When the Rossettis were children, their neighbourhood hosted regular Punch & Judy puppet shows. The fit-up was always positioned to face the houses opposite the Rossetti’s Charlotte Street (now Hallam Street) home, and so the children were forced to view the spectacle from backstage. They marvelled at the colourful curtains, flinched with each crack of the puppeteer’s slapstick, giggled as Punch delivered his immortal swazzle-voiced ‘punchline’: ‘That’s the way to do it!’ But what Punch was actually doing to Judy remained a mystery to the Rossetti children. Young Gabriel, unable to endure the torment any longer, once asked for permission to cross the street and view the action. His father Gabriele told him that this would be infra dig (beneath his dignity).
Unhappily, this week I found myself in my doctor’s surgery. The waiting room was decorated with pamphlets containing alarming line-drawings of unsightly illnesses. I was trying not to touch anything because the prospect of sickness is stressful for teachers. We worry that cancelling even one lesson will encourage a permanent Lord of the Flies atmosphere to reign in the classroom. Or perhaps that’s just me. So: Doctor’s appointment. Frightening reading material. Germophobia. You get the picture. And then a little yellow pamphlet entitled ‘Poems in the Waiting Room’ caught my eye. Inside I found a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti called, ‘Sudden Light’. It began:
I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore …
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?
I was surprised to discover a reference to Gabriel Rossetti in a 1976 issue of Playboy Magazine (which I was only reading for the articles). When interviewer Cameron Crowe asked David Bowie about the inspiration for the eye-catching English cover art for The Man Who Sold the World, David Bowie replied: ‘Funnily enough, and you'll never believe me, it was a parody of Gabriel Rossetti. Slightly askew, obviously. So when they told me that a drag-queen cult was forming behind me, I said, “Fine, don't try to explain it; nobody is going to bother to try to understand it.”’
Click here to read the full article. (This is only a link to Cameron Crowe's website, not Playboy Magazine. To which I would never provide a link in a million years! Because 'yuck', basically).
Humorist and Pre-Raphaelite hater Joe Queenan recently wrote an article about the benefits of laughing at paintings in museums. Leaving aside the merits and demerits of his argument, I was interested by his singling-out of ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti's waterlogged maidens’ for ridicule. What struck me was that I was unable to identify which paintings Queenan meant, and after a brief search, it became clear that Rossetti didn’t paint any waterlogged maidens. Unless I am very much mistaken, which I’m willing to admit.
Aside from Burne-Jones, I couldn’t think of many Pre-Raphaelite painters who were consistently interested in watery scenes. But I did come up with these top 5 paintings. Which one do you think Queenan was thinking of / laughing at?
The Antiques Roadshow have issued a call for help finding a very special object; a pocket watch designed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a memorial to his wife, Elizabeth Siddal. In you watch the segment at the end the show (at about 58.38) you can see his original design for this beautiful gold watch, as well as a photograph of the finished object. Sadly, it has gone missing, but Antiques Roadshow have determined to try to find it.
I had never heard of this watch myself, and was quite surprised to learn of it. I wonder if it is the one he is wearing in the series of Rossetti family photographs taken by Lewis Carroll. Has anyonoe else heard of it before? Do you have any guesses as to its possible whereabouts? The hunt is on!
This CLIP will be available to view for the next three days. The Rossetti watch appears in the final segment of the program.
Thanks very much to my brilliant web designer, David Knight, for alerting me to the programme!
The media enjoys describing Florence Welch of ‘Florence + The Machine’ as ‘Pre-Raphaelite’, probably because of her red hair, pale skin and tendency to brandish odd props. But for the release of her second album, Ceremonials, she told Rolling Stone that she was changing her image, seeking ‘a new type of romanticism … As opposed to the Pre-Raphaelite look of the last record.’
Readers, this is your chance to help make Pre-Raphaelite history!
As a long-standing fan of the Antiques Roadshow, I am thrilled to inform you that Geoffrey Munn has contacted me about his ongoing search for the beautiful watch that Dante Gabriel Rossetti designed as a memorial to Elizabeth Siddal.
For those of you unaccountably unfamiliar with his regular appearances on this great British television programme, jewellery expert Munn (FSA, FRSA) specialises in nineteenth-century metalwork and Fabergé, and is managing director of London jewellers, Wartski. Click HERE to see him in action at the British Museum on the Antiques Roadshow.
At 180 years old this month (b. 12 May, 1828) Dante Gabriel Rossetti is still hogging the headlines. There was the previously unknown portrait of Jane Morris which recently came to light in a private collection in Scotland, but it was the strange tale of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agent Jeffrey Meehan’s recovery of a stolen picture of Alexa Wilding during a sting in Alaska that really got my attention. In a case that involves surnames right out of a detective novel (Leboeuf, Sternback, Weshenfelder) with a storyline reminiscent of ‘Northern Exposure’ in its heydey, Rossetti’s picture was recovered alongside a haul of illegal walrus tusks.
But the US Fish and Wildlife Service is not the first to suggest a connection between Pre-Raphaelitism and the noble walrus. That honour goes to John Lucas Tupper. His 1850 essay for the Pre-Raphaelite magazine, The Germ, described the intoxicating odour of ‘camphor’ emanating from a stuffed walrus at the British Museum, which ‘permeated the whole collection’. It was ‘a literary smell’. Incredibly perhaps, he regarded this as a good thing, associating the scent of camphor with artistic integrity and imagination: ‘Now let a poem, a painting, or sculpture, smell ever so little of antiquity, and every intelligent reader will be full of delightful imaginations.’ Click HERE for the full essay.
As always, the Pre-Raphaelites trump any twenty-first century pretenders to weirdness, even tusk smugglers in Alaska.
During my recent talk on the Rossettis at Highgate Cemetery Chapel, Andrew Yeo (Cemetery guide, volunteer and IT expert) rescued me from certain technical failure. He also shared with me a Pre-Raphaelite connection to Highgate Cemetery which I’d like to pass on to you. The Blount monument, located on the way up to the Egyptian Avenue, was once owned by original Pre-Raphaelite Brother William Holman Hunt.
If ever there was a London building crying out for a blue plaque, it is number 10 Bloomsbury Street, former headquarters of Sass’s Drawing Academy, a feeder school for the Royal Academy. It was here that aspiring painters John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Walter Howell Deverell took their early training. Rossetti and Deverell met at Sass’s, but child prodigy Millais had already entered the Royal Academy Schools by the time they began their studies. Other distinguished graduates include Augustus Egg, Edward Lear, Charles West Cope, Henry Hugh Armstead and William Powell Frith, most famous for his work Derby Day (1858).
If the Pre-Raphaelites were still around today, they would no doubt be thrilled to find that they are still causing a stir. A quick peek at the 'Comments' inspired by the recent Observer online article about the upcoming Tate Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition reveals that viewers are as divided as ever about the significance of Pre-Raphaelitism.
The debate the young upstart Brothers intentionally started about contemporary art in 1848 still rages today. Then as now, while some people enjoy the unsettling beauty of the bright Pre-Raphaelite colour palette, others are put off by the movement’s eroticised depiction of women and heavy-handed symbolism. Still more are unhappy with them for not being French Impressionists.
When I posted a close analysis of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Winter: My Secret’, I imagined that the next poem I selected would be on the happy subject of springtime. However, it is currently 3 degrees in Oxford and it is snowing. The radio keeps insisting that spring has officially sprung, yet it is so cold in my house that I have to wear fingerless gloves to type.
Twiddling my fingers and humming, ‘Reviewing the Situation’ while imitating Ron Moody as Fagin in Oliver! has provided some small measure of comfort in these dark days, but enough is enough. Who do I speak to about bringing back spring?
In keeping with this lament, let’s look at a poem which grapples with the absence of spring: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's ‘Proserpina’ (1881). Inspired by the Roman myth of springtime and by, well, himself, Rossetti wrote this poem to accompany his painting ‘Proserpine’.
Critics have made much of this sonnet’s biographical context, and indeed, it is worth noting that Rossetti was in love with the picture’s model, Jane, wife of William Morris. It is not a stretch to imagine that Rossetti’s interest in a goddess who is sometimes permitted to escape the clutches of her underworld husband had its roots in the painter’s personal feelings. Rossetti was not the subtlest of artists, or of men, and it is right in character for him to mythologize his affair in this way. However, this picture continues to fascinate because it engages with themes of desire and distance suggestive of something more profound and less particular than a Kelmscott Manor ménage à trois. This analysis will therefore concentrate on the literary and pictorial aspects of this artwork. For more on this picture’s biographical background and production history, see the Rossetti Archive.
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.