|Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais|
“There is a willow grows aslant a brookfrom Shakespeare’s Hamlet
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them.
There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of lauds
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.”
When I told my friend Fat Rascal (who lives at the top of a mountain in France) about our visit to the enchanting Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Tate Britain she asked "And which painting were you?". I understood what she meant immediately for in days of yore, when we were young and nubile, the most prized female image was that of a flowing haired Pre-Raphaelite.. I was Ophelia, drifting, downstream to her watery doom, a dreamy, desirable, but ultimately tragic figure touched by melancholy and madness. She embodied the angst of my teenage years, filled with thoughts of a beautiful suicide I had no real intention of committing (mostly because I feared that no-one would actually care!) Now when I view the painting it is more breathtaking than even my teenage dreams could imagine, the colours vibrant and ethereal, her 'weedy trophies' a gardener's inspiration. It remains the most famous and my favourite.
Fat Rascal I see as the Lady of Shalott who also has a tragic, watery, doom her crinkled locks flowing down to her waist as she drifts towards Camelot.
|The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse|
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right —
The leaves upon her falling light —
Through the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.
We grew our teenage hair long and lustrous - I once walked down a leafy avenue by the side of a park when an elderly man called across the road to me "You look very beautiful with the sun shining on your hair... " I accepted it as my due and smiled wondering if perhaps I reminded him romantically of his long dead wife.
Whilst I loved the femininity of the fashions of that time, all long dresses and purple Biba eyes, my china-doll face belied the dichotomy that I had remained a complete tom boy and was a ladette years before the term was even invented. I remember a beautiful and fragile Victorian dress I had bought from an antique shop, all linen, lace and velvet, perfect for a Pre-Raphaelite but it got worn to one too many raucous parties and ended up cruelly doused in beer and red wine never to recover.
|Teenage Sock's locks|
Many of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings are based on mediaeval culture, myths, Arthurian legends, or Shakespeare's plays, stories that I had loved and crammed my overflowing imagination with as a child. I had a treasured a beautifully illustrated copy of Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales of Shakespeare - sometimes scorned amongst scholars this book, presenting the plays in short story form, stood me in good stead for years of pub quizzes familiarising me with the various characters of Shakespeare's plays without having to read all the overblown texts. And now the characters are pictured in front of me at this fascinating exhibition bringing their own life to the poetry and plays I read so avidly as a child. The picture below of the Lady of Shalott by William Holman Hunt was my second favourite. I hadn't seen it before and the colour and movement in it was breathtaking her hair and her world whirling around her as
The mirror crack'd from side to side; "The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Alfred Lord Tennyson
There were many, many more paintings and not all girlie fantasy ones either although to his surprise the Bedsock found these incredibly interesting as well. A fantastic exhibition, well worth the visit. Make sure you get an audio commentary and allow up to two hours.