Culture: Books: Perfect Pictures of Happiness; the Red Rose Girls . by Alice A Carter (Abrams Pounds 12.95). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds
Byline: Richard Edmonds
A lice Carter's supremely beautiful book captures, in essence, the lives of a quartet of American artists - Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Violet Oakley and Henrietta Cozens who captivated early 20th-century Philadelphia with their preeminence as artists and their artistic, unorthodox lifestyle.
Their mentor at art school was the outstanding book illustrator, Howard Pyle, for whom romance lay in the Arthurian world of knights and legendary conquests. It was Pyle who nicknamed the ladies 'The Red Rose Girls' after they had taken over the Red Rose Inn in order to set up their unconventional and exclusively feminist menage in Philadelphia's old-established and socially exclusive Main Line area.
Pyle's teaching was legendary and he wholeheartedly supported a woman's right to a professional career, something that ran contrary to the Victorian perception of a woman as 'the angel in the house' and little more.
But was their relationship, with its veiled sympathies, a lesbian one? 'Sympathetic companionship' is the term used in the book - something that was, to my mind, interchangeable with 'romantic friendship'. In answer to the question of what exactly went on in the bedrooms at the Red Rose Inn, a friend of the women, in later years, answered thus: 'What does it matter if they were orgasmic? The point is they loved each other.'
The four women chose a common surname, dubbing themselves the 'Cogs' family - C for Cozens, O for Oakley, G for Green and S for Smith. Their lives produced astonishingly fine work - by 1902 honours were dropping into the household like bouquets of flowers.
Among the many ravishing illustrations, there is a selection of photographs of the women that provides a documentary take. In one of these you see these young people at the outset of their careers. They sit, in their high-necked blouses, around a communal table, drinking milk, apparently eating plums and looking affectionately at each other in a well-furnished room with art pottery on the bookcases and pictures on the walls.
The photograph has an innocence once referred to by John Steinbeck, which reflected an emergent America of clambakes, blue skies and summer hammocks on the lawn at midnight. …