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Music, Memory and Loss in Victorian Painting

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 April 2011

Suzanne Fagence Cooper
Victoria and Albert Museum


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.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2005

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3 Ibid., 33.

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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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21 Ibid., 73.

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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41 This painting had been in a private collection in Yorkshire since 1813.

42 Mme Viardot, the star of this revived production, was a friend of Frederic Leighton, and she also performed extracts from the opera at George Eliot's house, in the presence of Edward Burne-Jones. See Burne-Jones, Georgiana, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones (London, 1904 and new edition London, 1993), vol.II, 17Google Scholar.

43 Royal Academy of Arts, London, Frederic Leighton (New York, 1996), 29Google Scholar . Other versions of the Orpheus legend were painted by contemporaries: Watts, G.F. explored the subject several times from the 1860s, and exhibited an oil Orpheus and Eurydice at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1879 (now in a private collection in India).Google Scholar D.G. Rossetti was also attracted to the theme. In the 1870s he worked on a complex composition of Pluto, Proserpine and Eurydice listening to Orpheus's playing (c.1875, pencil, British Museum, no. 1910–12–10–9).

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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