It is fitting that my first contribution to this blog combines two of my great passions in art – John Keats and the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – with a special moment that came about with the same ‘Wes Anderson magic’ that, for Cedric and me, has characterised the last six months of our lives.
On a chilly, bright March weekend, we visited Newcastle. I had never been so far north, and I was astonished by the city’s beauty. With an hour to spare, Cedric and I stumbled into the Laing Art Gallery. I was excited to see the painting under discussion printed on the outside wall of the gallery, so we had to go in for a peek. Being an avid Keatsian (in spite of my ongoing PhD in Keats studies) and a lover of Pre-Raphaelite art, I was dazzled by meeting this painting in person, as I had admired it for years on the cover of my Oxford World Classics Keats.
The painter responsible for this bizarre delight is William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. As their name suggests, the group of artists and their followers sought a return to the style of art that had flourished before Raphael. They favoured exquisite detail and vibrant colour over what they perceived to be the dull conventions of the day, and they often took inspiration from the Bible and works of literature for their striking pictures. I could write forever of their paintings, poetry, beliefs and eccentricity – you can expect many more posts recommending their work.
Hunt took his subject here, as you may have guessed, from a poem by John Keats entitled Isabella, or The Pot of Basil. Keats adapted the story from a tale in Boccaccio’s Decameron, a collection of 100 tales by the celebrated Italian poet. The eponymous Isabella falls in love with Lorenzo, an employee of her cruel brothers who had intended to marry her ‘to some high noble and his olive trees’. Her brothers learn of their love and murder Lorenzo, burying him in the woods. After Lorenzo appears to Isabella in a dream, Isabella digs up Lorenzo’s head and buries it in a pot of basil. In Hunt’s painting, we can see a visual depiction of Keats’s words:
And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,
And she forgot the blue above the trees,
And she forgot the dells where waters run,
And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;
She had no knowledge when the day was done,
And the new morn she saw not: but in peace
Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,
And moisten’d it with tears unto the core.
The poem ends after her brothers steal the pot of basil from her, having deduced that it contains Lorenzo’s head and evidence of their crime, and Isabella dies ‘forlorn,/ Imploring for her basil to the last’.
Why do I like such a macabre painting and poem? Well, the painting’s sumptuousness is obvious, from the luscious basil leaves concealing their dark secret to the vibrant blanket laid over the prie-dieu that has become Isabella’s altar to Lorenzo. The poem is a fanciful tale, but nonetheless taps into relatable human emotions of grief, anger, distraction, and heartbreak and renders them beautifully.
On reading around the painting, I was touched to discover that Hunt begun the painting while in Florence with his wife, Fanny, who was pregnant. She died after giving birth, and Hunt immortalised her in Isabella’s features in a strange reversal of roles – Isabella’s features, those of Hunt’s wife, are hauntingly blank with grief, but perhaps Hunt was channelling some of his own grief here. The basil pot and the painting itself are curiously united, both being built and nourished by melancholy, both providing life in place of death. It was the idea of immortality through art that inspired some of Keats’s most famous poems, and although I believe in an immortality beyond plants that may wither and paintings that may burn, it is deeply human to seek life over death, even in the midst of sorrow.
So, if you find yourself in Newcastle, have a poke around the Laing. You will see this nearly 2m-high masterpiece, as well as a wall of teapots and teacups that delighted me almost as much.