DREAM OF FAIR WOMEN
(over the Princess Hall stage)
The painted frieze over the proscenium arch, entitled ‘A Dream of Fair Women’, depicts 11 women of various nationalities celebrated in myth and legend and who have shown courage, devotion and self-sacrifice. The theme was inspired by Tennyson’s poem of that name, though the characters are not the same as it was desired that ‘all should be good as well as fair’ (Coll. Mag. Autumn 1902), unlike those in Tennyson’s poem which included Cleopatra and Fair Rosamond (mistress of Edward III). It dates from 1902 and was the work of a member of the College Art Department, J Eadie Reid, pupil of Sir William Richmond RA. Mr J Eadie Reid was an art master at the College from 1897 – 1902, and also produced the frieze of the ‘tree of life and apples of knowledge’ in the Quiet Room in 1897 (this space was then Miss Dorothea Beale’s drawing room and dining room when she had an apartment at the College). He was also responsible for designing the stained glass panels that you see at the back of the Princess Hall of the Patron Saints of Great Britain: Saints George, Patrick, Helena, Columba, Andrew, David, some of which were given in memoriam in 1901. He resigned in 1902 to move to Newcastle-on-Tyne to work on several new commissions and set up a workshop there.
Alcestis - a symbol of conjugal devotion, who gave up her life for her husband Admetus (he had won her hand by performing tasks with the aid of Apollo) but was rescued by Heracles who wrestled Death for her – thus also a symbol of death and resurrection, the subject of many works of art including dramas. [Euripides drama]
Penelope - weaving while Odysseus travelled, and unpicking the work each night so that she could not remarry. [Homer, Odyssey]
Jephthah’s daughter – sacrificed by her father (ruler of Gilead) in return for victory in battle. [OT, Book of Judges]
To the Right – in cooler tones:
Savitri – heroine of Indian legend who triumphed over the Prince of Death for the soul of her husband by using the wish he grants her to ask for a full life which included the resurrection of her husband. [From the Mahabarata]
Iphigenia – Sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon, for a fair wind so that the fleet could sail for Troy. Standing beside the sacrificial altar, the smoke forms the shape of the protecting Goddess. [Greek myth]
Portia – wife of Brutus, ‘a tall and dignified Roman matron’. [see also Shakespeare, Julius Caesar]
The ‘Comus’ Lady – sitting on the magic chair, refusing the cup of Comus, she representing Ideal Good, and he Evil (Milton).
To the Left – in brighter, warmer colours:
Hatasu [Hatsepshut] – the only independent female Pharoah, with her ships setting off for ‘the Land of Punt’ [possibly Arabia]. The face taken from a statue in the Temple she created opposite Karnak, a recent discovery at the time. Reigned 1503-1482 BC.
Eurydice – yearning for Orpheus as she is drawn into the Underworld (lurid drapery reflecting the situation) [Greek myth]
Bradamant – the female warrior who rode out to redress the world’s wrongs; from the Italian poetry of Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’, one inspiration for Spencer’s Britomart (Faerie Queene) – see Windows
Andromache – with her child on her lap, watching her departing husband Hector (to be slain by Achilles, in the Trojan Wars) [Homer, Iliad]
CLC Magazine, Autumn 1902. Also includes an account of the history of ‘Hatasu’ and a poem on Savitri. Good description in Steadman, p151
Savitri was also the subject of a chamber opera by Holst, (performed in Cheltenham), following a lecture series by a Maud McCarthy on her return from India.
At the 2015 Guild Reunion, many people remarked on the frieze around the proscenium arch. From 1934 to the late 1970s it was covered by curtains and many Guild members, returning to College for the first time since this date span, had not seen it before.
In her book In the Days of Miss Beale, Cecily Steadman describes how J. Eadie Reid painted the panels in his own studio and they were then fixed in place above the stage in a rather disjointed fashion. The artist then set about correcting this by working on a scaffold platform level with the frieze. However, he suffered from a fear of heights and flatly refused to negotiate the ladder to the high platform. An extending fire-escape ladder was brought in so that he could be manoeuvred up into place and brought down again with relative safety.
Tennyson’s poem of the same name had for the most part dwelt on physical beauty (for example Helen of Troy, Cleopatra and Henry II’s mistress, ‘Fair Rosamund’) but Miss Beale naturally chose more suitable female icons from legend and history, many of whom had shown courage, devotion and self-sacrifice.