“New Made of Flower Leaves”: Nature, Evolution and Female Education in Edward Robert Hughes’s The Princess out of School
Keywords:Edward Hughes, The Princess out of School
This essay is the first to explore the meaning and cultural context of Edward Robert Hughes’s large-scale watercolour The Princess out of School, 1901, in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. While the work has familiar artistic sources in depictions of reclining meditative figures, this lineage is combined with an unusually rich literary emphasis, referring to both Tennyson’s poem The Princess, 1847, in its title and Keats’ Endymion, 1818, in a quotation that accompanied the work when it was first exhibited.
Identified as a student by her abandoned scholar’s cap, Hughes’s figure takes up Tennyson’s narrative about a princess who founds a university exclusively for women, reflecting current debates about female education, untamed nature and Darwinian evolution. These ideas were also reflected in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant, first performed in 1884, with production designs that compare closely with Hughes’s composition. Hughes’s connections with leading aesthetic and literary circles are also reflected in the quotation from Keats’ poem referring to an idyllic bower that provides respite for his troubled protagonist Endymion. Likewise Hughes’s heroine rejects the academy in favour of a direct experience of nature, her robe and hair seemingly entwined with the flowers and leaves. Immersing her figure in a tapestry-like field of colours, Hughes extends his innovative use of watercolour towards the abstract metaphysical dimensions sought by Symbolist artists as well as writers such as Christina Rossetti, whose poetry he also illustrated. Audaciously emulating two of the most influential nineteenth-century poets, Hughes’s depiction is a therapeutic vision of nature: the fertile untamed bank which the princess studies ‘out of school’ reinterprets Keats’s visual aesthetic of organic plenitude while enacting Tennyson’s vision for female emancipation as part of a wider Darwinian evolution.
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