Ghislaine Howard on Study for Handmaiden from Dante’s Dream


I was immediately drawn to this  lyrical and beautifully realised study of one of the two handmaids for Rossetti’s large painting of Dante’s Dream in Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery – a painting I know well.

It bears a startling correspondence to one of my paintings for The Stations of the Cross / The Captive Figure. This sequence, though Christian in origin, actually tells of one man’s journey through a corrupt judicial procedure to his eventual execution. On his way to his death a woman takes pity on him, steps out from the crowd, takes a cloth and wipes his forehead. Miraculously, his image is transferred onto the cloth – a true image – vera icon. The woman’s name was Veronica, and for me as a female artist this story and all it suggests rings somewhat true.

Rossetti’s study is obviously a studio concoction: although drawn from the model, it is already semi-idealised. The young woman possesses an androgynous beauty at once sensual and innocent – a powerful and troubling combination – that clearly attracted Lowry a much as it did Rossetti.

Rossetti has posed the model holding a loosely stretched cloth; her left hand set awkwardly at right angles to her wrist, whilst the other hand is clenched, grasping the cloth more firmly. She has a job to do, but she seems somehow disassociated from the real world, locked into a languorous, trance-like state, her eyes seemingly unfocused. In the final painting this is resolved, but in this drawing she seems to be the passive receiver of the artist’s and viewer’s gaze rather than an independent being.

My image, though superficially similar is, however, very different – my woman (I used myself as the model) is of this world: physical, muscular and active. Like Veronica (whom she represents), she is engaged in a world of real, palpable beings. In all my work I try to give my figures a sense of embodiment, celebrating people who possess their own bodies and minds. My job as an artist is to celebrate that fact.

In the work of Lowry and Rossetti I think we see something different, something Rossetti’s sister made evident in her intriguing poem, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’:

‘One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:

. . . Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.’

The similarities and differences between my image and Rossetti’s have given me much food for thought – which is what the best art should do.

Ghislaine Howard is an artist.  Her work is represented in many public and private collections including The Royal Collection, Manchester City Art Gallery, Whitworth Art Gallery, Salford City Art Gallery and Oxford University.

‘Lowry and the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition is supported by Sotheby’s