with faint praise by your peers. So why do we do it? Because saying what you think is the only freedom. 'Liberty,' said Camus, 'is the right not to lie.'

"In society in which everything is for sale, in which deals and auctions make the biggest news, doing it for love is the only remaining liberty. Do it for love and you cannot be censored. Do it for love and you cannot be stopped. Do it for love and the rich will envy no one more than you. In a world of tuxedos the naked man is king. In a world of bookkeepers with spreadsheets, the one who gives it away without counting the cost is God."

Love is Enough

When I first read these words by Erica Jong, I was feeling a bit cynical myself. " 'Do it for love, not money,'  " I grumbled to Tilly. (I admit it, I talk to my dog.) "Well, that's easy for her to say when her very first novel was a best-seller. She's not fretting about electricity bills or putting food on the table."  But in fact, Jong's essay is not about the business of earning a living through art; it's about the deep, complex, mysterious feelings that cause us to make art at all. And when I ponder her words from this different perspective, I couldn't agree with her more.

We do it for love, of one kind or another. Love of the work, of the practice of our craft. Love of the painstaking process of bringing interior visions out into the world. Love of the various tools we use: ink, paper, paint, clay, fiddler's bow, photographer's light, the finely trained bodies of dancers and actors. Love of the solitary trance of creation, or the buzzy give-and-take of collaboration. Love of the first idea, of the rendering process, and then of the final product...followed by a reader's, viewer's, or listener's engagement. Love of completion, success, and achievement; and the harder love of set-back, failure, rejection, and all the things they teach.

Doing our work, with commitment and focus, is what makes us writers, painters, performers -- not the size of the pay check our art-making earns. Most of the writers I've edited over the years (and these include well-known authors with multiple books, devoted readers, and prestigious awards) don't make enough to life on by writing alone. I wish they did. In a better world they would. They are writing for love.

Tulip and Willow

And yes, most writers write with the intention of being published and read -- which usually means putting on our business hats and venturing out into the marketplace. This is the part of the art-making process that separates "real" artists from amateurs -- or so, in a hyper-capitalist, transactional culture we are led to believe. When I meet someone new and they learn I'm a writer, often the very first thing I am asked is: Have you published anything? Followed by: What name do you write under? Would I have heard of you? And sometimes, baldly: Does it pay?

No, I say gently, you probably won't have heard of me...unless fairy tales and myth-oriented fantasy happens to be your cup of tea. This generally ends the conversation. My querent's suspicions are now confirmed: I am not a "real" writer after all. Or else I'm just not a very good one, since I'm neither rich nor famous. I could protest that I've published many books and essays, won awards, been translated into ten languages. But I don't say any of this of course. A list of achievements isn't what matters. It isn't what makes me a writer.

I am a writer because I love words, and the process of shaping words into stories. I am an artist because I love line, color, and the process of pictures growing under my fingers. I am a writer, artist, and anthologist because I took the time, over many years, to learn the technical skills these crafts require; and because I work at them seriously and persistently. If you do too, then you are qualified to call yourself a "real" artist too.

The money I earn through creative work matters each month when bills are due; I won't pretend that it doesn't. And it buys me the time to make more art. But it doesn't measure the worth of my work -- and it is not the measure of yours. I've made art, in one form or another, for as long as I can remember: good art, bad art, successes and failures. Art that paid the rent, and art that cost me money. I do it out of love, and out of need. I do it because it is who I am. I do it because it's what I do best, and I'm not well suited for anything else. I do it because the tales I hold inside me want to be passed on.

Pomegranate

"I never remember a time when I didn't write," says Jong. "Notebooks, stories, journals, poems -- the act of writing always made me feel centered and whole. It still does. It is my meditation, my medicine, my prayer, my solace. I was lucky enough to learn early (with my first two books of poetry and my first novel) that if you are relentlessly honest about what you feel and fear, you can become a mouthpiece for something more than your own feelings."

I know this to be true.

"People are remarkably similar at the heart-level -- where it counts," she adds. "Writers are born to voice what we all feel. That is the gift. And we keep it alive by giving it away."

Indeed.

Honeysuckle

The artwork today is by William Morris (1834-1896), a man who has long been a hero of mine not only for his vision (rooted in nature and myth), and the astonishing range of creative endeavors he mastered, but because Morris firmly believed art belongs to everyone, rich and poor alike. As a leading figure in Britain's early Socialist movement, his writing and art was entwined (like the intricate vinework in his designs) with his tireless social activism. He left the world a better, kinder, more beautiful place. May we all do the same.

Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris

Willow design by William Morris

''Sweetbriar'' pattern by William Morris

Pictures: The "Love is Enough" book cover design by William Morris, with gold stamping on a forest green cloth (via The Victorian Web). The "Love is Enough" pattern by Morris reproduced on cloth. Morris' "Tulip & Willow," "Pomegranate," and "Honeysuckle" designs in progress. A photograph of Ned (Edward Burne-Jones) and Topsy (William Morris), best friends since their university days. Morris' ''Willow" design; and the "Sweetbriar" design, with quote.

Words: The passage by Erica Jong is from "Doing It for Love," an essay published in The Writing Life, edited by Marie Arana (Public Affairs, 2003). All rights reserved by the author.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Morwhellam Quay  Devon

Today I'm looking at folk songs about work and working people -- starting with the video above in which Seth Lakeman discusses one of my favorite albums: Tales from the Barrel House (2012). Seth grew up here on Dartmoor, lives by Tavistock, and writes songs rooted in the history and folklore of the West Country. This album, about lost country skills and professions, was recorded in a disused barrel house at Morwhellam Quay mining port.

Blacksmith tools

Above: "Blacksmith's Prayer," from Tales from the Barrel House.

Below: "More than Money," a song about the mining life from the same album.

Above: "The Handweaver and the Factory Maid," a broadside ballad performed by Pilgrims' Way, from the north-west of England. The song appeared on their first album, Wayside Courtesies (2011).

Below: "The Four Loom Weaver," a broadside performed by Irish singer Karan Casey at Celtic Connections in 2010. She recorded the song on her 4th solo album, Distant Shore (2003).

These ballads rise from spreading industrialization in the early 19th century, when handloom weaving was replaced by steam weaving machines, throwing whole communities out of work.

Above: "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore," a Johnny Cash classic performed by England's Billy Bragg and America's Joe Henry. All three musicians are known for folk/roots/country songs chronicling the stories of working men and women past and present. You'll find this one on the Bragg/Henry album Shine a Light, which I highly recommend.

Below: "Burn Away," by Megson (folk duo Stu & Debbie Hanna), from north-east England. "It's a song about steel, iron, and the blast furnaces," they write, "which, being from Teesside, is in our blood. The industrial language of steel-making is in danger of being forgotten, but it is full of colour, energy, and easily sparks the imagination." The video contains footage from a 1945 documentary on the British steel industry.

Megson's song takes me back to my own childhood years in eastern Pennsylvania, where the steel mills that employed so many relatives and neighbors were closing down, one by one....

Above: "Honest Work" (audio only), a song that could have been the anthem of my out-of-work step-father and his drinking buddies. Written by rocker Todd Rundgren (also from Pennsylvania), it's sung here acapella by the great English folk singer Maddy Prior, of Steeleye Span. Although I'm a strong believer in unions, I love Rundgren's poignant and timeless lyrics.

To end on a lighter note, here's "Handyman Blues" by Billy Bragg (below). My step-father was a troubled, difficult man, but the one thing I remember with admiration is how he could do damn near anything with his hands: carpentry, plumbing, wiring, auto mechanics ... whatever needed fixing got fixed. He passed those skills to his sons, but not to me -- and they're ones that I often wish I had now. I am bookish, artsy, and not very handy -- so the song below makes me laugh.


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.


On Thanksgiving Day: elemental gratitude

Nattadon waterfall

Prayer for the Great Family
by Gary Snyder (after a Mohawk prayer)

Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day —
and to her soil: rich, rare, and sweet
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 2

Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing light changing leaf
and fine-root hairs; standing still through wind
and rain; their dance is in the flowing spiral grain
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 3

Gratitude to Air, bearing the soaring Swift and the silent
Owl at dawn. Breath of our song
clear spirit breeze
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 4

Gratitude to Wild Beings, our brothers teaching secrets,
freedoms, and ways; who share with us their milk;
self-complete, brave, and aware
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 5

Gratitude to Water: clouds, lakes, rivers, glaciers;
holding or releasing; streaming through all
our bodies salty seas
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 6

Gratitude to the Sun: blinding pulsing light through
trunks of trees, through mists, warming caves where
bears and snakes sleep — he who wakes us –
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 7

Gratitude to the Great Sky
who holds billions of stars — and goes yet beyond that –
beyond all powers, and thoughts
and yet is within us –
Grandfather Space.
The Mind is his Wife,
so be it
.

Waterfall 8

To which I add:

Gratitude for the things that will help us get through the long winter ahead: warmth and light, friendship and art, good talk, good music, good books, good dreams, good single malt whiskey (hey, whatever it takes). Gratitude for the storms that shake us, and the sweet calm after.

Gratitude for it all.

Waterfall 9

Waterfall 10

The poem above is from Turtle Island by Gary Snyder (New Directions, 1974); it first appeared on Myth & Moor in the winter of 2014. The poem in the picture captions is from Orpheus by Don Paterson (Faber, 2006). All rights reserved by the authors. The photograph of me and Tilly was taken by Ellen Kushner. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


What fiction does

Ponies on the path 1

From "Looking for the Spark," an essay on the writing life by novelist Joanna Trollope:

"I have a couple of tattered little quotations that lie about my desk and that become only more valuable to me as time goes on. One is from the English critic Phillip Toynbee: 'The definition of moral progress is the realization that other human beings are fully as human as oneself.' Quite.

"The other is something from Trollope -- the real Trollope. It comes from his autobiography, that peculiar, cantankerous book, published posthumously, which did his reputation such acute damage because the late Victorians could not bear his refusal to be high-minded about his art. He said many remarkable things in this book  -- including the accurate observation that 'nobody gets closer to a reader than a novelist, not even his mother' -- but my own particular favorite is on the subject of the novelist's central preoccupation. Trollope was not so much concerned, he said, with the landscape of the grand passions (was he thinking of Tolstoy, whom he much admired and who admired him in return?) as with something else, something less glamorous perhaps, but just as intense and certainly more universal: 'My task,' he wrote, 'is to chronicle those little daily lacerations upon the spirit.'

Ponies on the path 2

Ponies on the path 3

Ponies on the path 4

"I feel a thrill of recognition every time I read that, or even think about it. Yes. Yes. Speaking absolutely personally, that is what the writer's life is all about, for me. The point of it is to emphasize that we are none of us immune from longing, or disappointment (much under-rated, in my view, as a force of distress), or frustration, or idiotic hope or bad behavior. What fiction does, in this difficult world, is reassure us that we are not alone, nor are we (most of us) lost causes.

Ponies on the path 5

Ponies on the path 6

Ponies on the path 7

"There is a theory -- Puritan in origin, no doubt -- that suffering strengthens and elevates us in a way that joy can never somehow do. I'm not so sure about that. Isn't it just that we have, on the whole, so much more suffering than joy that we have resolved, out of our great surviving instinct, to insist that something worthwhile must be made of it? And isn't fiction a handrail, of a kind, which we can all grasp while we blunder around in the dark?"

Indeed it is. At least, it is for me.

Ponies on the path 8

Ponies on the path 9

Ponies on the path 10

Autumn leaves

Tilly on the path

Words: The passage above is from "Looking for the Spark" by Joanna Trollope, published in The Writing Life, edited by Marie Arana (Public Affairs, 2003). The poem in the picture captions is from In Broken Country by David Wagoner (Little, Brown & Co., 1979). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies met on the path to the village Commons during a morning walk with Tilly.


The small things

The Wiggley Tree

When life, art, or a particular work-in-progress seem overwheming, confusing, or especially difficult, I take comfort in these words from Rainer Maria Rilke's wise little book, Letters to a Young Poet:

"If you trust in nature, in what is simple in nature, in the small things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling. Not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge."

Trust. Simplify. Value the small things. Live fully in the natural world.

Whether it's a life problem I am wrestling with, or a story that will not take shape, or a painting that won't properly cohere, these are -- for me -- the things that help me move forward again, almost always.

Fungi on the foot bridge

Streamside path

Autumn bloom


Tunes for a Monday Morning

A misty morning the River Dart

Once again, with the news of the world pressing in, I'd like to begin the week with music that shines a light in the dark -- and the toe-tapping, spirit-lifting music of Laura Cortese fits the bill. Cortese was born San Francisco, studied music in Boston, and now peforms solo and in a variety of musical collaborations -- my favorite of which is her all-women folk & roots band, Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards.

Above: "Stockholm," from the band's fine new abum, California Calling. The video was shot on tour in Scandinavia.

Below: "Women of the Ages," with lyrics adapted from the poetry of John Beaton. The video was made to raise funds for Rosie's Place, Boston, the oldest women's shelter in the United States.

Above: "Into the the Dark," an old favorite from the album of the same name (2013).

Below: "The Low Hum," from the new album, California Calling.

And one more:

"Skipping Stone," from California Calling. The video features the Rose City Raindrops (a synchronized swimming group) in the Willamette River of Oregon.

Dawn over the River Dart

Photographs: Dawn over the River Dart here in Devon.