Saturday, 8 November 2014

Romantic fictions and casualties

PART TWO: The temple of delight

Fragonard, The Fountain of Love 1785. Oil on canvas, Wallace Collection, London.
Image source: WGA. In this painting, the purveyor of insouciance and erotica for the ancien regime breaks into the psychological dreamworld of the Neoclassicists and Romantics.
"I fly with HORROR from such a passion" Sally Siddons

The Tragic Muse's eldest daughter had loved the artist steadfastly even after he had forsaken her for her younger sister, a pretty, airheaded girl of sixteen he decided, on an impulse, to marry. 

During this gaping wound in time, her two years of "mortification, grief, agony", a new kindling began inside her. Under layers of suffering, she heard more clearly the music of her calling. 

Passion reverberated in her, enriching her voice with sweetness, her melodies with mortal yearning: “I never should have sung as I do had I never seen you; I never should have composed at all. . . You then liv'd in my heart, in my head, in every idea…”. 

She had turned a fallible man into her muse, and given birth to her own art.

 Sir Henry Raeburn, The Marchioness of Northampton playing the harp, c.1820. 
Oil on canvas.

A few weeks after his engagement to the younger daughter was made official, the shock of unaccustomed proximity to reality cleared the artist's vision. He saw that he had mistaken the girl's character. He confided in the Tragic Muse that it was not her younger daughter that he loved. It was the eldest daughter. It always had been. 

His love was true; he had simply suited the wrong action to the word, an error that any artist or actor would forgive.The Tragic Muse was sympathetic; she understood the play of passions in an artistic temperament.

Obeying impulse, for he was governed by no other law, he broke off the engagement and re-declared his first love.

He did not declaim when he wooed her eldest daughter for the second time - no child of professional actors would have believed him - but spoke in a low whisper, sincerity of feeling shining in his eyes. He knew by instinct the ways in which a woman could be seduced, because it was how he wanted to be loved himself. He was intoxicated by his own acting.

The eldest daughter of the Tragic Muse had lived in hope of this happy ending for so long, rehearsing it in her mind every day and night, that his love felt real to her, too. Her resistance melted as she listened to him. She felt he believed what he was saying. She pretended to herself that her sister, no longer caring for the man, would not take the loss to heart. The girl would go back to thinking of nothing but beauty and fashion, whether she looked better dressed in black or white. 

The eldest daughter gave the artist a ring made of "a TRUE LOVER’S KNOT" to bind him safely this time, convinced that she could keep him on her love alone.

The eldest daughter of the Tragic Muse had lived in hope of this happy ending for so long, rehearsing it in her mind every day and night, that his love felt real to her, too. Her resistance melted as she listened to him. She knew he believed what he was saying. She pretended to herself that her sister, who no longer cared for the man himself, would not take the loss to heart. She gave the artist a ring made of "a TRUE LOVER’S KNOT" to bind him safely this time, convinced that she could feed him on her love alone.

Sally Siddons perched on the edge of a Romantic landscape, by Thomas Lawrence, c.1795.

Stage-struck, in the blinding light of infatuation, she, usually the temperate one of her family, grasped the pleasures of unreflected life like a forbidden fruit. Never before had she lived on the feelings of the moment, like he did. She felt reborn. 

They met in secret in the breaking light of April mornings, before anyone else was up, to recite the catechisms of reconciled love under the pink and white blossom of the cherry and almond trees of Soho Square Gardens, their self-absorption anointed with the scent of lilac and honeysuckle.[1]This was a very long time ago, in 1798, when a city public garden in spring was fragrant with sensual delights.

But, "in the very temple of Delight, Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine." When she got home, drunk on happiness like a bee on summer flowers, giddy from suspending her reason and conscience, she could no longer deny to herself that her sister, no longer preening and carefree, was growing pale and spectre-thin.[2] The poison of jealousy, more lasting than the sweetness of a lover's kiss, was vying with her illness to debilitate the girl. Though she was only nineteen, the younger sister began to look like an old woman. 
The Gipsy Girl by Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas, 1794
© Royal Academy of Arts, London
A disturbing piece of erotica by Lawrence, in which Maria Siddons, aged fifteen, has been suggested as the model. It is a plausible theory: she has the intense, dark eyed and tousle-haired look of her family, and the date fits with their period of intimacy. The genre to which the picture belongs in art history is "fancy", a sentimental objectification of rural life for rich people, but this naked half-wild boyish girl with her flushed cheeks, parted lips and fierce gaze, is inviting a far more sexually ambivalent response, begging tough questions about what on earth Lawrence wanted out of the Siddons sisters, let alone what she's doing with that chicken.

While watching her sister slowly die, the eldest daughter of The Tragic Muse saw that her love for the artist was tainted. There was no hope of harmonious union with her sister's ghost always between them, so she resolved never to marry him. Unable to bear her sister's pain and her own, suffocated by emotion and asthma, the Muse's daughter took to her bed, lulling the storms of her troubled mind with opium. She gave the appearance of being stupefied, and never told anyone about her dreams during that time. Her confrontations with her secret nature, her jealousies and desires were like those of a stranger, painted and written about by other people.

 Fuseli, The Nightmare 1790-91 Oil on canvas. Goethe-Museum, Frankfurt. 
Image source: WGA

Her rejected lover gave her no peace, profaning the family's mourning with threats of suicide unless she revoked her decision. Suddenly denied the trophy of complete conquest his self-love demanded, he panicked. All his life, he would only feel at ease centre stage, because that was where he stood in his imagination; anywhere else, he was afraid he would disappear; to the resentment of other painters, he always insisted that his pictures be hung in the most prominent positions at exhibitions.  

The swagger self-portrait he created in his mind never included the detail that he did not want to be married to any woman at all. His anguish felt real to him; he mistook the cause. It was not through fear of losing her, but through fear that he was losing face, his image fading like old oil paintings into dullness. 

He implored the Tragic Muse to make sure her daughter would never marry anyone else. In all the confusion of his impulses and desires, and his bright shiny painted layers of consciousness, he never penetrated the darkness of other people's feelings.  

He did not want to hurt; he wanted to feel the feel of being loved; he courted women the way he imagined he would have liked to have been; representation was the reality of love for him, far more than desire for another person; he loved with all the sincerity of a great actor, immersing himself in his role of the season. 

The daughter of tragedy recoiled from his excess of emotion. She was not callous; she felt for him, but she had been raised by her parents to hear the false notes of over-acting in dramatic art. This is not love, she told her mother. "I fly with HORROR from such a passion" she declared, building a fortress round the idea in her head, a fantasia of pillars, capitals and rotundas, thinking she could hide inside it her guilty pleasure in his love. Desire being harder to kill than truth, her tenderness for him ached in her flesh even while sense and sensibility told her to give him up.

 Turner, Dido Building Carthage or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire,1815
Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London. Image source: WGA

I see him as he is.[3] The man she loved had never existed except in her imagination. So the Tragic Muse's daughter turned her mind against love born of the "summer's burning heats"[4] and lied to herself that he was dead to her. One day a few months later, she met him, adorned with yet another young woman hanging on his arm, in Kensington Gardens.

It was too late to pretend she had not seen him. She had to carry on walking down the same path. She controlled her feelings, as she always did, and politely looked at him, but when she met his eyes, his glance that pierced through and through her was like an electric stroke to her. [5]

William Blake, The Lovers' Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta 1824-27 Pen and ink and watercolour. 
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham. Image source: WGA


[1] Not a myth: Soho Square Gardens had been recently improved, replanted with trees and shrubs in the early 1790s, probably under the guidance of the great botanist, Joseph Banks, and its paths altered and relaid. The handsomest house on the Square, No 21, was a luxurious and fantastically decorated brothel at the time Lawrence and the Siddons family lived in the neighbourhood.

[2] Keats, Ode To a Nightingale: “Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin and dies” 
[3] Sally Siddons, Letter to Mrs Pennington, from Oswald G. Knapp, An artist's love story, told in the letters of Sir Thomas Lawrence, Mrs. Siddons, and her daughters, 1904
[4] Sally Siddons, Song, quoted in F.M.W. Parsons, The Incomparable Siddons, 1909. 

Sally Siddons’ song ‘When summer’s burning heats arise’ was described by a witness

who heard her sing as “sweet and melancholy”, and in 1801, her mother’s admirer

and future biographer, Thomas Campbell, visiting the Siddons family at home, 

compared the palpable sincerity of her compositions to Haydn’s collections of folk

songs: “Miss Siddons . . . sings with incomparable sweetness melodies of her own

composition. Except our own Scotch airs, and some of Haydn's, I have heard none
more affecting or simple." Parsons,pp 195-6

[5] Letter from Sally Siddons. All quotes from Sally Siddons’ letters are from Parsons except where specified.

 Psyche Abandoned, Augustin Pajou, 1790
Marble, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: WGA