Portraits of Pomona

Pomona is the Roman goddess of fruits, harvest and abundance. She kept herself hidden away in an orchard and did all the work there herself, refusing to have any men on the premises. One day a young man (or in some versions a god) called Vertumnus saw her and fell in love, but she wouldn’t even let him work in the orchard. So he disguised himself as an old woman, and, in that disguise, made friends with Pomona and told her how wonderful this young Vertumnus was. This rickety ruse worked, apparently, and Pomona opened up her orchard (yes yes, very symbolic) and married Vertumnus.

Representations of Pomona in art were very popular, in particular showing her as a young beautiful maiden, contrasted with Vertumnus’s old woman, as in this example by Hendrick Goltzius, where Vertumnus is not so much disguised as totally transformed. Note the pears, (possibly quinces?) complementing Pomona’s curves. Also, to judge from that pruning knife, Pomona is no push-over.

Goltzius, Hendrick; Vertumnus and Pomona; The Fitzwilliam Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/vertumnus-and-pomona-5665

However, by the nineteenth century such lusty depictions of Pomona’s beauty had given way to a much more gentle, wistful and nostalgic mood. Pomona became much more autumnal.

Photographer Julia Margaret Cameron composed this study of Pomona in 1872, showing a young woman staring out at the camera, surrounded by foliage and flowers. In this treatment Pomona seems to be very much in control, but is there some other emotion? Defiance? Melancholy? The Victorians were keen on melancholy as a rather admirable state of mind, as long as one didn’t overdo it.

Image from the Victoria and Albert Museum

Interestingly, Cameron’s model was Alice Liddell, the real-life ‘Alice in Wonderland’, aged twenty when she modelled for Pomona. Alice was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll, who told stories to Alice and her sisters, Lorina (known as Ina) and Edith, stories that in time became published as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll took several photographs of Alice and her sisters, here they are in 1858. Alice is on the right, with the bobbed hair, about six years old. She’s already looking rather defiant, although not as bored as Edith on the left.

(National Portrait Gallery)

Pomona rather faded away during the late nineteenth century. Perhaps her curves were the problem, perhaps it was that goddesses should not do manual labour in orchards, grafting and pruning. Victorian sensibilities meant that she certainly needed to put some clothes on. William Morris gave her this sad song to sing, to accompany a Burne- Jones tapestry that shows a fully-clothed Pomona using her long skirts to hold the apples she has collected.

I am the ancient Apple-Queen,
As once I was so am I now.
For evermore a hope unseen,
Betwixt the blossom and the bough.

Ah, where’s the river’s hidden Gold!
And where the windy grave of Troy?
Yet come I as I came of old,
From out the heart of Summer’s joy.

(William Morris, Poems by the Way, first published 1891. You can read it here at the Internet Archive, one of my favourite websites.

As for Pomona today, she is still around, often transformed into some sort of nature goddess of all things green. However, Artist Lizzie Riches has incorporated Pomona’s classical history, her direct gaze, her attributes of virtue and modesty, in this wonderful painting. This Pomona looks as if she knows everything about orchards. I wonder if I could get that costume made up for myself – extra impact at apple talks and events.

Image from the Red Dot Gallery.

To learn even more about Pomona and Vertumnus and the gardens depicted in paintings of them, go to the The Gardens Trust website.


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