Manchester Art Gallery

Vivien

Object description

Head and shoulders of a young woman, in profile facing to the left, her hands resting on an ornate green and white tiled parapet. Her white, fleshy throat forms the centre of the composition. She wears a luxurious gilt embroidered shawl with an interlocking geometric pattern and an edging of tiny pearls, and a string of heavy red beads, possibly carnelian, around her neck, with matching red earrings. Her thick dark wavy hair flows down her back. She holds a sprig of poisonous flowering daphne in her left hand, which she rests on her other hand, which is palm down on the parapet. An apple and a red poppy lie on the ledge in front of her, with some fallen leaves and petals from the sprig in her hand. She is set against a backdrop of radiating peacock feathers. The model was Sandy’s gypsy lover Keomi. She is portrayed as Vivien, the sensual enchantress who seduced Merlin in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetic work Idylls of the King (1859). The hinged gilt frame has plain mouldings, with shallow diamond shapes cut to form a relief pattern in the frieze.

Display label

Gallery text panel In Pursuit of Beauty Late Victorian Art and Design Improving the quality of British art and design had been a concern since the 1850s. The British Empire had expanded into new continents but it was the classical ideal of beauty, based on Ancient Greek and Roman culture that was still considered the model for serious art. The pursuit of beauty was a form of escapism from the mass-production of industrial Britain. As well as looking to the ancient world, artists and designers were delighted and inspired by the arts of Renaissance Italy, the Middle and Far East. Many of the paintings here feature a beautiful woman. Sometimes she is a passive, decorative form, but often she is a dark and brooding femme fatale, a symbol of seduction, deception and destruction. The 'fatal woman' may reflect late Victorian male fears as women campaigned for equal rights and new roles. The emphasis on colour, harmony and rhythm and simplifying the form of an object would become major concerns in the 20th century. They can be seen emerging here in the work of late Victorian artists and designers.