Clerk Saunders. (1857). Signed and dated “EES/1857”. Watercolor, bodycolor, and colored chalks on paper laid on stretcher (Marsh and Nunn 117).
Siddal started Clerk Saunders as a painting in December 1856 and completed it in 1857 (Chapman and Meacock 103; Marsh and Nunn 117). However, a woodblock illustration was produced for a future ballad book in May 1854. Additional studies can be seen in the 1866 photographic record of her work. Inspiration came from the old Scottish ballad Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border by Scott’s (Marsh and Nunn 117). Art prior to the High Renaissance (such as Gothic art and medieval illumination), also influenced Siddal’s work (Prettejohn 183).
Within this painting, May Margaret encounters the ghost of her murdered lover, Clerk Saunders, who appears after making his unearthly entrance through the wall to renew his vows. Kneeling on the bed, she kisses the wand to show her fidelity (Marsh and Nunn 117; Prettejohn 183). Both figures appear ghostly and pale, and this heightens the dramatic scene of the dead confronting the living. Through the window, dawn’s light pours over the slumbering medieval city. On the shelf an empty hour-glass stands, which could symbolize death, as one’s life has literally run out of time (Prettejohn 183).
The theme of love/desire, use of bright colors, a medieval connection, and a literary reference represents several important Pre-Raphaelite characteristics. Her style is defined by compositional layering, enclosed spaces, attenuated figures, and jewel-like colors. (Prettejohn 183).
This painting also reflects upon the contemporary issues between class and gender. Like Siddal’s Lady Clare and Keat’s Isabella painted by Millais in 1849, this is a story about love between social unequals. Items throughout the room (such as the prie-dieu she is kneeling upon which was used to aid in prayer), suggests that May Margaret is religiously devoted, as was proper for women (Marsh and Nunn 117). The podium decorated with an angel, holds a manuscript. The alcove also has a manuscript and what looks to be an apple. Looking closely at the piece, there seems to be a cross hidden in the shadows on the right side of the alcove behind May Margaret (though it could just be me trying to create more religious references)! Looking at Clerk Saunders, I wonder if he was some type of knight, as there looks to be a crest/emblem on his robes? I’m sure the flowers symbolize something too; perhaps life because they are alive (for the time being anyway) and if someone knows the specific type of flower, there could be a more specialized meaning behind it.
To me, May Margaret seems could be partaking in witchcraft (another popular movement within Pre-Raphaelite work). Did she “summon” Saunders to appear? I believe it could be a possibility; her manuscripts are closed, if there is a cross in the shadows, it could symbolize her wavering faith because it isn’t displayed prominently, plus she has a wand! Just my thoughts though. Also, this could be another self-portrait-the woman has that red hair again!
Comparisons can be made between Siddal’s Clerk Saunders & Morris’ La Belle Iseult. They both have similar environments of an enclosed chamber and a bed with crumpled sheets (Prettejohn 186; Chapman and Meacock 103). I also noticed that in La Belle Iseult, the manuscript is open, which could suggest her strong religious devotion.
William Morris’ La Belle Iseult. 1858
Clerk Saunders was exhibited at the 1857 Russell Place Show and also included in the British Art exhibition that was sent to America later in that same year. Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard then purchased the painting. Charles Fairfax Murray later acquired it and inscribed on the back: “This picture by Mrs Rossetti, esteemed by her husband the best of her works,” and later continues, “Gabriel Rossetti himself worked on this picture as was customary with him, as Mr Burne-Jones told me long ago.” However, the painting doesn’t display D.G. Rossetti’s touch and it’s possible that Murray hoped to enhance the value of this work by his statement. Sir Galahad at the Shrine (1855-7, Tate Gallery 1984, no.217) was signed by both Siddal and D.G. Rossetti so Murray may have also confused the two works accidently (Marsh and Nunn 117).
Marsh, Jan, and Pamela Gerrish Nunn. “Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists”. London, Thames and Hudson: 1997. Print.
“Pre-Raphaelites: The Poetry of Drawing”. The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. Web. 6 Mar. 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/8296065/Pre-Raphaelites-The-Poetry-of-Drawing.html?image=12.
Prettejohn, Elizabeth. The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites. New York, Cambridge University Press: 2012. Print.
“William Morris, Jane Burden”. Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May. 25 Mar. 2010. Web. 6 Mar. 2013. http://gather-ye-rosebuds-while-ye-may.blogspot.com/2010/03/william-morris-jane-burden-la-belle.html.