The Clone of Beauty

detail from The Bower Meadow by Dante Rossetti, Apple Blossoms by John Millais, Hylas & The Nymphs by John Waterhouse, Laus Veneris by Edward Burne-Jones and The School of Nature by William Holman-Hunt

The Clone of Beauty

So why did the Pre-Raphaelites have just the single face to paint ?
Did they all maybe share a model, or ideal, or a joke ?
Or were they merely moral allegories, underneath the quaint,
The playthings of a puritanic club of touched and airy folk ?
Their lounging nymphs of languid myth are diaphanous deities,
Sometimes naked, always perfect, from Pompeii to Camelot –
But rousing such lacklustre lust, or any spontaneities,
These strangely-sexless sextuplets are gazed upon to be forgot.

These muses with the single face,
And even fewer flickers of emotion in their artful grace,
Demanding our devotion as they pose from Albion to Thrace.
Androgynous, without a trace of cleavage,
Under wafting folds of lace,
But then again, their cold embrace has little use for heavage.
At least their hair is big and wild,
Those flowing waves and ringlets piled in unexpected verve,
Quite out of place around a mask so English in reserve.
This Sisterhood of sylvan sylphs –
In pastels, primary and bright,
Or bathed within a golden light –
Are quite the finer sort of elves,
Perhaps the fairest of the fay,
Just waiting for a errant knight or shepherd boy to pass their way.

Or maybe just ourselves,
The gawpers in the gallery –
The hoi-polloi who shrug and stare,
And wonder why they have to share
A single personality.

I wrote this some years ago but dug it out after visiting the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  I had always assumed that the apinters made all the faces the same in search of an shared ideal of beauty, but I now suspect that the the similarities were in the flesh rather than the paint – the woman they chose as models already looked alike.  They also shared their models around, in every sense, and I don’t think these women did any modelling for more establishment artists.  Now, we just need a good investigation about the male models they used…

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