On my old blog site – abandoned long ago and now becoming submerged in jungle foliage, much as an Inca temple or a forgotten Khmer wat might be – I ran a handful of articles about British folklore. More specifically, I dealt with English seasonal, ritual performances such as morris dancing. It’s a subject that often draws giggles* but which is actually very interesting to a folklorist or a researcher. In the articles I dealt with two controversial aspects of the tradition(s) – firstly the blackening of performers’ faces as a means of ritual disguise** in a few of the traditions, and secondly the level of participation of women in the morris.
It’s the latter issue to which I want to return, with a postscript to this 2011 post, in which I referred to an 18c painting which contained a mixed morris dance. At that time I couldn’t find it anywhere on the internet. However, since then I have been able to identify it, though its period is in fact early 19c. This is a detail from it:
It is by Joseph Parry (1744-1826) and depicts ‘Eccles Wakes’, in Lancashire, in 1822. It is, of course, dangerous to take ‘text’ as ‘history’, but the painting shows that the idea of women dancing was there in someone’s consciousness at that time. Parry lived most of his life in Manchester, so Eccles would have been a cock stride for him. ‘Wakes’ means a traditional annual holiday in Northern England, and this painting, which contains some two hundred figures supposedly portrayed ‘from life’, shows a traditional rushcart preceded by morris dancers. Some details, however, are giving me pause; the dancers are in street clothes for a start, and they are waving handkerchiefs, which is typical of a tradition from much further south in England.
A painting that is roughly contemporaneous, though in a much more stilted style, is Alexander Wilson’s depiction of a rushcart at Long Millgate in 1821. The only copy I could find of this painting is in too small a scale to reveal much, except that there seems to be a team of male dancers in a uniform costume.
Neither of these, I reiterate, is ‘history’, though both are certainly tantalising. As is this unattributed painting from two hundred years earlier, of morris dancers beside the river Thames at Richmond, dancing to a pipe and tabor. One performer is in female costume. That figure is usually explained as a ‘man-woman’, a man in female disguise. Whether it be a matter of perceived gender or perceived skin-colour, interpretation is a political act…
“Interpretation is a political act” is what Consuela (my Tejana maid) said to me a few days ago, as we stood in front of Sir Edwin Landseer’s ‘Monarch of the Glen’. In private hands until last year, the painting has been acquired by the National Gallery of Scotland and has been touring various provincial museums.
When we saw it, it had been hung so that it was visible from two salons distant. One approached it as though coming into the presence of Apollo in his temple. Close up, this denizen of a million-million whiskey bottles became a work of art once more, showing how Landseer’s brush strokes have reproduced an almost-tangible texture of the creature’s hide.
Landseer painted it in 1851, part of a commission for the Houses of Parliament. The Honorable Members took one look at it and passed. “Beats me why,” I said to Consuela, “because this painting is a celebration of patriarchy!”
That’s when she came up with the above phrase. Really, I can’t take her anywhere!
*It always beats me too why the English are the only people on the face of the planet who laugh at their own culture.
**I deliberately do not use the term ‘blackface’ to describe this practice. I maintain that it differs in origin and substantial detail from the ‘blackface’ of minstrelsy, vaudeville, and the music hall, predating it, probably, by several centuries. This isn’t an argument I intend to rehearse here, having already taken it as far as it can go, and being satisfied that I have made my point. However I am dismayed to learn that attacks on the performers who do use that disguise have increased, and have even been made institutional/constitutional by some festival organisers over the past couple of years. I notice that the Shropshire Bedlam Morris Team have opted for black eyemasks; as they are what I call a ‘speculative revivalist’ team, I can accept that it’s entirely up to them how they modify their image.