Monday, 20 October 2014

Effie Gray: Love and Muddle

Writing about women’s lives is always complicated but it is not helped by the way they keep changing their names.  Take Effie for example.  Where should her biography go on the shelf: under G for Gray, R for Ruskin or M for Millais?  And how should my name be indexed: F for Fagence or C for Cooper?

Emma Thompson’s new film has finally cut through this confusion by plumping for the title Effie Gray.  Effie was a Gray for 19 years before she married John Ruskin, and became Gray again when their marriage was annulled.  It also makes it quite clear what audiences should expect.  If they hoped to see a movie about Mr and Mrs John Ruskin, then they will be disappointed.  This is definitely a marriage seen through one pair of (moist, red-rimmed) eyes. 

Several reviews of the film, which was released on Oct 10th, have complained that Ruskin was not fairly treated.  They say that his status as a visionary critic, and decent man, have been underplayed, and instead he we are left with an image of a cold, work-obsessed mummy’s boy. I think this is missing the point.  Ruskin was a great writer.  He has shaped the way we look at architecture, history, geology, economics, and drawing.  But he was unprepared for the intimacy of marriage and found it unbearable.  Even his own father admitted that Ruskin was better on paper than face-to-face.  So it is difficult to convey on screen the glories of his writing and thinking.  But the film-makers do try.  They show him as a taste-maker, whose opinions changed the direction of British art.  He is seen writing constantly, but also clambering about on scaffolding in Venice.  Maybe we should have been shown the electrifying way he could move an audience at his Edinburgh lectures.  But writing is a solitary process, and Effie was excluded from this central part of his life.  She wanted to help him with his research, copying or drawing for him, but he was reluctant to let her be useful.  And so their lack of sympathy hardened.

One of the producers said at an early screening that the film was ‘more hysterical than historical.’  It helps if we embrace this way of seeing it. Of course there are inaccuracies and elisions.  The gorgeous figure of Paulizza, Effie’s Austrian admirer in Venice, for example, has been replaced by a dubious Italian Count.  Millais looks more like Rossetti, with a hipster beard and luscious lips.  (Portraits of Everett show him as a clean-shaven, meticulously dressed middle class fellow who never had to work in a grotty garret.)  And the cottage in the Highlands is made to seem much more isolated than it should be.  When Effie, Ruskin and Everett travelled to Brig o’Turk in the summer of 1853, they were accompanied by Everett’s brother William, as well as Ruskin’s valet.  William stayed in a hotel, just across the lane from the cottage, and other friends dropped in from time to time.  But this manipulation of the facts should not detract from the very real tensions in the confined space, which are brought to life on the big screen. 

John Everett Millais, A waterfall at Glenfinlas (Effie Ruskin), oil on canvas, 1853
This is not a documentary, but a costume drama drawn from cache of letters left by the Ruskins and the Grays.  We could quibble about Effie’s insistence on drifting about Venice without bonnet or gloves.  To many Victorians that would have been unforgiveable.  However, the decision to leave Effie’s hair down – making her look girlish and vulnerable - for much of the film makes a dramatic point.  When she decided to leave Ruskin, she smooths her hair and pulls it severely up and off her face.  Her changed appearance is a sign of her determination and her ability to take control of her own fate. 

The use of Millais’s Ophelia as the poster girl has also caused some tutting among purists.  Of course we should not conflate the Ophelia model Lizzie Siddal with Effie Gray.  Yet the more you look, the more apposite this image becomes.  Not only does it reflect the scene with Effie submerging herself in a bath, it also hints at the troubling issue of mental instability.  Ophelia was rejected by the man she loved, and this shattered her peace of mind.  Ruskin suggested several times that Effie was unhinged: he claimed she was ‘a maniac in the house’, and said she was suffering from ‘a nervous disease affecting the brain.’  So Effie may not have modelled for Ophelia, but the painting opens up several themes in her story.  And it is undeniably beautiful and eye-catching.

Effie Gray was created by the makers of Merchant Ivory films.  There is a whiff of Lucy Honeychurch about this new portrayal of a girl transformed by Italy. It is another tale of love and muddle, of misunderstandings.

Effie opens the window of her hotel room, letting the light stream into her little life, just as Lucy did in A Room with a View back in 1985.  Effie’s Venice with its tolling bells, colonnaded piazzas, and curious locals is very reminiscent of Lucy’s Florence.  Perhaps Mrs. Ruskin’s roses are a nod to Mrs. Honeychurch’s battle with her windswept dahlias.  And we can certainly find echoes of Lucy’s fiancé, the uptight, aesthetic Cecil in Greg Wise’s portrayal of Ruskin.  Like Cecil, we see Ruskin admiring his beloved as a beautiful object, rather than as a flesh-and-blood woman.  Look but don’t touch is the motto of both men.  In A Room with a View, we sympathised with Lucy’s experience, her moments of revelation, rather than Cecil’s rejection and despair.  And so now we see the failing Ruskin marriage from Effie’s point of view, not her husband’s.  As in any marriage, good or bad, there will be two versions of the truth.  This new film is very clearly made by Team Effie.  The clue is in the title. 

Ruskin’s side of the story has been told many times before.  If you bought J H Whitehouse’s book, Vindication of Ruskin (1950), you would know what to expect.  No doubt the old criticisms will be levelled against Effie again – she was a flirt, ‘too forward for her years’, extravagant, petulant, hysterical.  She was undoubtedly difficult to live with at times.  She was often unwell, homesick for Scotland and craved society. She was also an unwilling pioneer, pushing for the right to be fulfilled in her marriage – as a mother, as a manager of her own establishment, as a bright woman. Maybe we could have seen a more spirited performance at times, an awareness of Effie’s charisma and erotic capital.  But, in the words of one of cinema’s great Odd Couples, ‘Nobody’s perfect!’

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I am happy to speak to groups of all sizes. Here are some of the lectures I offer:

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Lecture synopses:

1. Christopher Dresser: Designer for the Modern World?

In the 1930s, Pevsner hailed Dresser as a pioneer of modern design. But is this the best way to account for the extraordinary objects that he helped to create? This lecture considers Dresser’s work as a prolific industrial designer, the impact of mechanization on his products, and the diversity of his influences from Pre-Columbian pottery to botany.

2. Painting and Poetry: An introduction to the Pre-Raphaelites

Victorian painters were fascinated by the interweaving of art and literature. This lecture reveals the complex and very personal responses of artists to their favourite poets, from Dante to Tennyson. In particular it traces the idea of the ‘double work of art’ in Rossetti’s art, and in pictures by his friend Edward Burne-Jones.

3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Charismatic and romantic, Rossetti was one of the leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite revolution in British art. A poet as well as a painter, he wove words and images together to create a new landscape of the imagination. When his art was criticized for being too ‘fleshly’, he withdrew into his inner circle of friends and refused to exhibit in public. After his death in 1882, a mythology sprang up around his life and art: Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddal became icons of a new generation of rebel artists. This lecture explores Rossetti’s life and art, and considers the tensions between the ethereal and the sensual in his work.

4. New Art for the New Woman

Victorian women like Lizzie Siddal, Julia Margaret Cameron and Evelyn de Morgan, learned to negotiate the male-dominated art world. Many female artists began experimenting with new media, including photography and poster design, to create alternative images of the Victorian world. This lecture shows how, by the early 20th century, women were subverting the traditional feminine skills of book illustration and needlework to develop radical designs for the Suffrage Movement.

5. St Cecilia’s Halo: Music, Sex and Death in Victorian Art

The Pre-Raphaelites are usually thought of as literary artists. But music was also inextricably woven into the fabric of Pre-Raphaelite art. Figures on their canvases are playing music or listening to it; instruments are tucked into unexpected corners, adding an extra dimension of sound to the pictures. This lecture demonstrates the revolutionary intention of this music-making. It shows how the Pre-Raphaelites took a traditional subject, like St. Cecilia, and subverted it. Painting music helped to trigger a broader shift in Victorian art from narrative paintings towards Aestheticism, and its focus on abstract beauty, ambiguity, androgyny and sensuality.

6. The Model Wife: Women in Pre-Raphaelite Art

Who were the women whose faces gaze out at us from the canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites? This lecture explores the private lives of a revolutionary group of Victorian artists, and the haunting stories of their loves – Lizzie Siddal, Janey Morris and Effie Gray.

7. Frederic Leighton, James Whistler and the Cult of Beauty

Leighton was one of the most slippery characters in the Victorian art-world. He managed to walk a social tight-rope: he was an Establishment figure, honoured as President of the Royal Academy, for his portraits of distinguished men. But he also created some of the most disturbingly sensual images of his generation. This lecture considers the art of self-presentation in the lives of Leighton and his colleague in the Aesthetic revolution, James Whistler, as they pursued ‘Art for Art’s sake’.

8. Victoria's Secrets: Exploring Victorian London

The Victorians were well aware that there was a down-side to the great Imperial and Industrial progress that they enjoyed. In contrast to the historical and poetic fantasies of the Pre-Raphaelites, a number of artists, including Herkomer, Doré and Langley drew attention to the sufferings of the poor. This lecture looks at images of urban poverty, through paintings, photography and illustrations that were made to raise awareness of the ‘submerged tenth’ of the British population.

9. Edward Burne-Jones

Burne-Jones’s dream-like images became icons of the Aesthetic movement, disturbing and inspiring his contemporaries in equal measure. This lecture also focuses on the life-long partnership between Burne-Jones and William Morris. They collaborated on an astonishing range of projects, from book design to tapestry weaving and stained glass, flooding houses and churches with light and beauty.

10. Women and the Ideal Home

What is the truth behind the Victorian ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’? This lecture considers the relationship between domesticity and design, looks at the rise of ‘shopping for pleasure’ and the gendered decisions involved in decorating a 19th century home. It also highlights the careers of women who subverted contemporary expectations by turning home-making into a profession.

11. Pre-Raphaelite Art in the V&A Museum

The Pre-Raphaelite collections in the V&A are one of the museum’s best-kept secrets. The paintings, drawings, tapestries, tiles, and even pianos are scattered around the galleries, making it hard to get an overview of the movement. But, as this lecture shows, the decorative arts were essential in developing the distinctive style of these revolutionary Victorians. Rossetti, Millais, Burne-Jones and their colleagues moved easily from one medium to the next, creating objects – like illustrated books and stained glass - that reached a far wider audience than their easel paintings.