Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale (1871-1945)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com

The best surprises come at book sales. Recently trawling through an open top market in Manchester I discovered a copy of Jan Marsh & Pamela Gerrish Nunn’s, Women Artists and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, finding countless intriguing countesses and painters within its wide crinkled pages. Though the Pre-Raphaelite Movement is far too vast and complex for me to ever do justice in several posts, let alone one, here’s what John Ruskin helpfully had to say in his work, Modern Painters (1848): 

‘The Pre-Raphaelites have one principle, that of absolute uncompromising truth in all it does, obtained by working everything, down to the most minute detail, from nature and from nature only’

Working some 40 years after Ruskin’s statement, in what is known as the third & final generation of the movement, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale’s ‘The Guardian Angel’ both seems to embody and contradict the critic’s edict.

 ‘The Guardian Angel’ – Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale (1910) 

Brickdale

The paintings contradiction however, both through its ideological disobediences and contrasting styles within the same image, really unify the piece for me. This after all was one of the first works within the genre to bring together the raw imaginative force of the Pre-Raphaelites with the modern technology of the time – the majority of PR paintings to me seem to be more portrait orientated. Brickdale was supposedly inspired by the death of the Hon. Charles Stewart Rolls (half of the Rolls-Royce Partnership) in a flying accident near Bournemouth in July 1910, the piece then is an inverted triptych of sorts, detailing both a progression and inherent order within the pursuit of higher realms.

Across the angel’s legs we can see a deft mass of birds collecting, all of them yearning further upward but none seemingly able to escape the pull of their own nature. It’s the mass of energy here that really drives it forward – some large birds yearn and seek higher skies, others cast their bodies flat and seem to drive further into the storm.

Above the reach of instinct, a far more technical mechanical style of painting emerges, with the plane in all its glory and detail seeming to penetrate through both frame and angel. Perhaps as a comment on the crash itself, the plane too it seems, just like the birds, has its limit, the both of them nestled below a dominant angelic force.

Indeed the guardian dominates the picture, clearly controlling man’s own will within its hands, as well as mocking the birds below with its own dominating wingspan, one that Brickdale cleverly abridges at the corners to increase the epic spread of feathers a real power and relevance. It’s the face of the angel though that I keep coming back to, a malignant yet benevolent watcher, a seer that looks on to both man and no nature.

 

‘Knight Carrying Child’ – Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale

A Sweet Lullaby, illustration from 'The Book of Old English Songs and Ballads', published by Hodder and Stoughton, c.1910 (colour litho)

Carried away by his father to someplace up the hill, a child stares out vacantly. Its own tiny body against the adult armor brings us back to our own recollections of being young, when a parent really was a knight, something incalculable in power, authority and respect.

Though the winding & somewhat haphazard path behind the action is interesting, it is this dialectic pull between parent and child that really makes the picture worth pondering. Similar to how she clipped the wings of her angel in the aforementioned picture, here the armour dominates the frame, complex not only in rich design but also the play of light against the polished steel.

The father’s head too, leant and nestled against his pondering son, creates a warm intimacy as they continue on their journey. The intricate weave of the designs giving weight and wonder to the front ended image, with the fantastical nature of the protection subtly balanced against the piercing eyes of the boy.

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