Published online by Cambridge University Press: 25 August 2006
In 1892, Katharine Bradley (1846–1914) and Edith Cooper (1862–1913) published a volume of poetry with the title Sight and Song based on their response to a series of paintings in British and Continental public galleries. Bradley and Cooper, aunt and niece, devoted lovers, who over the three decades of their writing lives produced numerous volumes of poetry and plays collaboratively under the authorial signature “Michael Field,” had already made their name with a volume published in 1889 entitled Long Ago, comprising translations and elaborations of the Sapphic fragments, which has been read as an intriguing and (for the times) audaciously explicit celebration of love between women. The concept of “translation” was as fundamental to the project of Sight and Song as it had been to Long Ago; however, in the later volume it refers not to the literal translation of poetic fragments written in an ancient and other language (as Long Ago ostensibly did) but to the rhetorical act of interpreting visual images. The aim of their new collection of ekphrastic poems was, as they explained in the Preface to Sight and Song, “to translate into verse what the lines and colours of certain chosen pictures sing in themselves” (Michael Field, Sight and Song v). The synaesthetic complexity of Michael Field's language here suggests the multidimensional sensory experience of looking at and responding to visual art works, something the women try to capture in the various kinds of writing they undertake around the production of this volume – their journal and their letters, as well as the poems themselves – in their attempt to provide such a translation. In this essay I should like to explore how Sight and Song continues the project of Long Ago in the sense both of articulating their lesbian experience and of locating them in a cultural tradition, only that experience is here specifically associated with visual hermeneutics and with the circulation of the verbal and the visual, and the cultural connections they make are not with a classical lesbian heritage but with recent and contemporary aestheticians and writers on art – most notably, I suggest, with two other couples who wrote art criticism in collaboration: Bernard Berenson and Mary Costelloe, and Vernon Lee and Clementina (“Kit”) Anstruther-Thomson.