|First published in Iota 80|
The Fair Toxophilites, a painting by the Victorian artist William Powell Frith, depicts three finely dressed young women engaged in archery. It is part of the collection at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. When I wrote the poem in 2007, I was struck by the intensity of the main figure, and the way her clothes seemed at odds with what she was doing. It felt to me that the artist was not thinking at all about her thoughts or character, but more about the dress she was wearing. However, it also seemed to me that, in spite of this, some of her determination had made its way through his brush-strokes. So the poem became a comment on the way Victorian women were socially and physically constrained.
Today, looking for a link to the picture to post here, I found that RAMM's website has now got some information about the artist and the painting. And I discovered that I was right about Frith's attitude to the subjects. He decided to paint the picture after seeing some 'lady-archers' at the seaside, whose 'feats' had 'amused' him. He used his daughters, Alice, Fanny and Louisa, as models, and commented that 'the subject was trifling and totally devoid of character interest', but the clothes would be a record of 'the female habiliments of the time'. Well, he was right about the clothes, but I think the picture tells us a lot more than that, even if that wasn't at all his intention. I wonder what became of Alice of the determined jaw.