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Music, Memory and Loss in Victorian Painting
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 April 2011
In his collection of essays Music and Morals (1871), music critic the Rev. H.R. Haweis devoted several pages to the relationship between music and memory. Like many of his contemporaries, he believed that music could trigger recollections in acute and intense ways. He suggested that there are ‘many mediums which connect us vividly with the past but for freshness and suddenness and power over memory’ the sense of hearing is paramount. He imagines a middle-aged woman caught unawares by a few bars of music.
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5 The Graham Piano (1879–80, Private Collection) was decorated by Burne-Jones. He designed the images originally in 1872 as illustrations to William Morris's poem The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice. His pencil designs are now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
6 Examples of seventeenth-century Dutch still-lives, incorportating musical instruments as vanitas symbols, could be found in many Victorian collections. These included Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life (Harmen Steenwyck, oil on oak, c.1640),Google Scholar featuring a lute and a flute, presented to the National Gallery, London by Baron Savile, 1888 or Vanitas Still Life (Jan Janz. Treck, oil on oak, 1648)Google Scholar , featuring a lute, bought by the Liverpool merchant Robert Philip Wood (1818–1898), now in the National Gallery, London.
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22 This interpretation could be reinforced when we compare Whistler's painting with works such as Rossetti's The Maids of Elfenmere (1855, wood engraving, Victoria and Albert Museum), in which unearthly female figures appear, singing, as if in a vision or dream. Dicksee's The Reverie (1895, oil on canvas, Museums and Galleries on Mersey-side) makes an even more explicit link between a piano performance and the appearance of a female ghost.
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44 The painting was taken off its stretcher after the Academy exhibition, and ‘consigned … to oblivion during his lifetime in the dark recess of a cellar’. It has been lost since 1945: see Royal Academy of Arts, Leighton, 108.
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