A question of scale
May 6, 2014 § 2 Comments
This past weekend – after about ten years’ worth of failed attempts – I finally got into Kelmscott Manor. I’ve written before about the family curse my cousins (who live nearby) and I seem to be under with regard to the place – we’ve turned up on days it was closed, about to shut, or, worst of all, flooded – but perhaps because I made the effort to visit both of William Morris’s London houses last year, the gods finally smiled on us.
The house and gardens were so beautiful that I was ready to move in, draughts and damp be damned, but there was one object in it that sticks in my mind still, above all the chairs and tapestries and metalwork. Ironically, it isn’t by Morris himself, but by his friend and eventual rival in love.
In the china closet on the ground floor is a small group of drawings of Jane Morris by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The majority of them are all of a muchness if you’re familiar with this strand of Rossetti’s work, but one of them stands out a mile.
It’s the first portrait he ever drew of her, in 1857, a mere ten days after they first met in a theatre in Oxford. I had seen it reproduced in numerous books, but nothing prepared me for its size (and unfortunately the size can’t be conveyed any better on a computer screen than it can in a book). Jane’s head – huge hooded eyes, heavy mass of crinkled hair, curled mouth and all – is drawn about one and a half times life size. On that scale her features – especially her eyelids – take on a quality both sculptural and unreal. She looks carved from marble and at the same time disconcertingly fleshly, despite the fact that it is only (only?) a pencil drawing. I’ve seen her depicted numerous times as a goddess (Proserpina, Astarte) but this was the first time I actually felt I’d stumbled into the presence of one.
I had a similarly disconcerting encounter with another over-life-size portrait two years ago, in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. The painting I most looked forward to seeing, and immediately sought out, was Botticelli’s portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, which I’d seen in reproduction countless times. Again, I’d had no idea of the scale of the painting, and had assumed that a Quattrocento female bust portrait would be no more than life size, possibly a bit smaller. Yet there, suddenly, was Simonetta in all her lofty beauty looming above me on the wall.
Rossetti barely knew Jane Morris (or Burden, as she was then) when he drew that first portrait. How well Botticelli knew Simonetta Vespucci is the subject of ongoing (and probably unsolvable) debate, but it’s thought unlikely that she actually sat to him for the Städel portrait. (For that matter, a later portrait of her by Botticelli is known to have been painted after she died.) I mention this because they both fall into the category of ideal portraits. It’s generally easier to idealise someone you either know little or not at all than someone you know well. Not a problem for Botticelli, whose muse remained distant or absent, but in Rossetti’s later portraits of Jane there’s a noticeable loss. He never recaptured the strange power of that first drawing. It seems reductive to put it down to the decrease in scale. And yet…
I’ve seen Rossetti’s paintings of Jane full-length, both portraits and in the guise of goddesses and literary figures. They do have an overwhelming physical presence. Yet they are all put in the shade by a modest pencil drawing tucked away in a corner of a tiny room in Kelmscott Manor, larger than life in every sense.