A ‘stunner’ on Lavender Hill, and a bit of poetic licence

Before the recent South Bank Poetry launch, Hilaire writes, I looked back through my notes to remind myself of the background to my poem Battersea Pre-Raphaelite Diptych, which is published in the current issue of SBP.

The poem is in two parts. The first is in the voice of Pre-Raphaelite painter and model Marie Spartali Stillman, as she remembers an idyllic and culturally stimulating childhood, growing up in a villa called The Shrubbery on Lavender Hill. The second part is written in her mother’s voice as she addresses Marie, who was to become a renowned beauty, or ‘stunner’ in Pre-Raphaelite parlance.

My interest was first piqued a couple of years ago when I came across a reference to The Shrubbery in a local history book, which mentioned that the villa and its extensive grounds had been leased in the 1860s to a wealthy Greek merchant whose daughters had modelled for Whistler, Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As a paid-up philhellene, I was intrigued to learn that there was a small ex-patriot Greek community in south London at this time. As I dug around a bit more, I was excited to discover that not only had Marie Spartali Stillman modelled for Rossetti et al, she’d been a successful painter in her own right. She was not a tragic figure; on the contrary, she seems to have been determined and self-assured, which was another factor that drew me to write about her.

Marie and her sister were educated at home and their father Michael encouraged Marie’s artistic tendencies. Michael Spartali was interested in the arts and politics and often entertained prominent figures at The Shrubbery, which was lavishly decorated and hung with Old Masters. Less appears to be known about their mother Euphrosyne, but I imagine her as a quiet and steadying influence.

Writing the poem, I tried to use mostly words with Greek roots. I remember the process as quite long, stitching the poem together, but linguistically rewarding. When I came to review my notes recently, I realised Marie must have been 18 or 19 when the family moved into The Shrubbery, not a young child as I’ve suggested in the poem. This is where I brandish my poetic licence. After all, when were the Pre-Raphaelites ever concerned with historical accuracy?

The Shrubbery today. The villa has been divided into luxury flats, but the grounds have long since been built upon.
The Shrubbery today. The villa has been divided into luxury flats, but the grounds have long since been built upon.
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