The Adolescent Female Body
If The Singer could be said to be a crude pun on the possibilities of ‘plucking’, given the position of the girl’s hands at crotch height, the statuette does not unequivocally endorse erotic readings, and could even be interpreted as a warning against voyeurism. Viewers who make eye contact with the girl, for example, may feel awkward and self-conscious, unsure of the extent to which their gaze might be warranted or welcomed. Even from the side views, where the figure cannot catch the eyes of the viewer, the predatory, diamond-encrusted gaze of the snakes on the pedestal, as well as the ibis in the headdress and on the harp, disarm voyeuristic looking by returning the voracious gaze, emphasised by the pupil-like shape of the turquoise bosses on the headdress (fig.4).6 It is worth drawing attention to these predatory gazes because, in ‘The Maiden Tribute’ articles Stead expressly described the abducted young girls to be raped and made into prostitutes as ‘prey’, and characterised the lucky ones who escaped as ‘bird[s who] had flown’.7 In addition, from the right-hand side, the girl’s harp bars access to her body; to pass through it would lead to being arrested in its web-like strings. There is also an arachnid-like quality about the combination of lightness, strength and agility in the figure’s tense right hand, recalling a spider traversing its web. There may again be a visual allusion to ‘The Maiden Tribute’ articles which had suggested that individuals might get ‘caught in the coils’ of the London cultures of prostitution, with its ‘secret’, ‘lair-like recesses’.8
The figure in Applause has three snakes on her headdress: one on the top of her head and two at her forehead, each weaving among the precious stones of her crown, as a profile view reveals (fig.5). From these side views, the girl’s braids of hair echo the serpentine curves of the snakes, descending from the top of her head to the base of her neck, where they coil, overlap, and rear up, like the ribbons immediately behind them. There is also a snake-like quality about the way in which the profile silhouette of the girl’s hands resembles the rearing open mouth of an attacking snake (fig.6), akin, for example, to the python in Frederic Leighton’s An Athlete Wrestling with a Python 1877 (fig.7).
The former of these activities represents exactly the erotically-charged scene depicted in one of the most important primary sources for The Singer and Applause: the eleven painted wall fragments from the eighteenth-dynasty hill-side tomb at Dra Abu-el-Naga, belonging to Nebamun, the Theban accountant in charge of grain at the Temple of Amun. These paintings were excavated in, or shortly before 1820 by the archaeologist and collector Giovanni d’Athanasi, and are now on display at the British Museum.27 Of particular relevance here are the two registers of polychromed banquet scenes, depicting a mixed-gender audience seated together, attended to by naked servant girls, and entertained by four seated musicians and two dancers (fig.9). These fragmentary scenes need to be highlighted for two reasons: firstly, because the seated tibia player has a loose family resemblance to the three wind players (two seated and one standing) in the side relief of Applause (fig.10); and secondly, though most representations of Egyptian antiquity feature women in long, tight white dresses, the dancers here, like Ford’s two neo-Egyptian figures, are more or less naked, wearing only girdles, ear-rings, bracelets and armlets. Indeed, the nudity, eroticism and sexual availability of the dancing and serving girls – some of whom, like Ford’s adolescent girls, are depicted full-face – is rendered explicit in the surviving fragments by the juxtaposition of naked flesh with various items of jewellery, and by the visible pubis of one of the serving girls in contrast to the obliterated pubis of another (which a seated male diner immediately to the right seems to be reaching for, only to be restrained by his female dining companion, although the iconography in fact depicts the man with his arm on his lap, while his dining companion holds his arm affectionately; fig.11).28 In addition, two of the depicted dancing girls, both of whom pointedly make eye contact with the viewer, are clapping, one with her hands above her head, and the other, like Applause, with her hands at thigh level in left profile (fig.12).
The archaeological evidence that can be used to support interpretations regarding the nature of Ford’s adolescent nudes, then, fails to provide unambiguous conclusions. On the one hand, the statuettes can be seen as quasi-sacral objects depicting religious figures, while on the other, they can be enjoyed in light of their erotic appeal. Given the raising of the age of consent brought about by the Labouchere Amendment in 1885, it is unclear whether The Singer and Applause testify to Ford’s nostalgic admiration for ancient Egyptian culture, or emphasise its cultural, geographical and historical distance from his London studio.
How to cite
Jason Edwards, ‘The Adolescent Female Body’, April 2013, in Jason Edwards (ed.), In Focus: 'The Singer' exhibited 1889 and 'Applause' 1893 by Edward Onslow Ford, Tate Research Publication, April 2013, https://www