Christmas Pre-Raphaelite

It seems to me that when Yule-time draws near, details of Pre-Raphaelite paintings appear frequently on greetings cards, Christmas carol CD covers and probably tea towels (Pre-Raphaelitism and tea towels have apparently been closely associated for some years). I say this as if it’s some bad thing; I’m perfectly happy to see all the Burne-Jones stained-glass angels and Rossetti maid-musicians that ever were. There’s something quite Pre-Raphaelite about an English winter: the revived medieval traditions of carols and Yule logs; the warm Christmas colour-palette of green, red and gold reminiscent of the tones of Rossetti’s watercolours; the more gothic quality of dark evenings, cold nights and ghost stories. One of my favourite pieces of trivia is, of course, that Christina Rossetti wrote the original poem of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ (though I can never remember who set it to music or when). Here I thought I’d share a trio of Dante Gabriel Rossetti paintings with a Christmas setting or theme.

There are two pictures by Rossetti titled A Christmas Carol. The first (below) is one of his rich watercolours of medieval subjects from the 1850s. Its ‘Xmas 1857-58’ inscription places it in the timescale of the Arthurian mural project at the Oxford Union in 1857-59, which saw a resurgence of high-spirited medievalism in the Pre-Raphaelite programme and brought Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones closer together as artists. Elizabeth Siddal modelled for the central figure, a queen whose flowing auburn hair must surely hold a record for some of the longest locks in Pre-Raphaelite art. Dressed in a scarlet gown, she is seated in a curious piece of composite furniture which combines a simple clavichord and, overhead, a cupboard or shelf cluttered with bottles and a crown (presumably the clavichord can be removed, otherwise she’d have trouble actually getting out of the chair!). Her long fingers are about to depress the keys of the clavichord, leading to the suggestion or anticipation of music frequent throughout Rossetti’s art; note also the dreamy, far-away expression of her face, which implies that she plays her music absentmindedly or unconsciously. Meanwhile, her two handmaids wearing purple and green attend to her copious hair, one running a comb through it and the other reaching for a toilette bottle. The mistletoe, the Nativity scenes in the style of an illuminated manuscript decorating the front of the clavichord — which, close observation reveals, seem to be small figurines set in a shallow box — and the thin holly bushes in large pots on either side, indicate the time of year.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'A Christmas Carol', captioned 'Xmas 1857-8'. Watercolour on paper. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘A Christmas Carol’, dated ‘Xmas 1857-8’. Watercolour on paper. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.

Rossetti’s watercolours from this time also inspired poems by William Morris and, in this case, Algernon Charles Swinburne, who had met Rossetti at Oxford in 1857 and wrote ‘A Christmas Carol: suggested by a drawing of Mr. D. G. Rossetti’s’ presumably also in Christmas of that year. Rossetti’s painting has little in the way of narrative or subject matter, so Swinburne was free to supply his own interpretation. The opening stanza runs:

Three damsels in the queen’s chamber,
The queen’s mouth was most fair;
She spake a word of God’s mother
As the combs went in her hair.
Mary that is of might,
Bring us to thy Son’s sight.

The rest of the poem, which seems to retell the Nativity, is not a direct representation in verse of Rossetti’s Christmas Carol. Rather, Swinburne uses the Rossetti as the loose starting-point for his own poetic fantasy.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'A Christmas Carol', 1867. Oil on panel. Sold at Sotheby's in December 2013 for £4,562,500.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘A Christmas Carol’, 1867. Oil on panel. Sold at Sotheby’s in December 2013 for £4,562,500.

Rossetti’s other Christmas Carol (above) came into the limelight again just over a year ago when it was sold at auction at Sotheby’s. In the 1860s Rossetti moved away from medievalist watercolours to paint his opulent half-length portraits of luxuriant women — here a laundress named Ellen Smith, ‘discovered’ by Rossetti in 1863. Still, like the earlier painting the coupling of music and femininity is a prominent theme; then a clavichord, now a gilded stringed instrument and her voice singing, according to Rossetti’s studio assistant Henry Treffry Dunn, ‘Hodie Jesu Christus natus est Hallelujah‘ (‘Today is Jesus Christ born, Hallelujah,’ presumably derived from a 17th-century Christmas song by Jan Sweelinck). It can thus be compared to other Rossettis of women playing stringed instruments, such as The Blue Bower (1865), La Ghirlandata (1873) and Veronica Veronese (1872). It is worth to also noting the frame of the painting (detail below; Rossetti usually designed his frames himself), inscribed with a quotation from an early English Christmas carol which Rossetti had translated and compiled for a small booklet, Ancient Christmas Carols (c. 1850). The emphasis in this inscription and in the woman’s song on the birth of Christ is echoed in the gold pendant hanging beside the woman’s head, adorned with an image of Virgin and Child. Once again, like the earlier picture, holly is used to signify Christmastime, and the painting is an exercise in balancing rich warm colours and layers of pattern with musical elements.

Detail of the frame of 'A Christmas Carol'
Detail of the frame of ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1867). ‘Here a maid, well apparelled, shall sing a song of Christ’s birth with the tune of Bululalow: / Jesus Christus hodie Natus est de Virgine. / (Winchester Mysteries.)’

Completing this trio of Rossetti paintings is The Blue Closet (below), which could easily be viewed as a pendant piece to the first Christmas Carol picture. Something about The Blue Closet particularly resonates with me — its symmetrical pairs of figures, its aural elements of bells and song, its lack of identifiable subject matter, and its harmonious balance of purples, greens, blues, whites and golds (like an arrangement of music), all combine for an enigmatic, even claustrophobic effect. Rossetti himself simply and elusively described the picture as ‘some people playing music.’ Then there’s William Morris’s beautiful and equally dreamy poem, inspired by the watercolour, which does overlay a loose narrative on the painting and its pictorial details — though Morris, like Rossetti, was often more interested in conveying a particular mood and series of emotions, and his poem is a separate work of art in its own right. (See a reduced version below.) But the Christmas setting is apparent in the holly adorning the strange, hybrid musical instrument. Some similarities between this picture and the 1857 A Christmas Carol are the recurring background of blue tiles painted in both instances with curious symbols, and the sidelong poses of the right-hand attendant in A Christmas Carol and the gold-crowned queen plucking the strings in The Blue Closet — perhaps an indication that Rossetti reused his sketches and models in A Christmas Carol.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Blue Closet', 1856-57
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Blue Closet’, 1856-57. Watercolour on paper. Tate.

From William Morris’s ‘The Blue Closet’ (1857):

Lady Alice, Lady Louise,
Between the wash of the tumbling seas
We are ready to sing, if so ye please;
So lay your long hands on the keys;
Sing, ‘Laudate pueri.

[…]

Alice the Queen, and Louise the Queen,
Two damozels wearing purple and green,
Four lone ladies dwelling here
From day to day and year to year;
And there is none to let us go;
To break the locks of the door below,
Or shovel away the heaped-up snow;
And when we die no man will know
That we are dead; but they give us leave,
Once every year on Christmas-eve,
To sing in the Closet Blue one song.

[…]

Through the floor shot up a lily red,
With a patch of earth from the land of the dead;
For he was strong in the land of the dead.

I realise there are other Rossetti works which could be included — The Seed of David, an altarpiece commissioned for Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff, which depicts a nativity scene (below) — but this post is long enough as it is! If anything, I hope I’ve illustrated that there’s much more to be said about these works by DGR which, though very beautiful, have more interpretations and insights to yield. In the meantime, I hope my readers have a very happy Christmas and a great start to the New Year. Christmas Pre-Raphaelite!

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Seed of David', 1856. Watercolour design for the Llandaff Cathedral altarpiece.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Seed of David’, 1856. Watercolour design for the Llandaff Cathedral altarpiece.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Seed of David', 1858-64. Oil on panel. Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Seed of David’, 1858-64. Oil on panel. Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff.

*

Further information

  • The full text of William Morris’s ‘The Blue Closet’ on The Victorian Web.
  • The full text of Swinburne’s poem ‘A Christmas Carol’, inspired by the Rossetti watercolour.
  • ‘Hodie Christus Natus Est’, the song apparently sung by the lady in the oil painting A Christmas Carol, as performed by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge.
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