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THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
78 by 63 cm., 31 by 25 in.
signed and dated l.r.: Stanhope. A. Forbes/ 1914.
oil on canvas
London, Royal Academy, 1914, no. 185
York City Art Gallery, 2001
Penlee House Museum and Gallery, 2004
Stanhope Forbes and the Newlyn School, Caroline Fox, David and Charles, 1993, p.89.
This serene essay in light is an intriguing departure for Stanhope Forbes. The rural naturalism for which he is so well known gives way to a beautiful and charming study of femininity. The figure is captured in a moment of intimate contemplation. She is in perfect but subtle harmony with her quintessentially feminine surroundings; the cloth of her robe relates closely in colour and pattern, to that of the curtains and her dressing-table. Dappled light plays across the surfaces highlighting their texture; the glass topped bijouterie table, the mahogany mirror frame, the silver candlesticks. These elements combine to produce an exquisitely composed work with a pervasive sense of fragile delicacy.
It was the light of the South Cornish Coast which originally drew artists to Newlyn. Forbes arrived in 1884 where he joined a number of artists including Walter Langley. The sunshine streaming through the window has a liquid quality evident in many of the Newlyn school artist's work. One of the most renowned exponents of this technique was Frank Bramley whose painting, A Hopeless Dawn received high acclaim when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1888. As the title of this work suggests it is a tragic subject; two women, presumably the wife and mother of a fisherman who is lost and presumed drowned, are left to contemplate their future. An angry sea, visible through the window, only increases the sense of foreboding. It had a profound effect on the colony of artists and in particular on Forbes himself, 'Bramley's picture strikes me more than ever. I cannot describe how beautiful it is. If I were a rich man, I should lose no time in going for it.' As Through the Looking Glass is a subjective departure for Forbes, so A Hopeless Dawn was for Bramley. The majority of his work depicted decorative interiors of middle class houses and it is works such as these that seem to have had a strong influence on the present work.
Forbes though seems to have moved even further towards the aesthetic in Through the Looking Glass which echoes the work of Albert Joseph Moore. Like Moore, a unified tone and pattern is applied to all aspects of the painting creating a stunning and unified composition. The concert of technique and colour produce a heightened, almost surreal atmosphere which further emphasizes the sense of a moment captured in time.
The use of the reflection in painting is perhaps most famously employed in Diego Velazquez' Rokeby Venus. In this masterpiece Cupid holds a mirror allowing Venus to admire herself but also to turn the viewer's gaze on themselves. The face in the mirror becomes a picture within the picture, distancing the viewer from the subject but increasing her mystery and allure. There are no less than three mirrors in the present work suggesting an insecurity as far as the subject is concerned; as if none of them can provide the reflection the sitter desires.
It is interesting to note Forbes' personal situation at the time this work was executed. In 1912 Elizabeth Forbes, his wife of twenty-three years passed away, and it was not long after the outbreak of the First World War that their son Alec was killed in action. There is a certain melancholy and introspection to his work of this period and evidence that his paintings are attempting to record and retain a world that was changing at an extraordinary rate.
It has been suggested that the model in the present work may be Florence Munnings. Sir Alfred Munnings first went to Newlyn in 1908 and was a frequent visitor from then on. Harold Knight painted a superb portrait of Florence Munnings the following year and there are clear similarities in the profiles of the two sitters. Alfred and Florence were married in 1912 and her fragile existence became apparent as early as her honeymoon when she attempted suicide. In 1913 the Munnings' settled in Cornwall moving to Cliff House in Lamorna near Penzance. They had close and regular contact with Forbes and the rest of the colony and it is therefore perfectly plausible that Florence, or Blote as she was known, is indeed the sitter in the present work. If this is the case it adds an even greater poignancy to the painting as she finally took her own life later that year.