Gabriel Rossetti was a poet and a painter. Perhaps surprisingly, his work (as well as that of his Pre-Raphaelite ‘Brothers’) was inspired by contemporary American writing. When the young Pre-Raphaelite Brothers drew up their mock-serious list of the greatest artists of all time, Americans writers were included: Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
But the Rossettis’ appreciation of American writing had its roots in childhood. When Maria, Gabriel, William and Christina were children, they resisted their religious mother’s best efforts to push them towards the early Victorian era’s tiresome morality tales such as the despised Fairchild Family series, with its shiny-faced children eager to pitch in with the family chores. In fact, the young Rossettis went the other way entirely when they discovered an illustrated collection of horror stories called Legends of Terror in their uncle’s library. These ghoulish delights, entitled things like ‘The Legend of the Bloody Hand’ ‘A Night in the Grave’, ‘The Maniac’s Fate’, were entertaining and frightening in equal measure, and helped inspire Gabriel and Christina’s gothic imaginations
William Rossetti noted that Boston-born Edgar Allan Poe’s work continued to provide ‘a deep well of delight’ to his brother Gabriel all his life. Throughout his career, Gabriel Rossetti was drawn to the disturbing notion in Poe’s essay ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ that ‘The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.’ During 1846-47, Gabriel decided to write a sequal to Poe’s ‘The Raven’, and ended up producing his most famous poem, ‘The Blessed Damozel’.
In 1868, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited England, where he was feted by the great and the good. America’s premiere poet received honourary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge and even called on Queen Victoria. Julia Margaret Cameron (close friend to the Pre-Raphaelites) took his portrait, portraying him as every inch the poet-sage. The dramatic profile portrait, with its emphasis on his flowing white beard and veritable mane of hair, presents him as the embodiment of a literary lion.
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.