The Thread of Time in paintings 2: Threads

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), "I am Half Sick of Shadows" said the Lady of Shalott (1915), oil on canvas, 100 x 74 cm, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first of these two articles yesterday, I showed some paintings which depicted the concept of time through its mythological expression in the Fates. Today I look at more subtle allusions which develop the underlying metaphor of the thread of time, and its association with what are now called the fibrecrafts, particularly weaving and knitting.

This is most obvious in language. The word thread and its equivalents in other European languages is used for the thread of life, as spun and cut off by the Fates. In English at least this has extended to encompass the thread of time: the Oxford English Dictionary cites several quite old uses, including 1645 (City Alarum 19) “Consider first what a thred of time the German wars have spun out” and 1736 (Butler Analogy of Religion II vii 362) “To make up a continued thread of history of the length of between three and four thousand years.”

Of course thread is also used to refer to narrative itself, in the thread of a story, a use which dates back to 1642.

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), Penelope Unravelling her Web by Lamp-light (1785), oil on canvas, 101.6 x 127 cm, The Getty Center, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

One ancient reference to fibrecraft, life, and the thread of time is Penelope, wife of Odysseus. In the many years that her husband was away on the Odyssey, she told potential suitors that she could not remarry until she had completed weaving a shroud for her father-in-law. Although they saw her weaving intently by day, she then unravelled her work each night, as shown in Joseph Wright of Derby’s Penelope Unravelling her Web by Lamp-light (1785). In her doing and undoing, Penelope had found a way to make time stand still while she awaited her husband’s return.

William Dyce (1806–1864), Welsh Landscape with Two Women Knitting (1860), oil on board, 36 x 58 cm, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, Wales. Wikimedia Commons.

In William Dyce’s curious Welsh Landscape with Two Women Knitting (1860), I believe that the significance of their knitting is again as a representation of time, a theme in Dyce’s more famous painting of Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858.

Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896), Winding the Skein (c 1878), oil on canvas, 136.5 x 197.5 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

Frederic, Lord Leighton’s Winding the Skein (c 1878) is another example of the metaphor of the thread of time.

A woman is sat at the left, her hands outstretched to carry the little that remains of a skein of red wool. At the right is a young girl who is winding the wool from that skein into a ball. At her feet are four balls of wool which she has already wound. By the side of the woman, closer to the viewer, is a woven basket containing other skeins of wool in various colours. This takes place on the roof terrace of a house, behind which are distant bays and rocky scenery of the Bay of Lindos on the island of Rhodes, Greece.

No external narrative appears to be referenced by this painting, and it is easily read as just a pleasant view, a superficial confection. However, it contrasts its timeless air with an activity which is often used to fill in time with a purposeful but repetitive task. I think that Leighton also saw these references to the immediate passage of ‘momentary’ time against the much bigger scheme of ‘deep’ time, and how the days in our short lives measure up against the much slower progress of centuries and civilisations.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), The Bridge of Life (1884), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Walter Crane’s allegorical narrative of The Bridge of Life (1884) appears unique. It shows a newborn baby arriving in the hand of a winged angel in a white punt/gondola, left of centre. The baby is handed over to a mother or nurse, fed at the breast at the bottom left corner, walking up the steps, and learning at the top. Children play, then grow into young adults, and marry as they reach the top of the bridge. Throughout this runs the thread of life.

The mature adult in the middle of the bridge (by its keystone) then ages steadily, bearing the whole globe during the descent. He then gains a long white beard and walking stick during the descent into old age, finally dying, his body being placed in the black punt/gondola, where it is attended by the angel of death. Grieving relatives stand on the shore making their farewells. Crane also works in at least two of the three Fates: Clotho is at the upper left with her distaff and spun thread, and Atropos is shown cutting the thread with her traditional shears at the bottom right.

Henry Siddons Mowbray (1858–1928), Destiny (1896), oil on canvas, 76 x 103 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Henry Siddons Mowbray’s Destiny from 1896 is another development from classical myth; it bears careful examination, as the three women sat together at one end of the tapestry don’t all appear to be Fates.

The three who do appear identifiable are Clotho, standing at the far right with a whole web of threads, Lachesis at the back of the group of three, bringing a thread down from Clotho, and Atropos, armed with her shears at the left. The group appears to be working on a tapestry which might represent individuals, or mankind more generally, perhaps a visual allusion to the English phrase “all part of life’s rich tapestry”, although that may be of more recent origin.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), “I am Half Sick of Shadows” said the Lady of Shalott (1915), oil on canvas, 100 x 74 cm, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada. Wikimedia Commons.

Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott also invokes fibrecraft as a metaphor for time. The Lady is subject to a mysterious curse which confines her to weaving images on her loom, and must not look directly at the outside world.

As with most fibrecrafts, weaving is a time-consuming activity which is often seen as occupying time in a useful and productive way, working with the thread of time.

My final painting is the greatest challenge of them all, although most consider its reading is now well-established as a retelling of the Ovidian myth of Arachne, which in itself may refer to time and its thread.

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), The Spinners (Las Hilanderas, The Fable of Arachne) (c 1657), oil on canvas, 220 x 289 cm, Prado Museum, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Reading Diego Velázquez’s Las Hilanderas from about 1657 has been complicated by the fact that it was probably damaged by fire in 1734, as a result of which it was significantly enlarged, presumably during its repair.

Its current reading is that the foreground section shows the weaving contest between Athena, as an old woman on the left, and Arachne, as a young woman on the right. The background area then displays their completed tapestries, of which Arachne’s are visible, and shows a copy of Titian’s The Rape of Europa, another Greek myth.

The snag with that is that it doesn’t fit what the painting actually shows: the older woman at the left is not weaving but spinning, using a spinning wheel which would also have been an anachronism at the time of Arachne’s contest. Ovid’s account is also clear in stating that, before the contest started, Athena revealed herself in her full glory, and didn’t retain the appearance of an old woman. Furthermore, the woman on the right is not weaving either, but is winding spun yarn into balls. Neither is there any evidence in the foreground of the presence of any dyed yarn which might be suitable for weaving.

Could Velázquez have also been alluding to the thread of time?