Image of the Week: A beautiful fiend

This week’s image is inspired by an early scene in M.E Braddon’s huge sensational hit Lady Audley’s Secret 1862.

While the duplicitous Lady Audley is out and about, George Talboys and Robert Audley enter her private boudoir to look at the impressive collection of paintings stored there. The lads take a look around the “glittering toilette” of her marble dressing table. They move past the bunch of withering hot-house flowers on her writing table, the dresses she’s storing on the floor (we all do it…) and the exquisite china scattered all around the apartment and eventually come upon a startling portrait of Lady Audley propped on an easel…

“My lady’s portrait stood on an easel, covered with a green baize in the centre of the octagonal chamber. It had been a fancy of the artist to paint her standing in this very room, and to make his background a faithful reproduction of the pictured walls. I am afraid the young man belonged to the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, for he has spent a most unconscionable time upon the accessories of this picture – upon my lady’s crispy ringlets and the heavy folds of her crimson velvet dress.”


Image from page 291 of Great pictures, as seen and described by famous writers (1899)
Image of Lady Lilith by Rosetti from page 291 of Great Pictures, as seen and described by famous writers (1899)

Mesmerized by the picture, Robert attributes it to the unconventional and often controversial school of  Pre-Raphelite painters (made up initially of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais).

“Now, then, for your turn, Talboys,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary picture.” He took George’s place at the window, and George seated himself in the chair before the easel. Yes, the painter must have been a pre-Raphaelite. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait. It was so like, and yet so unlike. It was as if you had burned strange-coloured fires before my lady’s face, and by their influence brought out new lines and new expressions never seen in it before. The perfection of feature, the brilliancy of colouring, were there; but I suppose the painter had copied quaint mediaeval monstrosities until his brain had grown bewildered, for my lady, in his portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend. Her crimson dress, exaggerated like all the rest in this strange picture, hung about her in folds that looked like flames, her fair head peeping out of the lurid mass of color as if out of a raging furnace. Indeed the crimson dress, the sunshine on the face, the red gold gleaming in the yellow hair, the ripe scarlet of the pouting lips, the glowing colors of each accessory of the minutely painted background, all combined to render the first effect of the painting by no means an agreeable one.”

For more on the representation of Pre-Raphaelite art in the Victorian novel  see here

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