Saturday, 29 August 2015

A gem within a gem: Venus Verticordia, 1868, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth

When I stumbled upon Russell-Cotes Museum and Art Gallery some time ago, I thought to myself: what a treasure, what a gem! The museum and gallery is a wonder itself and it contains many other, smaller wonders within its Victorian walls. One of them is Pre-Raphealite oil painting Venus Verticordia, 1864-1868, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I have always liked this painting. The first time I saw it in an art magazine it has captured my attention and imagination. I was captivated by its brilliance and vividness of color, the sitter's lush copper hair, full cherry-coloured lips and pensive yet somewhat wistful expression. And I knew from the very beginning, from the first time I laid my eyes on it, that there was something intriguing behind this painting - a mystery perhaps,a dark secret or a fascinating story. I did some research regarding the history of the painting as I wanted to know who the artist's sitter was. Her name was Alexa Wilding. She was an independent woman, a dressmaker, a seamstress, artist's model and muse, and latterly a landlady, who never married (WoW!). She became Rossetti's model and a silent witness to the most turbulent years in his bohemian life. I highly recommend a fascinating and a beautifully written novel A Curl of Copper and Pearl by Kirsty Stone Walker available on In her outstanding narrative and a magical evocation of Alexa Wilding's story, Walker charmingly mixes facts and fiction. Kirsty Walker fictionalises the life of Alice Wilding, whose beauty and mass of copper red hair led  Rossetti to  approach her in the street and request her to to sit for his painting.
Plucked from the street by the artist and taken completely aback by his offer, Alexa's life turned upside down. Rossetti transformed her life of drudgery and poverty into one of art and beauty.

"As his muse, she witnesses infidelity, madness, forgery, lust, theft and death. A Curl of Copper and Pearl is memoir of the lives of others in a world where truth is reliant on who is painting the picture". A Curl of Copper and Pearl, Kirsty Walker.

The gallery is full of paintings, mostly female portraits, but Venus Verticordia does stand out from the crowd and the moment you enter the gallery you can't take your eyes off her, like you are connected by an invisible cord and can't break free. She is mesmerizing. She will hold your attention as if you were under hypnosis, she will have you under her spell. She is a magnet painting, a magnet face. Her regal bearing makes her look like a queen. She is the queen of the gallery. She radiates so much sensuality and powerful female sexuality. She is Venus after all, goddess of love and 'turner of men's hearts'.She is a vision, madly beautiful vision

Stand in front of her, and you are aware that you are looking at something deeply contemplated. Every object is intimately described, every motif freighted with meaning. The viewer is drawn in by an uncertainty or a puzzle. She is shown with one of Cupid's arrows and the Apple of Discord awarded to her by Paris of Troy. There is a butterfly, a bird and a festoon of honesuckle flowers. Rossetti complained that buying fresh flowers daily to paint left him penniless. The honey suckle flowers were meant to represent the fleeting nature of love. The title of the painting refers to a quotation from the Roman poet Ovid. He describes one of Venus' attraibutes as being able to assist Roman women to turn their hearts towards virtue and modesty. This does seem contradictory for such a heavily sensual and sexual image, but perhaps it is a warning of the dangers of sexual obsession.

When I look at Alexa's portrait, I am not surprised that she turned Rossetti's head in the street. She was a Victorian stunner - tall and voluptuous, with distinctive lips and a mane of glorious red hair. Her long strong neck, her angular jaw, nose and cheekbones, and her flexible fingers established the androgynous appearance that would become the Pre-Raphaelite 'type'. Alexa became the archetype of Pre-Raphealite canon of beauty.

It took Rossetti four years to complete this painting, which is his only nude work in oils Originally, the model for Venus was a cook who worked in Chelsea. However, when the work failed to sell, Rossetti replaced her face with his new model - Alexa Wilding. 

 An x-ray of the painting taken in 2003 has shown that Rossetti used two, or possibly even three models for the painting. The first model was tall, striking woman who worked as a cook for neughbouring family. Rossetti met her in the street, where he found several of his models. Dissatisfied with this portrait, he painted over it using the face of Alexa Wilding. It is also possible that Fanny Cornforth modelled for this painting. 

'Venus Verticordia' was acquired by the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum via the Art Fund in 1945, and has been loaned for many contemporary exhibitions. These include two at Tate Britain, and other international venues including Germany, Holland, Italy, USA, the Canary Islands and Japan. The museum regularly receives loan requests from museums and galleries in the UK and abroad. Most of these requests have to be declined to allow the picture to be shown in its home gallery; to minimise the inevitable risks and deterioration caused by travel; and for other reasons, such as high insurance costs for borrowers. 

Monday, 24 August 2015

Hidden Bournemouth Gem - The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum

When you think of Bornemouth, the first thing that springs to your mind is the sea. Glorious sea, majestic cliffs, spectacular sandy beaches, charming white pier, grey squirrels running up and down the pine park,  a cheerful colorful balloon floating high up in the sky. Bornemouth is a fantastic playground for both children and adults: it is full of sunshine, life, vibrant colors, happiness and fun things to do. It smells with the sea and fish and chips.

I like Bornemouth. And so did Thomas Hardy. He liked Bornemouth enough to recommend it to his friends as a holiday place, and a "good place to winter in". It is described by Hardy thus:

"This fashionable watering-place, with its eastern and its western stations, its piers, its groves of pines, its promenades, and its covered gardens, a fairy place suddenly created by the stroke of a wand, and allowed to get a little dusty. An outlying eastern tract of the enormous Egdon Waste was close at hand, yet on the very verge of that tawny piece of antiquity such a glittering novelty as this pleasure city had chosen to spring up". 

Bornemouth was Hardy's "Sandbourne". In The Hand of Ethberta (1876) he describes the old wooden pier which was replaced by an iron pier in 1880, and it is in Sandbourne that Ethelberta's family have their last home, called "Firtop Villa". Tess in Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) murders Alec in an imaginary boarding-house called "The Herons". Hardy was a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson who lived in Bornemouth, and on one visit he stood by the grave of Mary Shelley. 

Bornemouth has much more to offer than you might imagine. If you are an art and history lover you should definitely go up the East Cliff and visit one of the most fascinating museum-houses in England: Russell-Cotes. Sheltered in the bushes, sitting proudly on the top of the cliff, Rusell-Cotes Art Gallery is not an easy place to find. Its location makes it a bit secluded and thus getting there will fill you with a sense of thrill and achievement. The house is a great testimony to Victorian, imperial England. Carpeted with crimson, richly decorated, hung with beautiful works of art, the house is a delight to visitors' eyes. It is lavish, opulent, splendid and with a touch of fantasy. Moreover, the origins of the place are very romantic. On the 15th of 1901 July Sir Merton gave his wife Annie a dream house on a cliff-top, overlooking the sea. It was an extraordinary, extravagant birthday present. The date when Sir Merton presented East Cliff Hall to his wife as a gift on her birthday is significant, as it was the year that Queen Victoria died and makes it one of the latest Victorian buildings ever built.

"For many years I had it in mind that some day I would build a house after my own heart, as an offering of "love and affection" to my wife". (Merton Russell-Cotes writing in his autobiography Home and Abroad).
The house was begun in 1897 and was completed in its first form in 1901. It was designed by the architect John Frederick Fogerty, who moved to Bornemouth in the late 1880's. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that there was a great deal of input from Rusell-Coteses. After considering several designs, Sir Merton wrote, "I had made up my mind to construct it architecturally to combine the Renaissance with Italian and old Scottish baronial styles". 

Like many wealthy Victorians Sir Merton and Lady Annie travelled the world visiting many countries including Japan, Australia, New Zeland, Russia, America and Hawaii and used the house as a showcase for their growing collections. Many of the individual rooms were devoted to the places they visited such as The Mikado's Room based on their visit to Japan. 

In 1907 Sir Merton and Lady Annie Russell-Cotes announced that they were giving their home together with their collections of art and beautiful objects to the people of Bornemouth. They continued to live in the house which was oficially opened in 1909 with public admission on the first Wednsday of the month up until their deaths in 1920 and 1921.

The picture shows the authentic reconstruction of Annie's wedding dress. Turning the two dimensions into three was process requiring lots of patient and scrupulous research and informed guesswork, looking at garments in museums, early phootographs, fashion plates and other material culture resources for style and construction details. Annie's dress is typical for the day. It has a large skirt supported by a crinoline frame, a kind of steel-hooped petticoat trimmed with bold decoration. A corset underneath the bodice helps keep a small, neat waistline.

Although concepts of the 'traditional' wedding emerged during Victoria's reign, mostly women wore a dress they could incorporate into their wardrobes afterwards, often as a 'best outfit'. This practical requirement means that day, not evening styles were more popular. Annie's style of the dress show it is for day wear.

The picture above presents The Dining Room. Grand, isn't it? The Dining Room is one of the principal show rooms of the house and contains some of the finest paintings to be found in East CLiff Hall. The peacocks and fruit that decorate the coving were painted by John Thomas, the painter for the Roayl Bath Hotel. The room is a burgundy, traditional in dining rooms to show meat on the plate at its best. The inglenook fireplace and the ceiling owe their scheme to earlier English design which reflects the Russell-Coteses ambition to create a historic family seat in the style at least. Stained glass reveals the patriotism and imperialism of the Russell-Cotes and four of the panes depict Patron Saints of the British Union whils the panes in the bay window represents countries from the British Empire.

The decor of the house is deliciously sumptuous: rich colours, stained glass, luxurious wallpaper, painted ceilings, frescoes and patterned tiles. Rooms and collections are inspired not only by their extensive travels but also by their love of the theatre and the decorative arts.

The house is an awe-inspiring work of love.  Every room is a surprise and a delight, each possessing its own unique atmosphere and ambiance through the rich use of different colours, decor and artifacts. Some rooms have an oriental theme, others a more European feel. If you love Victoriana you will definitely be impressed by this. The Russell-Cotes Museum is an absolute gem and should be a must visit for anybody either living or visiting Bournemouth. It is full of fascinating items from all over the world and the art collections are superb.

Rich, opulent rooms in Russell-Cotess Villa illustrate how wonderful the drawing-room in Thrushcross Grange must have looked like:

"Both of us were able to look in by standing on the basement, and clinging to the ledge, and we saw—ah! it was beautiful—a splendid place carpeted with crimson, and crimson-covered chairs and tables, and a pure white ceiling bordered by gold, a shower of glass-drops hanging in silver chains from the centre, and shimmering with little soft tapers" (Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights).

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