Diary

Augustus Egg

29 August 2006 | Diary

Received my first ever rejection letter from an academic journal this week.

This is not to say that I’ve ever had a piece accepted by an academic journal but rather that I’d never submitted to anything like one before. In hindsight, I suppose I was aiming somewhat above my station but I had a few ideas and I wanted to send them somewhere.

It was an Art History journal called Konsthistorik Todskrift and my article was a short hypothesis concerning Augustus Egg’s painting, The Travelling Companions (above). It’s a pre-Rapahelite thing housed in the Birmingham City Art Gallery – the best gallery of its type that was once local to me (of course, now living in Glasgow I have far more choice).

Hardly anything has been written about the painting and it is often described as being ’cryptic’. To me, however (after much research into fictional doppelgängers for a book) its meaning was plain to see:

”Doppelgänger motifs and other representations of the multi-faceted (or at least dualistic) model of the self are quite frequently explored in modern and postmodern visual art. Douglas Gordon’s video installation pieces, Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1995) and Through a Looking Glass (1999), for example, examine the Apollonian / Dionysian divide that some believe exist in human nature.” Augustus Egg’s The Travelling Companions: a literary interpretation.

By Robert Wringham

Doppelgänger motifs and other representations of the multi-faceted (or at least dualistic) model of the self are quite frequently explored in modern and postmodern visual art. Douglas Gordon’s video installation pieces, Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1995) and Through a Looking Glass (1999), for example, examine the Apollonian / Dionysian divide that some believe exist in human nature. It is the Freudian battle of id versus superego: logic’s war with primitive animalism. As with many aspects of postmodern works, the central concept of human duality is something of a found piece, it having roots as far back as the Ancient East. The postmodern understanding of dualism draws from ancient Eastern trickster or morality fables; the literary work of German pre-romantics such as Jean-Paul Richter and E. T. A. Hoffman and that of later British writers such as Oscar Wilde, James Hogg, Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stephenson. Indeed, Douglas Gordon’s pieces, as their titles suggest, are intrinsically connected to literature. The doppelgänger today has been cast mostly into the realms of cliché but thankfully not before the production of such artistic feature films as The Student of Prague (1913) and John S. Robertson’s memorable version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920).

Predating much of this, however, is The Travelling Companions by Augustus Leopold Egg. There is a woeful dearth of literature concerning Egg’s painting, which seems strange given the significance of this piece in the artist’s career (it lead to his fascination with non-anecdotal art) and the subtleties involved in the image’s discourse. While other doppelgänger-themed paintings, such as How they met themselves by Dante Gabrielle Rosetti (1854) have been celebrated quite widely, Egg’s illustration of human duality – as decency and vulgarity being two sides of the same illustrious coin – seems to have gone unrecognised as such.

Painted in 1862, The Travelling Companions depicts two young women as passengers in the carriage of a train. The first thing that strikes the viewer, perhaps, is the painting’s symmetry. Not only do the women, facing each other, appear to be identical but each substantial object (the hat; the fruit and flowers; the women’s clothes) seems to have a counterpart or alter-ego mapped onto the opposite side. The basket of fruit in the universe of the first girl is represented as a floral bouquet in that of the second. Egg has mastered here the art of visual alliteration.

Though the women are aesthetically identical, it is clear that one is not an exact mirror image or screen-printed copy of the other (as in Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis of 1964) for one of them is sleeping while the other is awake. Moreover, the panorama visible from out of the carriage window (it is of Mentone in the South of France) unites the travelling companions within the same image: whatever duplicating event may be occurring in the painting is most certainly contained within the carriage itself and not without in the world at large.

Is it as simple as this? Is one of Egg’s girls the ontological copy of the other? Meditating on The Travelling Companions and remembering the folkloric idea of a doppelgänger being the harbinger of impending doom, one might imagine that the waking woman in the train carriage is the ghostly double of the other one; slouched not in sleep but in death.

Our interpretation is strengthened when we remember that Augustus Egg was constantly inspired by literature. On good terms with Charles Dickens (they together formed The Guild of Literature and Art, a philanthropic organisation in support of starving artists), Egg would often render images of Dickens’ work, most notably a triptych painting called Past and Present (1858). He also created a number of pieces based upon the plays of Shakespeare including The Taming of the Shrew (1860) and The Winter’s Tale (1845) and a piece based upon Thakeray’s Esmond1 in 1848. With this in mind, it would not be unreasonable to theorise that Egg might have come across the work of Hoffman or Richter and been inspired by doppelgänger allegory or imagery. Indeed, Shakespeare’s work, with which we know Egg was familiar, featured hints of the doppelgänger in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and A Comedy of Errors.

A curious coincidence concerning Augustus Egg and the fathers of Western doppelgänger literature is that he suffered in his youth from a respiratory disease not unlike the one suffered by Robert Louis Stephenson, whose symptoms and medication was said to inspire the nightmare which lead him to write the most famous doppelgänger story of them all: [The] Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde2. (Occultist, Dion Fortune later popularised the notion that respiratory-related diseases are connected with the supernatural).

Of the panorama visible from the carriage window, we can see the beautiful twilight setting of Mentone. But there is more than that. Half of the view is land while half is water: perhaps symbolic of the liminality in the doppelgänger dimension and the difference in corporeality between the two siblings.

A further idea follows. Given that one of the women is sleeping while the other is awake, perhaps the waking woman is the product of the sleeping one: that she is the dreamed projection of the other. Such duplication qualifies as a doppelgänger motif in itself but extra poignancy is brought to the equation when you consider that the girl is both the dreamer and the dream. Edgar Allan Poe (also a celebrated writer of doppelgänger fiction with William Wilson and Fall of the House of Usher) expresses this concept in poetic form: “is all that we see or seem / but a dream within a dream?”3 Indeed, the work of Poe could very well have served as inspiration in the formulating of The Travelling Companions. Moreover, Lewis Carroll wrote occasionally of a state of consciousness he referred to as ‘the Eerie state’4: a level of consciousness between sleep and wake in which one was both aware of reality but also ‘aware of fairies’.

On the other hand, perhaps the sleeping woman is the product of the waking woman’s imagination: we don’t after all know what she is reading in that book (which itself may be an indication of Egg’s literary inspirations). It may not be a case of the dreamer and the dream but rather the reader and the read. Such ambiguity in explanation is truly the stuff that doppelgänger fantasies are made of.

Anyway, I managed to convince a secretary to send me the feedback report. The editor makes it clear that my article is not suitable for the journal but is largely very kind:

“The article is interesting and put forward some possible interpretations of a motive by the painter Augustus Egg. The presentation of the painting and the painter is a bit short as well as the discussion. But this may be the intention; the article has character of an essay. This comment is not necessary meant as a critique.”

Konsthistorisk Tidskrift
Referee report

Manuscript title: August Leopold Egg’s The Travelling Companions: a literary interpretation
Manuscript number: 435/2006/01

Referee’s comments:

The article is interesting and put forward some possible interpretations of a motive by the painter Augustus Egg. The presentation of the painting and the painter is a bit short as well as the discussion. But this may be the intention; the article has character of an essay. This comment is not necessary meant as a critique.

The material presented is the painting and the literary references but no theoretical literature is referred to. The interpretation is more of a hypothetic discussion than of a scientific one. But it has its points.

I find the parentheses a symptom of the author’s want to comprise a lot and not to write too much. It is definitely better to bring the argument or the information into its full extension and exclude the parentheses.



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