Posts Tagged ‘lesbian art’

Elizabeth Bishop and her cat in a car

Dear friends and readers,

Of the many women poets I’ve written a foremother blog about, just now Elizabeth Bishop may be the best known — both for her poetry and about her life and letters. There is a recent consensus about her importance and transcendence (if that’s not too pompous a word). She is reprinted everywhere (though maybe her refusal to allow her poetry to be printed in all women anthologies has slowed down the dissemination); dozens of articles, several individual books, two biographies (at least). For this blog I recently read Megan Marshall’s partial autobiography, Elizabeth Bishop: a Miracle for Breakfast, and Zachariah Pickard’s Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description. It’s easy to learn supposedly little-known facets of her talent too: such as she also drew and painted, as in William Benton’s “Elizabeth Bishop’s Other Art” (New York Review)

It seems most of her pictures are of her travels; she liked to draw the places she lived in as a sort of visitor, or temporarily, her domestic spaces, and typical woman’s objects: so still life flowers presented from a overtly plain life angle:

Daisies in Paintbucket

From a very young age, she began to pile up awards— even when she had published little outside college newsletters or a slender number of poems. She is likened to the finest poets in tradition: as Emily Dickinson, about whom she wrote in a “poignant and pointed” review of a book of letters by Dickinson that has survived (Emily Dickinson’s Letters to Doctor and Mrs Josiah Gilbert Holland and also of Rebecca Patterson’s Riddle of Emily Dickinson (the riddle is Dickinson was lesbian). There she is also with Helen Hunt Jackson, Muriel Rukeyser, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath (in Vivian Pollak’s Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference). I’ve now attended and myself led two zoom get-togethers of poets and readers happy to spend two hours and more close reading Bishop’s poetry. In both we felt we had hardly started and gotten through too few poems.

Paradoxically, this means I can write rather less than more about her, and the way perhaps to add to what is known is pick slightly less frequently printed poems.


Again with her cat

About her life, I think it important to know that she was the daughter of New Englanders, one of whom, her father, was from a wealthy and well-connected (Brahman) family, from whom she inherited a legacy that kept her afloat (precluding the necessity of work for higher wages), and enabled her to go to good schools where she made the right connections: Walnut Hull School to study music as a girl led to Vassar College (1929) where she wrote and met (among others) Mary McCarthy, Eleanor Clark (whose Rome and A Villa is one of the most brilliant meditative books about a place I know), and Marianne Moore who became a dear friend (never a lover apparently), who mentored Elizabeth and helped her publish. Like Bishop, Moore avoided controversy by erasing references to her gender beyond the obvious, steering well clear of telling anything explicit about her personal life, or overtly political. According to Kathleen Spivack, like many women writers of her generation, Bishop internalized the misogyny of the 1950s. I can understand why she would want to protect herself against prejudice and the judgmental tendencies of the wider public.

She had a difficult childhood: her father died when she was very young, and her mother was institutionalized; she lived with different relatives and it took time for these people to realize and act upon the apparent reality that the child was more comfortable with her maternal relatives though they were the less educated, and not part of forward-thinking circles. From her young adulthood on, she suffered badly from depression and alcoholism (she alienated people, she lost time from serious work), and her history includes several liaisons, some longer, some shorter, with the most important woman a Brazilian woman from a pre-eminent political family, Lota (Maria Carlota) de Macedo Soares. Bishop lives with Soares in Brazil for years; alas, over this relationship, Soares killed herself. An important friendship with a male poet was with Robert Lowell; Elizabeth became involved with his troubles with his wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick (whom Lowell treated very shabbily and whose letters he plagiarized). Very late in life Elizabeth became deeply involved with a woman much younger than herself. There is an equally complicated history from her young to her later years of academic appointments.

She not only does not write free verse; from an artistic point of view, hers is a highly patterned poetry, using formal and stringent rhyme schemes, stanzaic forms, with continual subtle uses of assonance, alliteration (sometimes she seems to drill down into rhythms of anglo-saxon prosody across a line). Annie Finch has written about how this formality, love of patterns, is a characteristic of l’ecriture-femme, women’s poetry (see Finch’s The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self and A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women). Sestinas, villanelles, double sonnets, repeating tercets (a poem using just three rhymes). Her poems with the most moving content convey their ideas and articulated feeling through close visualized description and the verse musical refrains. She is a foremother poet’s poet, loving repetitive structures, imitative sounds for moods and evocations.


I’ve chosen a few poems where I kept my inability in this blog to replicate stanzaic forms demanding indentation visual pictorialism in mind, and which I fancy might be less known and are not too long.

The first, as a Trollope scholar, her brilliant meditation on the part of Trollope’s North America where he visits Washington, DC, during the civil war and projects the depression and despair Trollope felt while there, partly a result of what he saw in the city.

South National Mall, Washington, D.C. 1863

From Trollope’s Journal

As far as statues go, so far there’s not
much choice: they’re either Washingtons
or Indians, a whitewashed, stubby lot,
His country’s Father or His foster sons.
The White House in a sad, unhealthy spot
just higher than Potomac’s swampy brim,
— they say the present President has got
ague or fever in each backwoods limb.
On Sunday afternoon I wandered, – rather,
I floundered, – out alone. The air was raw
and dark; the marsh half-ice, half-mud. This weather
is normal now: a frost, and then a thaw,
and then a frost. A hunting man, I found
the Pennsylvania Avenue heavy ground …
There all around me in the ugly mud,
— hoof-pocked, uncultivated, — herds of cattle,
numberless, wond’ring steers and oxen, stood:
beef for the Army, after the next battle.
Their legs were caked the color of dried blood;
their horns were wreathed with fog. Poor, starving, dumb
or lowing creatures, never to chew the cud
or fill their maws again! Th’effluvium
made that damned anthrax on my forehead throb.
I called a surgeon in, a young man, but,
with a sore throat himself, he did his job.
We talked about the War, and as he cut
away, he croaked out, “Sir, I do declare
everyone’s sick! The soldiers poison the air.”

John Bowen argues that Bishop’s double sonnet gives us an epitome, the core quintessence of Trollope’s North America: Trollope’s mood, central attitudes to the war. Bishop saw the same city many years later and had the same take on it. It is not a cynical perspective but an accurate response to aggressive militarist people, an unpretentious disquieting vision. She takes words from Trollope’s letters and wove them into her verse.

The next poem inspired a novel by Lisa Weiland about Bishop.

Paris, 7 A.M.

I make a trip to each clock in the apartment:
some hands point histrionically one way
and some point others, from the ignorant faces.
Time is an Etoile; the hours diverge
so much that days are journeys round the suburbs,
circles surrounding stars, overlapping circles.
The short, half-tone scale of winter weathers
is a spread pigeon’s Wing.
Winter lives under a pigeon’s wing, a dead wing with damp feathers.

Look down into the courtyard. All the houses
are built that way, with ornamental urns
set on the mansard roof-tops where the pigeons
take their walks. It is like introspection
to Stare Inside, or retrospection,
a star inside a rectangle, a recollection:
this hollow square could easily have been there.
—The childish snow forts, built in flashier winters,
could have reached these proportions and been houses;
the mighty snow-forts, four, five, stories high,
withstanding spring as sand-forts do the tide,
their walls, their shape, could not dissolve and die,
only be overlapping in a strong chain, turned to stone,
and grayed and yellowed now like these.

Where is the ammunition, the piled-up balls
with the star-splintered hearts of ice?
This sky is no carrier-warrior-pigeon
escaping endless intersecting circles.
It is a dead one, or the sky from which a dead one fell.
The urns have caught his ashes or his feathers.
When did the star dissolve, or was it captured
by the sequence of squares and squares and circles, circles?
Can the clocks say; is it there below,
about to tumble in snow?

Written in 1937 while for three weeks in Paris Bishop seeks to capture the architecture of the place she is living in, uses the image of a star inside a circle to recreate the way Paris grew out from itself (as Hugo has it in his Notre Dame de Paris) here like a star-fish. We have the present grim winter time (the Nazis were making their inroads on Europe, whence the reference for a need for ammunition), with Dickinson’s image of hope now “a dead wing with damp feathers.” I love the way the registering of the fleeting and transient (a child’s snow fort becomes a child’s sand castle) becomes something eternally remade over the seasons, with the image of stone signalling Paris’s long history, its eternity in stone in its ancient buildings. The idea of time is carried through the second stanza: “can the clocks say; is it there below?” What there?

And for a last, this sonnet where I find Bishop keeping herself calm by making order and harmony through making a poem which can harnesses the very rhythms of her heartbeat and body as she writes and we read it. This is the way I read Jane Austen’s novels, say Emma: the orderly rhythm of her sentences, their elegance and deeply felt content within patterns soothes and keeps me calm, strengthens me. This is what Bishop is doing through her very finger-tips, her lips, her whole body healing. Is there any more beautiful evocation than that “moon-green pool” which reminds me of lines by Pope and Anne Finch [to be cited, and linked in]

And this Sonnet (1928)

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.


I conclude with a YouTube of Elizabeth Bishop reading a group of her poems at the 92nd Street Y in NYC in 1977.


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Carrington when young (photo)

The river Pang, Tidmarsh

I long for the wings of an owl that I mighty FLY — Carrington,1930, “after a frusrating domestic crisis that kept her from painting” (Hill)

I see my paints and think it is no use to me, for Lytton will not see it now (quoted by Noel Carrington)

Dear friends and readers,

I return to a final two essays in this second series calling attention to women artists after I had gone to one too many exhibits of groups of artists under this or that rubric where there were either none or a token or one or two women, often the same couple of pictures. I managed twelve from the Renaissance into the 21st century for the first series, and Carrington is the eleventh of a second fifteen. I’ve found in this second group many great and beautiful and meaningful pictures and other forms of visual art; but also that even the better known women are hardly famous outside a narrow selection of people or only known for their connection with a man or notorious life event; and their art afterwards underestimated. In many individual or personal fulfillment was thwarted by gender expectations, at least two died young from childbirth. Their self-esteem as artists was battered; nonetheless, they developed female-inflected genres, made art different from that of their male counterparts, and succeeded wonderfully well as artists. Carrington’s life and art fits these patterns.

In Carrington’s case what she is famous for gets in the way of people seeking out and appreciating her art. First, for her devotion to Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) and suicide soon after he died because, she asserted, she could not imagine or endure life without him.

Carrington’s Lytton Strachey (1916) — one of her finest characteristic portraits and one of the finest by anyone of him — it’s a study of sensitive hands, of meditative reading

Then there’s the still widely-assumed belief that she self-flagellatingly destroyed or painted over many of her pictures, and indulged herself in non-save-able non-prestigious immanent arts (on house walls, for signboards, craft-y things, book marks, covers, and illustrations), so that hardly anything truly fine and great and permanent survives. Her intense reluctance (refusal) to have an exhibition of her art reinforces the idea her pictures were not good enough.

The Mill at Tidmarsh (Lytton and her first home together) — perhaps her most famous masterpiece

That she killed herself is out of doubt, but why is not so sure. Jane Hill’s reprinting of the ceaseless art-making Carrington did around Strachey in the last three chapters (phases) of Carrington’s life (in her The Art of Dora Carrington) to see to his every comfort argues a tender idolization (the above two black swans can be seen as standing in for herself and Strachey), but Carrington’s brother, Noel Carrington, (in his Carrington: Paintings, Drawings, and Decorations) makes a strong case for understanding that several factors beyond her adjustment to life through Strachey’s kindness and congenial intelligence led to her killing herself: she suffered a lifelong distress from her mother’s rejection of her, naturally vulnerable in relationships, sensitive, of a depressive temperament: she painted to make herself happy and her images show her reaching out for security, tranquility, stability.

An Artist’s Home and Garden

She did wipe out and destroy many of her works (sometimes because she lacked money for paper, sheer supply problem), but since she seems to have made art as continuously as she breathed, as it were constantly, no task too trivial she produced as large a corpus as many a major artist and a lot survives.


A giraffe scene Carrington created for the nursery door of Rosamund Lehmann’s children (John Lehmann her brother was a central editor at Hogarth Press — about which see below)

She would not allow exhibitions of her art (we glimpse a complex psychological disability), so her pieces did not begin the trail of circulation and discussion the way most artists become known, and given her inclusion (however marginally) in the elite English art and literary coteries of her era, much went into and remains in private hands. She did use unusual media:

Harmony: Labador Coast — made from painted tin foil on stained glass

You might say her marvelous letters are used against her as superior to her visual art instead of seen as another manifestation of her strong projection of her vividly perceptive experience of a self-chosen unconventional way of life that allowed her to create visual art continually.

David Garnett — her portraits done as a matter of course of whoever visits capture inner qualities through color, line, shadow

The drawings of herself are in the letters

In the last twenty years three excellent ground-breaking books have been written about her: Hill’s, Noel’s and Gretchen Gerzina’s biography, Carrington. These and an exhibition (at last) prompted superb essays, three of which reprint pictures and enter the heart of her vision. Them there is Carrington, the film, based on Christopher Hampton’s screenplay (a kind of outline of Carrington’s life out of Holroyd’s and Gerzina’s book), with its virtuoso actors uncannily capturing the inner life of some of the people around Carrington (Samuel West as Gerald Brenan, Rufus Sewell as Mark Gertler) and inimitably Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce as Carrington and Lytton:


A photo of Lytton reading to Carrington

It’s out of these I dared this blog. Genevieve Sanchis Morgan on Carrington’s art as “forms of masquerade” (Mosaic 31:4 [1998]) proves Carrington transferred her private life and most unspoken feelings, her transgressive attitudes (towards marriage, children, social performance as self-promotion, sexuality) into her pictures (landscapes especially and why she did not want to exhibit). She made for public consumption (as it were) the familiar images of herself as a devoted domestic servant and cook,

Cook and Cat

with her pets,

At Ham Spray

walking talking sitting by the side of Strachey,


Her innovative household art was her own real life giant dollhouse to hide in, and keep continually absorbed and busy in her private world shared with Lytton. She defflected her literary ambitions (and some satire) behind playful distractions (trompe d’oeil bookcase with titles that mocked contemporary and her associates’ books as well as Jane Austen), and found desperately needed loving reassurance in sexual partnerships with like-minded people. Gerald Brenan she loved, and returned his visits,going to Spain with Lytton and alone


She created great pictures there, continually protecting herself through these social performances. These come from her times in Spain:

A hill town in Andalusia

A Spanish woman, ink and silver foil on glass

Gillian Elinor’s essay on Carrington and Vanessa Bell (1879-1962) in Woman’s Art Journal (2016), as near contemporaries, working aesthetically and developing content in the same kinds of and actual domestic milieus (“Bloomsbury Painters” the title), argues their art is crucially like that of other women (tropes, themes, the relationship of their works to them and their lives)

Vanessa Bell, The Nursery

Carrington, Bedford Market (1911)

Carrington, A Footbathing Party — much like Bell’s

Jane Marcus (Women’s Review of Books, 12:1 [1994]) pays attention to Carrington’s loaded playful interiors and pictures an crockery as evoking a witty primitivism, working against mainstream (male) art to produce village-English delicate dreams and objects (recalling Woolf’s To the Lighthouse), as in this

Rouen Ware

Beanie Bags — the paired figures are typical of lesbian art


Self-portrait (1910)

Her life can be told in terms of phases of her art. The fourth child of a Liverpool merchant who had spent decades in India, to bring back an easy competence, he married a narrow-thinking rigid woman and for Carrington this meant much conflict over the years. She loved her father, was tormented by her mother. There are no portraits of her mother:

Her father (painted much later)

But her mother was artistic, valued art, and she and her siblings early on were encouraged to use their hands, and Dora (she later insisted on dropping this first name she regarded as too feminine, silly, like Dorcas, an archetypal shepherdess) learned to love to, spend hours drawing.

Noel her brother — much later

After High School, there was her period at Slade where she made life-long girlfriends, with one of whom, Constance Lane, she completed a cycle of of three large frescos “on the library wall of Brownlow Hall” (Hill 23). She began to paint strongly colorist and cubist-like bucolic landscapes and scenes, won a scholarship, and came under the influence of Roger Fry and Mark Gertler (not just his art but as a sexual partner). Finding she could not live in a repressive Victorian-style home (only visit) and have a career and mature adult life, she moved and tried to support herself in London. This period is filled with marvelous small line portraits, comic cartoons

Very Stevie Smith like

and the earliest of the bucolic snow and tree landscapes with their high wide great bowl top areas.

Hills in Snow at Hurst Tarrant (Hampshire), 1915

This is the time of her immersion in the Omega Workshops (1914-16): playful woodcut art, and riots of color and decorations of ordinary everyday things, which while they didn’t sell to the larger public, are the foundation for the way Carrington would later cover every inch of Ham Spray, her and Lytton’s second home. She didn’t do well at Lady Ottoline Garsington Manor (“I am out of favor now! completely!”), but met others who (if not as much, like Lytton) were important to her: Augustus John’s household (whom she turned to as easy companions); individual people whose character struck her favorably:

by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920
E.M. Forster

Like Vanessa Bell, Carrington took to engravings and book illustrations


Lytton she first met in 1916 at Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Asheham House — and to fast forward their Hogarth Press provided another place for her woodcuts small animal drawings, and remunerative work for Ralph Patridge, the first of her lovers whom she married to keep him near Lytton (and please Lytton). By 1917, she and Lytton were making a home for themselves at Tidmarsh, and by 1918 he achieved his first of several commercial successes, Eminent Victorians.

Tidmarsh Mills, the meadows

The story of her life becomes a story with Lytton triangular sexual and working relationships with a series of men, and travel (to the continent, around England) and perpetual art-making (from pictures to bookcases, fake and real). Hampton’s movie dramatizes the pain Carrington knew when she felt she had to force herself to act out different selves, and when she felt Lytton did not reciprocate her loving care, efforts catering to his every whim, only to see him distance himself, become at times remote. At the same time her correspondence with Strachey, and especially over her decision to marry Partridge are among the most genuine openly confiding trusting letters I’ve read. They understood and supported one another in many other areas beyond the reading of books and living the larger routines of life. The pressure from the different worlds Carrington found herself in was also offset by the art-making: she repeatedly creates idyllic peaceful and playful beauty in personally felt landscapes (with funereal images)


and stuffing and covering every available inch of her literal surroundings, over and over:

A fireplace tile design

Birds above a cornucopia of flowers

She made signs; this half of a Circus horses reminds me of Watteau’s famous shop sign of people examining pictures in an art shop:

This is severe in its way: the horses are still and in a row

In her later years she allowed herself to be used by a rough sportsman type, Beakus Penrose (played by Jeremny Northam in the movie): she did love to sail with him (she writes of her “Shelley craving to sail & leave these quiet rural scenes for Greek islands), as witnessed by her remarkable tinsel on glass picture, the deliberately child-like Bon Voyage (1929):


She became pregnant by Penrose, a (to her) deeply distressing because repulsive condition (she never adjusted to her female body), and Lytton stepped in to find and pay for an abortion. Her end is well-known: Strachey developed pancreatic cancer, and died, and within three months, despite many friends’ efforts to prevent this, Carrington shot herself through her mouth with a gun on a Friday, March 11, 1932. She meant it.


Tulips in a Staffordshire Jug (1921) – she painted many flower still lifes

That Carrington’s gender was female played a central role in her difficult life, withdrawals, and long neglect. John Rothstein in the introduction to Noel Carrington’s book says rightly that Carrington’s “remoteness from he impulses which moved” most of her contemporaries (ambition for money, high rank, fame, fashionable luxury, admiration from the admired) set her apart (13). Carrington herself also said of participating in contemporary schools of artists to Gertler over post-impressionism that “this ‘culture’ and group system is partly the reason for the awful paintings produced” (35).

But what her mother couldn’t bear (perhaps where her overt troubled life started) was Carrington was not conventionally beautiful. When Carrington is hiding her pictures, or dressing like a boy, she is hiding her body. Gertler wanted her to give up her painting and devote herself wholly to him as his wife. She resisted this fiercely, but could only find a stable life with the daily rhythms and calm expectations that she needed for creation of her art on Lytton’s income.

In talking of a career, she repeated Frye’s warning early on about how hard it was going to be to practice great art as a woman. How she will be regarded by others. She wrote Gerald Brenan about “how difficult it was to be a ‘female creator'”

the few that did become artists, I think you will admit were never married or had children. Emily Bronte & her sisters, Jane Austen, Sappho. Lady Hester Stanhope. Queen Elizabeth and even lesser people like the French female artists Berthe Morissot [who did have a daughter], Le Brun [ditto], Julie de Lespinasse & Dudeffand [? is this a reference to George Sand whose legal name was Dudevant or Madame du Deffand?] … If when I am 38, I am not an artist, & think it is no good my persevering with my painting, I might have a child …

Spanish Boy (1924) — in her two portraits of adolescent boys she captures their vulnerability

This is an important statement if we realize that she was also much influenced by painters no one else was, for example (according to Hill), the Renaissance painter, Joachim Patinir:

The Hermit

Patinir’s Flight from Egypt does recall Carrington’s landscapes:


Carrington’s candid utterances to Brenan about being a woman (“You know I always hated being a woman” [Elinor 31]) are so sad because she never was not an artist, always alive to the art of others, in groups or as individuals. She did hate being pregnant (and thus perhaps deprived herself of a raison d’etre once Lytton was diagnosed with inoperable cancer). When she painted Lady Strachey (Lytton’s mother) it’s said she caught the inner strong woman, but she also masculinized her, made her monumental in doctor’s robes:


Of her depiction of a group of young girls marshalled by two female teachers, one a nun on a beach to play (On the Sands at Dawlish Warren), Carrington wrote: it was “a study of the misery of authorized fun” (110). She escaped the world’s invisible prisons but at great cost

Annie Stiles — her servant whom Carrington depended upon and painted, and drew frequently — she describes herself as with two servants eating or by the fire when Lytton is gone away


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“I could not do without a Syringa, for the sake of Cowper’s line” — Jane Austen to Cassandra

“… the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?” — Jane Austen to James-Edward Austen-Leigh

A still from a film, Dyke Pussy (2008) where Allyson Mitchell’s sculptures are seen whirl

Peter Firmin’s woodcut illustration for winter for Vita Sackville-West’s georgic, The Land and the Garden (1927, 1946)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been reading and looking at visual, concrete, and written art by a small group of elite women (known to one another, friends or associates, read from or about afar) cited and studied by Lisa Moore (Sister Arts) from which she posits or carves out a lesbian erotic aesthetic. Moore’s book might be considered a companion volume to Emma Donoghue’s Passions Between Women: Donoghue teases out and identifies clearly too some patterns of social and writing behavior that she argues were typical of lesbian spinsters in the 18th century, recognizable to one another (which we observe are found in Austen, her sister, Cassandra, their friend, Martha Lloyd, and other single and also married friends, a kind of female community).

One difference is Donoghue has so many candidates and verbal explicit demonstration from their writing; in the first 4/5ths of her book, Moore seeks to make do with four and three of them with very little written documentation: Mary Delany and her employer-patroness-mistress-lover(?), Margaret Bentinck, Duchess of Portland; Anna Seward (she provides reams of writing); Sarah Pierce, an educator in the US; in each case, Moore finds other women who work in the same artistic media to create the same kinds of images (mostly botanical, but also sewn, glued as in shellwork, built, lacquered and scissored). Her method is to show that in landscape, garden, botanical, sewing, craft, landscape and house design, these women continually project images of a woman’s sexual organs.

Like Donoghue, Moore argues such relationships included same-sex intimacies and brings forward some (to mainstream ways and tastes) strange and beautiful and obsessive artwork which through her grouping achieves a context in terms of others very like it and no longer seems so odd: Who scissors out 900 sciss accurate paper flowers and then presses them against a lacquered black background sheet and then places them into thick volumes for preservation. Moore waxes graphically descriptive at length of female private parts she sees in it. A kind of Rorschach test is repeatedly applied.

I never thought about how maps drawn in the era by women in their novels (the famous Tendresse one) are themselves expressive art; and I just love the delicate picturesque drawings the book is filled with. She reveals great pathos in thwarted lives, as when Anna Seward carried from room to room a painting by George Romney of a young girl reading which Seward declared an image of her dead beloved, Honora Sneyd. Seward spent most of her life alone, lame, writing letters to others. I almost forgive her her snobbish spiteful attacks on Charlotte Smith’s revelations of another kind of deprived existence. Legend (Moore has to rely on hearsay) credits Seward with designing part of a Litchfield Park in imitation of Hyde Park’s Serpentine Walk:


The first is an engraving by W. Schmollinger, the map for Hyde Park; the second a photo of a lake in a Litchfield Park (no dates)

It does not seem to me that Moore proves her case altogether; maybe it’s not provable: the idea these images she finds in these women’s work are necessarily lesbian only becomes convincing when she shows their behavior like that we might think lesbian. Margaret Bentinck had numerous children by her husband, and used the women she enforced service to herself from; Chicago lived only with men; Delany and Frida Kahlo were bisexual. I remembered Stella Tillyard’s group biography of the Lennox Sisters, The Aristocrats, and then the Companion volume to the mini-series film adaptation by Harriet O’Carroll, where there are plates of art that fit right into Moore’s scheme. Only one of these women was a lesbian.

Moore has a tendency to see vaginas where there are only arches:

A picturesque drawing by Mary Delany: View of Beggar’s Hut in Delvile Garden (1745); she lived with her husband Patrick at Delvile (I wonder if she installed a beggar in that hut?)

Moore will mount a full-scale relationship (friendship, influence) from the tiny twig of the woman’s ideas: such as Mary Delany knew of the work of the other woman (we think), or visited a salacious place (like the Hellfire Club’s Venus Temple) she is said to have imitated — with no proof of visit, no proof she built or even drew a drawing for some of her attributed buildings. I would love to think Moore’s candidates were architects but proof is needed.

There is also a distasteful reactionary justification of her chosen subjects elitism, racism, and ignoring how they used their power over one another and did not fulfill obligations: the Duchess of Portland did not leave a penny to Mary Delany after decades of devoted service, including reading aloud long hours into the night — Betty Rizzo in her Companions without Vows suggests we know which person is the subject one by looking to see who is doing the reading. Sarah Pierce is just fine with slavery and Moore attempts a softened portrait — true that I could see in the Litchfield Academy Pierce set up characteristics of a girls’ school which works that I saw in Yvette’s Sweet Briar (as older girls appointed sister-mentors to younger ones).

In the last fifth of her book, Moore attempts to fill out her theory by citing exemplary women artists from the 19th through 20th century. I thought immediately of Judy Chicago, and indeed her Dinner Party is discussed in the last part of Moore’s book. Moore tells of these women’s lives; she demonstrates quiet partnerships with other women, describes, reprints, quotes their art. I include a few images of this later art, and some snatches of poetry, and passages in lives not well-known.

A photo of one of many fancifully shaped buildings in her book:

Jane and Mary Parminter’s house in Devon; Victorian unmarried sisters, one died 38 years before the other, but managed before that terrible parting for so long to fill the place with paintings, shellwork, feather decorations, decoupage (scissored stuff), semi-precious stone inlay — how lonely all those years must’ve been

Moore enables us to see the feminocentric slant of some repeating absurdities in 19th century women’s art, such as a subject I have seen done by women in the 19th century: they paint Moses as a baby in a basket among the bullrushes — the point seems to be to view the relationships among the (for the moment) powerful women picking the baby up and caring for him. Otherwise, he would have died. No ten commandments.

Moore says that Emily Dickinson admired the botanical illustrations of a contemporary, Fidelia Bridges. This one belongs to the many picturesque garden, flower and landscape images of the book. According to Moore, these resemble Delany’s and several other lesbian women flower artists, but I see an austerity which is lovely because it does not lend itself to a Rorschach description:

Fidelia Bridges, Calla Lily 1875 — click to make larger

I did not know the story of the 19th century black sculpturess Edmonia Lewis’s experience of betrayal by white women. Lewis’s genetic background included New England black and Ojibway Indian people; her mother feared she’d be kidnapped into slavery so sent her and her brother to Canada to live among Ojibway. After the civil war was over, due to her brother’s efforts, she attended Oberlin College in 1860s. It was a staunchly abolitionist place, and she seemed at first to thrive, but she was accused of poisoning two white girls on sleigh riding date with 2 white boys; she was exonerated but dragged out into February night and beaten severely by thugs. The headmistress prevented her registering for last semester lest this provoke the local community again, so Lewis never graduated –-  her sculpted women figures are women seen as outcasts.

Hygeia, commissioned by a woman physician, then terminally ill

After Lewis returned to the US and experienced the post-civil war backlash, she returned to Italy where she drops out of historical record — she was last seen by Frederick Douglas living with Adelia Gates, a flower painter.

Turning to the 20th and 21st century, Jim and I saw an exhibit of Mickalene Thomas’s paintings the last time we were in NYC together and he in good health; I am aware of Frida Kahlo’s bisexuality and use of flower, botanical, craft imagery; landscape installation art of contemporary women (Ana Mandieta, Alma Lopez, Tee Corinne), Alice Walker’s silhouettes. I did not know for sure that Georgia O’Keefe had a long-time woman lover (though she is depicted this way by Suzy McKee Charnas, in her Dorothea Dreams). Moore places Jane Addams and her long-time friendship with another woman here.

Appropriate for the season, from Vita Sackville-West’s The Land and the Garden, “Winter” poetry for which Peter Firmin drew the woodcut illustration (above):

You watcher at the window, you who know
Life’s danger, and how narrow is the line,
How slight the structure of your happiness,
— Think on these little creatures in the snow,
They are so fragile and so fine,
So pitiably small, so lightly made,
So brave and yet so very much afraid.
They die so readily, with all their song.

There are equally moving lines across “Winter:”

It is not the Winter, nor the cold we fear;
It is the dreadful echo of our void,
The malice all around us, manifest …

Fabulous flowers flung as he desires.
Fantastic, tossed, and all from shilling packet
— an acre sprung from one expended coin, —
visions of what might be.
We dream our dreams.
What should we be, without our fabulous flowers?

Homesick we are, and always, for another
And different world …
And so the traveller
Down the long avenue of memory
Sees in perfection that was never theirs
Gardens he knew, and takes his steps of though
Down paths that, half-imagined and half-real,
Are wholly lovely with a loveliness
Suffering neither fault, neglect, nor flaw;
By visible hands not tended, but by angels
Or by St. Phocas, gentlest patron saint
Of gardeners …. Such wisdom of perfection
Never was ours in fact though ours in faith,
And since we live in fabric of delusion
Faith may well serve a turn in place of fact.
Luxury of escape! In thought he wanders

Down paths now more than paths, down paths once seen.
Gold is their gravel, not the gold that paves
Ambition’s highway; velvet is their green;
Blue is the water of the tide that laves
Their island shore where terraces step steep
Down to the unimaginable coves
Where wash on silver sand the secret seas.
Above such coves, such seas, he strays between
Straight cypresses or rounded orange-trees,
And sees a peasant draw a pail from deep
Centennial well; and finds a wealth in these.
Across the landscape of his memory
Bells ring from distant steeples, no cracked bell
Marring the harmony, but all as pure
As that spring-water drawn from that clear well.
What time the English loam is bare and brown
Elsewhere he roams and lets his reason drown
In thought of beauty seen. There was a key
Opened an iron door within the wall
Of thee thick ramparts of a fortress town
Where the great mountains sudden and remote
Like clouds at tether rose,
But the near larkspur seemed as tall
Dashing her spire of azure on their snows;
And, wandering, he might recall
Another garden, seen as in a moat
Reflected, green, and white with swans afloat,
Shut in a wood where, mirrored sorrowful,
A marble Muse upon her tablets wrote.
Look, where he strays!
Images, like those slow and curving swans,
Sail sensuous up, and these drab northern days,
This isle of mist, this sun a shield of bronze,
Melt in the intenser light away.

As sensitive natures seek for comfort lest
Th’assault of life be more than they can bear …

Sackville-West’s poem is Cowperesque and reminded me of how Austen loved Cowper’s poetry. There are telling lines of convergence in Moore’s choices.

I was drawn to Moore’s section on the mixed-media work of Toronto artist, Allyson Mitchell — as in the above sculptures of cats from a film and below from a film, Oxana, again we have what we see all book long: carpets remnants, rug hooking, fringe, needlework, bits of lace (seen in all sorts of European women’s art and their metaphors for their art):


The above reminded me of the runners in Judy Chicago’s place settings; below the real treat of Mitchell’s art is not in imposed supposed sexual fantasies prompted by the art, but a delicate playful allusion to motherhood:

Allyson Mitchell — Moore describes this image from a film solemnly — it’s a Teddy Bear substitute for a well-cared for cheerful young child


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