Fred Elwell's 'The Wedding Dress' Part 2
Death and the Victorians
Although 'The Wedding Dress' was painted in 1911, after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, it undoubtedly reflects Victorian tastes. In fact it is not unusual to extend the end of the Victorian period until the beginning of the First World War in 1914. Death was a common theme in Victorian art; painters often contrasting the sorrow caused by death with previous happiness and joy. The fashion for portraying death was probably partly due to Queen Victoria's rigid practice of mourning, wearing mourning clothes for a whole decade after the death of her husband, Albert in 1861. In Victorian paintings, death is commonly given a domestic setting, such as the privacy of the middle class bedroom found in Elwell's painting. Other characteristics typical of the period include the use of significant objects, such as the wedding dress, to remind us of the recently departed, and portraying the mourner so they do not engage the spectator, making the scene intensely private.
Innocence and Experience
Another popular theme is the contrast between innocence and experience. In this painting there is a contrast between the innocence symbolised by the white dress and flowers and the sudden heralding of experience with the death of the woman's future husband. The fragile world of innocence is threatened by this loss. Ironically, some years after posing for the painting, the model, Violet Press, lost her own husband in the First World War, after only a very short marriage, adding a greater poignancy to the work when we look at it today.
Elwell frequently used local people, native to Beverley, as models. The model in this painting was a Mrs Violet Press, a costumier of Minster Moorgate West, Beverley. The same model also posed for a very large and monumental painting, titled, 'Bereaved' or 'The Wreath', by Fred Elwell's future wife, Mary Dawson Holmes, also exploring the subject of widowhood. Mary's painting preceded Fred's by three years and may even have been a source of inspiration for him. This in part contests a teacher-pupil relationship, with Fred as the teacher and Mary as the pupil, which has often been accepted. Behind the sorrow portrayed in the painting, both fictional and real, there is a far happier story about the talents of two individual artists Fred Ewell and Mary Dawson Holmes; with their shared interests and inspirations, but own distinctive styles and visions. Mary's 'The Wreath' was reproduced in a contemporary magazine, alongside another work by Fred Elwell's from the same Royal Academy Summer Exhibition - a remarkable coincidence in view of Fred Elwell's later marriage to Mary.