A Frederick Sandys exhibition celebrates the re-opening of the Castle Museum

The Victorian age was fascinated by hair, as these paintings show



In “A toccata of Galuppi’s”, the poet Robert Browning asked, “Dear dead women, with such hair, too / What’s become of all the gold / Used to hang and brush their bosoms? / I feel chilly and grown old.” As these lines reveal, the Victorian age was fascinated by hair and some of the most luxuriant of all paintings of Victorian tresses can currently be enjoyed at Norwich Castle Museum in the exhibition, “Frederick Sandys and the pre-Raphaelites” (until 6 January).

Sandys (1829-1904) was born at Norwich and studied there, producing some intense Ruskinian drawings of trees, ivy on wooden posts and birds. Clearly, however, the young artist was not a “card-carrying” Ruskinian as he revealed in his 1857 satirical cartoon “The nightmare”, which depicts Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt astride a braying donkey branded “J.R. Oxon”. This was tantamount to calling Ruskin a jackass, while taking a sideswipe at Millais’s painting “Sir Isumbras at the ford”. The satire was a great success and gave Sandys a glimpse of the fame which later proved so elusive. Rossetti enjoyed the cartoon, thinking it both “impudent’ and “a damned clever thing”. He invited Sandys to lunch and a close friendship followed until 1869 when the relationship temporarily ended after Rossetti accused Sandys of plagiarism. How far was this accusation justified?

Certainly both men produced smoulderingly sensual images of women, and gloried in depicting their hair. Their disagreement centred on the specific theme of a woman sucking her hair, a subject which Rossetti had initiated, but which Sandys made uniquely his own, both in illustrations such as “If” and “Helen and Cassandra”, and in the painting “Proud Maisie”, which he repeated no less than 13 times. One of Sandys’ finest classical paintings, “Medea” (1866-68), was described with sinister relish by his friend Swinburne, as “being ... pale as from poison, with the blood drawn back from her very lips, agonised in face and ... limbs the fatal figure of Medea pauses a little on the funereal verge of the wood of death ... to pour blood-like liquid into the soft, opal-coloured hollow of a shell”.

On the walls at Norwich, Sandys’ “Medea” competes with other femmes fatales, such as “Helen of Troy”, “Miranda” and “Medusa”. The backgrounds to many of these intense head and shoulder studies depict colourful textiles, passion flowers, oleanders or, as in “Vivien”, a halo of peacock’s feathers. One of the most moving is “Mary Magdalen”, whose glistening eyes, “Titianesque” hair and trembling tears are a tour de force of technique.

Sandys painted memorable male portraits both of “the good and the great”, including Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Matthew Arnold, and such colourful figures as the shady entrepreneur Charles Augustus Howell. His finest made portraits are of his patron Cyril Flower, Lord Battersea (1843-1907), who had extreme Aesthetic tastes and bought “The golden stairs” from Burne-Jones. Lord Battersea is portrayed with whiskers of amazing virtuosity, which cascade into waves and curls, prompting the viewer to draw amusing parallels with artists as diverse as Leonardo and Hokusai.

The exhibition launches a catalogue raisonné by Betty Elzea (The Antique Collectors’ Club and Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service) which is exemplary in both its scholarship and production, with a sensitive introductory essay on Sandys by Douglas E. Shoenherr, and 76 fine colour illustrations.

The exhibition celebrates the reopening of Norwich Castle Museum after two years’ closure for refurbishment and the installation of a splendid new lift which has made access to the Castle much less daunting.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Pre-Raphaelite plein hair painter'