A family friend of ours used to skip school and hightail it from her home in the suburbs to central London. Her destination? The National Portrait Gallery. Or, more specifically, Millais’ portrait of Ophelia. She’d sit there for hours staring at the gown, the flowers, the face we all know to be Elizabeth Siddal’s. This was years ago now. The anecdote has a delightful grandeur to it – a sense of unwavering adolescent purpose.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about it recently. The other day I had something published on Broadly (which I’m thrilled about, as I love their articles!) discussing the cultural history of Ophelia. There’s a lot about Millais in there. Also plenty on art history, mental health, gender, sexuality, photography, and the modern phenomenon of young women re-envisioning that famous death scene. It’s a long story, and a fascinating one too – stretching from the 17th Century stage to Victorian asylums to 90s self-help books about teenagers to present day Tumblr and Pinterest.
Back over the summer these ideas were still vague and wispy, but definitely in the air - as evidenced by the shoot pictured. To me, this was something of a subversion of the Ophelia trope. I wanted to wear a ballgown in a river, but to be very much alive and kicking (and swimming!) throughout. Last time I did an Ophelia inspired shoot, I was 14. You can see it here. This felt like a pretty thrilling update – one much more vivid, confident and assertive. Just as chilly as before though...
It's wonderfully circular really - thinking about Ophelia, doing these photos, then having the chance to research her image and iconography with a proper sense of depth, and now, finally, bringing it all together.
The dress was from a jumble sale, last seen on this blog sported by the glorious Flo (as a mermaid, obviously). All jewellery is vintage. I've also been posting lots of the visual references I looked at for the piece over on my Instagram.