Summer has almost arrived, and June is the peak time for the blooming of roses. Curator Alexandra Loske takes a look at Venus and Tannhäuser by the Brighton painter Laurence Koe, in which flora and rose blossoms are symbolic features.
On the half-landing of the staircase of Brighton Museum hangs a vast painting. More than 2.5 metres wide, it shows the glaringly white posterior of a naked women.
Lying on her side, she is holding on to a dashing knight. She is the epitome of the late Victorian ideal of feminine beauty: white, languid, seemingly pure, but with strong sexual undertones. Her figure takes up more than two-thirds of the picture and forms a vivid, moving contrast to her solemn male counterpart. She is lying on a bed of rose petals, which both frame and dissolve the contours of her body.
This is the work of the now little-known Brighton artist Laurence Koe (c.1869-1913), who exhibited the painting in 1896 at the Royal Academy. The title Venus and Tannhäuser alludes to a Germanic legend that became a popular subject in art following the success of Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser from 1845. It is also possible that Koe knew the 1866 poem Laus Veneris (In Praise of Venus) by the British poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, which was inspired by Wagner’s opera. Koe depicts the 13th century Minnesinger and poet Tannhäuser as he is trying to resist the temptations of Venus, the goddess he had been worshipping for a year. He is avoiding her gaze and touch and embodies chivalric strength and restraint, but he cannot escape the intoxicating scent of the flowers, symbolic of Venus herself.
Koe was strongly influenced by his contemporaries Herbert James Draper and Arthur Hacker, who painted similarly melodramatic scenes from mythology, poetry and literature, many featuring beautiful, tempting and often naked young women. Koe’s Venus also bears a resemblance to women in the work of Edward Burne-Jones and John William Waterhouse, who often embedded their nymph-like female figures in a visual framework of flowers, trees, grass and water. The roots for this obsession with all things botanical lie in the beginnings of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
In 1848 a small group of young artists, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and vowed to paint in a style that was ‘true to nature’, according to the teachings of their hero and supporter, the eminent art critic John Ruskin. The “PRBs” took this doctrine seriously: in most Pre-Raphaelite works every plant and flower is identifiable and every blossom or leaf is hyper-realistically painted. Add to this the Victorian interest in flower symbolism and it is not surprising to see such an abundance of flora in late 19th century paintings.
The art of Laurence Koe and of his now much more famous contemporary Lawrence Alma-Tadema stands in the long line of this tradition. Brighton Museum has two paintings by him, one of which, Courtship (1892), features a blossoming rose bush behind a loved-up couple.
But if you think Koe’s Venus might choke on rose petals, have a look at Alma-Tadema’s 1888 spectacular The Roses of Heliogabalus, in which the figures are being suffocated by a mass of pink rose petals. What a way to die!
Koe was successful as an artist and was also a talented sculptor and musician. He was schooled in Brighton and first received art training at the Brighton School of Art, before moving on to study at St John’s Wood Art School in London, and eventually at the Royal Academy. He opened a studio in London and became a popular portrait painter, but as a smaller painting from around 1910 in Brighton Museum shows, he retained an interest in the symbolist style. Idyll shows a couple in a passionate embrace in an idealised landscape. The figures’ limbs seem to be growing out of the earth and grass beneath them, while their heads are quite literally in the clouds.
Koe died of after a severe illness at the age of only 44, in January 1913, shortly after he had married Edith Sutcliff from Yorkshire. A few months after his death the Brighton Fine Arts Sub-Committee staged a memorial exhibition at Brighton Museum (then the Public Art Galleries), showing 57 of his works. In the moving catalogue essay the committee member Fred Davey states that Koe was a shy and reserved man, but that he had ‘never met a man in whom the artistic instinct was so apparent’ and that the artist considered his pictures ‘bits of himself’.
Both paintings by Koe are currently on display at Brighton Museum.
Alexandra Loske, Curator