The Art History Journal of Students - Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts

Thursday, October 12, 2006


By Jennifer A. Wheeler
For Sense and Sensibility: Art in Europe 1750-1850
May 2006

While treasure hunting in the Yale Center for British Art recently, my non-prescribed labyrinth of a trail inevitably lead me to standing in front of an over-scale oil painting that always gives me the shivers. Robert Burnard’s John Gubbins Newton and his Sister, Mary Newton, 1833, is starkly arresting in its eerie clarity. Having many of the hallmarks of a typical neoclassic painting, the most noticeable of these are the crisp insistence of sharply delineated contours of all the main characters, the blindingly brilliant graphic renderings of the local color of the children’s costumes, and the stiffly stilted exaggeration of non-movement in the poses. In fact, the only gestural qualities I glean from the painting come from the animals. Although precious little biographical material is available regarding Burnard, Angus Trumble, however, found a brief article in the Royal Cornwall Gazette from 1841 that stated that although Burnard’s genius was not of a high order, this self-taught artist possessed a meticulous finish,
But he must learn to use a freer pencil. His extreme slowness—or rather the extraordinary amount of labour which he bestowed upon his pieces—led to his failure in Cornwall, where, although he obtained pretty liberal prices, he was never half paid for his time, reckoning it only at the value which might fairly have been set upon that of a respectable mechanic. (87).
Aside from the ghostly stillness of the characters, the hierarchy of placement intrigues me. The boy sits atop a young pony and wears the formal foxhunting garb that befits a child of his stature – he is dressed as a miniature man (though he is only six), and stares out of the picture directly at the viewer. The somewhat downtrodden appearance of his sister, Mary (aged ten), stands lower on the canvas and hands the boy his riding crop – as if she is in servitude to him. Susan Casteras, in her chapter, The Victorian Cult of Childhood, explains, “Young females were urged to emulate idealized standards of submissiveness, meekness, and respectability, with the result that they were more often dependant, decorative, and vapid rather than feisty or independent” (5). So, while Mary waits on her younger brother, Burnard depicts her as not only a good sister, but also a good woman. He “underscores the fact that the ideal Victorian lady was praised for basically infantile qualities; thus, the perfect woman was girlish, and the perfect girl was womanly, and these mingling traits are conveyed in the literature and paintings of the time” (5).
A pointed contrast to the Burnard painting is that of Joseph Wright of Derby’s, Mr. And Mrs. Thomas Coltman, 1770-1772. Although the central characters are not brother and sister, there are formal pictoral similarities: a male and a female, a horse and a dog, and the placement of the characters in relation to their land, their livestock, and their status. The overall composition is strikingly similar, with the male and female placed in the center, the horse and the dog arranged on the left in the same diagonal thrust, a large tree to the left of the figure on the horse gently curves over the whole scene and frames the narrative. Both pictures offer just a hint of an architectural something off to the right, and both backgrounds recede into clouds with patches of blue sky. Here the superficial similarities end. The Wright of Derby painting is a riot of bright sunlight, lushly buoyant trees, billowing, idyllic clouds in a mostly blue sky, and a physical comfort between the couple that exudes not overt sexuality, but a charming taken-for-granted quality that speaks to the happiness of the scene. The man takes the center stage, in a typically neoclassical swagger stance, but his wife is dressed more brightly than he, and occupies a higher placement on the canvas. Obviously, Mr. Coltman thinks quite highly of his wife, and places her on a metaphorical pedestal—in this case, a docile steed. Even the horse and dog are interacting physically in the painting; the playful pup crouches submissively under the huge horse, but the viewer has the sense that if the horse gave his consent, the pup could instantly spring into frolicking abandon, as dogs are wont to do. The actions of the small beast echo the man’s own willingness to be submissive and responsive to his wife, as he occupies the same ground as the dog, and she, the same psychological space of the horse.
The diminutive, frilly female and foppish man carry naturalistic gestures and rosy-cheeked gaiety. Not only are they land and property owners, but a dark-skinned stable boy in the middle distance is perhaps in the act of bringing forth the second spirited mount for Mr. Coltman. These two are obviously casually self satisfied, with the overall effect being one of good, clean fun, in contrast to the Gubbins portrait, which is overly somber by comparison. Even the tree appears stiff and uncomfortable in this piece, and the looming architectural detail should signify wealth, but instead overhangs menacing and monolithic, not unlike a huge tombstone. The sky itself could be waiting to storm, as there is only a teeny patch of blue in it, waiting to be eaten up by the dark grey clouds.
Unlike her brother, John, Mary does not wear the clothing of a miniature woman (which might improve her status), despite the nearly off-the-shoulder style of he neckline, as the hem of her dress ends a good ten inches above her black satin slippers. She thus reveals a long length of lacy pantaloons, surely a signifier of the more carefree days of girlhood. Mary also wears a meticulously rendered coral beaded necklace, and her slackly parted lips belie the severity of her straight and center hairstyle. The mesmeric force of all this meticulous attention to the details of Mary’s costume is distressingly intentional.
There seems to be more than a hint of latent sensuality (in the young girl) just as there are ambivalent undertones in Lewis Carroll’s famous photographs of nude young females and of “baby odalisques” or childish courting scenes. The sensuous undercurrent may be related to the fact that up to the end of the century the age of consent for a female to wed was only twelve or thirteen (Casteras, 5).
The red beads entwined around Mary’s bare, pearly shoulders whisper innuendos of passion. Her slack hand and curving, curled-in fingers hover itchingly close to her sex. The painstakingly realized lace around her upper arms and breast region, as well as the tantalizing glimpse of pantaloon under her hemline borders on the fetishized. Dainty undergarments insinuated out into the open air give realization to the viewer of other lingerie items which no doubt encompass additional parts of Mary’s nude body. These ideas are not so very old-fashioned, as the ‘modern day’ Minnie Mouse evinces all of these same archetypal ideals of girl/womanhood. Minnie carries the same mixed-up signifiers of both grown woman and little girl attached to a single, confusing entity, complete with white ruffled panties that always manage to insinuate themselves (by design) out into the open air. Let us not forget that her creator was a male, and that these Victorian social-sexual mores were imposed upon females like Mary by the male keepers-of-society as well. Perhaps the more trendy fashion of the all-popular low-rise pants for women worn in just such a way as to reveal an en-vogue pair of lacy thong strings in the rear, harkens back to these outwardly prudish but deeply conflicting Victorian fads.
The painting takes an interesting stance on the notion of children as property owners, with the little lord perched high above all that he sees and owns, including his elder sister, Mary. Where are her pony and loyal foxhound? After all, this painting was made to glorify John Gubbins Newton—it is titled after him, and not his sister. Operating on the Victorian assertion that “submissiveness in women is normative” (Jordan, 189), the painter offers no critique to that end, but simply maintains the status quo. The bleakness of Mary’s expression would not be considered uncommon in a rendering of a girl of her age, as
One obvious aspect of female role-playing reflected in art involved the inculcation of social values of wife and mother; the image of the maternal little girl taking care of her siblings, pet, or doll was commonplace. Girls with gentle, though sulky expressions taking care of others or engaged in domestic tasks like needlework or gardening were omnipresent characters in Victorian painting.
Female subservience, at every age, was an encouraged and rewarded trait in this era. The gender roles were clearly divided, with females depicted more often than not as passive and winsome (decorative sights), and boys as aggressive decision makers (men of action). These Victorian ideals still linger loudly in the modern psyche.
Painted at a time when children’s rights and various reforms in child labor laws were barely being considered, public schooling, whilst giving a mere modicum of factual learning to children, were instead, “carefully designed to “civilize” them, make them obedient, controllable, and productive workers, consumers, and citizens. Social and cultural indoctrination merely took the place of economic exploitation as the new form of childhood oppression” (Rose, 191). Most parents were resistant to the notion of public schooling at its inception, and shunned it altogether, however, it would be within a system of public education that boys would take part in, “the Victorian cult of manliness, and attitudes toward aggression, justice, sportsmanship, and the need for a healthy body and mind” (Casteras, 6). (Ideas such as these are still being played out on the recess school grounds). But if a child was not born poor, and therefore not required to work in a coal mine by age four, there are plenty of cruel stories told about “upper class families, public schooling and the rigidity of growing up merely to fulfill a prescribed hereditary role” (Rose, 190). The painting lets us know in no uncertain terms that John’s prescribed hereditary role will be that of the lord and master, property owner, (we can just see a section of a monumental pillar behind Mary’s left shoulder) and future ruler of this land, while Mary, no doubt, will be the responsible and nurturing mother that she has been bred to be.
During this era, portraits of children were especially popular. The frightful daily reality of a high infant mortality rate (as well as a high death rate of children and adolescents), made the wealthy more driven to record the visages of their young ones. Children at this time often fell victim to such illnesses as diphtheria, strep throat, scarlet fever, even a simple ear infection gone unchecked could kill a small child. In fact, it was not unusual for portrait painters to be asked to paint a child who had already passed away, both to ease the passing for the parents, and to memorialize the child in a permanent method. George Burnard himself was no stranger to loss, as in their ninth year of marriage, Burnard lost his beloved wife, Jane Chapman, and their eldest of four children, Charles, in 1831. Burnard remarried the next year (to Elizabeth Stodden) and they went on to have another ten children.
In 1839 the Burnards applied for free passage to the new colony of South Australia, and were granted this assistance.
On 29 October, they sailed from Plymouth aboard the Java. That four-month voyage was notorious: the ship was terribly over-crowded, and between fifty and sixty of the 464 passengers had died of malnutrition, starvation, or disease (many of them children) by the time the Java limped into Holdfast Bay on 6 February 1840. A Royal Commission and an inquiry by the South Australian medical board, to which Robert Burnard gave evidence, both censured the ship’s master, Captain Alexander Duthie, and the two doctors on board (Trumble 86).
Burnard had booked passage for eight, and records for the Adelaide suburb of Plympton show that the Burnards settled there with six children, so fortunately, all of those offspring survived. However, the fact that Burnard lost a son only one year older than John Gubbins Newton may account for some of the eerie qualities of the double portrait. The figures and the animals are so crisply delineated from the ground upon which they stand, that they might well be apparitions.
The commissioned portraits of John Gubbins Newton and his Sister, Mary Newton, 1833, no doubt evinces all of the qualities the parents of the two children could hope that they would emulate. Little John, just six years old, sits in all of his scrupulous and painstakingly rendered finery. The local color of his smartly pleated jacket gleams, the rich black of his velvet collar shines and is echoed in the glossy newness of his beaver top hat. He is the proud and responsible owner of every calculated appointment: Prissy, crisp bow at his throat, Spotless white gloves, even a kerchief (lest he need to polish up those gold buttons). As the picture is named after him, he has the right to ignore the outstretched riding crop that his overshadowed older sister passes generously to him. Apparently the realm of riotous good fun of horse sport and foxhunting with the hounds is reserved for gentlemen. Mary must occupy the limited sphere that is allowed her. Her passive face tells the viewer that she accepts her position of subservient caregiver. Though she is only ten, Mary is characterized as an ideal Victorian woman: insipid, obedient, limitedly useful, and decorative. While the little lord looks sullenly forward to his sport, Mary must stay behind and be careful not to dirty her lacy pantaloons, and when John returns, no doubt it will be Mary who greets his indifference and helps him off with his finery, as a good girl should. The only piece of whimsy in the picture is the curious detail of the unexplained smattering of scattered Forget-Me-Nots under the stiff little feet of the hound. Perhaps this is actually a little portrait of a favorite pet that had recently passed away, but then, why is no one paying attention to it? Certainly, neither of the expressions on the faces of these children indicates joy of any kind, and so the painting is decidedly chilling.

nnotated Bibliography

Casteras, Susan P. Victorian Childhood. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publisher, 1986.
This somewhat frilly looking picture book housed the most amazing article I have read in years, The Victorian Cult of Childhood. I learned much about the Victorian roles of the feminine, and my eyes are permanently open to many things now because I read this. It is especially interesting to me how much of this Victorian philosophy remains current, and I am now able to think more lucidly about these ideas. (Thank you, Joy!)

Kramer, Hilton. Art with a British Accent: Benefactor Paul Mellon Establishes a Great Museum.
Art and Antiques. Vol. XXIV, no. 5 May 2001, p. 143-144.
Although I did not quote anything from this brief article, I was hoping to learn from it a stylistic or subject preference of Mr. Mellon’s. However, very few items were pictured, and the article did me little good in my detective work.

Jordan, Thomas E. Victorian Childhood: Themes and Variations. Albany: State University
Of New York Press, 1987.
This book presented a dry, textbook-ey voice, and although it was factually informative, it was not half as juicy as the teeny Casteras book. I would not recommend it.

Rose, Lionel. The Erosion of Childhood: Child Obsession in Britain, 1860-1918. New York:
Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1991.
This book gave me the meat and potatoes helpings I desired to situate the Burnard painting into the culture of its time. Although it skipped around a lot and delved into odd inconsequential tangents, I was happy to glean from it what I could.

Trumble, Angus. Who was Robert Burnard? Apollo Magazine, Ltd. Sept 2004 v 160 i511
This comparatively short article was stuffed full of all the sketch biographical information locatable on the planted regarding Robert Burnard. The article explained that no other works can certainly be attributed to Burnard, as he had an uncle, also an artist, and a son, also an artist with the same name, and it is quite possible that even the Gubbins Newton portrait might not be his for sure (although they really do think so). So, even though there is a self portrait of a Robert Burnard in the world, and also a very nice still life with fruit, neither can be attributed to this Robert Burnard for certain. The lengths that Angus Trumble went to in order to dig up all of this information is incredible!

Warner, Malcolm. The Paul Mellon Bequest: Treasures of a Lifetime. New Haven: Yale Center
For British Art, 2001.
I actually looked through this book at a friend’s house (it was her husband’s). I was really hoping to see another Robert Burnard in the Mellon collection. (This was before I had read the Angus Trumble article in Apollo). I was also curious to see if Mr. Mellon was a fan of children’s portraiture, or neoclassical painting, specifically, but I learned that his tastes were varied and quite diverse. The book was published in conjunction to the Mellon Bequest exhibition which ran from February 17 through April 29, 2001, and did not tour.


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