The Royal Academy Exhibition 1856
GENERALLY speaking, the arrangement of the pictures in the Academy this year is better than usual; but the errors which are usually notable in various parts of the rooms seem to have been all concentrated in the one crying error of putting No. 122 nearly out of sight. I have a special dislike to pictures of a slate-grey colour, as well as of girls in dresses of pages; for which cause, in glancing round the room, I passed this "Burd Helen" by,(1)as one of the quaint efforts of some younger member of the rising school, neither deserving praise nor warranting discouragement. Further examination of it leads me to class it as the second picture of the year; its aim being higher, and its reserved strength greater, than those of any other work except the "Autumn Leaves."Its whiteness of colour results from the endeavour to give the cold grey of the northern fall of day, when the wind is bleak, and the clouds gathering for storm, their distant cumuli, heavy with rain, hanging on the rises of the moorland. I cannot see, at the distance of the picture from the eye, how far the painting of the pebbles and heath has been carried; but I see just enough of the figures to make me sure that the work is thoughtful and intense in the highest degree. The pressure of the girl's hand on her side; her wild, firm, desolate look at the stream -she not raising her eyes as she makes her appeal, for fear of the greater mercilessness in the human look than in the glaze of the gliding water- the just choice of the type of the rider's cruel face, and of the scene -itself so terrible in haggardness of rattling stones and ragged heath,- are all marks of the action of the very grandest imaginative power, shortened only of hold upon our feelings because dealing with a subject too fearful to be for a moment believed true. There are one or two minor faults in it; a horse nearly always stoops its head as it approaches the edge of a ford, and the erectness of its bearing in the picture takes away the look of truth in the entire incident, more than one could have supposed possible. I have some doubt also, whether, unless the spectator were himself supposed to be wading the ford, so as to bring the eye almost on a level with the water surface, the reflection of the sky could so entirely prevent the appearance of the pebbles through the water. They are rightly shown through the dark reflection at the horse's foot, and rightly effaced, in a great degree, by that of the sky; but I think they should not have been entirely so. These are, however, quite minor defects, and I merely name them lest they should be brought forward by adverse critics as if they were serious ones.
(1) [For a further reference by Ruskin to this picture, see below, pp. 233, 330, 331. It was, he said, one of the great Pre-Raphaelite pictures which "will hold their own with the most noble pictures of all time." The subject of the picture was taken from the Scottish Border ballad (another version of "Childe Waters") of the girl who ran by the side of her faithless lover while he rode, and who swam the Clyde, rather than that he should escape:
" Lord John he rode, Burd Helen ran,
The live-lang summer's day,
Until they cam' to Clyde's Water,
Was filled frae bank to brae.
' See'st thou you water, Helen,' quoth he,
' That flows frae bank to brim ?
'' I trust to God, Lord John,' she said,
' You ne'er will see me swim.'"
See Aytoun's Ballads of Scotland, i. 239, where a slightly different version of it is given: it may also be found in Percy's Eeliques (vol. iii. p. 59), under the title "of Childe Waters." Other versions of this ballad, and other ballads of the same name, and probably origin, may be found in Jameson's collection, vol. i. p. 117, vol. ii. p. 376, in Buchan's Ancient Ballads of the North, ii. 29 (1879 ed.), and in Four Books of Scottish Ballads, Ediu., 1868, Bk. ii. p. 21, where it is well noted that "Burd Helen'' corresponds to the " Proud Elise" of northern minstrels, "La Prude Dame Elise" of the French, and the "Gentle Lady Elise" of the English (Burd, Prud, Preux). It is also possible that it is a corruption of Burdalayn, or Burdalane, meaning an only child, a maiden, etc. The painter was William Lindsay Wiudus, formerly a Liverpool artist, and a member of the Academy of that city. D. G. Rossetti was immensely struck by the picture. "The finest thing of all" in the Academy, he wrote. He "forced Ruskin to go with him to see it instanter, because he had not noticed it in his pamphlet, and extorted the promise of a postscript on its behalf" (Letters to William Allingham, pp. 187, 188). "I assure you," wrote Mr. Windus to Rossetti, " that you and Mr. Ruskin were the two persons in the world whose approbation I most ardently wished and scarcely dared to hope for, and that I felt the most inexpressible delight when the extract from your letter was read to me, being at the time in a wretched state of despondency" (Ruskin, Rossetti, Pre-Raphaelitism, p. 138). Mr. Windus contributed to the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition in 1857; his picture, "Too Late," is noticed in the Notes of 1859 (p. 233). "Suddenly, owing, it is said, to a great sorrow, he left off painting, and nothing was seen of his work till, in 1896, the New English Art Club startled the picture-loving public, who had thought Windus dead, by showing three unfinished works of his on their walls" (P. H. Bate, The English Pre-Raphaelite Painters, p. 82). See also Magazine of Art for December 1899, where an account of the painter's life and work is given. The picture of “Burd Helen" was purchased by Mr. Miller, of Liverpool; at his sale, two years later, it fetched 200 guineas; in 1892 it appeared again in the sale-rooms and fetched a high price: see Harry Quilter's Preferences in Art, p. 72.]
Works (14, 85-87)