In her unprecedented work Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang, Kirsty Stonell Walker allowed the reader to discover more about the vast majority of Pre-Raphaelite related women and muses. With her new work: Light and Love she still quenches our thirst for knowledge for the Victorian Age, although from a different perspective. In this wonderfully detailed interview, she gives us an insight into the lives of Julia Margaret Cameron and Marie Hillier while making their unique relationship the core of her new work.
I would like to start by asking you about the Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang. What was the genesis of the book and what do you think about your collaboration with Kingsley Nebechi?
A couple of years back, there was suddenly an explosion in books about women and their otherwise unacknowledged contribution to history. My daughter had some of these and I loved reading them with her and learning things I had no idea about, plus they were beautifully illustrated with modern portraits of the women. I had researched and written about Pre-Raphaelite women for over 25 years, and was chatting with my agent when we came up with the idea of making one about Pre-Raphaelite women. I wanted to be able to give people a handy guide to inspiring figures like Elizabeth Siddal and Marie Spatali Stillman as well as lesser-known ones like Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale and Noel Laura Nesbit. It is not meant to be the definitive book on the subjects but an introduction to these women who all have fascinating stories and deserve to be well known. I would love someone to read about a woman like Brickdale and be inspired to research her life further, to champion her cause, her place in art history.
The collaboration with Kingsley was through my agent. Kingsley is an important young artist who has worked with people like Stormzy and Nike and his modern take on the portraits of these women really brings an immediacy to them. I’ve always felt that for a researcher to become interested in someone, they have to feel a connection to their subject in order to have the passion to champion their cause. What Kingsley brought was beautiful, tender pictures of these talented, spirited women, which have proved to be a really popular aspect of the publication.
Why do you think it has taken such a long time to acknowledge the importance of female figures in Pre-Raphaelitism?
The status of women artists in Pre-Raphaelitism is complicated, and there are definitely a lot of things working against them. Firstly, Pre-Raphaelitism fell out of favor after the First World War, only to be ‘rediscovered’ in the 1960s and the pictures brought forward to prove the worth of this otherwise derided movement tended to be big-hitters like Millais Ophelia. I feel this grew the impression of women being the subject rather than the creator of the art. This was definitely reaffirmed by dramas such as Ken Russell’s Dante’s Inferno (1967) and the BBC series The Love School (1975) which certainly helped to popularise Pre-Raphaelite art but also cast in stone that Pre-Raphaelitism was about men falling in love with beautiful (if miserable) women. Despite the history of Pre-Raphaelite art being filled with perfectly happy women artists, I struggle to think of a popular depiction, even a fictional one, of a jolly female Pre-Raphaelite artist. Possibly the most famous Pre-Raphaelite woman, Elizabeth Siddal, is iconic mainly for her drug abuse, possible suicide and disinterment, rather than her poetry and art, ever the victim rather than the creator.
It would be easy to say that general sexism has been in play, keeping the voices of women unheard, but I think there has also been a certain amount of acceptance by people of the status quo. It’s brave to say that generations of art historians have got it wrong in ignoring patently talented female artists, but there is always a certain level of fear to point out the folly of the past. Undoubtedly, women artists of the Pre-Raphaelite period were not valued in their lifetimes as much as the men – women like Louise Jopling were paid a fraction of what an artist like John Everett Millais would earn, for no other reason than her sex. However, we’re not blind, surely we can see the astonishing merit of works by women like Evelyn de Morgan? Yet it still feels like we are nervous speaking of male and female artists as being of equal worth. We allow the historic monetary worth to guide us, rather than questioning and valuing women’s art on its merits.
You shed new light on the importance of Alice Wilding and Fanny Cornforth in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s and the Pre-Raphaelites’ story. What can you tell us about the research which allowed you to write such comprehensive and powerful novels?
Researching Fanny Cornforth and Alice ‘Alexa’ Wilding provided different challenges. Fanny, a working-class girl from Sussex, was so hated by some of her contemporaries there were many contradictory stories about her character. Finding the truth about Fanny took many years of comparing different versions and looking at the relationships she had with the men in her life. Her relationship with the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti made his family feel very protective towards him and his legacy, and so Fanny’s involvement in his life was all but erased. However, art collectors like Samuel Bancroft jr of Delaware, who had no connection to the Rossetti family, wanted to hear the truth, or at least Fanny’s side of the story, which is a luxury not afforded to many women of her class. The problem with Fanny is that a lot of the falsehoods about her are really funny and people much prefer them to the rather dull truth. Therefore, the story of how she met Rossetti by cracking nutshells between her teeth and spitting them at men she fancied has stuck, repeated in the BBC’s 2010 drama Desperate Romantics. However, the story is entirely untrue, spread by a man who had been embarrassed at a party by Fanny, albeit unwittingly. His revenge was to turn a girl who was merely paying a visit to London into a brazen prostitute in all of Rossetti’s biographies, even to the present day.
Alice Wilding is an enigma. She has managed to hide her life so successfully that despite being the face to the largest number of Rossetti’s oil paintings, we know very little about her. The things we know make very little sense. She earned very little money as a model and yet was able to live in a very large Knightsbridge house. She never married yet had three children. I was fascinated with the possibilities that those breadcrumbs offered and so created a fictional version of how her life might have been and had enormous fun exploring the world in which she lived. Alice was present in a lot of important moments in Rossetti’s life as the dumb witness – she was at Kelmscott Manor when Rossetti was having an affair with his best friend’s wife, she was modeling for him when he was planning to unearth the poetry book buried in Elizabeth Siddal’s coffin. Alice also knew Fanny Cornforth and we have letters between Rossetti and Fanny where Alice has told Fanny a story about Rossetti’s behavior with another woman. Writing about such a secretive woman makes you wonder what secrets she had to tell.
Could you already tell us something about Light and Love? What made you decide to dig into Julia Margaret Cameron and Mary Hillier’s unique relationship?
Light and Love is the biography of a relationship. I’ve always been fascinated by the interplay of artist and model because it’s rarely as simple as creator and subject. This is even more pronounced if the model has a role in the life of the artist; with male artists, there is often a crossover with their lovers and their models, but the relationship between Julia Margaret Cameron and her models was a lot more varied and complex. I have to admit that as a woman who is the same age as Cameron when she received her first camera, I’d love the chance to pursue my ideals of beauty, both male and female, in an exciting modern medium such as photography. Her ideal of male beauty was a clever man, older than herself by quite a stretch and in possession of an impressive beard. We often underestimate how erotic her images of these men are meant to be – she made them wash and fluff up their hair before they posed and we are left with images of the great and good in literature and science with facial hair as soft and white as clouds. I admit I have been left with an insurmountable crush on Henry Taylor. Cameron’s relationship with her muse Mary Hillier is complicated by the fact that Hillier was her maid as well as model, but also her assistant in the development of the images. Cameron was a daughter of the Empire who had spent many years in India, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Europe and brought this complex blend of cultures to her life and style. Hillier was born in a small village in a corner of the Isle of Wight where she would remain for her long life, marrying, raising children and dying within a matter of a mile, but her face is now known all over the world. Not only that, but writers since have used a stereotype of Hillier as somehow unintelligent and rural in order to poke fun at Cameron. How is it possible for Cameron to elevate such a stupid creature to such heights in her photography? Cameron is therefore lowered by the connection, rather than an appreciation that between Hillier and Cameron was a shared understanding of a vision that transcended their cultural differences.
I also wanted to explore how the whole process of the photographs affected the lives of these two women, from shaping how Cameron developed her skills to the creation of these iconic works and subsequently how the process affected Hillier’s life after Cameron. Her experiences with Cameron changed Hillier’s life in terms of what she wanted for her children. Her aspirations changed, but whether she had control over these dreams is another matter. Cameron’s life is one of determination and inspiration and Hillier’s one of patience and resilience, both incredible in their own ways.