We live, it would seem, in nostalgic times. Clothing now hailed as the height of fashion by critics and fashionistas, is more often than not, derivative of earlier times; usually the 1960s and seventies, sometimes earlier. Often this is regarded by cultural critics as referentiality; a self-conscious and ironic invocation of the past through the replication of familiar images, known as post-modernism, in which nothing is produced, merely reproduced. Yet behind such post-modern referentiality is a longing for better times that is anything but “ironic”. In Part Two of this article I will be exploring this contemporary tendency towards nostalgia, in the light of the success of period dramas such as Downton Abbey.
Nostalgia, however, is nothing new. From the mid-nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution, which urbanised the English landscape through expanding cities and the building of new factories, gave rise to a growing nostalgia for times past and for a forsaken rural idyll.
No artist epitomises this reflective mood better than the children’s illustrator and writer, Kate Greenaway. Greenaway harked back to the eighteenth century for the inspiration for her character’s clothing, drawing her ideas from the empire line dresses and pantaloons fashionable during this period.
Greenaway’s idyllic childhood paved the way for the idealistic portrayals of childhood depicted in her paintings and illustrations. To this day, Greenaway’s romantic rural images, of immaculately attired children playing in lush gardens on perfect summer days, symbolise a yearning for a lost innocence which while seeming a little sentimental in our cynical times, nevertheless still speaks volumes about the English attitude to landscape, essentially one of melancholia and loss.
Born in London in 1846 to an artist father and a mother who ran a gift shop, Greenaway, along with the painter Helen Allingham, was one of the most successful female painters of her day. Greenaway studied at the Slade School of Art, after which she began producing illustrations and had her first exhibition in 1868, at the tender age of twenty-two, which included a watercolour and a series of illustrations for fairy stories. Following this, interest in her work was such that she received a commission from the editor of the People’s Magazine. This led to her being asked to illustrate Christmas and Valentine cards for a company called Marcus Ward. These designs secured her further commissions and she began to achieve a modicum of success as a freelance illustrator and by 1871 her annual income amounted to just over seventy pounds, by 1877 this had reached around three hundred pounds. In addition she held exhibitions at the Royal Academy, as well as taking in regular commissions from the famous London Illustrated News.
Her partnership in 1878 with Edmund Evans, ostensibly the finest engraver in London, led to the production of her first children’s book, Under the Window. This secured her position as the most famous illustrator of the Victorian age and by 1881 her annual income was in the region of £1,500, not a lot of money by modern standards but a sizeable amount in late Victorian times.
A study of her work reveals a surprisingly broad plethora of influences. While at an immediate glance we discern a traditional and rather sentimental Victorian fussiness, upon closer inspection this use of detail and sense of design owes much to the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic movement, both popular artistic fashions of the time. Her passion and the prevailing subject of her paintings was nature and the study of the natural world, a factor which aligned her with artists such as Rossetti and Lord Leighton, key figures in the pre-Raphaelite movement.
Greenaway led a relatively sheltered life and did not travel much, a factor which is reflected in her quintessentially English drawings, though she was friends with some of the greatest artists of her day, including the poets Browning and Tennyson, as well as the cultural critic John Ruskin, whose ideas would later influence Oscar Wilde.
One of Greenaway’s most interesting legacies is her influence upon children’s fashions. The high-wasted empire gowns depicted in her illustrations and paintings became the fashion for those who liked to dress their children in historic clothing. This paved the way for a romanticised ideal of childhood, in which freedom and play, expressed through the physical freedom of the loose flowing gowns, became central to the notion of a lost innocence, of a forsaken childhood.
What is noteworthy here is the link between the “innocent” childhood and the “historical” style of the clothing in which the children are depicted. From an adult perspective and in the popular culture of the day, childhood is mapped as the lost idyllic past, a factor that is borne out by images of clothing that refers back to an earlier time.
When something – such as childhood, or landscape – is perceived as irretrievably lost it becomes idealised, like the Eden myth, and we are barred from returning to it by the proverbial flaming sword. It gives rise to a yearning – to what I have elsewhere described as a “wound of lost community” (The Resurrection of Oscar Wilde, A Cultural Afterlife, Lutterworth Press, 2007) – a longing to be elsewhere; to be in a better place, somewhere other than here and now. Because we human beings are quixotic creatures we buy into the myth of the perfect past, of the lost Eden.
These days, Kate Greenaway’s paintings, along with those of her contemporary, Helen Allingham, are often to be found hanging in pubs and hotels, teasing us with the promise of Eden with their images of happy children playing in meadows in flowing gowns. In our cynical times the child in the sunny meadow is still a powerful image, one that resonates powerfully with those who lament the erosion of the natural environment and the ever expanding metropolis.
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