Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Pre-Raphaelite Furniture at the Geffrye Museum

Dinah Roe

Pre-Raphaelite Furniture at the Geffrye Museum The Rossetti Chair

I am pretty sure you are not looking at the right thing in this photograph. Tear your eyes away from Ruskin’s menacing stick and bell-bottomed trousers (centre). Do not be distracted by Rossetti’s poor posture or the hanky peeping untidily from his waistcoat (right). What interests us here is the delicate-looking armchair being dwarfed by the bulk of William Bell Scott (left).

The photo above was taken by William A. Downey in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s garden on 29 June 1863. You can read more about this image on The Victorian Web. Scott must have developed a certain kinship with this chair. Here he is again, this time with one heavy leg dangerously propped on its delicate rush seat.

This object (the armchair, not Scott) bears a close resemblance to a later Morris & Company item christened the ‘Rossetti chair’. Most accounts suggest that the chair in the photograph is probably an early nineteenth-century French example from Rossetti’s collection and that it may have been the model for the chairs eventually manufactured by Morris & Co. The V&A William Morris exhibition catalogue says that it ‘may be one of the firm’s early products or one of Rossetti’s secondhand pieces’.

While it is disputed whether Rossetti himself actually designed this bit of furniture, I think we can say with certainty that this armchair was accustomed to cradling Rossetti and his associates. For further evidence, here is Ruskin’s carte-de-visite, which shows him comfortably seated in the chair. But this was not to be its last appearance on the nineteenth-century scene. Made of ebonised wood with a rush seat and green velvet seat cushion, a chair closely resembling this one was manufactured by Morris & Co from c.1870-1920. Recently I had the honour of examining two suspected Rossetti chairs first-hand.

You may remember that I recently put out a teaser on twitter, promising an exclusive post about an exciting new Rossetti acquitision. Not mine of course (research grants, alas, do not support my aesthetic whims), but the Geffrye Museum’s. I am thrilled to announce that the Geffrye has acquired two gorgeous Rossetti chairs, and that its knowledgeable curators generously agreed to talk to me about these very special objects. The museum has also provided the images of the Rossetti chair that accompany this post.

While the curators are not yet entirely sure whether they chairs were produced by Morris & Co or whether they are versions by another maker, they hope to get to the bottom of the mystery by looking in detail at the turning on a number of known examples, such as this one at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Dedicated to the history of the home, the Geffrye Museum recreates domestic period rooms and gardens from over the past 400 years, giving visitors a unique insight into the habits, fashions and behaviour of the ordinary English urban middle classes.

When I recently visited the Geffrye, I was escorted by Curator Alex Goddard and Collections Manager Emma Hardy to the climate and light-level controlled furniture store-room for a viewing of the two chairs. Having spent the morning travelling from Oxford to East London, it was all I could do to restrain myself from plopping down into the invitingly wide rush seats.

As is my wont when I don’t know what I’m talking about, I began with the rash observation that the detachable greenish cushion on one of the chairs was looking a bit the worse for wear and probably wanted restoration. Mrs. Goddard patiently explained to me that the goal of restoration is not to make objects ‘shiny and new’, but to ‘stabilize and preserve’ them for research purposes. Examining an original object often reveals important facts about how it was made that would otherwise be lost to history.

In fact, it was these very cushions that made the armchair so valuable to the museum. It is very rare that fragile upholstery of this sort survives, and so, Goddard told me, ‘we get a bit excited about it’. The style and fit told the curators that the cushions were original, while the stronger shades preserved in the folds of the velvet revealed its original colour. On closer examination, I thought the colour was pretty close ‘greenery-yallery’. ‘It looks aesthetic to me’, Hardy agreed. The cushions had played their part in preserving the chair, as the rush seat had survived better under their protection. As Goddard put it, ‘One man’s tatty old cushion is another man’s archaeology.’

The ebonised wood also told a story, as the wear and tear on the wood revealed that the armchairs were not decorative, but had been put to practical use. ‘You can imagine someone sitting there’, Hardy observed. She told me that the chairs were part of Morris’s relatively affordable and accessible ‘Sussex Range’.

They sold in reasonable numbers, and were widely copied. She showed me a contemporary catalog where imitation chairs were available for 12 shillings 1 pence while the originals were 16 shillings 6 pence. She could tell that the Geffrye’s Rossetti chairs were genuine by looking at the unique turnings on the legs, the lyre-shaped back rails and the stretchers linking the legs together.

The simple and elegant design was influenced by the nineteenth-century revival of interest in eighteenth-century century French country furniture. See, for instance, these dining room chairs at Monet’s country home in Giverney.

The Rossetti chair’s delicate lines have a distinctly feminine feel, and it would consequently have been considered appropriate for the drawing room, a space associated with a feminine style of decorating, rather than the more masculine spaces of the dining room or library.

During the period, furniture was often ordered from bulky catalogs offering options such as different woods or cushion-cover styles.

It is not known whether the Rossetti chair would have been made to order, or was produced in advance, but Hardy suspects Morris and Co. would have kept the chairs in stock. Though she noted that it was difficult to be certain, Hardy speculated that this armchair may have attracted the more bohemian rather than the conventional customer.

While the chairs are not currently on display at the Geffrye, the museum is well worth a visit for fans of Victorian design. In particular, I recommend a comparison of the museum’s recreated 1870 and 1890s drawing rooms in order to experience first-hand the ways in which Pre-Raphaelitism and Aestheticism transformed the Victorian drawing room. You can also visit the British Galleries of the Victoria and Albert to view another example of the Rossetti chair.

Whether Rossetti designed the armchair himself or whether Morris based the design on a chair Rossetti owned is currently unknown. Do you know anything more about the Rossetti chair? Have you observed this chair in any other period photographs or paintings? If so, please share your insights in the comments below this post.

Thanks very much to the curators at the Geffrye for sharing their expertise on this wonderful find. Plan your visit at http://www.geffrye-museum.org.uk/
You can also follow the Geffrye on Twitter @GEFFRYE.

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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.