Postgraduate Studies

Siddal, ‘Lady Affixing Pennant to a Knight’s Spear’, 1856
Watercolour on Paper, 137 x 137 cm
Tate, London.

The small dimensions of this painting suggest it may have been a private, intimate piece. Perhaps it functioned as an artistic exercise, as Siddal was at this time relatively new to painting and receiving tuition. It shows a unique handling of watercolours: normally used as a thin wash, they are thickly applied almost against their original design. This technique creates radiant blocks of vivid colour, which are reminiscent of early 15th century Flemish paintings and stained glass windows.

This is a medieval scene of love and loss: a knight bids his love farewell before going into battle. She ties a favour to his spear – red scarf – as a sign of affection and luck. In these parting moments, their eyes do not meet, and instead are cast downward with a feeling of sorrow and dread. Through the doorway the knight’s squire holds the reins of a horse, ready to escort him to the battlefield. The landscape outside is barren and cold, emphasising the uncertainty surrounding the young man’s fate.

The Medieval subject explores the roles of gender within Victorian society, and intensifies the contrast between gendered spheres: the interior and the exterior. Despite this closed-off intimate setting we are reminded of the outside world through the open window and doorway. The bleak landscape holds no promise for the woman, and coldly awaits the knight’s arrival. This is emphasised by the squire readying the knight’s horse. Clearly the lovers must be separated; he will have to go without her. This exterior world is his place, not hers.

In comparison, the tight composition emphasises the woman’s place within the domestic sphere. It may serve as a comment upon the constraints women felt, relegated to the household. This is emphasised by the way the floor seems to curve upwards by the doorway, as though the room is literally enveloping the couple. The brown, red and orange hues of the interior heighten its warmth and comfort, as opposed to the cold green, blue and purple hues of the distant landscape.

The distinction between their rightful places and their impending separation are accentuated through their postures. The knight kneels with his feet pointing towards the doorway, almost revealing the path he is soon to take, whilst the woman is firmly rooted to the bench, turning her back toward the open window. She pays no attention to the outside world, and exists wholly within the confines of this interior.

It has been suggested that the painting is ‘laden with sexual symbolism’.[1] The couple’s tender embrace is brutally dissected by the large, linear shape of the knight’s spear. In one respect, this could be argued to serve as a phallic symbol, which dominates the entire composition. This adds a deeper level of meaning to the image of the couple, hinting that their relationship is sexual as well as romantic. On the one hand this may suggest that they are married, which further emphasises the anguish caused by the knight’s departure. On the other hand it could be read as moralistic: if the couple were to be having a sexual relationship out of wedlock, they would be committing a carnal sin and the knight’s departure may function as their punishment. This could additionally be interpreted as a warning from Siddal to Rossetti, who at the time of this painting’s production had been promising marriage for many years but had not yet honoured his pledge. It is unknown whether or not the two lovers had a sexual relationship at this time, but if Siddal had insisted on protecting her virginity, as it has been suggested, this painting may have functioned as something of a warning to the audacious Rossetti.[2] Finally, with reference to the gender roles previously addressed, the predominance of this linear cut through the composition, along with its phallus-like interpretation, could also emphasise male dominance, particularly regarding Rossetti’s overshadowing artistic career.

Siddal’s use of colour is suggestive, particularly in the depiction of the lady’s pennant, and furthermore her hair: long, unbound, flowing and red. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were known to have favoured red-haired models; Siddal herself is said to have been sought out particularly for the colour of her hair.[3] Parallels have previously been drawn between the couple in this painting and the relationship between Siddal and Rossetti, and it has been suggested that this painting simultaneously functions as the artist’s self-portrait alongside the portrait of her lover.[4] While this may be convincing, the colour of the woman’s hair may serve as more than simply an identifiable characteristic. Some might say that red hair could also be associated with a fiery temperament, a passionate nature and sexual awakening, and with the Pre-Raphaelite interest in early Renaissance and Medieval works, many of which depict the eroticised bodies of redheaded women, this argument is quite compelling. Some examples include Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1486, Florence, Uffizi) and Titian’s Woman with a Mirror (1513-15, Paris, Louvre) and Venus of Urbino (1538, Florence, Uffizi).

Botticelli, ‘The Birth of Venus’, 1486
Tempera on Canvas, 172 x 278 cm,
Uffizi, Florence.

Titian, ‘Woman with a Mirror’, 1515
Oil on Canvas, 99 x 76 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

While it is apparent that Siddal contributed several works to various exhibitions, it is not clear whether or not Lady Affixing a Pennant to a Knight’s Spear was ever shown in public during the artist’s lifetime. There is currently no record of this, and no published contemporary reviews of this particular painting. It has been suggested that the watercolour was later given as a gift to Burne-Jones, as it was acquired by the Tate Gallery from his son Philip in 1917, using the funds of W. C. Alexander.[5]

What is certain is that the painting was included in two exhibitions in 1947 and 1948, at Birmingham’s City Museum and Art Gallery and Whitechapel Art Gallery, London respectively. Both events served to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and that Siddal’s works were among those on display emphasises the importance of her role within the group.

[1] Upstone, Pre-Raphaelite Dream, 83

[2] J. Marsh, ‘Imagining Elizabeth Siddal’ in  History Workshop Journal, vol. 25, no. 1, (Oxford: Spring 1988),  70; 73; 76; 77

[3] M. Lutyens, ‘Walter Howell Deverell (1827-1854)’ in L. Parris (ed.) Pre-Raphaelite Papers (London: 1984), 80

[4] Upstone, Pre-Raphaelite Dream, 83

[5] Ibid., 83; W. C. Alexander was a wealthy banker, and a friend and patron to James McNeil Whistler, who became part of the later circle of artists associated with Rossetti after Siddal’s death.


JE Millais, ‘Speak! Speak!’, 1895
Oil on Canvas, 1676 x 2108 mm
Tate, London

Millais’ works are well known for his precision and painstaking attention to detail. Painted over four decades after the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Speak! Speak! (1895) demonstrates a noticeable change in the artist’s handling of his materials, and a radical departure from his earlier roots. While many parts of the painting still demonstrate his precision, such as the bound letters on the bedside table, the roman lamp, and the woman’s jewels, the majority of the work comprises loose brushstrokes. Furthermore, the greater part of the painting is engulfed in darkness, illuminated from a single light source.

Unlike the unfolding stories present in his earlier works, the subject matter of Speak! Speak! is deliberately ambiguous. The scene is thought to depict a young Roman who has, after spending the night reading letters from his lost love, awoken to find her standing before him as she appeared on their wedding night.[1] The man starts up in his bed, reaching out a hand towards her, as if – as the title suggests – begging her to speak. To the left, a dimly lit doorway is left open, and a turquoise patch of paint in the upper left corner suggests an open window, revealing a night sky outside. This allows in enough light to illuminate an ascending spiral staircase, from which the ghostly figure is presumed to have come. To the right there is a bedside table, upon which there is a bundle of letters bound with a red ribbon, and a single candle placed next to a mirror, lighting up the room. The candle gives off smoke to the right, which forms a skull-like shape.

A question is left unanswered: is this woman a ghost? The title, ‘Speak! Speak!’ is taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Horatio addresses the ghost of the dead king, which could allude to the dialogue taking place in this painting.[2] In addition to this there are several clues in the way the woman is painted that could affect our interpretation: one remarkable aspect of the woman is the way in which she is lit. Despite the dimness of the room and the candle as a single light source, she is completely illuminated in the darkness. What is more, Millais has painted her with particular colours that cannot be found anywhere else in the painting. On close inspection, her skin and dress comprise not only white, but blues, greens and purples. His application of the paint in small daubs almost resembles the Impressionist approach to create the illusion of flickering light, and adds greatly to the illusion of the woman’s glowing form. These colours ultimately endow her with a ‘cold’ appearance, as opposed to the man whose flesh is painted with reds and oranges and is noticeably ‘hot’ in comparison. Is this the distinction between hot-blooded, living flesh and a cold, ghostly apparition? Or is it simply due to the man being closer in proximity to the burning candle?

This painting addresses the border between what is real and what is not. It is difficult to ascertain whether or not she is made up of living flesh, because despite the way she pulls back the curtains, there is no physical contact made between the two figures that could answer this question. The only hint of contact between them comes from the shadow cast by the man’s arm, which brushes the woman’s hand. However the shadow itself has no substance, and could therefore serve as an allusion to the woman herself. Finally it is impossible to ignore the skull formed by the billows of smoke to the right of the painting, which serves a somewhat ephemeral memento mori.

There is of course another potential reading of the female figure: perhaps she is neither living nor ghostly, but a figment of the man’s imagination. Kate Flint has suggested the possibility of the woman being a psychological hallucination, ‘caused by some internal disturbance in the man’s mind’, and later implies that paintings such as this can address issues surrounding the relationship between hallucination and vision.[3] Some contemporary reviews even addressed this, suggesting she is a symptom of another ailment, with one critic writing that the man is in a high fever, while another sees her as a ‘result of indigestion’.[4]

Whatever the physical state of the woman, her presence is haunting. Painted towards the end of the artist’s life, we glimpse the ageing and increasing frailness of his body through the strokes of his brush. Speak! Speak! bears the lamentations of a life near its end, and is wholly underlain by images of ageing, death and decay.

[1] J. G. Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, vol. 2. (London: 1899), 304

[2] W. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene I, Line 51 in P. Edwards (ed.) Hamlet: Prince of Denmark (Cambridge: 2003), p.89

[3] K. Flint, The Victorians and Visual Imagination (Cambridge: 2000), 261-2

[4] R. J. Slade, ‘The Royal Academy’ in Art Journal (London: June 1895), 164; ‘The Spring Art Exhibitions’ in London Society, vol. 67, no. 402, (London: June 1895), 616

* * *

This excerpt comes from a larger body of work produced in collaboration with the University of Bristol and Tate Britain between November 2011 and January 2012.

Robert Braithwaite Martineau, ‘Kit’s Writing Lesson’, 1852
Oil on Canvas, 52.1 x 70.5 cm
Tate, London

With a bit of clicking around and perusing through various Twitter feeds, I stumbled upon a blog which can only be described as the title of this article suggests.

Pat Thomson, Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, keeps a blog which is jam-packed full of useful advice and resources for Doctoral and Postdoctoral researchers alike. Her research is primarily concerned with the ever-changing characteristics of education, the processes, the procedures, and the enrichment of students through experiential approaches within the educational environment.

This blog really is a valuable resource to be plundered. Here is a brief summary of my top 3 articles for the current/beginning PhD student:

1. Why it is helpful to read ‘out of your area’

This highlights the importance of inter-textuality, and is particularly relevant in today’s academic climate, where the sheer number of PhD holders has led to an increased value for interdisciplinary research. Thomson carried out her PhD at a university which was not local to her, and so found it difficult to integrate within the academic community in her department. Being based in Bristol and beginning a PhD at the University of York, I will be facing the same problem, so this article was of great interest to me. By joining a reading group at a local university, Thomson was introduced to texts which she would never have considered reading because they did not directly relate to her research topic. However, as she explains in this article, there is much to be gained from broadening the horizon of your reading list. This introduces you to new ideas and thought processes, particularly if a text only makes a passing reference to a topic. From reading outside your area, your deeper knowledge of other topics may bring a whole new understanding to this reference which is only alluded to in the text. Thomson’s example of surveillance is an excellent one.

2. Writing the thesis from day 1 is risky

As someone due to begin a PhD in the next few months, the prospect of writing a 90,000 word thesis is extremely daunting. It makes sense to begin writing as soon as possible, in order to squeeze it all in. Also, as someone who has copied and pasted material from older essays into new ones, I can understand how this method seemingly saves time and allows you to reuse passages you are particularly proud of, which seem relevant to what you are now working on. But as Thomson argues, this is actually a very foolish thing to do when it comes to the thesis. Just as we would not expect a 6 year old’s writing to blend in with an 8 year old’s, the writing of a first year researcher stands out like a sore thumb when pasted into the final draft of a doctoral thesis.

Thomson’s most poignant assertion in this article is that the writing process itself is extremely important for the development of the scholar, and by copying and pasting older material, we run the risk of impeding such valuable development. This isn’t just an issue of writing style, but our ability to reassess our older work and build upon it with our more advanced thought processes, and maintaining a recognisable and authoritative ‘voice’.

It is important to continuously write, and Thomson emphasises the value of writing as a process of development and growth (as well as actually working through everything we learn as we read). What she stresses here is to write, re-think, re-draft, and leave the final thesis to the write-up year.

3. How not to fail the PhD

The value of this article is obvious from its title. In all honesty I had not even considered the prospect of failing my PhD. Not because I deem myself to be successful in everything, but more because I just hadn’t considered the possibility that it was something that could be failed. Naive, perhaps. Thomson does emphasise the fact that it is very difficult to fail, (failure rate is about 3-5%), but it is still important to consider the DOs and DON’Ts of writing a thesis. Thomson’s article provides two valuable lists to refer to. Certainly they would be very useful checklists to refer to throughout the writing process and final redrafting.

What Thomson ultimately arrives at is an encouraging point: yes, it is possible to fail a PhD, but the criteria for passing is very achievable.


Thomson’s blog covers many areas, not just the process of doing a PhD. This is just more relevant to my own position. I couldn’t stress highly enough how valuable a resource this blog is, whether you’re in the middle of a PhD or whether the ‘Big Book’ is done and dusted.


(Fig. 1) Burne-Jones, 'The Beguiling of Merlin', 1877 Oil on Canvas, 186 x 111 cm Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.

(Fig. 1) Burne-Jones, ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’, 1877
Oil on Canvas, 186 x 111 cm
Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin of 1877 (Fig. 1) depicts a scene from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, in which Vivien, the lady of the lake lulls the sorcerer into a deep sleep, enveloping him within the trunk of a Hawthorn tree. The figure of Merlin is slumped, horizontal and helpless, whilst the statuesque figure of Vivien looms over him, casting a strong vertical through the rather claustrophobic composition. With the painting standing almost two metres tall, her monumentality is heightened and the impact of her authority is rendered all the more powerful. The way in which his sandaled feet hang vulnerably in mid-air accentuates his lack of control, while Vivien’s feet are rooted to the ground in a strong and stable contrapposto stance.

The painting contains many visual cues that allow us to trace a ‘chain of receptions’, as described by H. R. Jauss.[1] By tracing similarities in style and iconography, we can identify ways in which paintings imitate aspects of their predecessors. This framework allows us not only to explore what an earlier artwork can reveal about a later one, but also vice versa. This method facilitates the construction of a two-way dialogue between art objects regardless of chronology, and allows for a reciprocal interpretation.

Many of this painting’s visual aspects were adapted from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, in which Vivien is frequently described as snake-like:

[Vivien] curved an arm about his neck,

Clung like a snake; and letting her left hand

Droop from his mighty shoulder, as a leaf.[2]


Burne-Jones’ rendering of Vivien’s long, curvilinear body is undeniably serpentine: the diagonal of her elongated neck stretching to the left is mirrored by her right hand and draws the eye downward toward the elbow. From here, the viewer’s gaze is directed in a meandering movement, descending via her slanted hips and the foreshortening of her right thigh, proceeding down past the bent knee and culminating in her sideward step. The joining of her hands to the splayed pages of the spell book creates a shape that is almost cyclical, allowing the eye to once again ascend through her left side and loop back to the beginning, thus constructing a fluid, snake- like movement of the gaze which traverses her entire form.

Furthermore, Tennyson’s declaration that Vivien wears a ‘snake of gold’ in her hair has been incorporated into Burne-Jones’s composition in the form of Vivien’s headpiece.[3] Though dark in colour as opposed to gold, it resembles a group of snakes, coiled and writhing through her hair (Fig. 2). This imagery is undeniably reminiscent of another archetypal femme fatale known for her serpentine locks: Medusa, the Gorgon who could turn men to stone with one look. The expression of Caravaggio’s Medusa of 1596 (Fig. 3) is strikingly different to that of Vivien’s, with the latter being one of quiet determination, and the former being in the throes of a scream. Despite these differences, however, there are notable similarities present in these two images, for example the snakes forming Medusa’s hair are comparable with Vivien’s headpiece. In both colour and form, the long, thin, writhing creatures recoiling at the moment of Medusa’s death could arguably have been removed from her scalp and let loose in Vivien’s long, dark locks of hair.

Studying the two images side by side, one cannot help but question what each reveals about the other. Undoubtedly Vivien’s headpiece likens her to the deadly Gorgon, who was cursed by her own beauty. Perhaps Vivien was also cursed in this way: she was unable to prevent Merlin from falling in love with her beauty, which ultimately led to his demise. Alternatively, it might also be noted that Vivien’s headpiece is rigid and static, whilst Medusa’s snakes violently thrash about her severed head, embracing their own deadly fate. Could it be that Vivien has succumbed to Medusa’s power and has turned to stone herself? Perhaps her own power lies within her ability to trick Merlin and subsequently her control over the situation, as opposed to Medusa’s curse, of which she has no command. Still, this comparison certainly adds a Medusan quality to Vivien’s icy glare.

* * *

This piece has been adapted from a larger project undertaken during my MA at the University of Bristol. This postscript gives a brief summary of other material covered:


The rendering of Vivien’s feet echo the feet of Botticelli’s Venus (Figs. 4 & 5). By connecting the two figures – femme fatale and goddess of love – I questioned whether this juxtaposition taints the latter or elevates the former.


With a slight rotation we see Merlin’s hand bears an uncanny resemblance to the hand of Adam in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Figs 6 & 7). What happens when birth and death – both the beginning and the end – are juxtaposed in such a fashion? Adam raises his lofty, muscular arm outward and embodies an air of youth and vitality. In contrast Merlin is slumped and admitting defeat, with his finger pointing downward, emphasising his mortal decline.


Harking back to Botticelli’s Venus, the theme of water is prominent. The folds of Vivien’s gown, dynamic yet revealing a static form beneath, appear to flow like waves around the contours of her body. This is largely evocative of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum, particularly the three female figures on the West pediment (Figs. 8 & 9). Differing claims to their identities alter the reading of this two-way dialogue.

[1] H. R. Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: 1982), 20

[2] A. L. Tennyson, ‘Merlin and Vivien’ in Idylls of the King (London: 1859), 105

[3] Ibid., 140

Titian, ‘Sisyphus′, 1549
Oil on Canvas, 237 x 216 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

…So it has become quite clear that my dedication to this enterprise died a tragic death just after its birth.

Whilst I am pleased to report that I’m no longer unemployed, the descent into the banality of everyday working life has sent me into a downward spiral of negativity, and I seem to have lost all sight of what I was trying to achieve in the first place. This has no doubt led to a remarkable decrease in confidence and a severe lack of direction, which I am now seeking to remedy. Let’s call this one ‘The Comeback Blog’.

I don’t hate my job, I just wish it enabled me to use the remarkable skill set my education has endowed me with. The academic has taken the back seat while the couch potato is grasping the wheel. It is most apparent in my current reading list. The novel has taken the place of the article; the monarchic politics of Westeros has replaced the workings of Reception Theory; even my forays into the world of Sartre have led me to read ‘Nausea’, one of his five works of fiction. I’ve become so wrapped up in the world of retail (yes, I’m going to hell), I’ve not only ceased to read academic texts, but I’ve neglected my own research and the article I was preparing for publication. This has recently become increasingly apparent to me, to the dismay of those who now have to tolerate my woeful company.

This has to stop. As 2013 marks my first quarter-century, it must also mark a turnaround for the better. I’m too set in my ways, too safe, too sensible, and for some reason unbeknownst to me, too afraid of my own shadow.

In October I begin a PhD at the University of York, working under the supervision of Professor Liz Prettejohn. It’s an extremely exciting point in my career path, and I absolutely cannot enter that stage – a 6 year and 90,000 word investment – without first re-moulding myself into the kind of person who deserves such an opportunity. I’m becoming increasingly drawn to the idea of throwing myself out of my comfort zone and into something entirely new and life-altering. I only have five or so years left of being a twenty-something, and I need to finally start experiencing some excitement.

I’m going to spend this summer volunteering in Thailand: teaching English and reintroducing captive elephants back into protected forests.

Alongside academia I always had an interest in working with and rehabilitating wild animals, and this is something I always wanted to do. Now I find myself with the means to do so, the decision is a no-brainer.

The cross-roads I found myself facing recently left me wondering if academia was the right choice – what if I gain a PhD and never take it anywhere? What if it’s all a waste of time and the world of academia is too competitive? What if I drown in the sea of art historians looking for the same break? What I’ve realised is I need to stop asking those questions – the more I question my own choices, the more I talk myself out of them. That’s how I became this person: lacking in confidence, scared of taking risks, fearing spontaneity and fundamentally bored.

So I’m going to push myself, and if all goes to plan, upon my return I should be a more rounded individual with the confidence that’s essential when embarking on the Road to Academia.

Mary Emily Osborne 'Nameless and Friendless. "The rich man's wealth is his strong city, etc." - Proverbs, x, 15', 1857<br />Oil on Canvas, 825 x 1038 mm<br />Tate Collection, London

Mary Emily Osborne ‘Nameless and Friendless. “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, etc.” – Proverbs, x, 15’, 1857
Oil on Canvas, 825 x 1038 mm
Tate Collection, London

The recent completion of a Master’s degree in History of Art has led to a journey filled with excitement, frustration, confusion, and absolute determination. This is not just for myself, but also for others. Despite its comprehensive teaching programme and unique collaborative modules with leading art institutions, nothing of the MA course at the University of Bristol could have prepared its students for the seemingly impossible job-hunt ahead of them.

My name is Sian. Inside my head I’m an academic. In the real world I am unemployed.

Having to defer the start of my PhD by a year due to financial difficulties, I’m using this ‘year out’ as an opportunity to conduct some self-study; I have my own academic projects on the go which should hopefully provide me with a bit of leverage when the time to grovel to the AHRC comes about once again.

As well as learning how to network and create an online professional presence, I’m writing an article intended for publication, and constantly renovating my thesis proposal. On top of this I read. A LOT.

I plan to use this space to record my journey from the safety-net of the university lecture hall, through the frustrations of endless job applications (and rejections) to, hopefully, the first step in my academic career.

While we can all vouch for the fact that the job market is particularly tough at the moment, and solely having a degree just doesn’t cut it anymore for employers, I think it would be fair to say that the venture into the professional world is especially trying for students of humanities subjects like History of Art. One of my friends and co-MA survivors recently received a pitying look from a post room worker when she mentioned her two degrees in this subject. This is unacceptable. Some may not view the arts as directly aiding society, but they readily overlook its positive impact on the economy (to name just one thing).

I know there are many humanities graduates and postgraduates in the same position as my friend and I. I hope this record of my efforts (and the lessons I learn along the way) may be of some use to you, whether you follow my example or learn from my mistakes.

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