Stefan Hawlin and Michael Meredith (eds), The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, Vol. 15: Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day and Asolando
This is one of Browning's final poems, composed during his stay in Asolo in October 1889. Katharine Bronson described its origins:
One day, on returning from a drive to Bassano, the poet was unusually silent; no one spoke. I felt anxious lest he should not feel quite well, but forbore to question him, and consoled myself by thinking, 'He is tired; perhaps he is resting his brain.' We had nearly reached home when he said:
'I have written a poem since we left Bassano.'
'A poem! How? When?'
'Oh, it is all in my head. I shall write it out presently, as soon as I can find a bit of paper.'
'The subject? Please tell.'
'No, not now; you will see it quite soon enough when it is printed.'
'Will you not even say what inspired it?'
Then smiling: 'Well since you are so inquisitive, the birds twittering in the trees have suggested it to me. You know I don't like women to wear wings in their bonnets.' It was 'The Lady and the Painter'.1
While the sound of birdsong may have triggered Browning's imagination and led to the poem's composition, the subject had been in his mind for some time. The poem combines two of Browning's dislikes—cruelty to animals and birds, and hypocrisy about the naked female form.
Browning's condemnation of slaughtering birds for their feathers, like his attack on vivisection in the previous poem, was topical. It was fashionable in the 1880s for ladies to wear feathers as adornment on hats and dresses. An advertisement of D. Nicholson & Co, the London costumiers, in March 1884 shows a hat, decorated with birds' wings and shaded ostrich plumes, for sale at £1. 8s. 6d. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had been founded earlier in 1889, as a protest group campaigning against the uses of great crested grebe skins and birds' feathers in clothing. It anticipated the outcry against the fur trade in the twentieth century.
pg 389Browning's other target in the poem was less easy to hit. In 'Parleying with Francis Furini' he had defended the use of the nude in art, against the prurience of the late Renaissance art-critic Filippo Baldinucci and the Victorian prudery of the current treasurer of the Royal Academy, John Callcott Horsley (see pp. 135–40). In 'The Lady and the Painter' he turns his attention to the women who posed in the nude. The painter's protestation in the poem that he reverently used his models to express on canvas the greatness of God's creation echoed Browning's own view. As a frequent visitor to artists' studios in London, particularly those of Frederic Leighton and Felix Moscheles, he had personal experience of painting from life.2 Taken, therefore, at face-value, the lady in the poem loses the argument over the propriety of posing in the nude. Even though she is given the last word, her incomprehension or her unwillingness to accept the painter's argument displays her narrow-mindedness.
Browning was not so naïve as to imagine that all artists were as morally upright as Leighton or Moscheles. Many Victorian artists' models led free and unconventional lives, and Browning knew artists who had models as their mistresses.3 The most controversial of these was Sir Coutts Lindsay, founder of the Grosvenor Gallery. In 1882 he and his gifted wife Blanche, an artist and poet, separated acrimoniously, because Lindsay had a long-term mistress (a former model) and illegitimate children. Browning was friendly with husband and wife, both of whom confided in him,4 and he continued to see both after their separation, right up to his death. It is probable that their bickering lies behind that of the speakers in 'The Lady and pg 390the Painter'. Lady Lindsay was fond of wearing feather accessories5 and was described by an acquaintance as 'fallal',6 which is certainly true of the lady's comments on fashion. The charming but arrogant Sir Coutts, a Fra Lippo de nos jours, is not intended to be the painter, but some of the aggression towards the lady could derive from a memory of him which Browning called up. The dialogue, with each speaker trying to score points at the other's expense, is certainly reminiscent of the Lindsays, and gives an added interest to the poem.
1 Meredith, 132.
2 Felix Moscheles describes in his autobiography how he persuaded two 17-year-old girls who had offered to model for him to pose for him in the nude. Browning came several times to his studio when he was painting one of them, Laura, who had a particularly beautiful body. Laura had had to overcome opposition from her local priest, which she did by citing the many Renaissance religious paintings depicting naked men and women. See Felix Moscheles, Fragments of an Autobiography (1899), 324–31.
3 D. G. Rossetti and Auguste Rodin come to mind. After Browning's death one of Fannie Browning's accusations against her husband Pen was that he slept with his models.
4 Lady Lindsay wrote to Browning on 22 November 1882, announcing the separation (Yale). Browning continued to write to her and see her. During the 1880s Sir Coutts supported Pen's paintings and accepted some for the Grosvenor Gallery, including the controversial nude of Joan of Arc. In 1888 Browning reported to Pen that Sir Coutts 'had gone to the bad' (Letters, 291) but that did not stop Lindsay from accepting Pen's large portrait of his father for the 1889 Grosvenor Gallery exhibition.
5 See Virginia Surtees, Coutts Lindsay (1993), 168.
6 Lady Layard's diary, 17 January 1882, British Library. OED2 defines 'fallal' as 'affected, finicky, foppish'.