Rite of spring: Mr Ruskin’s May Queen

Ruskin and Rossetti VAW copy

John Ruskin wouldn’t sit down for this picture. However poor the state of his health he felt it was unthinkable for him to sit in the presence of Rossetti so the great artist held him up. Ruskin was a man of high ideals and aesthetic principles. He had been one of the early supporters of the Pre-Raphaelites so Rossetti’s loose morals and the strange ménage at Tudor House wouldn’t have bothered him. But nevertheless it would have been hard to find two more unlikely companions in the whole of Victorian England. Rossetti represents the sensual side of the Victorian imagination let loose about as much as it could be. Ruskin of course represents the repressed imagination and it was that respectable side of his nature which drew him into collaboration with John Faunthorpe the Principal of the teacher training establishment in the King’s Road, Whitelands College.

Copy of Whitelands College PC109C

1902 John Faunthorpe from 1924 WA

[John Faunthorpe 1902]

Faunthorpe was a fan of Ruskin’s. He admired the great man extravagantly, idolised him even. So in1880 inspired by Ruskin  he floated the idea of starting a May Queen Festival at the College. Ruskin had form in this area, he had tried to start something similar at a school in Cheshire but parents had objected (Ruskin’s divorce / annulment from his marriage with Effie Gray and her subsequent marriage to Millais had been a great scandal). Between them the two men worked something out which combined Ruskin’s love of picturesque old English ritual and Faunthorpe’s desire for high Anglican ceremony. The notion of a may queen may also have appealed to  Ruskin because it involved pretty young women for whom he had a sentimental regard after the failure of his marriage and the derailment of his romance with Rose La Touche. The Victorians in general were given to sentimentalizing youth (perhaps because they frequently saw it snatched away by sudden disease and death, the very fate of Rose la Touche who died at the age of 27).

Ruskin donated a set of his books each year to be handed out by the new Queen, and paid for the design of the first in a series of crosses which were given to each Queen. The May Queen was chosen by the votes of the students (she should be “the lovablest and the likeablest” was Ruskin’s mawkish guidance to the voters). The first was Queen Ellen I.

1881 Queen Ellen I

Unfortunately for the ceremony Ellen was in mourning at the time and wearing black so a white shawl was found for her to wear. Ruskin pestered Faunthorpe for a photograph and then rather ungraciously said the Queen looked like she was 38. (She was 20). Although he did visit the College regularly he never attended the May Day ceremony. Perhaps he preferred the festival as a romantic ideal. After Queen Ellen the Queen and her maidens had dresses made for the occasion.

Ruskin had his protégé Kate Greenaway design a dress for the Queen which was passed on for four years.

1891 Queen Jessie 02

[Queen Jessie 1891]

But as the Festival continued it became customary for former queens to return and take part in the festival so the Queen needed a unique outfit.

1892 Queen Elizabeth II 02

[A small and faded view of Queen Elizabeth II, 1893]

1895 Queen Annie Bawden May 1895 CM259

[Queen Annie II, 1895]

May Day is a festival dating back to pre-Christian times. It’s related to the Celtic festival Beltane and the Germanic Walpurgis Nacht. Faunthorpe wanted to emphasise the Christian elements, and Ruskin had exalted ideas about feminine innocence and purity. But despite that this version of May Day still had its May Pole, and retained the flowers, garlands, branches and wooden staffs which still have their older pagan connotations. Here’s Queen Annie again in her throne room.

Queen Annie II 1895 CM258 Queen enthroned - Copy

They look like they’re starting to get the hang of it. Some former queens are present (see if you can spot Elizabeth II). They’re beginning to look a little like a female Masonic lodge.

Ruskin died in 1900 but the Festival no longer needed his blessing and seemed to grow in importance and complexity. If you remember I first dealt with the May Queen in Games for May. In that post I linked the Festival with the Chelsea Pageant just because I found the pictures together but the more I find out about the two events the more I think they belong together as part of the same current in the first decade of the 20th century. The Edwardians seemed to have a propensity almost amounting to mania for dressing up and engaging in theatrical rituals and performances, especially out of doors. In an age of technological innovation perhaps they were reliving the myths and legends of an older England. An England of their imagination.

Behind the stern walls of the College was a quadrangle with ivy-covered walls where the ceremonies could take place out of sight of the busy streets outside.

1899 Queen Agnes I and bodyguard CM259

[Queen Agnes I 1899]

The May Day festival took a whole day and required much preparation. The entire student body of about 150 got white dresses paid for by the college. There were services in the college chapel, a procession, an abdication ceremony, an election (although it became expedient to have the election before May Day so the new queen could be fitted for her dress) a masque, or some “revels”, and the crowning of the new Queen who would give out gifts of copies of works by Ruskin to selected students.

In 1906 there happened to be three queens in the College at the same time, the new Queen Florence, her predecessor Evelyn and the 1904 Queen Mildred.

1906 Queen Florence with Queen Mildred -left-and Queen Evelyn

Mildred in particular looks like she’s just come off the set of one of those 1970s Hammer films like the Vampire Lovers. Or (as I’ve said before) the cover of an album by a 70s English folk rock group, especially in the masque picture below.

They pulled out the stops on this one. Florence proceeded to her coronation with her maidens in tow.

1906 Queen Florence and maidens

And Mildred took the lead in a masque in which the students played flowers and trees and paid homage to her.

1906 masque featuring Queen Mildred and the cast of flowers and trees

In 1909, the year after the Chelsea Pageant there were more elaborate ceremonies. Here is Agnes II, with her chamberlains.

1909 Queen Agnes II & chamberlains

On the throne with the Dowager Queen Dorothy.

1909 Queen Agnes II & Dowager Queen Dorothy 1902 painting behind

Behind them is a painting of the 1902 ceremony. Check out the leopard skin.

There was even a special appearance by this lot:

1909 nuns

Not real nuns of course, just some of the Pageant performers from 1908 who just couldn’t resist coming back for an encore. It might have been their last chance to join the procession with the women in white.

1908 procession 02

And oddly, it seems to me that at that point they had peaked. The May Queen Festival continued of course, carries on to this day in fact, but in the second decade of the century the ceremonies gradually became less elaborate and the College slowly seemed to stop making quite such a big thing of May Day. Or it could be that young women were getting more serious about their profession and less serious about quixotic ritual. I heard someone on the radio recently saying that the Edwardians had a kind of innocence based on hope, the hope that the new century was going to bring progress and prosperity. By 1910 perhaps the zeitgeist was looking a little less hopeful than before and the revellers decided it was time to put the costumes back into the dressing up box.

Still, there were many more May Queens at Whitelands and when they gathered together for the ceremonies there was quite a bunch of them, now engaged in charitable works as well as Christianised neo-pagan rites. They even had a leader, the Mother Queen who was the oldest of this select group.

1912 Queen Ellen the mother queen

The first May Queen, Ellen I, now out of mourning, in her own robes, leading the procession again in 1912. She died in 1923, mourned by her fellow queens, but never forgotten.

Postscript

That was quite a long post. Just as with the Chelsea Pageant I discovered a lot more material than I had imagined we had. Enough for another post next May Day if you can wait that long. I showed the pictures to a colleague and she said “it looks so pagan” – so it isn’t just me who thinks that.

The picture of Ruskin and Rossetti comes from the book the Victorian art world in photographs by Jeremy Maas. There is supposed to be a copy of it in William Rossetti’s memoirs but our copy had that page missing. There was an interesting picture of Maria Rossetti though which I intend to use in a future post.

Whitelands College moved to Putney in 1930 and has since moved again. It is now part of the University of Roehampton. The May Day Festival continues and they have May Kings now as well as May Queens. This year’s festival is on May 18th.

Postscript to the postscript

See comment below. Queen Thyra (1890) from Malcolm Cole’s book on the May Queen Festival,

1890 Queen Thyra


7 responses to “Rite of spring: Mr Ruskin’s May Queen

  • merriank

    Love this story and the wonderful pictures. As a reader of Elsie Jeanette Oxenham’s Abbey Girl books which are all about the May Queens it is a great pleasure to see her influences so beautifully on display. Many years ago Past Times made a silver Cross they advertised as based on the Whitelands Cross that I enjoy wearing.

    I’ve heard WW1 talked about as the end of the long 19th century so in a way the fading of these quintessentially 19th century rites in the face of the 20th centuries realities is understandable. It also reminds me of the song ‘Dancing at Whitsun’ about the old ladies keeping the traditions alive without the men who didn’t come home from the war http://mysongbook.de/msb/songs/d/dancing.html

  • Rite of spring: Mr Ruskin's May Queen | design ...

    […] John Ruskin wouldn’t sit down for this picture. However poor the state of his health he felt it was unthinkable for him to sit in the presence of Rossetti so the great artist held him up. Ruskin wa…  […]

  • David Hearn

    Is that Queen Thyra (1890), not Queen Jessie (1891) in the picture here? Your ‘The May Queens of Whitelands College’ article has Thyra in identical dress at the end of the May Queen corridor. I have one of the original prize books given to Thyra.

    • Dave Walker

      David
      Both Thyra and Jessie wore the Kate Greenaway dress (along with Margaret and Annie I) which was briefly passed from queen to queen before it was realised for practical and aesthetic reasons that each queen needed her own dress.
      I’ve added a picture of Thyra to the end of the post to show the difference.
      You’re not a relative of the uniquely named Thyra are you?
      Dave

      • David

        Humm. Thanks for that Dave. They still look like the same person to me, even down to the eyebrows! but then I am notoriously bad with faces. No relative, I’m afraid, I bought the book in a second hand bookshop in Alresford, Hampshire for £10. ‘On the Old Road’ vol 2 by John Ruskin, in a fine binding signed by his cousin Joan Ruskin Severn with the Whitelands prize bookplate etc.. The lady said ‘Its only vol 2, it would be much more expensive if we had vol1’. Of course, they went their separate ways at the ceremony and I couldn’t pay her fast enough!

  • The Disturbing History of Child Beauty Pageants - History Buff

    […] In 1880, Ruskin was approached by John Faunthorpe, the principal of Whitelands College. Established by The Church of England’s National Society, the college was founded in 1841 in order “to produce a superior class of parochial schoolmistresses.” Faunthorpe had a novel idea—he wanted to start a “May Queen Festival” honoring the girlish innocence of his pupils. Ruskin was just the man for the job. Dave Walker, the Royal Borough’s Local Studies Librarian, discusses their initial meeting on his blog, The Library Time Machine: […]

    • Revd Canon Dr David Peacock

      The above statement is incorrect. It was Ruskin who suggested to Faunthorpe in a letter dated 25 January 1881 that the young women students of Whitelands College might be permitted to elect from among their number a May Queen. Ruskin’s actual words were: ‘Suppose you made it a custom that the scholars should annually choose by ballot, with avowed secrecy, their May Queen?’ Ruskin had first tried to get this idea realised at Winnington Hall School, near Northwich in Cheshire, in the mid 1860s but it was not taken up. Faunthorpe, the Whitelands College Principal, however, readily took up the idea which was realised for the first time on Monday 2 May 1881, 1May 1881 having fallen on. Sunday.

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