Augustus Leopold Egg: ‘The Travelling Companions’, Birmingham City Museums and Art Gallery

Augustus Leopold Egg: ‘The Travelling Companions’, 1862 oil on panel. 65 x 79 cm. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

To Birmingham to see the ‘Lost in Lace’ exhibition, I would highly recommend it, some fascinating textile work, beautifully curated by Professor Lesley Millar. Also to the multicultural festival outside the Museum, threatened by the appalling English Defense League, staging ‘a static march’. A static march involves drunk, shaven headed uglies bussed in to stand outside pubs shouting, whilst wrapping themselves in the Union Jack and, oddly, the Star of David; anti-Muslim activists getting together apparently. Strange for those of us who marched against similar far right thugs in the 1970’s, I remember the largest shouts then were viciously anti-Semitic.

Next to the Rotunda, before you go into the Lost in Lace exhibition, is a small collection of original Victorian lace that puts the later work in a very useful context. On my way across the space I came across this painting, by the wonderfully named Augustus Leopold Egg. I had previously thought about ‘The Travelling Companions’ in relation to Eric Ravilious’ ‘Train Landscape’ (see ‘Railing Against It’ in previous posts) and notions of the Internal Picture Plane. I think it is worth looking at again.

Egg was part of the circle around Dadd , Egg knew Holman Hunt well, though not as a formal member of the Pre Raphaelite group. ‘The Travelling Companions’ is a relatively late Egg painting and contains some affinities with the PRB aims, in the care of the observation work for example, but it doesn’t share Hunts exact, opaque technique and tiny brushwork. Neither does this have the ponderous, thumping morality of Egg’s earlier work, eg his triptych, ‘Past and Present’, 1858. As you might expect from a friend of Dickens, there is still a didactic nature to ‘The Travelling Companions’.

It is smaller than reproductions lead you to imagine (653 mm x 787 mm) and, painted in 1862, very much at home amongst the Victoriana of the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery,

The companions themselves are almost identical, their symmetricality is stressed by the position of us the viewer; directly between them. They are wearing identical but, given the amount of cloth, presumably handmade dresses. It reminds me of a set for a photo shoot in which one half of the carriage has been cut away to fit in the crew and the camera. In the original Victorian carriages the bench seats were parallel, so our viewing position is either from outside or just inside the opposite window. A later image by Tenniel for ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’, clearly based on Egg, demonstrates that there was some sort of external running board used by conductors.

John Tenniel: ‘Alice on the Train’, engraving, 1872

Are we in that position? Judging by the lack of framing furniture, we can assume not. Are we then a fellow passenger, standing to leave? Again there is nosupporting evidence, the train is not arriving anywhere for example. Neither is there room for us as a potential passenger, those huge grey silk dresses squeeze out any other occupants. This is a private, almost domestic space, oddly for such a dislocated experience as travel. We see from a formal rather than an obviously anecdotal position. We see the inside of the carriage and the view beyond from the authorial voice; we are being shown something for a reason.

That exact symmetrically immediately demands a sort of spot the ball/ what’s the difference approach from the viewer, the precision of the technique allows the viewer to make those sort of observations. The obvious differences are:

  1. 1.    The view outside
  2. 2.    The women, who are they?
  3. 3.    One reading/ one sleeping The book versus dream
  4. 4.    The hats
  5. 5.    The gloves, or lack of
  6. 6.    The basket/ flowers
  7. 7.    The hair

Where are they going? Where have they come from? The triptych of the internal picture plane (the carriage window), it is exactly parallel to the picture plane itself. The framing of the view allows us to think of this secondary picture plane in pictorial terms, although Egg was not a landscape painter. Technically it both provides visual interest and relieves the claustrophobia of the small hot carriage; by doing so of course it reinforces the closed nature of this small dark space. That view also explains the lighting; it comes from the opposite set of windows.

The internal picture plane is a familiar device, probably Northern European in origin. The view through a window in Ghent, or fruit trees in a garden and sky beyond; a framed view that refers to images; the act of looking at and through them in the Albertian sense. That interest develops, when van Eyck placed a mirror on the back wall of the painted space in the Arnolfini Portrait, how did that extra pictorial space affect the image perceptually and intellectually? Velasquez immediately springs to mind. Enough of the surface of this painted area, within the bounds of the work, needs to be visible for it to be called an internal picture plane; it needs to be more than an object or an attribute. That plane has to create imaginary pictorial depth that is probably analogous to, but in some way separate from, the homogenous space of the major picture plane that must surround and enclose it for this pictorial element to work. The new space inside, as it were, the existing pictorial space, has to be at least as powerful as the original. It has to be a convincing fiction that keeps all the characteristics of a convincing fiction (autonomy, agency etc), whilst living within another fiction, hence the enjoyment in painting paintings within paintings.

Augustus Leopold Egg: ‘The Travelling Companions’, 1862. Detail

Note that the view inside our view of ‘The Travelling Companions’ is entirely static, the only sense of movement is in the slight sway of the tassel. The view is different through each panel. The curtain on the right has been slightly drawn to shade the book. The blue of the sky on the right is a shade or two deeper than in the other two panels. The curve of the outside window panels echoes the curves of the two girls, on the left the sleeper is just a little more slumped, her window is free of curtain so we get the full 45 degree curve and a small, almost abstract residue of horizontal sea with a slight froth of land on top.

There is a small white town on the edge of the bay, on the land that points like an arrow toward the left hand panel. This is apparently a view of Menton, on the border between France and Italy. Given that the composition of the painting features the crumpled border between two figures and a clear vertical axis, are we meant to assume something here? Menton had only just moved from the control of Sardinia to France, though there seems no obvious reference to this, nor that the city is famous for its lemons, nor that menton is the French for chin. Nor, oddly that Webb Ellis, the ‘inventor of Rugby’ was living in the town at the time Egg made this painting and died there ten years later. Also, and tangentially relevant, in 1892, Charles Spurgeon, died there. Spurgeon the British Baptist preacher was the most popular London minister of the nineteenth century, crowds of 6,000 came each Sunday to his Metropolitan Tabernacle.

I am not suggesting that the city in this view is a religious reference, but these people were here for a reason: TB. In 1861, James Henry Bennet, a Manchester doctor, and TB sufferer, published ‘Mentone and the Riviera as a Winter Climate’ suggesting Menton as suitable place for a tuberculosis cure. The book was very popular, the wealthy wintered here, and died here. That is the view we can see through the window, are these two suffering from TB? Clearly not, they seem the picture of health. But, that city on the shore, is it therefore a guarantor of health, of happiness? It is certainly a white city, although not quite a shining city on a hill.  Egg himself was a chronic asthmatic that was why he travelled to places like the French Riviera, although he would die from asthma in Algeria. But, from this and his other paintings, he does not seem to be an overtly autobiographical painter, Egg had visited Mentone, with Dickens and Wilkie Collins. This view is about the two girls, not necessarily about medicalised death in sunny places. Travel is though, supposed to be good for you, broaden the mind and all that.

As in any English painting, their class matters, they are in a first class compartment, we assume that, given the nationality of the artist, they are English travelers. We are looking at the upper middle class tourist moving away from the grey light of home to the bright sunlight of the south. From the later 1830s, the genre of tourism diversified, the middle class entry into a European space formerly inhabited by the elite, Egg illustrates the sudden and modern rise of mass travel. But, see how little very little attention they pay to that view, it is for us the viewer. The companions are getting their inspiration from books or from dreaming.

What is she reading, is it a popular novel? A Bible? Or similar? Or a guide book? Even close up you can’t read a title, it not a yellow backed popular novel (cost about two shillings), sold to through railway bookstalls eg WH Smiths, neither is it a Bible.

A woman reading in art has, usually, a set of meanings attached: ‘Magdalen reading’ by Rogier van der Weyden, from the 1430’s, or the Virgin Mary often in the Madonna and Child composition with Christ riffling the pages of her book. Often these images remind us that she wrote as well as read, eg Botticellis ‘The Madonna of the Magnificat’ 1483,

Botticelli: ‘Madonna of the Magnificat’, 1483

where we can see the pen and ink as well as the book. This view of women reading is a sacred search for knowledge, it would have been easy to rearrange the composition to give the reading girl a halo from the window behind, the drawing of the curtain deliberately closes down that possibility.

There is another result of reading, a different sort of passion that turns up in illustrations of Dante, Paolo and Francesca’s reading of Lancelot and Guinevere leads to adultery (‘that day we read no more’), for example: Rossetti’s ‘Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, 1855,

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: ‘Paolo and Francesca’, 1855

the couple have the book on their lap. But, they are a couple and these are two identical women; the identification, or the implication anyway, doesn’t fit. Neither does our reader seem stirred to any other than, at the most, contemplation. What sort of future might she be contemplating? Or what sort of past might she be reading about?

The first Murray guide was published in 1836 (A Handbook for Travellers on the Continent) and the first Baedeker in English (On the Rhine) in 1861. Murray’s, were traditionally cloth covered in a characteristic red that faded, (Baedeker copying the same colour system from 1861 onwards). They had gold writing on the upper front cover, if you look very hard at the faded red book in the painting there is an ovoid smear where that writing might sit. Murray’s were known for their quotations from Byron, ie high toned. The first Murray handbook on Northern Italy was published in 1842, written by Sir Francis Palgrave father of the Golden Treasury man, after severe criticism from Ruskin (over the correct hierarchy of Renaissance painters) that edition was upgraded in 1846; so you get some idea of the clientele. They were also expensive; apparently costing the equivalent a labourer’s weekly wage.

So, the figure on the right is reading a literary travel guide to art and architecture, a handbook that was also one of the first guides to modern travel (railways and steamships) references easily recognised by contemporaries. We might see the part drawn blind as a gentle assertion by Egg, that looking at the view would be more productive, note that the view behind the reader is a little more detailed and a little more intense. But, as an activity by a young traveller this would be seen as entirely secular, entirely praiseworthy. What would be expected in the circumstances and not really liable to any greater symbolic reading by the contemporary viewer; despite the wilder assertions I have read in some Victorian Studies circles.

Augustus leopold Egg: ‘The Travelling Companions’, 1862 oil on panel. 65 x 79 cm. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

The sleeping girl, dreaming into the future as the other reads about the past? Slight flush on cheek of the dreamer, significant? Like images of woman reading, sleeping women in art might lead us to where we are supposed to be.  A ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the beautiful sleeper, who would fall in love with her watcher? In classical terms, any Victorian viewer would think of Sleeping Psyche, the mortal girl watched by Eros as she sleeps. Or sleeping Ariadne, deserted by Theseus on the Island of Naxos, about to be woken by, and fall in love with Bacchus. Or, perhaps Titania waking to fall in love with Bottom:

There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in

Or that influential and rather strong poem: Keats’: ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, where Porphyro spies on the naked Madeline as she dreams of her future husband and then…

Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose
Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet,–
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes’ moon hath set.

Is our grey dressed dreamer, thinking of this sort of heady stuff, painted and illustrated many times by the younger Pre Raphaelites? Far more likely to be shown inspired by a book of verse I would think, than just lying there with your eyes closed. The underlying theme in all these dreamers is that they are evidently watched by a male viewer, the male gaze mythologised, the male gaze that leads to sexual attack of one sort or another; ‘melting into her dream’ indeed. Is there any visual evidence to support such a reading of a girl with her eyes closed and her hands demurely clasped in her lap. Perhaps.

The hands, note that the reader is wearing gloves, gloves, like hats denote social class. By the way, is there any significance in the placement of the hats, both feathers facing to the right? They seem to exist in order to point to the other minor differences; a sort of signpost. Women should be seen wearing gloves at all times, and although these two fill this carriage, it is still a public space. Realist and Impressionist paintings in Paris, in a few years’ time will make this more evident, look for example at the role of the internal picture plane in other roughly contemporaneous works. For example the mirror in Manet’s ‘Bar at the Folies Bergeres’,

the barmaid’s reddened arms are contrasted with the gloved ladies seen reflected in the mirror, they have the privileged position on the balcony, Suzon the barmaid and probable prostitute does not. Bare armed, bareheaded, staring blankly into the middle distance, the grander world in the mirror is closed to her, unless of course the man we can see reflected on the right hand side is her route out and up; nothing in the rest of the painting makes that

Edouard Manet: ‘The Bar at the Folies-Bergere’, 1881-2, oil on panel

possibility seem anything other than remote.

Holman Hunt uses a mirror in ‘The Awakening Conscience’, from 1853. Like the view in the Travelling Companions it introduces depth into a claustrophobic space.

William Holman Hunt: ‘The Awakening Conscience’, 1853, oil on canvas

Like the Manet, the formal relationship between the major and minor pictorial space (bar and mirror/ room and exterior garden) indicates potentialities to the viewer, even if they are not entirely revealed to the female protagonist/s. In ‘The Awakening Conscience’ the mirror reflects the garden that the trapped girl looks towards, as she begins to understand her current state. The kept woman caught, like the cat that traps the mouse under the table. The garden is the possibility of redemption. Note by the way that her un-gloved hands have no wedding ring, despite being alone in a room with a man

The removal of gloves is a licentious act, But, is our dreamer as abandoned as the kept mistress in West London rapidly on her way down the social spiral? Probably not, but there are a couple of other minor clues that all might not be well. Notice that the hair of the dreamer is looser, not quite caught up in the way that the reader seems to have arranged her coiffure. The hair of the dreamer is more noticeable in the preparatory sketch, it is less ordered and covers her ears, even so, the sleeping girls hair is still ‘en cheveux’ as the French put it?  And, if you look very carefully you will notice that the third button down from the top is undone.

Working down the pictorial space we come to the benches on which the girls sit. The dreamer has an open weave basket containing two oranges, possibly the left hand fruit is a peach, difficult to tell. There is also a crumpled piece of paper; tissue to stop the fruit bruising? Or a note? I spent a long time looking at this in Birmingham, but no,  there was no indication either way. Holman Hunt would have filled the paper with miserable song lyrics. Egg is far more subtle. The reader sits beside a perfect posy of flowers, roses possibly, but no evident thorns, the thorns of love etc. Possibly carnations, but the delicate whites, pinks and pale reds, avoiding the over prescriptive language of flowers, still do not speak of intensity or deep passion, this is grace and delicate pleasure.

 As Andrew Graham Dixon points out in (A History of British Art page 166) Egg was a Hogarthian artist, in that his narratives depend on moral choices. But, says Graham Dixon, the protagonists in an Egg painting have genuine choice, in the Hogarthian universe

‘we are all corrupt and therefore all damned inevitably. The moral of Egg’s art is that each moment of time and each human action, is full of alternative possibilities’

Are we looking at a moment of choice here? Graham Dixon would have us believe that Egg has, in effect, shown us the same woman and her two potential personalities. The clue has to be in the view, surely, what we are seeing is Egg setting up possibilities. Unlike his earlier heavily didactic work, and unlike the work of his friend Holman Hunt who, metaphorically speaking, beats you over the head with his intentions, what we have here is a painting designed to be seen on many levels.

Look at that view and the bright sunlight, note that the midground, like the train interior, is dark. There is a distance between the train and the town, we have a way to go yet. What we have here is potentials, it is up to us as modern viewers, a modernity emphasized by the means of travel and the lack of male attendants, to understand where those potentials might lead, and to choose accordingly. As the internal picture plane tells us, even a life in the sun has implications.

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