Thursday, 28 April 2011

Memento Mori



Mrs Elizabeth Moody with her sons Samuel and Thomas
Thomas Gainsborough
Picture via Dulwich Picture Gallery

I visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery recently, and found myself transfixed by this Gainsborough portrait. I had the small boys with me - they'd been fortified with chips in the cafe - and of course they assumed Samuel and Thomas were little girls. Understandable, as boys in the 18th century would have worn dresses like this until they were at least 5. You can imagine how my Year 1 boy felt about that! Despite having more than a passing interest in vintage clothing, I'm still intrigued by how my own perception of gender is shaped by our modern experience of dress.

However, what really fascinated me was learning that x-rays have revealed that orginally, the portrait was of Elizabeth alone, her hand raised, playing with a string of pearls at her throat. This original has been dated to c1780. She died in 1782, when her sons were mere infants - Samuel was born in 1781, and his brother the year after. The painting was modified after her death to include the boys, held by their mother at an age she never saw them. Would Samuel and Thomas have grown up adoring this last connection to the mother they would never know, as we cling to photographs of family members we have lost? Or did it act as a memento mori - remember you too must die?

We're all vintage lovers, but who today feels connected with the morals and mores of 230 years ago? With modern tools such as Photoshop we could recreate with a few clicks what Gainsborough so painstakingly repainted. We've seen the late James Dean advertise cars; Marilyn, Einstein and Elvis still pop up - their images used long after their deaths - but would we doctor a family photograph?

The reason I ask is connected to a pair of photos I'd like to show you, from my own family. This picture is my maternal Great-Grandfather George as a small boy, posing in his sailor suit with a rather skittish looking stuffed horse. I'm not sure when it was taken, but I would guess at around 1900.



Look at his buoyant curls! Why, he could almost be a girl. In fact, George had a twin sister, but she died in infancy and his parents' would never have a picture of her girlhood. Oh, wait a minute...here's one:




Yes, it's George again, forced into a frilly dress and with the most truculent expression on his face. I've known about these photographs for a few years, but was reminded of them immediately that I saw Mrs Elizabeth Moody... However, I only today realised that the basket he's holding contains bay leaves, which in the Victorian language of flowers means "I change but in death". I'm not sure what parent would today dress their son up as his deceased twin sister - I imagine in modern parenting terms it's a no-no - but I can understand their need to keep a connection with their daughter. And who knows, maybe George later found comfort from it too, as the Moodys did from their painting, a century before.

Linking to DebbieDoos Newbie Party

29 comments:

  1. A fascinating post; I found your family photographs very poignant. I suppose your great great grandparents often wondered what their daughter would have looked like as she grew older and this photo is their way of remembering her and still keeping that twin connection.

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  2. Wow, odd but very interesting! I'm always fascinated by the Victorian attitude to death, particularly that of children. Have you seen all those photos of dead babies?
    Actually just come across this (WARNING - pretty disturbing and upsetting stuff) http://cogitz.com/2009/08/28/memento-mori-victorian-death-photos/ it all seems so alien to me but was probably really ordinary then.
    I don't think I'd doctor a photo, memories are fragile enough without making up false ones.

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  3. What a thought provoking post! My sis-in-law regularly photoshops pics of her three boys, so they're all smiling/looking in the same direction. I find her motivations and the pictures themselves rather more spooky than the one of the boy dressed as his deceased sister here! Having said that I love those websites where you can make your perfect digital photos look like a 1970's over-exposed version.

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  4. a very informative post - thanks for that!

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  5. My first thought was that you had been playing around with that photo of George Lakota...I think it's a bit spooky to tell you the truth, I can kind of understand his parents motivation but it is still slightly unsettling and something I would never consider doing...
    I really enjoyed this post Lakota, its probably one of my favourites - I even discussed it with my husband! And that's saying something!
    Thanks x

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  6. What an intriguing story. I am not surprised you were fascinated by the Gainsborough when you have these two photos in your own family. Thank you for sharing it

    "In the midst of life we are in death" was a common phrase years ago - now people believe they will live forever. Sometimes it is good to remind ourselves what a fragile hold we have on life, even in this efficient 21st century - and maybe we would live better today if we knew we would die tomorrow.

    blessings to you and yours xx

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  7. Great photos, I am facinated by the Victorians, did you know they kept a book of the dead? photos of loved ones when they are dead to remember them by.

    Bee happy x
    Have a delicious day!

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  8. Wow great post Lakota - especially your personal family connection photos! I also find it very creepy but extremely fasinating. My mum lives in a victorian house and is a nut for all things victorian so I knew about Memento Mori from a long time back when she told me about it. I couldnt photoshop any pictures of my boy though, not sure why but it just doesnt feel right. Scarlett x

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  9. Great post! I often Photoshop old photos - clean them up, take people out - and they are usually all the better for it. People need something to hold onto when somebody they love has died - I don't find it creepy in the slightest. But then again I'm Irish....I think we look at death differently somehow.

    K xx

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  10. Very interesting. The Gainsborough is lovely - think it is a nice idea in a sad way. I suppose we are the lucky ones living in an era when medical science has eliminated many of the diseases which wiped out young lives on a regular basis. A very thought-provoking post!
    Liz

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  11. What a fascinating and thought-provoking post, Lakota. Your family photos are especially intruiging. xxx

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  12. The Gainsborough painting is simply beautiful, there's something so touching about the fact the boys were immortalised with her on the canvas - even though it was at a later date. It's a gorgeous tribute to her as a mother.

    The picture of your Grandad and the stuffed horse is fantastic - I'd be very tempted to scan, print and frame that one! :-)

    Jem xXx

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  13. I love looking at old photos,we have none to look at on either side of our family sadly,major family fall outs
    x

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  14. What a great post! How interesting it is to learn about the first painting. Mrs. Moody painted single with pearls...her life prior to children.

    It is heart-breaking to know that her children were added later after her passing at a stage she never knew them at.

    How strange my younger sister was just talking to me the other day about how post mortem pictures use to be taken long ago...usually of children. Parents wanting a memory of the child they lost. So that's somewhere along the lines of your grant-grandfathers picture, but of course without the deceased.

    *sigh* how sad.

    Once again great post!

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  15. I got goosebumps while reading and looking at those painting and photographs, it's almost like i wanted to shed a tear but hold it back, coz it's just sad that Elizabeth died without knowing what her sons would be like much older and your great grandfather knowing his twin sister, but it's quite interesting to know that boys on the 18th century would have worn dresses. truly hearthbreaking story. Beautiful old photograps though, truly beautiful!

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  16. oh my word - how utterly fascinating! really touching post that has really made me think. Thank you for sharing. xx

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  17. This is such a wonderful post - how thought provoking! Knowing the story behind the painting of the Moody's makes it so much more poignant - her wistful expression almost seems to foretell the tragedy. And poor George - he looks a bit cross at having to dress up (as well he would!), but it must have given a little comfort to someone - his mother? - really interesting!

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  18. Amazing post! Has opened my eyes to a whole new subject, and so interesting about your great grandfather George too - he doesn't look too happy about being dressed up in girls clothes! Great picture though all the same... xxxx

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  19. that reminds me, i gotta go to the Dulwich lib. thanks for sharing.

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  20. I loved this post. Very interesting. I am always fascinated by the victorian ways. This will make my thoughts go all over the place for days.

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  21. i loved the post too... made me spend ages on the internet looking at old victorian pictures!

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  22. What a very thought-provoking post, with some interesting comments too. Co-oincidentally, we just watched the final episode of 'The Crimson Petal and the White' where the male lead character doctors a 'family' portrait by superimposing the head of his dead wife onto that of his mistress. The author must have done some diligent research, as this was probably more common in reality than we realise. What would the Victorians have done with all the technical gadgetry at our disposal today I wonder? They were great ones for 'smoke and mirrors' - just think of all the pictures of ghosts they conjured up.

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  23. What seems odd to me, is that he looks feminine in the 'real' photo and masculine in the one posed as a girl. Even now, death seems to signal a green light for all things distasteful and unnecessary (in my opinion). Some things never change.

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  24. Lovely photos, thank you for sharing.

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  25. Love the painting and what a lovely thing to do to paint Elizabeth with her children. Never knew these things about the victorians. Thanks for sharing your info.
    ~ ~Ahrisha~ ~

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  26. Great post, thank you!The photos of George was both touching, heartbreaking and slightly odd. I find the art of post-mortem and memento-mori photos to be fairly intriguing in a bizarre way. I myself have searched my grand-parents' old timey photoalbums for such but all I could find was a photo of my paternal great-great-grandmothers funeral and that was in a book about local history.

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  27. This is such an interesting post. George looks quite disturbed by his situation but that could possibly be my 21st century attitude projecting onto it. The bench he is sitting on has some hideous gargoyles carved into it. Seems emblematic of that era's obsession with death and horror. Victorian death rites are fascinating but some of the photos are thoroughly chilling. Very thought provoking. Thank you for sharing xx

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  28. That whole story about George having a twin who died is a hoax. The photos of "George" are actually of a little tomboy girl. There are too many people who are making up stories about these old photos instead of doing real research.

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