Victoria Osborne talks about The Long Engagement

This is The Long Engagement by Arthur Hughes completed in 1859. Hughes wasn’t a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but he was very close to them in the 1850s and he shared a lot of their ideals and their approaches. So for example he had interest in truth to nature the idea of painting nature directly out of doors right in front of the thing that you’re trying to paint. So in the case of the landscape in this painting much of it was painted out of doors directly from nature and in one of his letters Hughes talks about being outside painting the wild roses that you can see in the background how he was there with the perspiration pouring off him and this giant bee that kept attacking him all of the time and driving him crazy. He talks about this in his letters and these are the kind of trials and tribulations that Pre-Raphaelite artists working from nature in this quest for authenticity these are the kinds of trials that they have to put up with. This painting started out as a subject from Shakespeare from As You Like It. Hughes was going to paint an image of Orlando and Rosalind in the Forest of Arden. But he then changed his mind and decided to turn it into a modern life subject showing a pair of modern day lovers that you can see here. The title of the painting The Long Engagement derives from the fact that the lovers here the clergyman and his sweetheart are unable to marry because they don’t have enough money he just doesn’t earn enough to be able to support her. And we know that they have been courting for a long time because her name that has been carved on the tree here in one of their past trysts in the woodland has been almost completely obscured by the ivy that has been growing up. So this is a very long term courtship. Also when we look close up at their faces we can see that these are people who aren’t in the first flush of youth. The landscape background helps to add to the meaning of the painting it helps to explain the plight of these two lovers. So in the background you can see that nature is blooming and flourishing and squirrels are pairing off and nesting there’s a little pair of squirrels on the branch there and that’s in contrast to the kind of barren situation the kind of limbo that these two frustrated lovers find themselves in. The wild roses in the background here twining around are symbolic in popular in Victorian flower symbolism of love but particularly the pleasures and pains of love the sort of bittersweet qualities of love because wild roses have soft blooms but they also have sharp thorns. Even the claustrophobia of the landscape helps to create this idea that these lovers are trapped in their situation. They seems surrounded and hemmed in by all of this burgeoning nature so there’s a sense that they’re trapped in a situation over which they have no control. Now the story is left deliberately very open ended we don’t know what is going to happen to these lovers and 19th century audiences really liked pictures that were open in this kind of way so they could speculate about what might happen next and what might be in store for the characters. There are perhaps signs that there may be a happy ending for this couple there may be signs of optimism. The fact for example that there are all sorts of signs that their love is strong and enduring the clasped hands the geranium the young woman wears here which is a symbol, again in flower symbolism, of comforting so it’s a woman as supporter of the man but particular the presence of the faithful dog here traditionally symbolic of constancy and loyalty which suggests their love will endure. And also when Hughes showed this work at the Royal Academy for the first time he accompanied it in catalogue with a quotation from Chaucer which is roughly ‘For how might sweetness ever have been known to him that never tasted bitterness?’ So here we have a couple who are experiencing the depths of bitterness here it is a frustrating situation but perhaps there is a hint that happiness will be in store for them in the future and perhaps they will find sweetness and it will be all the sweeter for all these trials they have been through. So it is left very open ended but perhaps just maybe there is the possibility of a happy ending.


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