Poetry in emotion

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Passionate and atmospheric, this Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece by Sir John Everett Millais presents an ideal opportunity to discuss body language and the power of expression, says Gillian Wolfe

The story of this intriguing picture is taken from Keats's poem "Isabella, or, the Pot of Basil". The poem has 63 verses. This is the first: Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel!

Lorenzo, a young palmer (pilgrim) in Love's eye They could not in the self-same mansion dwell Without some stir of heart, some malady; They could not sit at meals but feel how well It soothed each to be the other by: They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep But to each other dream, and nightly weep.

Keats took his idea from a 14th-century story by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, about a rich and greedy Florentine merchant family and their poor young apprentice, Lorenzo. He had the audacity to fall in love with their wealthy daughter and the gentle Isabella returned his passion. Her brothers found them out and their fury knew no bounds. They plotted his murder, lured him to a wood and killed him.

Isabella grieved for Lorenzo and in a vision saw the place of his grave.

She dug up the body, cut off his head and kept it hidden in a flowerpot in which she planted sweet-smelling basil. When her brothers discovered her macabre secret they stole the pot and guiltily fled the city. Isabella died of sorrow.

Millais' "Lorenzo and Isabella" captures both the love of the young couple and the hatred of the family. Lorenzo's offering of a blood orange to Isabella is a symbol of passion. Her brother extends his massive muscular leg to kick her dog. He bares his teeth with a furious grimace, while his clenched fists symbolically wield a nutcrackerweapon.

Another brother holds his wine glass aloft and intently watches the lovers.

On the back of his chair a hawk is eating the white feather of a dove, the symbol of peace, to indicate impending violence. On the table is spilled salt, indicating blood to be spilled. Behind Isabella's head are passionflowers, behind Lorenzo's white roses, symbols of love and purity.

On the windowsill is a pot of basil.

Interestingly, most of the people in the picture are drawn from life, Millais' friends and family: the old man with the napkin is his father.

Millais was only 19 when he painted "Isabella". It was his first painting as a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of seven young men who rejected the then-accepted model of high art, derived from the Renaissance. They considered its perfection and idealised anatomy artificial and unreal. They admired early "primitive" paintings before Raphael and tried to emulate their vision to create a more "natural" world.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood influenced interior design, crafts and architecture mainly through the Arts and Crafts movement headed by William Morris. Like many Victorians they admired the medieval world and would have found visual sources from panel paintings, stained-glass windows and illuminated manuscripts.

Millais' pictures from this time are filled with emotional depth and atmosphere. He worked on a white background for the greatest colour luminosity and took enormous trouble over every detail. Truth to nature was the ideal and the works tended towards a high moral tone - although this led to a moral crisis for Millais when he fell in love with Effie, wife of his friend, the critic John Ruskin.

A study of this painting offers much for a general PHSE or drama discussion at any age, including how anger is expressed in a society where overt aggressive behaviour must be controlled. How do we suppress our emotions and does our body language give the game away about how we really feel? The men in this picture are wealthy and fashionable but consummate bullies to boot; most children know about those in the playground. How are they dealt with?

For very young children, a way to explore the issues might be to look at body shapes in the picture. Then pretend that a wild animal, perhaps a lion, is about to pounce. How would their body shape change in a really dangerous situation? Careful observation of others enables us to read another person's state of mind and even young children can be quite intuitive emotion detectives.

l Good places to visit to see more Pre-Raphaelite work are Tate Britain, Manchester City Art Gallery and especially Birmingham City Museum and Gallery.

* For a selection of electronic images that can be used for a number of curricular activities, go to: www.bgfl.org

* Millais Magic is on at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until January 16, when it moves to Leighton House Museum, Kensington, London.

* This is one painting from Look, Body Language in Art by Gillian Wolfe (Pounds 12.99, published by Frances Lincoln). The 17 paintings in the book illustrate, using art from different times and traditions, how artists communicate the feelings of their subjects without words. It ties in well with the Quentin Blake exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery on until January 16. Blake is one of the world's most famous illustrators, an artist constantly expressing exuberant body language in his dynamic drawings.

Gillian Wolfe is head of education at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today