There is yet another big Pre-Raphaelite art show on in London. They happen every five years and frankly as the years roll on I can see why there have been times when these princes of the chocolate box go out of fashion. But that hasn’t stopped the crowds flocking to Tate Britain. For the masses corny is good,they cannot get enough of rose lipped maidens, heroic lads and the dragon slain.
Putney was home from 1879-1909 to a founder member of the Brotherhood, Algernon Charles Swinburne. The little chap because of his red hair was always “carrots” to Gabriel,Holman, Ford, Ned , William and the rest of the crew.
Algie’s highly erotic and sensual poetry was a sensation in the late Victorian era .Singing the praises of lesbian love and even more purple flavours was just the thing to get the pulpits belching fire and brimstone. Swinburne never one to miss a chance to shock, once confessed to having relations with a monkey. As the Saturday Review remarked Algernon was the “Libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs”.
Swinburne was ,as they say, not like other men. When the other Pre-Raphealites paid a circus performer £500 to give him straight sex,she came down after half an hour,giving the money back and saying”he doesn’t seem to understand that biting has nothing to do with it.”
Maybe , but he practiced what he preached. Ever since Eton and the whipping block by the Thames he was seriously into a good thrashing. He was also a serious light weight when it came to drinking. There is a wonderful story of the explorer Richard Burton carrying our hero out of the Cannibal Club(what ho!) under his arm.
But drinking a bottle of brandy a day, going regularly to a brothel in St Johns Wood for a beating and his weak frame had consequences. His well born parents paid the celebrity solicitor Watts-Dunton to take him in charge and away from the flesh pots of Central London. Hence Putney. Many of his friends thought that the suburb was so remote and dull that he must have been kidnapped. Arnold Bennet a great Swinburne fan and one time Putney resident wrote a book based in Putney called “Buried Alive”.
So Algernon settled dwon to a quiet life. Every day he walked from the foot of Putney Hill to Wimbledon for his one bottle a day ration. His poetry got worse and worse, his politics more and more ridiculous and right wing. But he lived to a right old age. But even in Putney scandal hovered. He fell in love with the housekeeper’s son and wrote countless poems to little Bertie. He wrote other poems which have to make you smile,
“Every fresh cut well laid on The bare back of Algernon Makes the swelled flesh rise in ridges Thick as summer swarms of midges; Every stripe the schoolboy feels, Marks his breech with fresh red weals: How he blubbers,how he squeals.”
You get the idea ,like all his poems it does go on.
Queen Victoria wanted him as her poet laureate. Gladstone knew better. When he died the dean of Canterbury thundered that “it needed the most precious of precious blood to do away with the pollution of Swinburne’s poetry.”
He hadn’t read the lovely lines from the First Chorus From Atalanta
When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces, The mother of months in meadow and plain Fills the shadows and windy places With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain;