‘Notes on Lamia’ by Elaine Duigenan

Elaine Duigenan, Keats House Artist in Residence
‘Snakeshead’ fritillaries, image by Elaine Duigenan, CC-BY-NC-ND.

In Keats’s Parlour at Keats House, Hampstead there are two chairs that face the window and look out to the garden. I like to imagine Fanny Brawne walking past and the romantic dalliance between the two. I am drawn to working with nature and thus wanted to spend time observing how the garden changes with the seasons. Keats makes numerous references to flowers and plants in his poetry and I wondered why a man of his time might have accumulated so much knowledge. I’ve learnt that it was through his training as an apothecary (which was a prerequisite to becoming a surgeon). In the late 18th century, botanicals were still very much in use for the treatment of ailments. Keats would have had to go on herborising trips to places such as Hampstead Heath to study plants in their natural habitat.  

Early this year I observed the first plants coming through in Keats House garden.There were hellebores, croci, violets (a favourite of Keats) and then, hidden amongst foliage, something called the ‘snakes head fritillary’. It’s a small plant and has both a quiet presence and an exotic boldness. It’s the perfect specimen to make a visual analogy for the serpent-like Lamia. Richard Mabey called it ‘glamorous’ whereas Vita Sackville-West called it:

‘a sinister little flower, in the mournful colour of decay’.

The fritillary was once abundant in the UK, particularly in the Thames Valley and was collected to be sold as a cut flower in markets including the one at Covent Garden.

During World War II most of the ancient meadows were ploughed and turned over to the production of food, destroying much of the plant's habitat. Now it’s a popular garden plant and rare to find in the wild. There is a celebration of the flower called Fritillary Sunday at Ducklington, where it grows in one of the last ancient meadows in Suffolk.

Lamiai (or iae) have a chequered history in story and myth; they range from being child devourers, to half women, half serpents who take their eyes out and keep them in a jar. They are shape shifters somewhere between a goddess and a beast.

The name Fritillaria comes from the Latin fritillus meaning dice-box, a reference to the chequered pattern on the flowers. It is sometimes known as ‘leper lily’ as its shape resembles the bell once carried by lepers. It also looks like snakeskin and certainly lends itself to mythologising. I don’t want to over explain my images as they are simply designed to play with Lamia’s serpentine qualities as she reaches out to inveigle Lycius with her sultry charms.  

Keats’s ‘Lamia’ is a narrative poem in rhymed couplets. It was written in 1819 and published in 1820 in, what was to be Keats’s final bookLamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. The poem is a reworking of the tale in a biography of Apollonius by Flavius Philostratus. For the descriptions and nature of a Lamia, Keats drew from Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy.

A black and white photograph of the artist, Elaine Duigenan. Copyright the artist.
Elaine Duigenan is a photographer and artist. For this residency she is drawing inspiration from the garden at Keats House and Hampstead Heath. © Elaine Duigenan