Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Tale of Two Victorians

One of my favorite singer-songwriters is Loreena McKennitt. She sets well-known poems to music and her beautiful, haunting voice and inspired orchestrations bring these sometimes timeworn words to vibrant life. Her adaptation of Tennyson's poem “Lady of Shalott” was playing on Live Ireland a few weeks' ago as I was working on the Art Bead Scene's November challenge. The poem is very bittersweet and sad and the image in my mind was of the painting by J.W. Waterhouse, a Victorian artist.

"The Lady of Shalott" - J.W. Waterhouse

The painting chosen this month for the Challenge is also by a Victorian artist, though it's a world apart in execution, theme and emotional outlook. “Fairy Feller's Master Stroke” was painted by Richard Dadd, a patient at Bethleham Hospital--known popularly as Bedlam-for murdering and then dismembering his father. The director of the hospital made painting supplies available to Mr. Dadd, who had attended the prestigious London Academy of Art and had a respectable, if not stellar, reputation as a painter before he went off the rails.

I found the painting very disturbing, to say the least, for a number of reasons. Nothing is alive or growing in the woods surrounding the figures-- it is the dead, brown landscape of autumn. The Victorian loved their colors deep and rich and painters of the era were master colorists, layering tints in transparent washes over base tones to achieve startling effects of intensity and depth, even in a muted palette like that in Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott painting. The only noticeable colors used in Dadd's painting, at least in the larger reproductions I searched out on the Tate Museum's site were the primary colors of red, blue and green. The level of detail, which is what most people notice, is truly astounding; in fact, it is somewhat 3-dimensional. Apparently the Tate lights the painting from the side, so visitors can appreciate the dimensionality of its diminutive 15 X 20” size.

While researching the painting, which I always do before I start interpreting them in jewelry, I found many analyses of the work, among them that Dadd claimed it was based on Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream and portrayed a fairy kingdom. I found the characters scary and grotesque and decided to work in a different direction, recreating elements in polymer clay of the natural world that Dadd had painted so thoroughly and used so abundantly. The Victorians loved complexity in every aspect of their surroundings-- jewelry, interior d├ęcor, clothing, architecture. I made an impression in molding putty of a section of an ornate Victorian picture frame and used it to make a practice piece which was antiqued and slightly gilded.

My goal was to create a piece of wearable jewelry--not mimic the painting-- so I made several large lentil beads in the same way as the sample, adding subtle gold highlights to elevate the somber tones of Dadd's very neutal palette with gilding.

I brought in the muted primary colors using two tube beads covered in clay done in a mokume gane technique with midnight blue, ocher yellow and burgundy. The pods and seeds allowed me to play with my raku technique and after I used metallic powders on them, they were glazed with a wash of Byzantia brand metallic paint and highlighted with colored pencils to bring out the primary colors.

I looked through my stash for similar-sized beads to complement the raku elements and added some yellow faux jade beads, picture jasper rounds from my local Ben Franklin variety store, and gold-painted polymer clay melon beads that I detailed with gunmetal acrylic paint—all separated by African rough bronze spacers from Objects & Elements.

A second layer of smaller elements was added to jazz up the neutrals and intensify that sense of over-the-top Victorian embellishment. I made a clasp using brass washers and some bronze wire for an s-clasp so I was able to layer the smaller strand over the larger one.

This was overall a very intense and time-consuming process but I enjoyed doing it more than any piece I've done for the challenges so far. I call the style tribal Victorian and named it "Lady of Shalott".

"Lady of Shalott"


  1. Oh so beautiful - I love her music ,too, the music alone brings a picture into dimensional life. I remember a French artist who had her altered book pages accompanied by the ballads of Loreena McKennit. This caught me instantly and let me dive into whole stories. Thanks for sharing your journey :) - The Lady of Shalott is a beautiful piece!

  2. Christine, This post was so interesting ... always the educator. And the necklace, I love that you shared your design decisions for it. Obviously, if living today, people like Dadd, Van Gogh, and others would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or a personality disorder.

  3. Your necklace is stunning! The Lady of Shalott if one of my favorite paintings. I enjoyed learning about the Dadd painting.

  4. beautiful necklace!
    i adore that little Dadd paiinting too!

  5. The necklace is superb! You have captured the colours so well and the lentil beads are just gorgeous.

  6. Christine, thank you for educating us about the painter and the painting (and time period). I always learn so much from you. This necklace is stunning. Every time I see one of your new pieces, I think to myself, "this is my new favorite!" Your latest is just (first word that comes to mind) magnificent! :-)

  7. Wow! In a word...this is fabulous! It's really gorgeous, Christine...one of my favorite things you've done.

  8. Christine, you've really done the Lady of Shalott justice. That particular Waterhouse painting is my favourite; first saw it at the Tate and had to go back for another visit to just gaze at it. He also captured her in the tower, just as at the precise moment that she turns to gaze out the window at Lancelot. I love the subtlety of your necklace and it has a primitive quality that brings the Victorian aspects back to the medieval time that she lived in.