Welcome to my blog, where I take pleasure in words and pictures, be they my own or those of others. I'm a creative individual, and the crafty side I explore on my 'other blog', Picking Up The Threads, which I hope you'll visit too. I'm sure you understand that I have sole copyright of my original work and any of my contributions, so please ask if you want to use them. A polite request is rarely refused. So, as they used to say on the BBC's 'Listen With Mother' radio programme, many years ago: "Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin."

Friday, 7 February 2014

A Piano Lesson


"As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart.” (Proverbs) Inscribed on the frame  of this painting as directed by the artist.

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1851-53)
There are lessons a plenty to be learned form the above image, a very famous Pre-Raphaelite painting dripping with hidden meaning. It’s classified as allegorical as Hunt filled it with symbolic details and painted the picture in expectation that we would ‘read’ those meanings. He asked for the above inscription to be added to the frame of the painting because he wanted to show how 'the still, small voice speaks to the human soul in the turmoil of life’. These are most definitely not a playful siblings failing to take their piano practice seriously. The title is about the conscience of the ‘fallen woman’ which has been pricked by hearing a tune from her past, played on the piano by her lover; the seducer, inadvertently, introducing  the note of repentance, as he serenades his mistress.

Oft in the stilly night
When slumber’s chain has bound me,
Fond memories bring the light
Of other days around me.

She’s in a mess; look at the tangled threads, bottom right of the painting. Can she learn a lesson and act on the awakening conscience? She has been ‘caught’ as surely as the the sparrow beneath the cat’s paw and is trapped, probably condemned to a life of prostitution once he has discarded her, as easily as his glove, which lays at her feet. The garden reminds her of her innocent past and the light suggests possible salvation.

John Hadfield in 'Every Picture Tells a Story’ tells us that this room, chosen as setting for the cautionary tale, is Woodbine Villa, 7 Alpha Place, St John’s Wood - an area renowned for its maisons de covenance. 

“The gentleman’s features , dress and gestures are self-explanatory, and almost every detail in the room drips with sexual and moral innuendo. The girl’s lack of a wedding ring is obvious, as is also her provocative state of undress”

“The girl’s open lips and dilated eyes reveal the ‘awakening conscience’, which is symbolised by the French clock bearing a design in which Cupid is bound by chastity, and by the mirror, which reflects an idylllic scene outside  the window.”

Hadfield tells us that this painting, more than any other of its period, expresses the mid-Victorian fascination  with, and revulsion from, sexual irregularity.

“It might also be regarded as a characteristic expression of Victorian hypocrisy, since the model who posed with such a touching air of repentance, lived with the artist as his mistress for several years.”

Our Sepia Saturday prompt this week was a piano player and his female companion in a parlour full of detail, not dissimilar to the one in the painting. There is no suggestion that the woman in the prompt is the pianist’s lover, and I don’t think the room has been set out to be read as an allegory, rather an accident of arrangement. However, there are pictures within a picture and who knows whether these are hinting at some hidden meaning?


Contrast the Hunt painting with one by the Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer in about 1670-72. Vermeer painted many variations on the theme of a woman seated or standing at the Virginal. What could be more innocent? The very name of the instrument suggesting the purity of the female musician. In this example, in The National Gallery, London, we also have a picture within the picture. this time we have Cupid holding a card, symbolising faithfulness to one lover, or the traditional association of music and love.

A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal by Johannes Vermeer 1670-72

For more music lessons and pictures full of meaning, hidden or otherwise, visit the art gallery that is Sepia Saturday and see what other contributors made of the prompt.

30 comments:

  1. I love her reflection in the mirror, and what about the clock in the bell jar on the piano?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Deb, the clock is French and bears a design in which cupid is bound by chastity; more pointers to the girl’s awakening conscience.

      Delete
  2. Very appropriate examples for Alan's prompt photo. You should find my post of interest this weekend because I ended up in this same Victoria art world, and William Holman Hunt was the next-door-neighbor of my photo's subject! That's cosmic!

    ReplyDelete
  3. My goodness - so much exposed in one painting! One of my favorite songs from the 1890's found in a British Music Hall book is "Tuner's Opportunity". Supposedly, it's about a piano tuner who comes fairly often to tune a young woman's piano. Of course that's not what he's really tuning! It's a 'read between the lines' sort of thing and melodrama audiences love it. The minute I saw that first picture, the song began running through my head. :))

    ReplyDelete
  4. Not a lot of piano playing going on at the minute in that first painting, although at least both the player's hands are visible, and one hand is on the keys, but their thoughts are surely on something else entirely!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That’s the point Hunt is making Jo; his thoughts are on one thing only, hers are are a mixture of regret, fear and of course, her 'awakening conscience' of the title.

      Delete
  5. And what about that shawl or blanket knotted around her bum? "Knot" now, Mister!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This emphasising the erotic nature of the liaison Wendy (and these are apparently her 'undergarments'!)

      Delete
  6. A friend of mine posted this photo a few years ago and I remember the back story from then. Interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I didn't know this painting, I've just finished reading the wiki page, very interesting. At first sight I wouldn't pay attention to all the details (I even missed the cat), so thank you for pointing it out!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Marilyn, this is exactly my idea of fascinating, so very much indeed. One could speculate so many hidden ideas from the first painting, as well. Especially with the foremost young lady appearing to be suddenly getting up from his lap? Then I see someone else in this picture. Could the person in the shadows behind them have anything to do with her sudden departure? Again, you have brought us an excellent selection, bravo.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think that's her reflection Karen. The garden reflected in the mirror hinting at salvation perhaps?

      Delete
  9. This is one of my all time favourite paintings.
    Liz @ Shortbread & Ginger

    ReplyDelete
  10. A fascinating post and an unusual take on this week's theme. I enjoyed reading about the symbolism in the first picture - it made me look so much more closely at the detail. Thank you for introducing me to it.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Clearly everyone pays more attention to details than I do. So glad others pointed out some stuff I missed.
    As always a delight to read everyone's sepia posts.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Wikipedia has an interesting article about this painting.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I love paintings with marred virtue and this one is exceptional. I know Vermeer has many a story in his creations too!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Nell, I think this young lady has a sister who appears in The Hireling Shepherd.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I would never have guessed the hidden intent in this painting which I have never seen before. I have a better understanding of Vermeer.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Goodness. What a lot of cryptic messages.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I LOVE paintings like this. There is one in the Christchurch art gallery where I live that has hidden meanings. The girl in that painting is also in trouble. She is pregnant and there are symbols in the painting to reveal the hidden meaning. I can't for the life of me think who painted it, or what it was called and it is currently to able to be viewed becaus the building is closed due to earthquake damage.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Good gracious, what a fascinating interpretation of hidden meanings. I shall look at pictures of Auntie Miriam in an entirely different light in future.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Allegory galore...I'm shocked, simply shocked! Tee hee. Art should shake her head in shame. Oh wait, she is, isn't she?

    ReplyDelete
  20. Too much. Too much information. Information always spoils a painting for me. i like to enjoy what I see not what the painter is thinking whether it's sleezy or historical facts or private life, or whatever.. Fortunately I wasn't familiar with this painting so it couldnt be spoiled. But before reading what you wrote I had found it a disturbing painting and had put my own interpretation on it. I'd happily hang the Vermeer on my wall.

    ReplyDelete
  21. so much information, it really had me looking and looking more intently. I don't know if I'd have gotten all that in a full day of pondering the painting. That there was so much suggested would not have occurred to me but now with the material I can see the tale.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Thanks for the introduction to a painting and an artist that I have not known before. And thanks for the reference to Vermeer, my favorite.

    ReplyDelete
  23. This is a fascinating lesson in art, thank you! So much to search for and think about!

    ReplyDelete
  24. Ah! Thought he couldn't possibly be her husband, lounging around in that careless way. Tut tut, evil all round. Just as well someone has an awakening conscience, eh?

    ReplyDelete
  25. A couple of very different paintings (and messages) there.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Information overload as it clashes with my own sense of etiquette in this modern era.
    Understanding what used to be and the constraints on a woman's life is beyond me.
    This could have been simply two young people enjoying one of the many pleasures of life,
    and yet, it sounds like it could have meant the end of the world for the woman...
    All for the lust of man. You can guess what I'd tell a guy like that...

    ReplyDelete