Wednesday, May 16, 2007

John Ruskin and pubic hair

Today's Guardian carries the welcome news that Tate Britain is to mount an exhibition devoted to the work of John Everett Millais. It will open on 26 September 2007 and close on 13 January 2008.

The paper's report has the story about the model for his Ophelia catching pneumonia. It further says that her father insisted that Millais pay her medical bills. But it does not have the story about Millais's first application to the Royal Academy. He was a child prodigy and one of the examiners suggested that he should be sweeping chimneys instead.

Another story is included: how Millais ran off with Effie, the wife of the art critic John Ruskin. The papers says of Effie and Ruskin:
That marriage was never consummated, according to art legend, because Ruskin, brought up on smooth white marble classical statues, was aghast to find his wife had pubic hair. The marriage was eventually annulled, and Millais and Effie married and had eight children.
How we love to laugh at those prim Victorians! But this tale, like many we tell to make fun of them, is nonsense.

In his Inventing the Victorians, Matthew Sweet showed that the Victorians did not cover the legs of pianos because they thought them indecent. That was a joke they told at the expense of the strait-laced Americans. You can find chapter and verse in a column I once wrote.

When it comes to Ruskin, Sweet dates the first appearance of the story to a 1965 biography of him by Mary Lutyens. He comments on her theory:
Lutyens did not know, it seems, that Ruskin had written to his parents, with a frankness which now seems creepy, that he had seen plenty of pictures of "naked bawds" in his undergraduate days.
So it's nonsense. In fact, when it came to male nudity the Victorians were a lot more relaxed than we are. The Amateur Swimming Association did not make bathing costumes compulsory in competitive schoolboy races until 1890.

Inventing the Victorians is a very good book. (It also proves that Prince Albert didn't have a Prince Albert, incidentally.) I also recommend Sweet's Shepperton Babylon on the dark history of the British film industry.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is something new to learn every day. Long may pubic hair rain