Rosa Brett, The Hayloft, 1858

Dear friends and readers,

Another woman artist who gets only minimal mention in surveys of women artists: Germaine Greer says of her and Antonietta Bandies they were “so sickened by the double standard [demanding ‘womanly qualities’ in their paintings] that they signed some works as men:” Rosa Brett (“Rosarius”). I was taken by and remembered ever after the effective photographic accuracy of her snug cat in a brick and wooden The Hayloft (above) in Caroline Bugler’s The Cat: 3500 Years of the Cat in Art (part of a history of growing knowledge and accuracy in portrayal): enigmatic symbolism is found at the bottom.

Brett painted in the closely scientifically observed mode of the Pre-Raphaelites; closely associated closely in art and life with her younger brother, John, many of his more numerous pictures and two of hers were reprinted in a brilliant a catalogue of an exhibition of phase of the Pre-Raphaelite Vision (by Allen Staley and Christopher Newall, subtitled Truth to Nature), which I was lucky enough to see in the National Gallery in DC. There we learned how much photography, especially of the landscape, had influenced the movement: it began with showing how photography itself began by imitating picturesques and sublime landscapes, but then as its techniques improved (to reproduce light, effects of shade and darkness), it began to enable people to see things in the landscape they couldn’t before, study the landscape in minute ways and thus captured the attention of artists (see my Boxing Day at the National Gallery).

Rosa and John Brett belong to this school, only with her there is a strong sense of order and pattern, a seeking for peacefulness and enclosure:

The Artist’s Garden

The leaves and flowers of the chestnut form a dense pattern across the composition’s upper register. Beneath the branches a view is given over beds and mown grass, across which is cast the shadow of the chestnut trunk, and beyond a dappled ring at the foot of a shrub. the wider landscape is ahrdly indicated: an enclosing wall appears to be suggested at the lawn’s far margin … [it all speaks of the artist’s controlled but nonetheless emotional response to the beauty of familiar scenery at a particular time of year … Newall, p 50)

Not that she never traveled from the UK: she painted Lake Geneva during a 4 month stay in Belgium in 1855 (also described as “a trip to the Continent from April to July 1855”):

Lake Geneva

Of the few good images I’ve been able to locate, though, the one which best showed her meticulous mode is her

Study of a Turnip Field


Rosa Brett by her brother, John (oil on board)

Her life is told briefly by Deborah Cherry (Painting Women, p 31); Pamela Gerrish Nunn at least twice (in Victorian Women Artists [London: Women’s Press, 1987], pp 188-94; “Rosa Brett, Pre-Raphaelite,” The Burlington Magazine, 126:979 (Oct 1984):630-634); Charlotte Yeldham (an ODNB entry); and fleetingly by Alastair Grieve (“Pre-Raphaelite Vision, London and Berlin,” The Burlington Magazine, 146:1214, British Art [May, 2004]:341-342), and Newall and Staley (above). She is one of the many women artists in history who was able to develop, and yet hindered from fulfilling her talent, because of her family relation to an active, respected male artist and her immersion in what was the family business. The eldest of 5 children, born 7 December 1829, all boys but her. Her father a veterinary surgeon, with her mother, led a peripatetic from 1833-46, moving from Surrey, to Manchester, the English southcoast, to Ireland, Nottingham, Coventry and finally within the northeast outskirts by Maidstone, Kent, where her mother had been born, and whose names appear in some of her paintings, viz., Pendenen Heath and

Detling Church (note the pattern in the gravestones)

Cherry says her “diaries and letters reveal an arduous routine” of housework and “art with domestic and familial responsibilities” (she would sit by musical brother Arthur, managed the home for her mother). She “helped her brother [John] with his pupils, packed his pictures, worked on his canvasses, her paintings being passed off as his.” Meanwhile she was never so happy as when she was out-of-doors drawing, sketching, painting in oil or watercolor “from nature.” While she did become chronically ill, she established a separate identity from his and her work was exhibited (Royal Academy, Liverpool, Society of Lady Artists); she belonged to a watercolor society. She is described as “frail” and died relatively young, 53 (1882), her brother grieved strongly and missed her for herself; he described her as “ardent, impulsive and unbendable.” He died unmarried. The sources repeat that she didn’t mix outside her family much, did not become involved with individuals from the Pre-Raphaelite circles, was shy, too self-effacing. So there is a lot more to say about the lives of Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62) and others. Nunn quotes her first diary entry:

John went again to Lushington’s for his portfolio, they bought none of his drawings but chose one of mine, a view of York copied from one of Mr. Booty’s(?) done in pencil on coloured card, with Chinese white on the highlights, they of course thought it was John’s it having no name to it. They gave a guinea for it. I was very much surprised to hear they had chosen one of mine this being the first I ever sold… Burlington Magazine, 31)

After she had not put her name on her The Hayloft, her brother John wrote:

You must reconsider your determination about secrecy … Woolner to whom I spoke of a wonderful picture by an unknown PRB was agonising in his enquiries — as to how old you are — and whether you were a swell — no suspicion that you were a she (Newall, quoting Nunn, p 52)


Helen Nina Taylor describes how hard it was to break out of prescriptive ideals for mood, subject, images, including women who worked in the Pre-Raphaelite school (“‘Too individual an artist to be a mere echo’: Female Pre-Raphaelite Artists as Independent Professionals,” The British Art Journal 12:33 [2011-12]:52-59). I suggest choosing the landscape and nature mode, which obviously was her brother’s too, and not the literature and religious one, helped her be unsentimental, avoid impositions on herself of repressive controversy. In her landscapes and buildings I see a strong impression of passionate mood and rich color:

From Bluebell Hill

(memorializing, celebrating an) Old House at Farleigh

She liked painting small animals — Isobel Armstrong and Margaret Doody are among those who have suggested in their poetry women show an affinity for small animals:

A Mouse (among colorful leaves, underbrush and snails)

Rosa Brett - Study of Two Rabbits
A Study of Two Rabbits


Trees were a favorite subject and here is a softly beautiful shaded drawing from among her notes:


Some have such alluring titles: A Thrush in a Horse Chestnut Tree, The Field Mice at Home. Nothing was too home-y or humble. She aroused animosity when she submitted as as a second piece at the Royal Academy Thistles:


In the conservative Art Journal it was remarked she “showed only thistles … and no means within the domain of art will magnify the down into importance, even though ever fibre were as fully represented as in nature” (Newall, p 51)

She does seem to have detached herself, loved the familiar, and here she dedicates herself so to wayside flowers and plants, they seem aggressively entangling rather than sheltering her in the manner that her Hayloft shelters her cat.


Aidan Turner as Ross at the close of the 8th episode (2015)

Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, opening of 8th episode (2015)

Courage shall grow keener, clearer the will,
the heart fiercer as our force faileth …
— Anglo-Saxon poem, The Battle of Maldon (as translated by Michael Alexander)

Dear friends and readers,

I had thought to make one more blog for this year comparing the 1975 to the 2015 Poldark mini-series, this one in response to Anibundel on the male hats and wigs and women’s hats, wigs, hair ribbons of another survey of the earlier series.

Demelza first seen is in a boy child hairdo, circa 1970s,

Angharad Rees as Demelza grown up, Gainsborough subdued, before becoming Ross’s lover

But I’ve discovered true to its origin in the progressive earlier seventies, hats are often eschewed or most often “simply historical accurate” in the plainest of ways. When the actors have hats on, they are tricornes


Francis and Ross meeting Nicholas Warleggan

Male wigs are the expected historically accurate ones for older males in the series, and they wear their own hair (or wigs made to look like their own), modified for the younger “hero” leads, except for Francis when gambling, and on the prowl for women (something of a rake and not to be wholly admired). Brief ponytails with ribbons holding the hair tight at the nape of the neck or just curled tight natural hair around their heads.



Frank Middlemas as Charles Poldark and Clive Francis as Francis at home, at his best

This is the convention of historical costume drama until recently: the older and less than admirable males wear wigs, the rest natural hair approximating a compromise between the era dramatized and what is admired, popular, fashionable, in the year the film was made.

As to women’s wigs, the model is the 1940s Gainsborough costume dramas, subdued by attention to the poverty of Cornwall and its distance from London, and modified by local realistic Edwardian painting of Cornwall in the 1890s. This combines with we might call “big” hair for four of the women (Demelza grown up, Elizabeth, Verity at parties and Keren). We see alluring cascades of hair, except for Elizabeth whose wig is helmet-like and is a miniature modest version of the piled-up tight curl on the shoulder bone fashion seen in London.


Angharad Rees and Sheila White as Demelza and Keren wear headscarves but are often bare-headed and boast the curly abundant sexualized flourish of the 1940s minus hats (remember the movie Kitty with Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland; and still influential as in Keira Knightley’s wigs in The Duchess), though Keren can be found to have braided and ornamented hers:


Not that the 2015 movie has altogether eschewed the 1940s Gainsborough model: it’s the origin for one of Margaret’s most pleasing extravaganzas:

Crystal Leaity carries it off pitch perfect

So I take this last opportunity and fallow time of late summer (no new brilliant costume dramas or film adaptations on the US PBS channels) to offer a handy list of the Poldark blogs I’ve done this season comparing the two mini-series with Graham’s historical fictions set in the later 18th century in the context of 21st century norms for historical fiction and film.


Verityhappy (1)
My favorite hat and male hair from the 2015 series: Verity (Ruby Bentall) in lovely hat with pink flowers and Captain Blamey (Richard Harrington in his own hair or wig to look like his own, with naval hat and ribbon too) upon marrying (Episode 7)

I have a right to choose my own life … Verity, (Ross Poldark, Bk 1, Ch 13)


A Winston Graham Reader: links to other sites

Poldark: studying the novels, the new film adaptation, upon re-reading

The Poldark novels in context: a syllabus

Winston Graham: the writer and his A Forgotten Story

Historical Fiction: Graham’s Poldark, the first phase

Ross Poldark: Ends restoratively; concluding notes

Demelza, the novel: Developing an Eighteenth Century World

Graham’s fiction: haunting gothics and a Che Guevara slant

Consuming costume historical adaptations: Poldark and Wolf Hall

2015: one of countless mining shots


Mining and smuggling in Cornwall, with especial reference to the Poldark novels

The Poldark novels: Doctors and poachers, scavengers & elections aka property wars

Rape in the Poldark narratives: from Upstairs and Downstairs, British Costume Drama, Forsyte to Downton

The new incarnation:

Eleanor Tomlinson as Ross’s wife, Demelza, supplying food and drink to the miners (Episode 4)

” …. to give way to them is to conform to rules set down by the evil-minded … It would be a mistake for you to give life to the story by taking notice of it …” Ross to Jinny, Bk 1, Chapter 14, p 118 in Sourcebook ed

Poldark 1: 2015, 1975 and Graham’s Post WW2 novel

Poldark 2: novel reconceived as mining and proto-feminist story

Poldark 3: 2015, 1975 and Graham’s novel: recasting class & injustice

Poldark 4: lyric (2105 and 1945) and theatric (1975): the problem in evaluating a beloved vision

Poldark 5: back to mediocrity, repetition & contradictory characterization

Poldark 6: between book (Graham’s Demelza) & films (1975 & 2015): the audiences and screenplay writers

Poldark 7: Betrayal of the group; or A Higher Fidelity of the Heart, 3 versions

Poldark 8: how to make new mythic matter, Poldark re-booted 40 years on

Jeux d’esprit: the state of the millinery, 1975 Poldark.


I will be teaching Ross Poldark and Demelza in the fall term of the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at George Mason University this coming semester, and hope to deal with more 18th century historical topics and watch and blog on the new 10 episodes (again scripted by Debbie Horsfield), and to top it all off, have sent off a proposal to a coming 18th century conference on the 18th century on film:


Harvesting pilchards

A proposal for a paper for the panel, Eighteenth Century on Film, at the coming ASECS meeting, March 31-April 3, 2016

Poldark re-booted, 40 years on

The new Poldark mini-series (2015-2016) is being watched as an entertainment and historical construction of an on-going national British culture and past. Its surging popularity suggests it has overcome its status as a sequel to the previous immensely popular Poldark (filmed 1975-76, 1977-78), watched yet again (re-digitalized and selling) as a regional Cornish romance adaptation of a specific set of seven historical-regional novels by Winston Graham (written 1945-53,1973-77). Since this first Poldark TV series aired, Graham concluded his cycle of historical fiction with five more books (written 1981-84, 1990, 2003), so the new film-makers have twelve novels, four dramatizing the reactionary and colonialist politics of the 1980s into the 1990s, and a twelfth, recent concerns with animal rights, and disability. They may also take advantage of a transformation of TV dramaturgy and screenplay writing in the last 40 years, and audience tolerance for film intertextuality and self-reflexivity.

Using just the first two books, Ross Poldark and Demelza, I will follow one actuating line of argument. We will contrast dramas meant to be historically accurate and novelistic (1975, eight episodes), with pictorial cinematic montages meant to display a new mythic British matter (2015, a comparable eight). We will see how Graham’s novels’ recreation of a progressive and proto-feminist usable past (for an economically depressed and conflicted post World War Two world and a 1970s generation), fit the perspective and art of the previous film adaption, a typical product of in the mid-1970s era of progressive BBC films. Then we will turn to the present films, products of a complacent sensibility catering to anger and distress in a reactionary era, within the confines of a Thatcherized BBC film industry where ratings and profits are incessantly monitored. By contrast we will observe head-on clashes with the materials of the same two books, often kept to more literally but overturned or reversed when it comes to underlying message.

There is no one reason for the last couple of years’ re-booting of quite a number of 40 year old BBC series. But in this case we can see one reason has been an important change in the way film-makers see their films functioning and we can observe different problematic aporia in each kind (romantic film as history, romantic film as myth)

On the beach, Aidan Turner as Ross waiting for George (Jack Farthing) who has been watching, gathering false evidence (Episode 8)

Finale (2)
Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, hurrying from beach (Episode 8)

I’ve only followed the devices and desires of my own heart …. Demelza, Bk 2, Ch 14, p 341


Beside the Old Church Gate Farm, Smarden, Kent

Coming Events — a hand holds out a knife to the back …


Dear friends and readers,

As for this brief survey of the life and art of Helen Allingham (she excelled in watercolor, oil, illustration, drawing) is (unlike the previous woman artists I’ve covered), I’ve too many pictures to share, I start with a characteristic one, women at work, where line and color and stance make for a sense of vital life; Coming Events, her alert capturing of everyday life; and Torcello, her paintings from Italy, unhappily not well-known. (If you click on some of the images, they enlarge beautifully. Just try.)

Helen Allingham may be distinguished from the seven women artists not because she made a lot of money or was successful (several of them were), but because of the seven I’ve covered thus far, Allingham is the only one not included in any of my basic surveys, though mentioned once by Germaine Greer as a type of “the wrong women singled out for praise” (p. 87) by her contemporaries and “the masculine establishment.” Not much by the latter as she’s singularly absent from most surveys (those dubbed general when they are mostly by and about men), except those specializing in Victorian/Edwardian genre (e.g., Christopher Wood). She is apparently sometimes likened to Fred Walker who painted and drew socially realistic pictures, but I suggest her vein is much richer, more varied, women-centered (a visual equivalent of l’écriture-femme).

Justice is done to Allingham by Deborah Cherry, in her full, informative, insightful Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists (8 straight pages and many single and double-page entries); a concise, reproduction-laden informative study by Ina Taylor, Helen Allingham’s England: An Idyllic View of Rural Life (Devon: Webb and Brower, 1990) more than compensates. The pictures are what matter.

There is only one known self-depiction (and I’ve not got a good copy, so Borzello ignoring Helen in her Seeing Ourselves has some justification), but she painted others:

Thomas Carlyle, a close friend to her husband

Willam Allingham



and his favorite dog:


Then there are the riots of delicate watercolor:

Tig Bridge

Chase Cottage Ponds

She loved blue:

Girls on a Beach

Purple Bluebells

Cow Parsley

There is much that is not idyllic:

Digging Potatoes

The Governess and the Ayah on the beach — most of Allingham’s women are embedded among children

Or with farm animals, domestic pets (here cats), standing among ruins or by buildings they never choose:

Venetian Fruit Stall —

Another — we have the stains on the buildings, the fruits and vegetables real, how wretched she looks

She was a popular illustrator.

for her husband’s play, Ashby Manor (never produced)

and another of her brother, Henry Paterson, who died at 39 in an aslyum


Famously, she illustrated Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (includes detailed discussions of some of the illustrations), and Hardy, then very unhappy with his wife, appears to have found in her a kindred soul. In 1874, He, she and Annie Thackeray dined together (1874) and he wrote this poem 40 years later on what he dreamed they might have known in marriage:

The Opportunity (For H.P)

Forty Springs back, I recall,
We met at this phase of the Maytime:
We might have clung close through all,
But we parted when died that daytime.

We parted with smallest regret;
Perhaps should have cared but slightly,
Just then, if we never met:
Strange, strange that we lived so lightly!

Had we mused a little space
At that critical date in the Maytime,
One life had been ours, one place,
Perhaps, till our long cold daytime.

— This is a better thing For thee,
O man! what ails it?
The tide of chance may bring Its offer;
but nought avails it!

The line “strange, strange that we live so lightly” deeply suggestive about the nature of life

Helen Allingham, in her later years, widowed

There are many online biographies, from art galleries, to an official society website

What to say in brief? She was born into a comfortable middle-class family, her father a physician, and a mother with talent for art (shelved to provide a dowry for her husband to start his practice, to have 7 children), but part of the Unitarian dissenting world (so her father had hard times building a practice), with an aunt, Laura Hertford, a successful professional painter whom she emulated. Her father died relatively young (diphtheria , a harrowing time), and Helen experienced the necessity of making money. Her talent was cultivated: her Paterson aunts sent her to the Birmingham School of Design (studying drawing, painting, perspective, practical geometry, costume, and art-teaching).

By age 18 she is living in London, with a place at the Royal Female School of Art (learning anatomy), and supporting herself by jobs as an engraver, illustrator for Once a Week (among other magazines) where she learned to produce quickly:

Pencil Sketch for a woodcut

A transformative event was her meeting with William Allingham (1874), originally from Ireland, had worked for Irish Customs and Excise for 20 years (he was 24 years older), wrote poetry and journalism, friends with Leigh Hunt, Tennyson, Browning, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood; he especially venerated Carlyle; they may have met at the theater and when he was hired as editor of Fraser’s (for 400£ a year), they married (1874). She worked at her career (remained convinced he had the superior talent, just not recognized), had children:

Her daughter, Margaret

They went to Margate and Surrey for holidays, but when Carlyle died, they moved to Surrey for a country life, of work for her — she loved to go and paint the seaside:

the Allinghams’ Surrey home

A Seaside study

At the shore

1889 they lived in London some of the time, and had set up another home in Hampstead, with new and old friends (next to the Martineaus), more memberships in art societies, before he died in 1889. She was a widow for 37 years, filling her life with intense activity. She had to support her household, but she also returned to her husband’s home in Ireland (acting out what she conceived was her husband’s desire he never got to do) where she painted dozens of watercolors for once capturing the poverty and bleakness of what she saw in the houses themselves.

Ballyshannon, 1891

These years see her moving into more large landscapes

Hindhead, Surrey

She traveled to Venice in 1901 and 1902 as part of attempts to break away from her usual subjects. Later in life she moved into landscape painting.

A study of Aire, St Maclou, in Rouen, done on the way to Venice — brilliance of line design, perspectives

A different color palette for Italy — gorgeous marble, cascading flowers, notice the woman and child with basketed flowers — are they transferring these to a husband/father to use with his customers or selling them or is that another woman selling flowers?

Hers was not a life of tragedy, but hard work, in a changing world; she was on the side of preservation, and there seems no doubt that her exclusion of the ubiquitious abysmal poverty and miseries of the era did not allow her work to be part of needed economic, social, political reform. She had a close friendship with Gertrude Jekyll (a career in photography, studying vernacular buildings and celebrating crafts), and Kate Greenaway, and after 1890 enabled one another (by going together) to paint more subjects, in more places, though her times painting alongside Greenaway didn’t last (their work was to unalike):

‘it was in the spring of 1888 that we went out painting together in the copses near Witley and became really friends …. One day in the autumn of 1889 [when they were neighbours in Hampstead] we went to Pinner [where from the cancelled manuscript of Persuasion we know Jane Austen meant Anne Elliot] together on an exploring expedition for subjects and were delighted with some of the old cottages we saw there. I had been pressing her ever since our spring time together at Witley to share with me some of the joys of painting out of doors. Another day we went farther afield – to Chesham and Amersham . . . . In the spring of 1890 I took my children to Freshwater, Isle of Wight and found ms for us near Kate. She and I went out painting together daily, either to some of the pretty old thatched cottages around Farringford or to the old dairy in the grounds …. During the summer of that year (1890) we continued our outdoor work together, generally taking an early train from Finchley Road to Pinner, for the day. She was always scrupulously thoughtful for the convenience and feelings of the owners of the farm or cottage we wished to paint, with the consequence that we were made welcome to sit in the garden or orchard where others were refused admittance.
    Though we often sat side by side, painting the same object (generally silently – for she was a very earnest, hard worker – and perhaps I was, too), it seemed to me that there was little likeness between our drawings — specially after the completion in the studio. But she was one of the most sensitive of creatures and I think she felt it might be wiser for both of us to discontinue the practice of working from the same subjects …. (Cherry, p 177)

So what is this world of women in rural and eastern England:

An earlier picture: a version of her cradling her son, Henry


Women also hung out the wash in Verona

This is a woman gathering sticks and wood for the fire for winter

A dreaming young girl

Worn old woman

Valleywood Farm — lost in the middle distance

Buildings inside and out:

The Interior of Cheyne House (Carlyle’s)

Stanfield House, Hampstead — stodgy and respectable

Aldworth — covered in flowery ivy, this mansion of the wealthy

A fantasia of St Mark’s Cathedal, Venice, or as pastoral, Santa Maria:


More typically:


A big and old tree: Old Beech Tree

She loved gardening and has many still lifes of flowers and gardens, hills and meadows:


Blackdown, Sussex (I use this as my computer wallpaper)


Allingham’s best known book is The Cottage Homes of England; she saw herself as recording a vanishing way of life, and Christopher Wood suggests we should see her art as the visual equivalent of Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford. Deborah Cherry argues that Helen Allingham’s pictures present female sexuality centrally in discreet (coded) ways, and were an influence for good from the respect they showed for women’s ordering, work, and past places and ties too.

I’ll end on a poem by Amy Clampitt, which while intended to characterize “George Eliot Country” and written for Eliot’s first magisterial biographer, Gordon Haight (1901-1985) seems to me to capture the same world as Allingham:

From this Midland scene – glum slagheaps,
barge canals, gray sheep, the vivid overlap
of wheatfield and mustard hillside like
out-of-season sunshine, the crabbed silhouette
of oak trees (each joint a knot, each knot
a principled demurral – tough, arthritic, stubborn
as the character of her own father) – fame,
the accretion of a Pyrrhic happiness, had
exiled her to London, with its carriages
and calling cards, its screaming headaches.

Griff House – dear old Griff, she wistfuly
apostrophized it – in those days still intact,
its secrets kept, has now been grafted to a
motel-cum-parking-lot beside the trunk road,
whose raw, ungainly seam of noise cuts through
the rainy solace of Griff Lane: birdsong,
coal smoke, the silvered powderings of
blackthorn, a flowering cherry tree’s
chaste flare; the sludge-born, apoplectic
screech of jet aircraft tilting overhead.

The unmapped sources that still fed nostalgia
for a rural childhood survive the witherings
of retrospect: the look of brickyards,
stench of silk mills, scar of coal mines,

the knife of class distinction: wall-enclosed,
parkland-embosomed, green-lawned Arbury Hall,
fan-vaulting’s stately fakeries, the jewel-
stomachered, authentic shock of Mary Fitton and
her ilk portrayed, the view of fishponds – school
and role model of landed-proprietary England.

Born in the year of Peterloo, George Eliot
had no illusions as to the expense of such
emoluments. Good society (she wrote) floated
on gossamer wings of light irony, required no less
than an entire, arduous national existence,
condensed into unfragrant, deafening factories,
cramped into mines, sweating at furnaces, or
scattered in lonely houses on the clayey or chalky
cornland… where Maggie Tulliver, despairing
of gentility, ran off to join the gypsies.

Violets still bloom beside the square-towered
parish church where Mary Anne was christened;
the gnashed nave of Coventry fills up with rain
(another howling doodlebug of fright hurls itself
over); the church from which, refusing to commit
the fiction of a lost belief in One True Body,
she stayed away, upholds the fabric in which her
fictions, perdurable now, cohere like fact: Lydgate
still broods, Grandcourt still threatens, and
in Mrs Transome disappointment turns to stone.

One last connection, back to Charlotte Smith with Near Beachy Head:


Allingham’s is a world of women at work, women surrounded by children, and their work. She seeks them out, she records them and celebrates their creations, adds to these:

A Side Canal in Venice (notice the woman high up behind the arch banging out the wet or dirt from a pink cloth of some type

Mrs Eden’s Garden, Venice



Photos from decades ago of Jenny Diski and Doris Lessing

Dear friends and readers,

Little is more central to a woman’s life, what she becomes, than her relationship to her mother. We see this from the first women writers who tell of something of themselves and their lives (Christine de Pisan) through Jane Austen’s letter and novels, to say Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun (daughter to mother) and Emma Thompson and Phyllida Lawson (the relationship moves back and forth). The book to read is Marianne Hirsh’s The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis and Feminism. We now know that Jenny Diski had two mothers: the abusive, half-crazed, abused woman who tramped the streets homeless with her daughter, and Doris Lessing who took Jenny in and put her in a decent grammar school, helped her go to university, and exemplified the know-how and gave Jenny the connections to start her career as a writer.

If you’ve been reading Jenny Diski’s columns in the London Review of Books some time after Doris Lessing died, Jenny Diski was diagnosed with an inoperable cancer which has jumped from lymph node to lymph node. She courageously but in character told her readership (September 2014) and proceeded not only to write columns about the experience but also to tell a story which may, must have been on her mind and conscience to tell for many years. Now that she assumed she was dying, she wanted to confess, to be found out: she is thanking Doris openly, in public, so others should know, for rescuing her from what probably would have been a life in asylum; she is also revealing the distance between the implied author of the realistic novels so deeply concerned and wise about women’s relationships (from lover to mother, wife to sister, friends to enemies) — and how in actual life Doris treated Jenny when Jenny asked for love or advice or badly misbehaved. How does a semi-withdrawn in the deepest sense unconventional woman cope with an understandably disturbed young woman? And how is Jenny coping with the grinding and deeply wrong-headed ways (from the standpoint of helping the person emotionally) cancer is treated and talked about in our society. Before this it seems it was known among those who knew them as people, for in a couple of the columns when Jenny fast forwards to well after Jenny left Doris’s home and purview and their relationship became attenuated, it seems people were chary to say anything to her about Doris and vice versa.

I’ve followed the columns almost religiously, intensely wanting to know how the chemotherapy was going, if when the series were finished, how she was doing. I found her refusal to talk in terms of battles, and triumphs and her refusal to compromise about her grief and terror of a piece with the candour and insight of her occasional diary pieces in the LRB where she told about how she was raped at age 14, about her wretched parents and early childhood, and her two travel memoirs, Skating to Antartica: Journey to the end of the World and Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America.

As the columns went on and she talked more and more about Lessing, I realized Jenny was also settling old scores. She was doing justice to what had been given, but also getting back. For those interested in interpreting Lessing’s fiction, we learned Emily, the adopted young girl of Memoirs of a Survivor was a portrait of Jenny. Like countless novelists, Lessing was willing to model central characters on people she knows — without asking permission because most people would not give it. Jenny was made very uncomfortable it seems. There were some funny moments early on where Jenny and her biological mother are in a kind of conspiracy as two deluded vulnerable people not coming up to the strong woman with her sensible advice, control, instructions and pocketbook.

But a couple of the columns took my breath away: sad experience has taught me that what I consider to be cold and mean behavior is by some interpreted as “setting bounds,” what I think to be understandable appeals for emotional support by some seen as emotional blackmail. So when I read a column (LRB, 37:1, 8 January 2015, “Doris and Me”) where Jenny tells of an incident that occurred between them shortly after she moved in with Doris, I asked on a listserv what other people thought. I was not surprised to get no answer. Jenny got herself to ask, Did Doris like her; if their relationship did not go well, what would happen to her? the teenager was clearly justifiably intensely worried and frightened and needed reassurance. Lessing’s response was fierce anger and an implied threat that she would eject Jenny back to the working class abyss she came from. As I tell it it’s obvious that to me Lessing acted with cold cruelty to the girl; Lessing’s interpretation of a natural need as trespassing emotional blackmail to me shows her unwillingness to be a secure friend, to commit. I was horrified. Diski does seem to suggest that it was Doris’s son, Peter, who first proposed to take Jenny in, but how that happened, how he met the girl and told his mother and how it all came about not told. Perhaps because the people involved are still alive, read the LRB, and would not want to be named.

To me this kind of encounter is at the core of women’s novels: the opening of the inner heart to the woman reader about things never discussed openly except with an intimate friend (here on the Net it’s become otherwise because the writing self is a different one from the physically social self plus the kind of accountabilty and detail that is part of life off the Net is often not here); a chance for the woman reader to plug into that and live through it, learn, and a need be satisfied — women’s psychologists argue repeatedly women are relational people, especially needing a woman friend or a companion.

Some of the columns which combined what she was going through as a cancer victim (it is victim) and what she knew in her original home and then what she experienced in Doris’s were painful to read. Diski made no concession whatsoever to what’s called normality or sane perspectives. She stays with what she was and repeats what people said of her: she was a “horrible girl.” It’s very strong of her to present herself that way, make no excuses and show the world from her point of view: the problem with it for her was what was wrong was the way other people acted and thought and what they demanded of her without telling her what they wanted. She was supposed somehow to know (LRB, 37:11, 4 June 2015, “What was wrong with everything was people”). There was an intertwining of what Jenny was observing in the upper middle class so-called bohemian circles of Lessing and what she observed in the upper middle class medical establishment today.

One early one turned hilarious at the close (LRB, 36:23 December 4, 2014) where she shows us how lunatic are our social relationships if you ask that they derive from a level of real understanding of one another. No one screams but one gynaecologist when maybe we all ought to be screaming, or scream at least once. Their first criteria is to protect themselves and so won’t tell Diski anything. The column is deeply critical of the cancer establishment as well as showing how they know nothing helpful fundamentally which is what is desperately needed by hideously growing numbers of people on this polluted earth.

Some are poignant. She says it’s like she is alive and dead at once (LRB, 36:21, November 6). That’s what Jim said it was like: being on the other side of a wall only those living with death can understand. There was a column about lullabies and how they are needed to soothe. One of the last was poignant: she has begun to hope she has a future; she tells us she was told that she had two years probably — unless the cancer went into remission was implied, or the treatments did something to extend that time. You see it in the last paragraph.

But it seems now she may die of the treatment (this reminds me of the movie, Wit, where Emma Thompson plays a woman diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer). Her tumor has stopped growing, but the chemotherapy and radiotherapy have done hideous damage to her lungs which had been scarred by pulmonary fibrosis. She has bad trouble breathing, falls and breaks bones (is very weak), was in hospice for a week but then sent home (as not about to pop off for sure any time now). When will she died? no one knows but 1-3 years is still what she’s given. The appearance of calm with which she describes recent weeks is stunning (LRB, 37:13, July 2015, “Spray it Silver”).

Well last week I read a column in mirable dictu which attacked Diski full front: Jenny Diski’s year of bashing Doris Lessing. I answered on the blog a couple of days later, and here extend my reply into a fuller argument. I admit I am not an unqualified admirer of Lessing much as I loved her Golden Notebook until the last one, and have read and admired a number of her novels, memoirs and criticism. I want to come to Diski’s defense because I’ve had the idea all along that just the ideas developed in mirable dictu are those that might be used once the period is over where people feel they must not “speak ill of the dead.

First there are two elements one must begin with. the homelife Diski came from. Nor the state Diski was in. What Lessing did was take responsibility for an abused child in a nearly catatonic state. In one of the essays we are shown that as the adolescent came out of her state (partly due to simply being away from her parents but also in the quiet stable house Lessing provided, with its routines, school, normality of friends), she was frightened. Who would not be? who could endure to go back? One must look at how Jenny is a child with what would be called a major depressive disorder whom Lessing had taken in. She wanted to now if Lessing could get rid of her, did she mean to keep her, and asked Lessing for reassurance that she would and a statement of love. Lessing became deeply angry and refused to say the situation would be at all permanent. In another the adolescent asks for advice about sex, and is given a flippant guarded answer and again told she has no right to ask for such advice.

What are the responsibilities of a caretaker-guardian? It’s true that Lessing did not adopt the girl. In a third Diski runs away and Lessing does not look for her; only when an agency discovers the girl liviing in filth somewhere back to her state, and phones Lessing does Lessing come and try to help. It’s not clear that Peter was responsible for Lessing take Diski in; it seems that Lessing was attracted to the girls’ gifts and felt for her but did not fully imagine what taking such a young woman on would be. Kat leaves out that the Emily a central character of Memoirs of a Survivor is a portrait of Diski. Diski was very hurt by this. And I agree that the series of column comes out of Diski’s anger too. But Jenny needed help desperately. Jumping out of a window, sleeping in stinking rotting wasteland, these are frantic calls for help and Doris had come forward. Jenny needed more than Doris’s cats.

Mirable dictu also misrepresented Diski’s presentation of Peter. Diski does not slam or despise Peter. She feels for him; she does not understand how Peter came to be so dependent. She is suggesting the portrait of the boy in The golden Notebook is Peter. I remember that portrait best of all and that the heroine could not cope with her son. Myself I think the GN is badly flawed because the great solution of the heroine’s life is to throw herself into orgasmic enthrallment in the last notebook. Up to then the book had been brilliant. Diski does not blame Lessing for leaving South Africa and two of her children; she suggests that this reality shows that Lessing was a woman who felt she had to make a choice like this to have a writer’s life — so in Lessing’s own life is a variant on her heroines.

Diski also includes how Lessing remained connected to her when she married and to her daughter (in a way a grand-daughter to Lessing) and that there was a relationship of support and affection there (perhaps publishing help?).

The series of columns has been not only about Lessing but Diski’s inoperable cancer. Diski has been told the probabilities are she will be dead in 2-3 years. She had undergone horrendous treatments and she discusses how all this feels, her fear of dying. In fact the first few columns where she “came out” and for the first time made widely public that her whole career would not have happened but for Lessing seemed to me a tribute, wanting to tell Diski’s life for the first time. She can’t tell her childhood or adolescence or the time in schools without telling about Lessing. I agree that she is getting back and exposing but she’s been hurt and hurt bad. At the same time Diski means to show the goddess has clay feet.


Writer Jenny Diski pictured at her home. '

Jenny recently but before chemotherapy; Doris in 2006

Diski is one who writes autobiographically and if there is anyone she has exposed over the years it’s been herself. She is doing to (or for) Lessing what she has done to or for herself. I have read enough criticism of Diski to know that quite a number of women writers take advantage of what Diski tells of herself to write snark at her books. I’ve not read any of her novels but I have her two travel books and regularly over the years her criticism. I don’t always agree with Jenny, and some of her columns were written with less thought and too much convention. She has a knee-jerk reaction against BBC costume dramas, her mockery (politically astute) of Downton Abbey failed to account for why it stayed popular. But speaking overall, superb, worth reading.

Yes this last End Notes is problematical. She is dying. I thought of the last two that the LRB editor is finally being too soft and should be editing Diski more — asking for cuts or where she is beginning to lose control. But a long time dying contributor can be given slack. I’ve seen what cancer does to people’s brains and their bodies and give credit to Diski that she has been able to write despite the deterioration and pain she has known. Perhaps writing helped to absorb her mind and enable her to forget or transcend her pain while writing.

I gather from what she writes in these columns that all literary London who knows one another knew about this relationship. It was a secret everyone knew — there are anecdotes where others are careful what they say around each about the other. I surmise if was Lessing who forbid the telling in public because Diski waited until she was dead for some time and then told. I surmise Diski agreed not to tell or acquiesced.

It is important to know about Lessing’s private life to understand the flaws in her books — and the distance between the presentation of her persona and what she really was Now I understand the Diaries of Jane Summers. There the central character resents the woman who turns to her for help as well as being a version of the central characters. I was not as stunned by her revelation of Lessing’s behavior (especially the one where she refused to reassure the girl and refused to say she loved her) because it fit into what I feel is part of the person behind the books. I respect Lessing enormously, especially her Grass is Singing, Summer before the Dark, Golden Notebook and Nothing Remains the Same — and just as much some of her critical essays and memoirs.

There are other relatives in England who come out and write about one another to some extent. A. S. Byatt and Margaret Drable, the Amises. It’s not always a comfortable thing to watch. Diski’s columns are not a Mommie Dearest. She says repeated that Lessing rescued her.

As to Lessing’s writing, there is the problem (as I see it) of Lessing’s two identities, the one who writes the science fiction and fantasy and the one who writes the realistic depressed books. I find very great her The Grass is Singing; her On Cats is a work of strong genius. The latter dialogue with women, though Lessing denies she is a feminist. I regard it as a problem as I see much in the former that at strong variance with the latter, and what Diski has to tell us can explain perhaps some of these gaps. One self of Lessing wanted to mother Diski and the other did not.

What I regret is that Lessing did not tell when she herself was still alive, that in her memoirs she left this important relationship out as she did the connection between her son and the son of the Golden Notebook. Had Lessing told too then we would have had her point of view.


Doris-Lessing-at-home (Large)
Doris at home, middle-aged with one of her cats

We now know that What I Don’t Know About Animals is in dialogue with On Cats!

I’m a person who writes openly about myself. People are shocked by what I say sometimes and I’ve been told that I’m risking retaliations of people who feel threatened or resentful or who want happy stories. I say they should not bother read me. I have never been close to a famous person but I have named names and told of all those who hurt and damaged Jim as he lay dying. No one will care about the people who hurt me, and I don’t even know the names of the boys who once gang raped me. But I understand the impulse to tell.

I feel a destruction of Jane Austen herself was done when the majority of her letters were destroyed, three packets between her and Francis, what was left censored and abridged. On Austen-l and Janeites we are still making our way though the Austen papers and eventually I will find a way to make blogs from our readings of these letters in an effort to call these papers t the attention of people and hope some scholar will want to produce an annotated contextualized edition.


Demelza in characteristic hat delighted to look at a poster for a troop of actors come to Truro

Dear friends and readers,

As Anibundel suggests, the way to understand and enjoy costume dramas is to look at the costumes. What more indicative than hats?

Spurred on by her fun discoveries of who wears what hat in the 2015 Poldark, I looked at the state of millinery for Graham’s first two novels 40 years ago and found the costume-designers included many more working and lower class head scarves, mob caps, and simple bonnets and flat hats with ribbons, and specific headdresses for ritual occasions.

For her wedding day (and possibly traveling) Keren (Sheila White) has decorated a simple bonnet with lace

Our female characters moved to forms of cloth hat to signal religious sects. When it came to creating beauty, glamour, suggesting upper class decor, much more attention was paid to wigs (big hair which blended fashions of the 1970s with those of the 1780s through 90s) than hats, but these covered a wider range, from pancake, to wide brimmed decorated, to tricorn, and simply (on your wig, threaded in), feathers, woven braids, and the rare jewel. There were also scarves which fit into political headgear which may be a blend of Jacobin, Cornish and mining community.

What they all show is that in comparison to 40 years on, the earlier series was interested in historical accuracy, yet made no attempt to film and showcase hats separately; each and every still shows a woman character in the midst of doing something that is part of the story or a product of their inner life. They signal class, politics, the personality of the character, and mood of the story line.

This is for those interested in how the 18th century has been depicted and love the old familiar pictures I hope seen anew.

The first hat we see is a respectable traveling wide-brim with ribbon under the chin:

This actress would play Jane Eyre (1983, with Timothy Dalton)

This opening Part 1 (1783), coresponding to the revenant’s return of Ross Poldark, runs the gamut of Verity with her characteristic mob cap:


not much different from the servant’s, Mrs Tabb:


to the high elegance of Elizabeth’s bridal veil:


and Jinny’s imitation (bridal veil on limited budget):


And this range is echoed in Part 2, where we move from another kind of head cover, the scarf tied behind the head at the nape of the neck, with cloth fanny out behind, signalling Jinny’s place in the political spectrum:


We see it women of Jinny’s class, but not character, at a fair, in the streets:



And Keren boasts a headscarf too:


Here is another house mob cap, more elaborate as worn by Verity as she asks Ross to help her see Blamey regularly:


Demelza graduates to her first hat showing she is growing up in Part 3 (1785 or to)


echoed by Prudie’s similar number as she watches Demelza scrub a table:


For outdoors, against the wind, and to protect her ears, Demelza in a sturdy kerchief bringing out lunch to Ross and Jud in the fields.

Jud snatches an apple

Our costume designers turned the pages of their script until they reached the death of Charles Poldark requiring a funeral required elaborate headdresses from the women, of which I choose just two from our central heroines:



The latter has grown intensely restless, dissatisfied, and soon after tells Ross so in an elegant wide-brim with ribbon under her chin, matching her suit-like outfit:


Meanwhile Demelza had fled home to her methodist step-mother:


who must’ve made it clear that similar attire for the head was expected of her stepdaughter:


Although the stepmother knows by this time that Demelza is with child (by Ross), Elizabeth is still dreaming of running off, and wears a fetching triangle for outdoor love-making (matching the same outfit, thrift, thrift):


A new book, Demelza, and our heroine has had her baby and there is a christening. We get some elegant headgear now:

See what you missed, Ross

A sweeter lace wide-brim for Verity reminds me of 1950s Easter hats

Unfortunately some of the women use their hats to exclude others, to crowd out and stigmatize those without these or who have not their confidence:


Following the debacle of this christening, the married lady takes heart and plots to help her kind cousin-in-law meet Blamey once again. They go off to shop: Verity in a small pancake, and Demelza in a delicious concoction of pancake, frills and kerchief:


Some time later our Cinderella goes to a ball, alas hatless, ribbonless, but not Lady Brodrugan:

who sports feathers and discreet jewels in a high class wig

Margaret with less money, makes do with a large white feather

and a clutch of pearls around the neck

Verity has gone all out (expecting Blamey):


There is too much bankruptcy and trouble to foster much millinery in the last parts of Demelza, so we have to make do with troubled women in the street:


Lady Brodrugan at Christmas in emerald green tricorn (surely meant ironically):


concluding with Demelza in one of her blends of Jacobin, working class and Cornish scarf:

plain cloth version — there is this lace one too:


After all, it’s called costume drama first and foremost, no?


P.S. Next up wigs, and what the men wore on their heads.


Dear friends and readers,

I want again to report on, share part of a review of a book, this time because I suspect its title, Sentimental Memorials, as well as the marmoreal cover illustration, will put potential readers off. Norma Clarke’s own books are uniformly insightful and informative, and her description of Sodeman’s book is to be trusted (appeared in TLS, July 31, 2015, but not on-line). Clarke suggests that Sodeman shows a direct line from 18th century novels by women to those of women writers of the later 20th and early 21st century. Sodeman discovers

in the novels of Sophia Lee, Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith and Mary Robinson a concern with the status of their own writings at a time when literature was becoming professionalized and when the novel, increasingly popular, became downgraded as genre. Women established the new genre of historical fiction, and left to friends the task of including them in their histories, while in fact the participation of women in popular genres was then and still is seen as an embarrassment.

But the most popular works offered debased forms of excessive emotionalism or action-adventure. By contrast, says Clarke,

Sodeman imagines the generation of women writing and publishing in the 1780s and 90s as sharing “a vibrant memory of elite women’s literary accomplishments … while becoming aware that their own efforts were culturally devalued, and that history-writing and and canon-formation were leaving women out. Frances Brooke in 1785 complained that “the road of literary fame” was closed to most women. They were not included in the multi-volume collections; they were not being memorialized. Sentimental Memorials rescues each of its subjects not from obscurity, for they are now much studied, but from negative characterization.

More profoundly, she argues that the establishment of the literary canon itself depended on a sentimental reading of the past shaped by illusions of historical recovery. Historians like Hume and Robertson used the devices of sentimental fiction to fill gaps, inviting readers to imagine what Mary Queen of Scots felt, for example, as she left France. Antiquarians found or forged manuscripts and built invented pasts on these “authentic” fragments. The “found” manuscript was already part of gothic convention when Ann Radcliffe made powerful use of it in The Romance of the Forest (1791). Jane Austen gets a little slap for missing the point in Northanger Abbey: Radcliffe was critiquing a device, not simple-mindedly deploying it to create terror.

Sodeman asks us to consider her subjects as women who possessed a heightened awareness of the historicity of forms, and of the likely obsolescence of their own fictions. It is an ingenious way of reclaiming elements — such as Radcliffe’s use of interpolated lyrics, Smith’s repeated appeals to her readers to sympathize with her as a victim of the legal system — that have dissatisfied stem critics. It leads to a subtle blend of textual criticism with literary history and single-author study.

Sentimental Memorials … takes the ephemerality of sentimental fiction and discovers in it a concern for enduring reputation. It examines the uses of autobiographical detail in imaginative prose that depicts national and international concerns while at the same time conveying personal truths that have public meanings … Sodeman is steeped in the critical literature about realist fiction and its relation to facts or history

There are some flaws:

[Sodeman] has little to say about the longer history of women’s writers; and although she quotes Clifford Siskin’s formulation, the “Great Forgetting,” she manages when discussing Mary Robinson as “the English Sappho” to make no mention of Aphra Behn, the most famous “Sappho” in the English tradition… Similarly, Sodeman explains Ann Radcliffe’s interpolated lyrics as a strategy to accentuate artifice and intensify feeling without indicating that many readers would already have associated the device with the sentimental figure of an oppressed woman: Radcliffe was following a model set in the mid-century by Laetitia Pilkington in her Memoirs. In the “Great Forgetting”, it was the so-called scandalous women who were most forgotten. Their works tended not to be realist fictions but memoirs, stories of lived lives that were compelling because they were real.

Clarke concludes:

Writers such as Smith and Robinson owed as much to this tradition as they did to realist fiction. Questions about fictionality, truth, the status of individual experience and the forms in which it was received and believed were crucial to memoir. So, too, for readers, was the mingling of wonder and scepticism. The vibrant memory” of women writers in the ’80s and 90s operated on literary materials that have yet to receive the attention that has been paid to realist fiction and forms which, as seller lists demonstrate …

are far from obsolete.


“Mlle Vallayer astonishes us as much as she enchants us … no one of the French school can rival the strength of [her] colors … nor her uncomplicated surface finish. She preserves the freshness of tone and a beautiful harmony throughout the canvas. What a success at this age!” — Diderot, 1771

Still Life with Round Bottle (1770)

Dear friends and readers,

The above Still Life with Round Bottle appears to be considerably less well-known than the familiar (found all over the Internet and in most surveys of women painters)

White Tureen (1771),

so I placed the wine bottle (with its nearby realistically textured aka yummy bread and Mackintosh like sharp-sour tasting apple, home-made jam [?] and simple glass of wine) before the soup bowl (an essay in levels of white and light, against dark purply wines, richer succulent bread and greys above).

They both merit the adjectives used frequently of Anne Vallayer-Coster’s art: chaste, cool, elegant, a quiet order, reverent sensuality, earthiness contained.

Remembering the remark that prompted Jane Austen’s Henry Tilney to say, “It is well to have as many holds on happiness as possible” (the epitaph for this blog), Catherine Morland’s exclamation after the first tour of Northanger Abbey, “What beautiful hyacinths! I have just learnt to love a hyacinth!,” I must make Potted Hyacinth (n.d.) our third reproduction before saying anything else:


Whenever Vallayer-Coster’s life is sketched, we are told a second set of characteristics about her in phrases like ever “indefatigably painting” and “regularly exhibiting.” Except for the period of the revolution, when Marie Antoinette’s patronage of her put her at risk, she is continuously hard at work, serious in feel about it, giving of herself through color and striking objects scattered about or placed in a row, in relationships. Some 450 works are recorded. She does not appear to have needed the money. So what she cares about is her work. If she remains personally unknown, even mysterious, it may be we could apply Macbeth’s statement if we knew more about her fallow period during the revolution and say her motto could be:

“The labor we delight in physics pain.”

Self-Portrait (at the Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles)

She came from a family of craftsmen-artists. She was the daughter of Joseph Vallayer, a goldsmith who worked for the Gobeline tapestry factory; when he died, her mother ran the family workshop as a successful business. By the time Anne was 10 the family had moved to Paris and her father set up a successful workshop there; when he died (relatively young it seems), her mother ran the business.

Nothing is known of her artistic training, only that Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724-80) was a family friend. She was “so likeable” too, wrote Jean George Willie, and by 1770 she was unanimously accepted as a member of the Academie Royale. In 1780 Antoinette granted her the title of “Painter to the Queen,” and allocated her a Louvre apartment which she vacated only in 1806 (when Napoleon evicted the artists). We know she had powerful patrons and found friends in fellow artists, e.g. Jean Baptiste Pierre who succeeded Boucher as Premier Peintre in 1770, was an administrator at Gobelins and commissioned tapestry designs from her.

But despite the years she lived through and her connections, she is another one of these pre-20th century women whose private life is declared uneventful: she married in 1781 P. Silvester-Coster, a lawyer from a noble family of financiers and courtiers; wedding held at Versailles, contract signed by the queen. No children are named. Though she signed a petition asking that her colleague Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun’s name be taken off the list of emigres, in all the 19 years of her membership in the academy, her name is mentioned 6 times (Peterson and Wilson, 60.

It does seem as if her greatest compositions were painted before the Revolution and she turned to smaller compositions late in life, so it some events got to her as she absorbed her mind and talent painting away. But here I will follow the great biography by Marianne Roland Michel, Anne Vallayer-Coster, Painter to the Court of Marie Antoinette, and in this short blog stick to the paintings.


Nochlin and Harris say that “after Chardin and Oudry” she is “the best still life painter of the 18th century,” and that Chardin’s work has overshadowed hers. Like Duparc, her work reminds people of Chardin. Witness one of his several Musical Instruments compositions:


and then her Attributes of Music (1770):


The difference we see here is typical: his composition is on a straight plane while hers is diagonal; we move in a circle from violin to horn, to wind instruments, some round and flat facing us, others to their side, with a feel of a spontaneous assortment.

I think she loses out against Chardin because he has many genre paintings, depictions of absorbed characters doing things which suggest a story. We have to try to feel her ardent presence in the intensity of colors and contrasts among objects as coming alive, as characters themselves. She has great variety, and can offer this garish aggressive piece:

Still Life with Bottles and Radishes

as against this retiring grapes in and next to a basket.


We also miss a lot when we don’t see the surface of her originals. Perhaps this loss may be glimpsed in this reproduction of Peaches and Grapes which suggests the surface of peaches, and a range of delicately nuanced tones:


I like this simple set of flowers (rather than the more elaborate compositions which feel like they are intended to please the pompous):


This Still Life with Plums and A Lemon (1778):


dead game, usually thought more appropriate for male painters, and birds and meat ready for the cook:


She also captures lobsters still dark red and orange with left-over life. As a group together with this one composed of beautiful greys, glass, and light, they make one understand turning to vegetarianism:

Dead Fish with Glasses

Along with musical instruments, she emblematizes painting, sculpture and architecture:


There is a “Military trophies, with a bust of Minerva” (there were men at court), and by contrast simple kitchen utensils and fancy porcelain for tea services; simple and elaborate, large and small compositions” (Harris and Nochlin, Women Artists, 1550-1950).

As with Chardin, I like best her depictions of simple common things from everyday life and objects redolent of art; she is (Germaine Greer’s words, 244-46) like him, “a profoundly serious” “contemplative, determinedly private, dignified and hard working.”

Late in life she we find these smaller pictures, seeming to do a kind of disappearing act altogether, of which I could locate only this black-and-white:



Her limitations should not be overlooked. This Still life with Sea Shells (1789) may be a site for memories:


but (to paraphrase Swift) there is nothing doing.

Her choice of still-life has been denigrated as an inferior genre (suitable to a woman); she was condescended to (“Pour une demoiselle. que d’art! and quel genie”), and told “by Bachaumont to “stick to still-lifes” when she tried to expand to portraiture. Her Mme de Saint-Hubert as Dido, 1785 (at the Women’s Museum of Art in DC) has a false mask of a bland face and stiff gestures despite the beautiful colors of the rich soft dress:


and many of her portraits are similar failures but there are successes: this sensitive depiction of Joseph-Charles Roettiers (1692-1779), a sculptor, medallian engraver, and royal goldsmith (probably a family friend)


The sufficiently individualized girl at the center of The Violin Lesson (n.d.):


Apparently a portrait of herself at the height of her success, 2 years after marriage and a member of Antoinette’s circle of women is pleasing. She looks relaxed, comfortably sexual:


And we should not forget portraits of court members was how she made money, and how she built her original career:

Marie-Adelaide de France (1780, ?)


Some modern admirers have created pictures in imitation of her which fill out a canvas. However quiet though, her Vase with Flowers (1780) with its lack of or neutral background:


is to be preferred to

A flower Arrangement after Vallayer-Coster’s Vase of Flowers, 1780

But this by Eli Kahng, “A tribute to Vallayer-Coster,” is successful because it attempts to restore the dreamer, to insert her into her picture as its source:


I am again grateful to Maureen Mulvihill for alerting us to coming world-class exhibit of women artists at the National Museum of Women in the Arts this autumn in DC: Pathmakers.



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