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).
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
The Victorian era is remembered for its soul-deadening factories, where men, women and children worked long, gruelling hours in hazardous conditions for little pay. But for one Pre-Raphaelite Brother, a Cheapside factory proved an unlikely inspiration; when future painter William Holman Hunt was growing up, a cotton winding factory was his playground. His father was the manager of a warehouse in Dyer’s Court, Aldermanbury, on whose upper floors female ‘winders’ operated noisy hand machines which wound cotton and thread into balls and on reels.
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.