Fair Women, by Wm Sharp Part III
"And I said, 'By the love I bear you, visions of beauty, come before me and play me magnificent shows."'--LEIGH HUNT: A Sight of the Gods.
IT will be news to most people, as it was to the present writer, that there was a Fair Woman exhibition other than that at the Grafton. In fact, the one I allude to is not of a season, but perennial.
It is called the Kennaquhair Gallery.
Presumably there is a byway into it from the Grafton; at any rate, I found myself there one day when I had traversed the several rooms and was by the farther wall of the End Gallery. I had been looking at Van Dyck's Venetia, wife of the celebrated Sir Kenelm Digby, concerning whose beauty and attainments rumour was so busy, and about whose complaisance gossip was so rife, and was vaguely wondering if it was true that her husband had killed her by giving her viperwine to preserve that beauty of which he was so proud, when I stepped suddenly into a passage I had never descried before. There was a moments darkness, then the gleam of the golden letters inscribed above a portal of sunlit marble: "The Kennaquhair Gallery." In less than a minute I paid my price of rainbow-gold, and stood within.
My first glance bewildered me.
Before me was an immense gallery, on both walls of which hung in a single line, and with a wide space between each canvas, an innumerable series of pictures.
The glow, the colour, the lovely radiance, the immediate sense of an undefinable air of beauty and ideal grace---all this, with something of haunting reminiscence, with something of dreams realized, is indescribable.
My bewilderment became greater on the discovery that as soon as one stood opposite any canvas it was absolutely vacant!
No, I was not dreaming! There was the room, there were other visitors moving to and fro, there were the pictures, there was the glow, the radiance.
It was only then I noticed a catalogue in my hand. I did not remember having taken or been given one. With eager curiosity I looked at it, and then turned to its preface. Externally the legend ran thus:
THE KENNAQUHAIR GALLERY OF
Chaucer to Swinburne
On the first page was the following note, prefatory to a brief introduction by a Mr. Dreemer, with whose name I was not familiar:* Visitors to the Kennaquhair Gallery must bear in mind (1) that the artist is never to be held responsible for the aspect of his picture in the eyes of the person who realizes it; (2) that in almost every instance the painter's own vision will transcend that of the person to whom he appeals; (3) that frequently the lines of Depicture cannot be realized fully without previous knowledge of their context; (4) though the lines in which these Word-Pictures are painted are immortal, they are apt to be fugitive at times, at times somewhat dulled, at times radiant to the exclusion of everything else; but in each case, the reality or vagueness of the vision will depend upon the visitor himself; (5) no pictures are for sale, though relicas of one or many can be carried away in the mind without charge or interference on the part of the Directors, who, however, have nothing to do with the liability of these replicas to fade (6) the Kennaquhair Gallery is open to all, without any distinction, and at all hours of the day or night, Sundays included; (7) entrance granted immediately on presentation of a piece of rainbow-gold, which can be had in any quantity on application at the House Beautiful. N.B. For the sake of the common weal, those who have not even a patch of the Ideal Life wherewith to hide the barrenness of their souls cannot gain entrance to the House Beautiful.
* * The Galleries are at present arranged as follows: I. English; II. Scottish; III. Irish ; IV. Celtic; V. Ancient Greek; VI. Ancient Italian; VII. Renaissance Italian; VIII. Modern Italian; IX. French; X. Provenyal; XI. Spanish; XII. Portuguese; XIII. Flemish and Belgian and Dutch; XIV. Scandinavian; XV. Slavonic; XVI.-XIX. Oriental: Ancient and Modern; XX.-XXIII. America, North and South; XXIV. -XXV. Miscellaneous.
*** In a few instances there are adjacent rooms: e.g., beside the first pourtrayal of Beatrice, there is a Dante Room; beside the strangely beautiful dark woman called The Worser Spirit, by Shakespere, there opens off the large Shakespere Gallery; again there are a Spenser Room, a Byron Room, a Tennyson Room, a Browning Room, a Meredith Room, a Swinburne Room. Thus, also, in all the Foreign Galleries there are some separate chambers: e.g., in the Greek section a Homer Room; in the Roman, a Virgil Room; in the German, a Goethe Room; in the French, a Voltaire Room, a Victor Hugo Room, and others. By a slight exercise of a mental process these rooms can be entered and enjoyed exclusively, or their contents can be seen on line.
****A piece of rainbow-gold will at any time procure an optical illusion whereby one or more pictures maybe isolated; or whereby chronological sequence may be set at naught. Thus the Helen of Homer and the Helen of Marlowe may be seen side by side. In a word, the rainbow-gold can, if wished, be used as an irresistible spell over time, history, space.
On the next page I read:
PAINTED BY THE POETS AND ROMANCISTS.
Thereafter followed the preface:
The most beautiful women are those who have never lived, as we understand it.
These are wrought of Beauty, Ideal Love, Immortality. Their garments are lovely words, their voice is music, the lighht upon their faces is the morning glory of Imagination.
These Fair Women are the daughters of the Soul of Man by the Beauty of the World, whom he calls Femina. They are immortal, for even if in the passage of years, or through accident, they fade in the memories of mankind, they live again in the ever new and beautiful births which are the offspring of this divine marriage.
Time, however, cannot touch their pictured loveliness. They are limned on a canvas beyond the reach of the moth. They are in the mind of man as the innumerable stars are in the firmament.
Femina is born daily. Her soul, Ideala, weaves a rainbow for ever. In the weaving, Femina is wooed by the Soul of Man; when the weft is woven, the lovely Dreams are born; when the rainbow fades, while another is swiftly woven from it, its fugitive glories drift into the Looms of Life, and become the golden threads that are spun into the mind of every human being.
Femina is neither good nor evil. With her right hand she can guide men to the Gates of Heaven, with her left she can lead them to the Portals of Hell. When the Soul of Man first wooed her, she said: "The daughters I shall have will be many there will be the daughters of Love, the daughters of Passion, the daughters of Lust, the daughters of Hope, the daughters of Joy, the daughters of Dream, the daughters of Pain, the daughters of Sorrow, the daughters of Despair, and the daughters of Vengeance."
"All these," said the Soul of Man, "I foresee and know, save the last."
"Even so," replied Femina; "for this thing shall be betwixt women and men to the end of days; that among my daughters will be Daughters of Vengeance."
A brilliant French wit, Rivarol, wrote that one could make a great book of what has not been said.
Some day a man of genius will tell its the story of Femina.
It will not be a woman. A woman would better than a man understand what Femina meant and means by the daughters of Vengeance, but she would relent. Even if passée, she would still remember. With women who have been beautiful, remembrance is as fatal a dissolvent to resolution as temptation is to youth.
Moreover, the author of FEMINA must have lived the dual life of sex. As yet, woman has not lived the life of man.
Once more, the task would need supreme genius. Genius is not enfranchised from the laws of physiology. Let Rivarol, again, say the rest: " Heaven has refused genius to woman, in order to concentrate all the fire in her heart."
There are two Don Juans. We all know one; the other is he who loves Femina, Ideala, in all her daughters, no man being able to see Femina herself. But this other can become impassioned only in the mind. He may love woman, or women; he can yearn after Ideala only. With the old Florentine painter he can say, the only passionate life is in form and colour.
Don Juan II. owes his best happiness, his rarest joy, to the magicians whose spell is the spell of words that have lain in the moonlight of the imagination, and thereafter gone forth rapt in dream, filled with strange madness.
Don Juan, enter! The magicians you love are here; here are the Fair Women of Imagination of all time; here, in one, many, in none perhaps and yet in all, is Ideala.
Having perused these preliminary pages, I looked to see what followed. A single quotation heralded the catalogue and the pictures:
"Beauty is the Sun of Life: and these are the Courtiers of the Sun"---
a line doubtless suggested by a famous passage in Jeremy Taylor: "[These] have splendid fires and aromatick spices, rich wines and well digested fruits, great wit and great courage, because they dwell in his Eye and look on his Face and are the Courtiers of the Sun."
The catalogue I held in my hand was that for the English section only. The names of the painters began with Chaucer, and came down in point of date as recently as to Francis Thompson.¹
¹Vide the final lines quoted on the last page.
It was with joy I recognised innumerable Fair Women, from the Creseida of Chaucer's Troylus and the lovely Una of The Faėrie Queene, to the blithe and sweet singer of Pippa Passes and the pathetic-eyed Pompilia of The Ring and the Book; the Guenevere of Malory, and the Guenevere of The Idylls of the King, and the Guenevere of William Morris; the haunting eyes and strange dreamfaces of those whom I had known in The House of Life; the supreme Iseult of Tristram of Lyonesse.
"Hath love not likewise led them further yet,
From picture to picture I went with ever new delight. What blithe gladness to recognise, on a canvas by Chaucer, among a series called The Legende of Good Women, a Dido outlined immediately one had perused the lines on the frame:
"The fresshė lady, of the citee queene,
Then, a little further on, the same artist's Queen Alcestis, clad like a daisy, and walking hand in hand with Love, the God himself lovely
"In silke, embrouded ful of greenė greves,
Beautiful, indeed, she seemed, clad in royal green,
A few lines on another frame, in the immortal series of The Canterbury Tales, recreated in a moment, in all its vivid details, dainty Madame Eglentyne, with her "mouth ful smal and thereto softe and red," with "eyėn greye as glas."
Suddenly I caught sight of a frame whose panel bore the name of King James of Scotland as artist. I had no sooner read certain lines than I saw that lovely Lady Joanna Beaufort "the fairest or the freschest youngE floure that ever bloomed, who, walking in the garden one springtide morn, was seen of the King who was to love and woo and win her, and by her beauty sent "astert The blude of all his body to his hert." Many other half-discerned features gleamed before me, till I smiled as I recognised, on a canvas by Skelton, winsome "Merry Margaret."
But I think that in all that wondrous company of Fair Women, from Chaucer's Dido to Spenser's Una, and from Shakespere's Dark Rosaline to the Iseult of our greatest living poet, I loved none so well as those of the unknown balladists of the north country. Not even in that circle of the Elizabethans where thrilling voices spake and strange and lovely visions arose did I linger so lovingly as with those tragic dreams, the Lady Margaret who lies in "Mary's Quire," Burd Helen, May Margaret whom Clerk Saunders loved so passing well, that too heedless "Kinges daughter of Normandye" whom Glasgerion trysted with, she of the Dowie Dens o' Yarrow, and the brave daughter of the House of Forbes for whom even bloody Edom o' Gordon sorrowed a moment.
"O bonnie, bonnie was her mouth,
Let whoso knows the incalculable richness of English poetry, from Shakespere to the youngest of the Victorians, imagine, even on first rapid consideration, the innumerable lovely pictures or suggestive outlines of Fair Women! Let those who will prefer the Cleopatra of Mr. Alma Tadema! Beautiful in her way she may be, but what of lost magic, of incommunicable charm, of lost glow and passion, compared with Her of the Kennaquhair Gallery! Think not only of the Elizabethans, but of Herrick, of Carew, Lovelace, Suckling, of all the Jacobean, Carolan, Queen Anne, and Georgian singers. What days and weeks might be spent in the quest of the Fair Women of the contemporaries of Shakespere alone! What a lovely company born to beautiful life with the Christabel of Coleridge, in Haidee of Byron, the Highland Reaper of Wordsworth! Think of all limned by Byron alone, by Wordsworth alone, though the loveliness of girlhood rather than of womanhood is oftenest painted by the latter. Neither Julia nor Parisina nor even Haidee in quite so nobly fair as that nameless vision whom the poet saw clad in beauty
but all in all, what a gallery of Fair Women is given us by Byron! Not less numerous and lovelier still, those whom we owe to the genius of Keats: Madeline and Isabella, Lamia and Cynthia. Women and exquisite phantoms of women live for ever in the verse of Shelley, none perhaps with more wondrous radiance than Emilia Viviani, scarce visible to mortal eye, as could not but be when she and her creator were
From the Rose Aylmer of Landor to the Rose of Tennyson! The very names create a loveliness before the mind. With the Fair Women of Browning, from tender Pompilia and blithe Pippa to Evelyn Hope, who might not dwell for a year and a day, and, as the Orientals say, wish the year to be for ever and the day to be eternal. The lovely pictures of the author of A Dream of Fair Women press upon one - and, hardly fewer and not less lovely, those limned by Mr. Swinburne. Of all modern creations of the Beauty of Woman, none surpasses the Iseult of Tristram of Lyonesse, not the Guenevere of the Idylls, not the Lilith of Rossetti. Strange House of Beauty that wherein the last-named guides us. There the Blessed Damozel, and Helen of Troy with Helen the Witch, Rose Mary and fair Scots Queen, Jenny of London wreckage, the lady of the bower, Pandora, Proserpina, Sibylla Palmifera, and Venus Verticordia, and manymore, but above all she, Ideala, in many guises, under many names. Lovely, too, that Gallery wherein Rossetti is also our guide: [Dante and his Circle] the Gallery where we encounter Beatrice; or, as she comes from a woodland copse in Spring, Guido Cavalcanti's Shepherd-maid--
"She came with waving kisses pale and bright,
or that almost incomparable Angiola of Verona, beloved of her poet Fazio degli Uberti, whose every motion as well as whose every feature has an ideal grace:
"Soft as a peacock steps she, or as a stork
Then what a wealth of loveliness do we owe to our younger weavers of dreams. Here, from one of the youngest and as yet scarce known, a lovely Woman whom many will recognise with tears and longing:
At times we ask no more than this: not a line more of description, not a word of further detail. The mind loves to be its own alchemist.
It would be impossible to give an adequate hint, even, of the wealth of the lovely portraits by the Romancists--by the Romancists of our country alone. In this genre one room surpassed all others, even that of Scott, even that of Thomas Hardy; that, namely, of the "Brother of Women," if we may apply to George Meredith the designation given by him to Weyburn in Lord Ormont and his Aminta--one of the most delightful of his novels, with a chapter in it (xxvii.) of incomparable freshness and charm, or comparable only with the famous riverside episode in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. Even among the minor men, what living and delightful portraits; as, for example, that of Miss Susannah, by Peacock, in Crotchet Castle:
"She was not one of the slender beauties of romance; she was as plump as a partridge; her cheeks were two roses, not absolutely damask, yet verging thereupon; her lips twin cherries, of equal size; her nose regular, and almost Grecian; her forehead high, and delicately fair; her eyebrows symmetrically arched; her eyelashes, long, black, and silky, fitly corresponding with the beautiful tresses that hung among the leaves of the oak, like clusters of wandering grapes. Her eyes were yet to be seen; but how could he doubt that their opening would be the rising of the sun, when all that surrounded their fringy portals was radiant as 'the forehead of the morning sky'?"
The women of George Meredith and Thomas Hardy alone would be numerous enough to fill the largest anteroom in our imagined Gallery. What room after room, then, from Richardson and Fielding to the youngest of our Romancists, Stanley Weyman, and George Egerton, and Murray Gilchrist, to mention three of the most widely differing. Truly, vistas innumerable and seductive.
Of all that lovely company I think I bore away with me most haunting remembrance of three of a diviner beauty than even the most humanly beautiful. The first is by Keats, and is named Melancholy; and the words charged with this supreme magic are these:
"She dwells with Beauty---Beauty that must die;
The second is by Wordsworth, and is named Duty:---
"Stern Lawgiver! yet thou dost wear
The third is the Sibylla Palmifera of Rossetti:
So, with that wonderful last Vision in my eyes I turned to go. Nothing, even in that far from adequately seen room, even in all the rooms of the Kennaquhair Gallery, could surpass Sibylla Ideala.
As I turned I heard a voice, cold, calm, but with an undertone of deep emotion.
"After all," it said, "I of all painters, whether with pigments or with words, have for man most nearly limned his Ideal Woman:
"She was a Phantom of delight
"I saw her upon nearer view,
"It is true! It is true!" whispered another and well-known voice, that of Robert Browning.
"But for you," I asked eagerly, "for you----"
But the Shade passed, and barely I caught the echo of a sigh---
The next moment I realized I was in Grafton Street, in a dark night, and that the rain slid glisteningly from lamp-post to lamp-post.
I too felt chilly and grown old. A young poet pawed me, come likewise from Kennaquhair Gallery, and as he went he hummed:
"And you may love the woman's form,
I could not answer. My mind was full of my vision of Fair Women, but in my ears Browning's words still whispered mournfully.