Blog #43: To the Lighthouse: Lily Briscoe and Arthur Briscoe

At last, Lily Briscoe. Poor Lily, I’ve kept her in the wings for months now. In this blogging performance, one thing leads to another, and, although Lily was promised, other events and names intervened. Not entirely a bad thing, as in the interim Lily has become a much richer figure for me, both “framework of steel” and “light of a butterfly’s wing.” This entry will be the first of three to honour her.

While Lily is often seen as embodying elements of Vanessa and Virginia, her surname connects her to another known historic figure, the marine artist Arthur Briscoe. Briscoe painted and engraved mostly coastal scenes and maritime subjects, and his first one-man show, which included 35 watercolours, took place at the Modern Gallery in Bond Street in 1906. In 1925 the London print publisher H. C. Dickens brought out an edition of 75 of Briscoe’s etchings. In 1926 both Arthur Briscoe and Vanessa Bell had paintings in the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Why would Virginia give Arthur’s surname to Lily? Many reasons can be guessed at. Playfulness, for one. The Briscoe baptism is an insider’s joke, recognizable only to a very few. Male coloration is another. Linking Lily to Arthur may be an early Orlando tactic, a blurring of the boundaries between male and female. Polysemy is yet another. By associating Lily with Briscoe, Virginia dilutes the identification with herself and with Vanessa. The more models there are for Lily, the less particular and more general she becomes, in a historic sense at least. Paradoxically, this allows her to be more herself in an individual sense, since our understandings cannot fix her to one particular model, and must let her shimmer between several possibilities.

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