Our ghostly Symbolist painting is a hit on the internet, be it with an old black and white photograph of 1898: a lot of people have reacted emotionally on this rather haunting image.
Moira was only 26 years old one he exhibited this fabulously mature painting at the Royal Academy of Arts Exhibition of 1893 in London.
The choice for an occult subject must have been influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite English painter John William Waterhouse: the Victorian era had not only been an age of unseen progress, but also the period of the discovery of the supernatural.
About Gerald Edward Moira
London 1867 – 1959 Northwood (Middlesex)
Moira was the son of a former Portuguese diplomat, Eduardo Lobo da Moira, who had arrived in London in 1837 and who had become a successful miniature painter. He had taken the British nationality, long before Gerald’s birth. Gerald’s mother was also of Portuguese origin, her mother was Spanish. According to Harold Watkins in “The art of Gerald Moira”, 1922, P. 10, our painter had never visited Portugal nor Spain.
Gerald Moira painted easel paintings, but he is best-known for his large murals and ceiling decorations that he started painting in 1898. Typical is his masterful sense of colour.
He grew up in London, the family moved to Chistlehurst in Kent in 1875 and returned to London in 1885.
Gerald was a pupil of his father, Edward (Eduardo) Moira, and between 1887 and 1892 he studied at the Royal Academy of Arts at Burlington House on Piccadilly Square in London.
Between 1900 and 1922 Moira was professor in London at the Royal College of Art of mural and decorative painting.
From 1924 to 1932 he was principal of Edinburgh College of Art.
Moira was president of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, vice-president of the Royal Watercolour Society, a member of the Royal West of England Academy, and a founder member of the National Portrait Society.
Our painter’s first commission for a mural was for a 27,50 m long coloured frieze with Arthurian scenes (made together with F. Lynn Jenkins) for the luxurious old Trocadero restaurant in Shaftesbury Avenue (today the seven-screen cinema Picturehouse Central), London.
Moira’s other early commissions included the ceilings of the vestry and library of the Unitarian Chapel in Liverpool, the boardroom of Lloyd's Register of Shipping, a frieze for the Passmore Edwards Free Library in Shoreditch and paintings and stained glass for the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey) in London.
About our painting at the 1893 Royal Academy exhibition
During his studies Moira had already exhibited twice at England’s most important exhibition of living artists (it still runs, this year was the 250th one), “The Royal Academy’s annual Exhibition of the Work of Living Artists”:
- in 1891 with a portrait of Myrtle M.L Campbell;
- the next year, in 1892 he showed two paintings, “Mary” and “Victory”.
After his studies at the Royal Academy Moira took a studio at 12, Bedford Gardens in Kensington, which he shared with two fellow academicians: G. Spencer Watson and Lawrence Koe.
That first year as an independent artist (1892/1893) Moira painted a few portraits commissioned by Phillip H. Calderon, the keeper of the Royal Academy: three portraits for the choir room of Magdalen College in Oxford and a portrait of Lord Jersey for the Ancient Society of Druids.
At the 125th Exhibition of 1893 of the Royal Academy three paintings by Gerald Moira were hung:
- our “The Silent Voice” and a children’s portrait “Jack and Toney sons of F.A. Morris, Esq.” both in the main exhibition hall, Gallery No. III, numbers 228 and 146;
- ‘the portrait of Sir John Stainer in Gallery No. IX, No. 778.
That year’s exhibition motto by John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) was “Fine Art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together”. This old, but still leading English art critic had in the past been the defender of Joseph Mallord William Turner and the promoter of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The full title of our painting in the 1893 catalogue was “Thereto the silent voice replied, ‘Look up tro’night: the world is wide’ ”.
About our painting
This haunting composition represents an etherical creature whispering in the ear of a young woman. Its enchanted atmosphere and similar tonalities remind of Vincent van Gogh’s “Stary night over the Rhône”, painted half a decade earlier in Arles.
It is incredible that this is an early painting by Moira, created at the age of 25 or 26. It carries already such a mature Symbolist spirituality. Symbolism was hostile to plain realism and to false sentimentality. As Jean Moréas stated in his description of Symbolist poetry (although his words can be perfectly applied to Symbolist painting) in an important article in the “Supplémént littéraire” of Le Figaro newspaper, Saturday 18 Septembre 1886: “In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.” (“Ainsi, dans cet art, les tableaux de la nature, les actions des humains, tous les phénomènes concrets ne sauraient se manifester eux-mêmes ; ce sont là des apparences sensibles destinées à représenter leurs affinités ésotériques avec des Idées primordiales”).
Gleeson White published already in 1898 a full page black and white photograph of “The silent voice” in his article “Mr. Moira’s Paintings and Bas-Reliefs”, in “Studio: International Art” (No. 58, January 1898, P. 222 – 238). This photograph has gone viral, probably thanks to the Victorian web; it often appears now on Pinterest.
White rightly linked Gerald Moira to the Pre-Raphaelite English painter John William Waterhouse (1849 – 1917) in “the use of brilliant pigments, and in the choice of poetic themes for a treatment which is neither wholly archaic nor wholly realistic”. Waterhouse, who was born in the very year of the foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, is famous for his depictions of Arthurian, Shakesperian and classical mythological female figures with occult powers.
Three of his most famous paintings were shown at the Royal Academy’s Exhibition, when young Moira was studying there. Their delicate sense of beauty must have influenced our painter:
- “The Lady of Shalott” in 1888. She suffers from a curse once she has seen the handsome knight Lancelot.
- the first of three versions of Ophelia in 1889. Ophelia became insane after Hamlet killed her father and deserted her.
- finally in 1892 “Jealous Circe” poisoning the water where Scylla, her rival for the love of Glaucus, is going to bathe.
On page 12 in “The art of Gerald Moira”, published in 1922 by Harold Watkins the Silent Voice said “Look up, look up - the world is wide”. The author continues as follows: “There is a quality in the picture which was well expressed by a critic, writing in the time of its exhibition at Burlington House: ‘In the blue moonlight, close about the dazed and doleful figure of a seated girl, a ‘silent voice’, or half perceived figure, whispers a coming comfort. Weird, haunting, fascinating it is as a page from L’Intruse of Maeterlinck.” The Belgian poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (1862 – 1949), winner of the Nobel Prize literature in 1911 wrote “L’Intruse” (“Intruder”) in 1890. An ailing woman has given birth to a baby in an old castle. Her family sits in the adjoining room. Only her blind father notices the silence of the birds, the rustling leaves, he senses the presence of Death.
The Victorian era was indeed dual: it was an age of unseen progress, of a new industrial society, but it was also a period that discovered the occult, the supernatural: ghosts became part of Victorian subculture. Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had participated in spiritualist séances as early as 1846, seeking for strange emanations from beyond.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it strikes a chord with a large audience.
Because our dreamed inaginary painting can be seen as an accomplished exponent of Symbolism: hostile to plain realism and false sentimentality, its goal instead is to clothe “the Ideal” in a perceptible form.