Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Rossetti Attempts to Lead Tennyson Astray

Dinah Roe

Rossetti Attempts to Lead Tennyson Astray Come Into the Casino, Maud

In the autumn of 1855, the forty six year-old Alfred Tennyson read his new poem Maud outloud to a small literary audience at Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s London home. Listeners included the Rossetti brothers. Gabriel produced a spontaneous pen and ink sketch which showed the poet seated on a couch, reading from a small book in his right hand. The affectionate yet irreverent sketch reveals Rossetti’s feelings toward the Poet Laureate, which were a mixture of envy and admiration.

After this recital, Tennyson recklessly allowed himself to be escorted home by the twenty seven year-old Gabriel Rossetti. The age gap began to show around High Holborn, when Tennyson remarked on the abundance of cabs crowded round the Casino de Venice. What, he wondered, was going on inside?

Gabriel enthusiastically enlightened his companion. Also known as the Holborn Casino, the establishment was a famous (or notorious, depending on who was telling the story) dance hall, where London’s young male apprentices, clerks, shopkeepers and students came to blow off steam after a hard day’s work. Fuelled by bitter beer and soda water, they whirled their partners through polkas and quadrilles while admiring the effect in the Casino’s mirrored walls. The marble dance floor was a legacy of the Casino’s former life as a swimming bath. Spectators perched five feet above the dancers, smoking, drinking, or catching their breath between dances.

Doctor and social commentator William Acton observed disapprovingly that most of the female dancers were prostitutes or grisettes (aspirational shopgirls, seamstresses and artists’ models). Still, he had to admit that the Casino’s ‘athletic amusements’ and ‘prevalent sobriety’ were an improvement on ‘the grosser haunts of prostitution formerly in fashion’.

According to Rossetti, when he told Tennyson of the character and goings-on at the Casino, the poet was intrigued. ‘I’d rather like to go in there’, he said. But at the last minute he backed out, worried that he might be spotted by a newspaper man. All things considered, this was probably the prudent decision; Victoria would not have been impressed with the spectacle of her Poet Laureate and a prostitute dancing cheek to cheek. How tempted Tennyson really was, we will never know. Gabriel Rossetti, who was not averse to dancing and prostitutes and positively encouraged the advances of grisettes, may not be the most reliable witness in the matter.

In 1874, the Casino de Venice reinvented itself as the very successful Holborn Restaurant, which Baedeker’s 1890 guide to London described as one of the best-known restaurants in the city. A long-running concern, the Restaurant boasted 14 dining rooms along with a grand dining room. The building was demolished in 1955, in the centenary year of Tennyson’s near-miss.


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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.