The temple of delight


fragonard fountain of loveFragonard, The Fountain of Love 1785 Oil on canvas, Wallace Collection, London.
Image source: WGA. In this painting, the purveyor of insouciance and erotica for the ancien regime breaks into the psychological dreamworld of the Neoclassicists and Romantics in his own decoratively moody way.
“I fly with HORROR from such a passion.” Sally Siddons.

The Tragic Muse’s eldest daughter’s love for the artist had been tested already. She had kept faith in him even after he had abandoned her for her younger sister, a pretty, airheaded girl of sixteen he felt, on impulse, he must marry. During this gaping wound in time, two years of “mortification, grief, agony”, a new kindling took place inside her. Under layers of suffering, she heard more clearly the music of her calling.

Passion reverberated in her, enriching her voice with sweetness, and her melodies with mortal yearning: “I never should have sung as I do had I never seen you; I never should have composed at all. . . You then liv’d in my heart, in my head, in every idea…”

She had turned a fallible man into her muse, and given birth to her own art.

the-marchioness-of-northampton-playing-a-harp-sir-henry-raeburn - CopySir Henry Raeburn, The Marchioness of Northampton playing the harp, c.1820.
Oil on canvas.
“I never should have sung as I do had I never seen you; I never should have composed at all. . . You then liv’d in my heart, in my head, in every idea…” (Sally Siddons)

A few weeks after his engagement to the younger daughter was made official, the shock of unaccustomed proximity to reality cleared the artist’s vision. He saw that he had mistaken his feelings. He confided in the Tragic Muse that it was not her younger daughter that he loved. It was the elder daughter. It always had been. His love was true; he had simply suited the wrong action to the word, an error that any artist or actor would forgive.

The Tragic Muse was sympathetic; she understood the play of passions in an artistic temperament, and she was too fond of the young man with his silky voice and burning eyes to deny him anything. She believed he was her kin, a priest of emotion. Obeying impulse, for he was governed by no other law, he broke off the engagement and re-declared his first love.

He did not declaim when he wooed her eldest daughter for the second time – no child of professional actors would have believed him – but spoke in a low whisper, sincerity of feeling shining in his eyes. He knew by instinct the ways in which a woman could be seduced, because it was how he wanted to be loved himself. He was intoxicated by his own acting.

The eldest daughter of the Tragic Muse had lived in hope of this happy ending for so long, rehearsing it in her mind every day and night, that his love felt real to her, too. Her resistance melted as she listened to him. She felt he believed what he was saying. She pretended to herself that her sister, no longer caring for the man, would not take the loss to heart. The girl would go back to thinking of nothing but beauty and fashion, whether she looked better dressed in black or white. The eldest daughter gave the artist a ring made of “a TRUE LOVER’S KNOT” to bind him safely this time, convinced that she could keep him on her love alone.

461px-Sally_Siddons_by_Thomas_LawrenceSally Siddons, perched on the edge of a Romantic landscape, by Thomas Lawrence, c.1795.
Image source: Wikipedia

Stage-struck, in the blinding light of infatuation, she, usually the temperate one of her family, grasped the pleasures of unreflected life like a forbidden fruit. Never before had she lived on the feelings of the moment, like he did. She felt reborn.

They met in secret in the breaking light of April mornings, before anyone else was up, to recite the catechisms of reconciled love under the pink and white blossom of the cherry and almond trees of Soho Square Gardens, their self-absorption anointed with the scent of lilac and honeysuckle.[1] This was a very long time ago, when a city public garden in spring was fragrant with sensual delights.

confessionFragonard, The Confession of Love 1771 Oil on canvas. Frick Collection, New York. One of a series about The Progress of Love, painted by Fragonard for Louis XV’s mistress, Madame du Barry at a time when the delectably artificial, flagrantly irresponsible style of the Rococo was already going out of fashion at court. Fragonard reinvented his style for a new era that demanded overt dramatization, not deflection, of personal emotions.
Image source: WGA

But “….in the very temple of Delight / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” When she got home, drunk on happiness like a bee on summer flowers, giddy from suspending her reason and conscience, she could no longer deny to herself that her sister, no longer vain and silly, was growing pale and spectre-thin.[2] The poison of jealousy, more lasting than the sweetness of a lover’s kiss, was vying with illness to debilitate the girl. Though she was only nineteen, the younger sister began to look like an old woman.

mariaThe Gipsy Girl by Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas, 1794
© Royal Academy of Arts, London
A disturbing piece of erotica by Lawrence, in which Maria Siddons, aged fifteen, has been suggested as the model. It is a plausible theory: she has the intense, dark eyed and tousle-headed look of her family, and the date fits with their period of intimacy. The genre to which the picture belongs in art history is “fancy”, a sentimental objectification of rural life for rich people, but this naked half-wild girl with her flushed cheeks, parted lips, fierce gaze and boyishly nonchalent physicality, is inviting a far more sexual and elemental response, and begs tough questions about what on earth Lawrence wanted out of the Siddons sisters, let alone what she is doing with that chicken.

While she watched her sister slowly dying, the eldest daughter of the Tragic Muse saw that her love for the artist was tainted.

There was no hope of harmonious union with her sister’s ghost always between them, so she resolved never to marry him. Unable to bear her sister’s pain and her own, suffocated by emotion and asthma, the Muse’s daughter took to her bed, lulling the storms of her troubled mind with opium. She gave the appearance of being stupefied, and never told anyone about her dreams during that time. Her  confrontations with her secret nature, her jealousies and desires were like those of a stranger, painted and written about by other people.

fuseli nightmareFuseli, The Nightmare 1790-91 Oil on canvas. Goethe-Museum, Frankfurt. Image source: WGA

Her rejected lover gave her no peace, profaning the family’s mourning with threats of suicide unless she revoked her decision. Suddenly denied the trophy of complete conquest his self-love demanded, he panicked. All his life, he would only feel at ease centre stage, because that was where he stood in his imagination; anywhere else, he was afraid that he would disappear; to the resentment of other painters, he always insisted that his pictures be hung in the most prominent positions at exhibitions.

2007BP1341_jpg_dsThomas Lawrence, John Philip Kemble as Coriolanus in Coriolanus by Shakespeare, after 1798. Oil on canvas. Kemble, actor-manager,  younger brother of Sarah Siddons, and exponent of the ‘classical school’ of acting, building characterization on reason and rhetorical gesture, which was driven out of popularity by Kean, whose intuition and sensational bursts of terrifying criminal power better reflected the cultural mood from 1814. Kemble’s presentation of ego as essentially heroic and noble was the same that Lawrence gave all his male sitters, including himself.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The swagger self-portrait he created in his mind never included the detail that he did not want to be married to any woman at all. His anguish felt real to him; he mistook the cause. It was not through fear of losing her, but through fear that he was losing face, his image fading like old oil paintings into dullness.

He implored the Tragic Muse to make sure her daughter would never marry anyone else. In all the confusion of his impulses and desires, and his bright shiny painted layers of consciousness, he never penetrated the darkness of other people’s feelings.

turnerdidobuildingTurner, Dido Building Carthage or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, 1815
Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London. Image source: WGA

He did not want to hurt her; he wanted to feel the feel of being loved; he courted women the way he imagined he would have liked to have been; representation was the reality of love for him, far more than the actuality; he loved with all the sincerity of a great actor, immersing himself in his role of the season. From the first spellbound time in his boyhood when he had watched the Tragic Muse bewitch people, arousing emotions they did not know they had, making them sob or tremble or swoon, he had known that he shared her power to charm, only he would use it in real life, not in a temple of illusions.

The daughter of tragedy recoiled from his excess of emotion. She was not callous; she felt for him, but she had been raised by her parents to hear the false notes of over-acting in dramatic art. This is not love, she told her mother. “I fly with HORROR from such a passion” she declared, building titanic letters in her head, a fantasia of pillars, capitals and rotundas, a fortress in which she could hide her guilty pleasure in his love. Desire being harder to kill than truth, her tenderness for him ached in her flesh even while sense and sensibility told her to give him up.

I see him as he is.[3] The man she loved had never existed except in her imagination. So the Tragic Muse’s daughter turned her mind against love born of the “summer’s burning heats”[4] and lied to herself that the man who had been her ideal was dead to her. One day a few months later, she met him, adorned with yet another young woman hanging on his arm, in Kensington Gardens.

In Kensington Gardens 1797 by Francis Towne 1739-1816Francis Towne, In Kensington Gardens, 1797. Graphite and watercolour on paper.  © Tate Gallery London.

It was too late to pretend she had not seen him. She had to carry on walking down the same path. She controlled her feelings, as she always did, and politely looked at him, but when she met his eyes, his glance that pierced through and through her was like an electric stroke to her. [4]

loverswhirlwindblakeWilliam Blake, The Lovers’ Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta 1824-27
Pen and ink and watercolour, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham. Image source: WGA


[1] Not a myth: Soho Square Gardens had been recently improved, replanted with trees and shrubs in the early 1790s, probably under the guidance of the great botanist, Joseph Banks, and its paths altered and relaid. The handsomest house on the Square, No 21, was a luxurious and fantastically decorated brothel at the time Lawrence and the Siddons family lived in the neighbourhood.

[2] Keats, Ode To a Nightingale: “Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin and dies”.

[3] Sally Siddons, Letter to Mrs Pennington, from Oswald G. Knapp, An artist’s love story, told in the letters of Sir Thomas Lawrence, Mrs. Siddons, and her daughters, 1904

[4] Sally Siddons, Song, quoted in F.M.W. Parsons, The Incomparable Siddons, 1909. 

 Sally Siddons’ song ‘When summer’s burning heats arise’ was described by a witness
who heard her sing as “sweet and melancholy”, and in 1801, her mother’s admirer
and future biographer, Thomas Campbell, visiting the Siddons family at home,
compared the palpable sincerity of her compositions to Haydn’s collections of folk
“Miss Siddons . . . sings with incomparable sweetness melodies of her own

composition. Except our own Scotch airs, and some of Haydn’s, I have heard none
more affecting or simple.” Parsons,pp 195-6

[4] Letter from Sally Siddons. All quotes from Sally Siddons’ letters are from Parsons except where specified.

5 comments on “The temple of delight

  1. erickeyswriter says:

    I’m sure he did. Perhaps one day some hidden manuscript will turn up. Or be forged!


  2. PJR says:

    Keats had his own darkly, or at least darkish, erotic fantasies, I suspect.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. erickeyswriter says:

    “She felt he believed what he was saying.”

    And believe something is almost as good as it being true, yes? Well, sometimes…

    “But “….in the very temple of Delight / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” When she got home, drunk on happiness like a bee on summer flowers, giddy from suspending her reason and conscience, she could no longer deny to herself that her sister, no longer vain and silly, was growing pale and spectre-thin.”

    Ah! How long can we keep the illusions up? Sometimes they shatter quickly.

    “The man she loved had never existed except in her imagination.”

    And that is the source of the magic of writing – tapping into the imagination, circumventing the critical faculties of the brain.

    The paintings you’ve chosen for this post seem remarkably apt.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. PJR says:

    Will immediately attend to tech crisis – thank you Pete – you are the most receptive audience any of us could hope for PX

    Liked by 1 person

  5. beetleypete says:

    I felt as if I was reading a work by Austen, as I eagerly consumed this tale of tragic love. It just keeps getting better. This is substantial writing, and immensely satisfying to the serious reader.
    (I think one of the illustrations is missing though.’The Confession of Love’ is not visible, at least on my computer. Purely for information, it does not detract from the piece.)
    Best wishes as always, Pete.


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