An Australian pre-Raphaelite tale.
Artists like Burne Jones supported by authors like John Ruskin caused a major revolution by presenting paintings with far more detail, with a different pallet of primary colours and a medieval subject matter. Ruskin was a supporter of this new development and it spread to the other arts including literature. It also was connected with the growing appreciation of the Gothic in Architecture, not only in churches but in public and domestic buildings. This is the reason why we have 'gothic' buildings in Australia like most of our Cathedrals and some Government Houses as well as private houses.
The influence also appeared in literature in England with historical romances and medieval tales and serials. There were some Australian attempts at historical tales published in Australian periodicals like the Australian Journal for example
In 1858 there appeared in the magazine The Month a 'Fairy Story for Old and Young'. It consisted of four Chapters and occupied fifteen pages of the magazine. Not only that but it was illustrated by four line drawings. Only one illustration contained a picture of a fairy and I wondered if this was the first depiction of a fairy in an Australia publication.
The story was written by the lawyer and poet James Lionel Michael a friend and colleague of Frank Fowler and Joseph Sheridan Moore who were producing The Month. They belonged to one of the Literary Groups that had arisen in Sydney at that time. They were the expatriate group, what I call the exiles from Britain, as opposed to the Currency writers (Australian born) like Charles Harpur, Henry Kendall, William Forster, William Charles Wentworth and Henry Halloran (almost a currency lad). The Month was a lively magazine and even today some of the articles and tales read well if one ignores the sometimes archaic language.
James Lionel Michael was an interesting person who had known some of the Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood in England before he came to Australia, This influence of the Pre-Raphaelites is obvious in his tale The Isle of Vines and makes it especially interesting as an example of the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites in Australia. Michael, who had assisted Henry Kendall in his early days, died in mysterious circumstances in Grafton New South Wales. The suspicious circumstances indicate possible suicide or murder but Henry Kendall suggests it was an accident.
The Isle of Vines, like many legends or fairy tales, is set in an imaginary country that sounds more like Australia with its long white beaches, orange groves and balmy climate, than a country in northern Europe. It is quite different from the snow covered mountains and weird pine forests of many of the German tales by the Grimm brothers and the stories of Hans Christian Anderson which were popular in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The country in the story The Isle of Vines was ruled over by a king, old, venerable who had visits from a fairy. She arrived to see the king and ask his help. The king had three grown up children who had been endowed by the fairy with certain qualities which had an important bearing on the story.
It is much like many of these stories with kings, princes and princesses. It is however not a love story and their is no heroic prince although at one stage I thought the 'poetic bird' owned by the princess would turn into a prince and they would live happily ever after. Not so! The story is a moral tale with a medieval setting; there are some grim parts but it is not an unpleasant story.
It is a tale of Pre-Raphaelite beauty. The flowers are jewel like, studding the grass, rather as they do in a Burne Jones paintings. The vines are everywhere and trail around the buildings and up the trees in a most picturesque fashion. For not only is this part of the nineteenth century filled with the romantic medieval buildings and similar to stories like those in Wagner's operas and in the real life of King Ludwig of Bavaria who built a magnificent 'gothic' castle. It is also the period of the romantic gardenesque style in gardening with roses trailing about and vines around the verandahs of Australian gardens with flowers richly coloured like jewels.
The setting is important as a Pre-Raphaelite picture but the story follows the pattern of that well known supporter of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, John Ruskin. His famous fairy tale is well known, The King o the Golden River, which was written in 1841 but not published until 1851. Ruskin makes his story a moral tale of three brothers who set out to find great wealth in gold. Ruskin's tale has a lovely moral twist at the end. The two older brothers fail and only the youngest brother succeeds because he is kind and because of his compassionate action in giving the last of his precious holy water, needed to attain the final goal, to an old man in desperate need.
The Isle of Vines also has a moral. The two Princes set out to secure 'the water of life' from a fountain in an impenetrable forest. They both fail because one is cruel and over confident and the other is cunning and ungrateful. The one to succeed is the Princess, modest and loving who overcomes all the difficulties with her 'poetic bird' She returns with 'the Water of Life' for the king to give to the fairy. The moral of the story is a simple one, that love succeeds where force and cunning fail.
There are interesting aspects and suggestions of sexual attraction. The elder brother pictured as dressed in armour encounters a temptress, Volupta, described as wearing a short dress. My, my, tut tut! She is pictured in the illustration as a turkish harem woman wearing trousers, and a short dress, no bare legs but with turned up shoes. Nowadays she would probably be much more scantily dressed. Women at that time went everywhere, even walking riding or at the beach in long crinoline dresses with numerous petticoats. They certainly would not wear a short dress, a suggestion of extreme daring, possible sexual attraction and even looseness of morals. The illustrator just could not put all of that in the illustration. The fairy on the other hand is pictured in a short dress. I suppose she is automatically pure. This older brother ends up being turned into a wolf, the symbol of force.
The second Princely brother, the cunning one, uses a trick from one of Aesop's tales to get himself out of a pit and then leaves his rescuer stuck in the same pit. He ends up being turned into a fox.
The Princess overcomes all the difficulties even the temptation of a handsome young man. She is threatened by wild beasts and another tempter called 'Envy', but she reaches the fountain in a beautiful 'Burne Jones' like field. She thus fills her phial with the "Water of Life' and returns home to her lather in a golden chariot drawn by winged reindeers. Unfortunately Michael, the author from England, didn't know enough to make them winged possums or kangaroos. His aim was to write a medieval tale and anything specifically Australian would be out of place. The story is possible based on the Grimm tale of 'The Water of Life' where three brothers set out to find it and the youngest succeeds through kindness. I much prefer our Australian tale.
This tale was also printed as a book as well as appearing in the periodical The Month. This in itself was unusual for Australia at the time. It was published as a book in 1858 but it was first published in the periodical. The publisher of the book was J.R. Clarke of George Street Sydney. He was a bookseller and had published a number of books by Australian authors like Louisa Atkinson and 'Peter Possum' (Frank Fowler). as well as a collection of poems by Henry Kendall. He in addition was an early publisher of Australian music. The book design does show some influence of the Pre-Raphaelites.
For example every page is surrounded by a border. These borders which vary are made up of printers flowers. They are fairly narrow and bear no comparison to the magnificent borders that Burne Jones created for the justly famous Kelmscott Chaucer.
The illustrations for the story are most interesting as an attempt to suggest the Pre-Raphaelite interest in gothic art. The first one of the king and the fairy has a fine gothic window surrounded by a vine and urns full of flowers. The fairy is a recognisable fairy type, a small young adult in a short dress, butterfly wings and a very long wand and standing on a cloud. The king wears a medieval crown, and is standing on a hearth rug with a 'Victorian' throne behind him.
The second illustrations shows the elder brother in armour with helmet accepting a goblet from the temptress. Australians would have been familiar with with the many drawings in English magazines of the time with pseudo medieval historical stories and illustrations of men in armour with gothic castles in the background. Sydney had some such examples--modern ones--of such gothic castles in the form of Government House and Grantham on Darling Point. Also at the time the great gothic pile of Sydney University was under construction. One could even imagine 'gothic' Fort Macquarie on Bennelong Point where the Opera House now stands, as the King's castle 'in the middle of the Lake' as described in The Isle of Vines.
The temptress is wearing a short skirt and she is wearing what appears to be a 'harem' type costume as already mentioned.
The second brother is dressed in what looks more like a cavalier type dress although I could be a medieval outfit. The young princess is finally shown at the fountain of the 'Water of Life' filling her phial wearing a kind of medieval gown. The scene is full of flowers and there is her pet bird and the chariot to carry her back home. The drawings are all light and delicate not the firm dark outlines seen in Burne Jones stained glass windows.
Who was the illustrator? I suggest it was Louisa Atkinson. There is no signature or initials to indicate this. But J.R. Clarke was publishing Louisa Atkinson's novel Gertrude the Emigrant at the time and Louisa did the illustrations for her book. F. Mason who engraved Louisa's illustrations was the 'printer' of The Isle of Vines. J.R. Clarke also published some of Louisa's drawings on the covers of his published songs and music. Louisa also provided some of the drawings of the Blue Mountains for the illustrations in the Album done by Mason also published by J.R. Clarke. The illustrations in The Isle of Vines are not unlike somme of Louisa's illustrations in Gertrude the Emigrant. The trees in The Isles of Vines illustrations are rather like the trunks of gum trees and not oaks or beeches or fir trees. These look like some of the back grounds to Louisa's beautiful bird illustrations. Therefore I claim the drawings in The Isle of Vines as the work of Louisa Atkinson.
How does this tale stand in comparison with other pseudo medieval legends and fairy stories of the time? The tale reads well and is interesting in its descriptions although some are over long for modern taste. Today's feminists might like it because the princess, the heroine is the hero and she does it without the help of a man. She succeeds where the mere males fail.
Some aspects of the story raise various questions in my mind. Did Michael actually base his story on The King of the Golden River or was it an influence? Was it based on the story in Grimm's Fairy Tales about the Water of Life? What other 'gothic' illustrations or paintings were done at the time in Australia? Was there any other Gothic Revival type literature in Australia in the nineteenth century? What poems and stories in the Sir Walter Scott tradition were published in Australian periodicals or books? I know there was one such serial in the Australian Journal with medieval illustrations. Would Marcus Clarke's For the Term of his Natural Life fit the category of a 'gothic tale'?
This Pre-Raphaelite Tale is important, not only as an early illustrated children's book but as an example of the Pre-Raphaelite influence in Australia. Ruskin's influence in Architecture is shown in such buildings as the GPO in Martin Place in Sydney, a 'Venetian Gothic' example. There is little evidence of such influence in Australian painting or in other aspects of Australian literature. Perhaps it is all still hidden from view.
I find it a nice thought for Australians, without an ancient gothic history, to have an Australian gothic fairy tale as a relief from all those adventure stories in the bush. Of course they are not to be despised--they are very important as well.
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|Publication:||M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2006|
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