‘She’s only a bird in a gilded cage, a beautiful sight to see. You may think she’s happy and free from care; she’s not though she seems to be.’
When the British lyricist Arthur J. Lamb first offered the lyrics of ‘A Bird in a Gilded Cage’ to the Tin Pan Alley tunesmith Harry Von Tilzer, he was told to go back home and clean them up. Lamb had made the subject of his song a rich man’s mistress; for mass-market appeal she needed to be married.
In its revised version ‘A Bird in a Gilded Cage’ shot to the top of the 1900 sheet-music charts. For some strange reason the idea of the kept woman, married or unmarried, continues to exert a fascination on both sexes. How else to explain the undiminished popularity of Victorian images of captive women in opulent interiors?
Distance may lend enchantment to the view, but post-#MeToo some justification is needed. Our art galleries are stuffed to bursting with Victorian paintings of closeted women waiting, longing or grieving for men. ‘“My life is dreary, he cometh not,” she said.’ How do you solve a problem like Mariana? Four years ago, before the #MeToo movement erupted, the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle made the brave decision to take the bull by the horns — or the cage by the bars — and explode the Victorian myth by confronting it with the modern reality seen through the eyes of contemporary women artists.
The resulting exhibition, The Enchanted Interior, is a positive aviary of caged birds, among them Evelyn de Morgan’s ‘The Gilded Cage’ (1900–19) inspired, perhaps, by Lamb and Von Tilzer’s song. Millais’s ‘Mariana’ is absent but Holman Hunt’s Isabella is there with her pot of basil, and there’s a trio of ladies of Shalott including a daringly expressionistic oil sketch by John William Waterhouse with broken brushstrokes mimicking shattered glass (see p31). Add in a bevy of oriental beauties in assorted seraglios and you have a whole new perspective on ’er indoors, all set off to atmospheric effect in the enchanted interior of the Laing’s Edwardian galleries.
Things are of course more complicated than they seem. Enchantment cuts both ways; some of the women depicted are themselves enchantresses guilty of the psychological entrapment of men. The mixer of De Morgan’s ‘The Love Potion’ (1903) is a witch with a staring-eyed familiar that could have stepped out of one of Louis Wain’s crazier cat cartoons; the lovelorn goddess in Edward Burne-Jones’s ‘Laus Veneris’ (1873–5) is a femme fatale whose former lovers ‘heard sudden serpents hiss across her hair’, in the words of the Swinburne poem that inspired the painting. Venus had it coming. ‘Women ought to be locked up. In some place where we could have access to them but that they couldn’t get out from.’ Not the life motto of Josef Fritzl, but a witty sally (one hopes) by Burne-Jones.
The show’s starting points were two favourite paintings in the Laing’s collection: Burne-Jones’s ‘Laus Veneris’ and John Frederick Lewis’s ‘Hhareem Life, Constantinople’ (1857). The leading British orientalist, Lewis lived for nearly ten years in Cairo in the former house of a Mameluke bey, but being unable to visit a harem in person had to rely on reports from his wife and model Marian. His odalisques are English roses in oriental costume: with their centre partings and round faces, the near-identical concubines in ‘The Hhareem, Cairo’ (c.1850) all bear a striking resemblance to Queen Victoria. ‘He has banished everything like grossness and sensuality,’ wrote one English critic with ill-concealed disappointment. The French woman artist Henriette Browne, who did have access to harems, disappointed male expectations further with her images of unadorned harems full of respectable hijab-wearing women: ‘They disturb our oriental dreams a little,’ grumbled one French critic. But women artists too had to make a living: Browne’s ‘A Moorish Girl with a Parakeet’ (1875) reverts to exotic type.
A cohort of contemporary women artists has been enlisted to complete Browne’s work of disenchantment. Afruz Amighi dispels any remaining oriental illusions with ‘1001 Pages’ (2008), a Moorish-patterned mashrabiya screen cut from the white polythene used for tents in refugee camps; it casts a fragile shadow on the wall behind. Latticed shadows also radiate from Mona Hatoum’s ‘Home’ (1999), a kitchen tableful of electrically wired utensils — cheesegrater, colander, sieve — lit from within to throw a sinister light on domesticity. The glazed door panels of Anya Gallaccio’s ‘can love remember the question and the answer’ (2003) are filled with chains of gerbera daisies doomed to decay during the exhibition — in apparent sympathy with the ageing Jane Morris in de Morgan’s ‘The Hour Glass’ (1905) hanging alongside — while the teenage heroine of Fiona Tan’s video ‘Nele/Nellie’ (2013) moons about a Dutch colonial-era house in Amsterdam in a blue and white-patterned dress that merges with the 17th-century wallpaper.
Tan’s film is inspired by the story of Cornelia, Rembrandt’s daughter with Hendrickje Stoffels condemned by her illegitimate status to be kept indoors. Rembrandt may have had his daughter’s best interests at heart, though his record was not unblemished where women were concerned: he had had Hendrickje’s predecessor Geertje Dircx committed to an institution after she sued him for breach of promise. Better confinement, all in all, than committal. The caption to Alfred Joseph Woolmer’s painting titled ‘Woman in White’ (1872) after Wilkie Collins’s novel informs us chillingly that Victorian women could be sent to the asylum ‘for reasons as vague as “exhaustion” or “over-education”.’ Help.
An imaginative addition to the exhibition is a room inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in which the heroine, confined indoors for an enforced rest-cure, has visions of a woman trapped in the wallpaper, unable to escape its strangulating pattern. The arsenic then used as a pigment in yellow wallpaper could create an atmosphere that was literally toxic; Walter Crane’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1879) design, of which a sample is on display, was specifically marketed as arsenic-free.
The yellow room also contains the piano given to Burne-Jones and his wife Georgina in 1860 as a wedding present — weirdly decorated by the artist with a frieze of the Grim Reaper rapping on the door of an enclosed garden where young women are listening to music — and a deluxe Dutch 17th-century two-storey birdcage that once belonged to Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. With no access provided between the two storeys, its occupants were kept in solitary confinement. The cage appears in the foreground of an intricate watercolour of 1885 by Lawrence’s Suffragist daughter Anna Alma-Tadema recording the stiflingly elaborate interior of the family drawing-room at Townshend House. Did she feel like a bird in a gilded cage? Perhaps. But I felt sorrier for the real birds in solitary.
The Enchanted Interior is at the Laing Art Gallery until 22 February 2020.