Hidden in Plain Sight

When I was a young artist, I greatly admired the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They were a group of young idealistic Victorians who painted art to educate and improve their peers. They looked back to a time in Art History when, it seemed to them, art had been about improving the morality of its viewers, was simple in its aims, and bright and clear in its execution. They tried to emulate many of the strengths they saw in this period in their own work. The period they so adored was the time before Raphael began to paint, and ushered in an era of extravagance of imagery which was continued by further exponents of the Renaissance.

The Pre-Raphaelites even often painted on a wet white coat of paint on the canvas, because this not only made their colours shine, but it was also a modern-day version of painting on wet plaster which was the mainstay of fresco painting.

Many of the themes which they painted also hearkened back to a bygone age, telling stories in paint of the exploits of knights and maidens, all with the intent of educating the uneducated masses in a proper morality.

As part of this process, they often hid details in their paintings which go almost unnoticed, but once understood in the context of the work, help to explain the artwork’s theme or message. Here are some examples:

Isabella, by John Everett Millais

his painting was based on John Keat’s poem, Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, which describes the relationship between Isabella, the sister of wealthy medieval merchants, and Lorenzo, an employee of Isabella’s brothers. It depicts the moment at which Isabella’s brothers realise that there is a romance between the two young people, and plot to murder Lorenzo so they can marry Isabella to a wealthy nobleman. Isabella, wearing grey at the right, is being handed a blood orange on a plate by the doomed Lorenzo. A cut blood orange is symbolic of the neck of someone who has just been decapitated, referring to Isabella cutting off Lorenzo’s head to take it with her after finding him buried.

Another example is shown below, The Hireling Shepherd, by William Holman Hunt.

In Hunt’s painting, the shepherd ignores his flock of sheep, who wander over a ditch into a wheat field. This violation of boundaries is paralleled by the shepherd’s physical intrusions into the personal space of the young woman, who responds in an ambiguous way that might be interpreted as complicity or as a knowing scepticism. As he shows her the moth, he places his arm round her shoulder.

Hunt asserted that he intended the couple to symbolise the pointless theological debates which occupied Christian churchmen while their “flock” went astray due to a lack of proper moral guidance. 

So as a young artist, I could not resist the urge to do the same – to paint themes which might have very different interpretations if every hidden detail were to emerge.

This picture was designed to emulate some of the Pre-Raphaelite ideals, in it’s use of bright colour, intricate patterns, a slightly Medieval theme, and a hidden detail. This portrait is all about the inner world of the young lady. What is she thinking? What is she feeling? It is only by reading what she is halfway through embroidering on her frame that we get a glimpse of such matters. “The Lord is my Shepherd – I shall not wa…” So it appears that for this young lady, at least, sitting decorously in the sunlight of her castle room is not quite enough to sate her appetites. She is no doubt dreaming of chocolate.

Another, painted some years earlier, was similar in theme and execution. It is entitled “The Garden of Earthly Delights”

In this painting, we see an angelic being welcoming us into this beautiful garden, in which the colours are almost too bright. As we look into the garden, we see figures indulging in all sorts of interesting activities. A priest rejoiced over the coins he holds, far too many to hold onto, as he leaves a golden trail behind him. A couple on the left seem to embrace on the lawn, but then we notice that the man is not looking at his partner, but is entranced with a statue which we can just see on the left. Beyond them, there is a man drinking. I’m sure it’s just water.

The path leads on into the garden, twisting and turning as it does. And at the very end, we see a death’s head in the clouds. Put all of this together, and we understand what meaning my youthful self was trying to imbue this painting with. The Angel of Light is Lucifer himself, welcoming us into his garden of earthly delights, and it all looks so wanton and delicious, that we fail to see what waits ahead at journey’s end.

Did it work? For an answer to that I’d have to ask you, my viewers. I suspect not. In my defense, I was only about 16 at the time. But actually, though my themes may be less obvious and less cloying, I probably still, deep down, paint with the same intention. I love the scenes I paint. I choose to paint them because they resonate with me. As a Christian, I suppose I’d have to say that I sense a creator behind what I see and take delight in. And when I paint a beautiful landscape, I want my viewers to capture something of that ineffable sense as well.

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