Possession Illustrated

Possession makes reference to a number of great works of Victorian visual art. In this section information about some of these pictures, and the pertinent quotations from the novel, have been gathered together by Sylvia Karastathi. We have not reproduced them all here for a number of reasons: first, because they require copyright permission; second, because they are easily found online; also because finding one of these pictures will often take you to a gallery or a collection that will reveal works by the same artist, on the same subject, or in the same place, which can be very rewarding. Please do come back to this page once you've seen the things you need to see, and add a comment on the artworks below. Where we do have the images, you can click on them to see them even better.

1. Frederick Leighton, 'The Return of Persephone', c. 1891, now in Leeds Art Gallery. (Reproduced by permission of Leeds Museums and Galleries, City Art Gallery.)

This painting is mentioned on p. 3 of the novel: 'Lord Leighton had painted her, distraught and floating, a golden figure in a tunnel of darkness'; and p. 85: 'He circled the round walls with his spotlight, revealing a skewed print of Lord Leighton's Proserpina, and a cross-stiched sampler, impossible to read under the dust.'

Proserpina, also known as Persephone, was the daughter of Ceres (a.k.a Demeter), the goddess of the Harvest. She was stolen away by Pluto (a.k.a. Hades), the god of the underworld. A deal was later struck whereby she spent half the year with both. Do you think this picture portrays her being taken away from her mother, or restored to her? Byatt's word 'distraught' might mean different things, depending on what you think.

2. Edouard Manet, Portrait of Émile Zola, 1868, now in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

This painting is mentioned on p. 16 in relation to two fictional portraits of Ash by Manet and : 'The Manet has been painted in England in 1867, and had some things in common with his portrait of Zola'.

Émile Zola (1840-1902) was a French novelist who defended Manet when he was sidelined by the establishment and its major art exhibitions. The portrait was partly a gesture of gratitude.

Julia Margaret Cameron, 'The Dirty Monk (Alfred Lord Tennyson), albumen print 1865.

Julia Margaret Cameron, The Dirty Monk (Alfred Lord Tennyson), albumen print 1865

3. George Richmond, Portrait of Charlotte Bronte, c. 1850, now in National Portrait Gallery.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Photograph of Julia Prinsep Stephen, 1867, now in National Portrait Gallery.

These two artists are mentioned in Cropper's journal on p. 100: 'I was particularly taken by the collection of portrait sketches and signed photographs of eminent nineteenth-century figures - drawings by Richmond and Watts, photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron'.

Richmond is also mentioned on p. 126: 'Ellen Ash constructed from Richmond's sketch reproduced in Cropper's Great Ventriloquist. All Richmond's women have a generic mouth, firm and fine and generous serious, variable yet related to some ideal type.'

Richmond's picture of the novelist Charlotte Bronte can be compared to other images of the same writer on the National Portrait Gallery website; does the suggestion about his characteristic mouth ring true? Cameron's pioneering photographs are also discussed in the Tennyson section of this site; here you can see a famous picture she took of Tennyson himself (reproduced by permission of the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust, and the Dimbola Galleries and Photographic Museum).

4. Edward Burne-Jones, 'The Beguiling of Merlin', 1872-7, now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, Wirral. (Reproduced here by permission of National Museums Liverpool, Lady Lever Art Gallery.)

William Holman Hunt, 'Lady of Shalott', c. 1886-1905, now in the Manchester City Art Gallery.

'The Beguiling of Merlin' is mentioned on p. 172, where LaMotte discusses Blanche: 'She is engaged on a large painting of Merlin and Vivien - at the moment of the latter's triumph when she sings the Charm which puts him in her power, to sleep through time'.

Hunt's 'Lady of Shallot' is mentioned in CLM's letter on p. 187: 'Think of me if you will as the Lady of Shalott - with a Narrower Wisdom - who chooses not the Gulp of outside Air and the chilly river-journey deathwards - but who chooses to watch diligently the bright colours of her Web - to ply an industrious shuttle - to make something - to close the Shutters and the Peephole too - '.

These two paintings on themes from Arthurian legend are important works of the movement. As is seen in the Tennyson section of this website, Arthurian stories were of great interest to the Victorians.

Further Thinking

Please add a comment on something that strikes you about one of the pictures mentioned in Possession, and what difference it makes to look at the thing itself.

Watts (1817-1904) was a Victorian painter and sculptor, known both for his portraits and his symbolist art. On the National Portrait Gallery website (www.npg.org.uk) you can see eight of his works, including one of the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, featured in the Cambridge Authors 'Tennyson and Vision' resource as well as lower down this page. The Tate Britain gallery holds one of his best symbolist works, 'Hope', which is also easy to find online.
The name derives from the group's belief that art should be freed from the classical elegance and formal technique they felt was prevailing in art theory and education at the time. They traced this back to the Italian painter Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520) and themselves aimed to emulate the freer, vivid, complex vision of earlier Italian painters

One Response to “Possession Illustrated”

  1. christine halfpenny Says:

    Hi, I have just finished reading ‘Possesssion’ and enjoyed it very much. I found your site because I wanted to follow up on the references, very interesting and, thank you.

    Can I ask, is it a coincidence that there is a portrait of a ‘Maie Ash’ actress,1888 to 1923, in the National Portrait gallery, or is this another reference?

    Thanks Christine Halfpenny

Leave a Reply