Pre-Raphaelites at the Ashmolean: ‘Great British Drawings’

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Prosperpine' (detail), 1871. Pastel on paper, 97 x 46 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Twitter.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Prosperpine’ (detail), 1871. Pastel on paper, 97 x 46 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Twitter.

The Ashmolean Museum at Oxford holds one of the best collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in the country. Gems by John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Hughes, Ford Madox Brown and Frederick Sandys, among others, occupy the walls of the upstairs gallery (see rather poor-quality iPhone photo below), as well as sculptures by Alexander Munro and the impressive Prioress’s Tale Wardrobe painted by Burne-Jones. A frequent haunt of my undergraduate years at Oxford Brookes, this week I returned to the museum to see drawings and watercolours by Rossetti in the Western Art Print Room (strangely enough, though I didn’t realise it at the time, on the artist’s birthday) and also the brilliant current exhibition Great British Drawings.

The Pre-Raphaelite galleries at the Ashmolean Museum. From left to right: Millais, 'The Return of the Dove to the Ark'; Hunt, 'A Converted British Family sheltering a Missionary'; Charles Allston Collins, 'Convent Thoughts'.
The Pre-Raphaelite galleries at the Ashmolean Museum. From left to right: Millais, ‘The Return of the Dove to the Ark’; Hunt, ‘A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids’; Charles Allston Collins, ‘Convent Thoughts’.

The exhibition showcases some of the Ashmolean’s finest drawings and watercolours by British artists from the seventeenth century to the present day. It’s divided into five sections: Likeness, Sensibility & Vision: 1650-1830Travel & TopographyRuskin & the Pre-RaphaelitesDiversity & ConflictCaricature and Satire. For the purposes of this blog I will highlight a few of the works in the third section which appealed to me most.

Arthur Hughes, 'The Knight of the Sun', 1860-61. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper, 22.3 x 31.6 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
Arthur Hughes, ‘The Knight of the Sun’, 1860-61. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper, 22.3 x 31.6 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.

Arthur Hughes painted The Knight of the Sun as a watercolour replica of an oil painting of the same name, which had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860. According to Frederic George Stephens the picture ‘illustrates a legend, an incident of which declared how an old knight, whose badge was a sun, and who had led a Christian life throughout his career, was borne out of his castle to see, for the last time, the setting of the luminary he loved.’ To some degree, then, the picture is underpinned with a narrative, albeit an obscure one (the exact source of this legend is never described); but the concern here is much more with mood and atmosphere, with the gentle melancholy of sunset symbolising the passing of life. As with Millais’s Autumn Leaves (1855-56), Hughes heightens this sense of transience through an autumnal setting, as indicated by the spindly branches against the twilit sky in the top-right corner — these counterbalanced with the deep forest of evergreens from which the solemn medieval procession emerges. On a more technical note, his opaque, rich handling of his watercolours reflects the influence of Rossetti’s own paintings in that medium — more on that shortly.

John Everett Millais, 'The Death of the Old Year', illustration for 'The Moxon Tennyson', 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.7 x 8.4 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
John Everett Millais, ‘The Death of the Old Year’, illustration for ‘The Moxon Tennyson’, 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.7 x 8.4 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
John Everett Millais, 'Mariana', illustration for 'The Moxon Tennyson', 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.6 x 7.9 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
John Everett Millais, ‘Mariana’, illustration for ‘The Moxon Tennyson’, 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.6 x 7.9 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
John Everett Millais, 'St Agnes Eve', illustration for 'The Moxon Tennyson', 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.7 x 7.2 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
John Everett Millais, ‘St Agnes Eve’, illustration for ‘The Moxon Tennyson’, 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.7 x 7.2 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.

Above are three of the five original pen and ink illustrations Millais produced for the 1857 edition of Tennyson’s Poems, published by Edward Moxon — hence the frequently-used title of The Moxon Tennyson. It proved to be one of the most influential illustrated books of the Victorian period, with other drawings by Rossetti (for ‘The Lady of Shalott’, ‘The Palace of Art’, ‘Sir Galahad’) and Hunt (for ‘The Lady of Shalott’, ‘Godiva’, ‘Oriana’), among other radical artists. For their very small size Millais’s illustrations are highly finished and detailed. He had already depicted Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’ in his gorgeous oil painting of 1851 (now in the Tate), but the drawing has a far more despondent, derelict tone — gone are the vivid colours and upright woman — in keeping with Mariana’s woeful speech repeated throughout the poem:

She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, weary,
I would that I were dead!’

My favourite detail in the ‘St Agnes Eve’ drawing is the little breath of mist from the mouth of the poem’s narrator — exactly what could be expected from standing in a cold convent staircase in the middle of winter and wearing only a nightgown!

Deep on the convent-roof the snows
Are sparkling to the moon:
My breath to heaven like vapour goes;
May my soul follow soon!

‘The Death of the Old Year’, as the title suggests, is a meditation on life’s eternal cycle:

Full knee-deep lies the winter snow,
And the winter winds are wearily sighing:
Toll ye the church-bell sad and slow,
And tread softly and speak slow,
For the old year lies a-dying.

There is a sense of optimism in the poem; in the final stanza a ‘new foot’ is heard and a ‘new face’ seen at the door, that of the New Year. Millais’s drawing has the wintery landscape with snow piled at the belfry window, and an air of quiet stillness before the bell rings out in animated life — at which point the owl will presumably take wing and flee. As a side note, I liked the curatorial decision to frame the five drawings together under one mount.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Elizabeth Siddal', 1855. Pen and brown and black ink on paper, with some scratching out, 13 x 11.2 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Facebook.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Elizabeth Siddal’, 1855. Pen and brown and black ink on paper, with some scratching out, 13 x 11.2 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Facebook.

Of the many drawings Rossetti made of Elizabeth Siddall this is undoubtedly my favourite, and it was a treat to finally see it in person; its small size, smaller even than a postcard, surprised me. To scrutinise it under the lens of the Rossetti-Siddall romantic biography is almost to distract from its power as a solo, full-face, head-and-shoulders portrait of a woman — though undoubtedly Rossetti’s affection for her is manifested in the drawing’s sense of intimacy and its tender delineation of Siddall’s downcast eyes and pursed lips. The exhibition catalogue makes the interesting observation, easy to forget, that the portrait was probably drawn by gaslight, and also that Rossetti scratched away some of the ink to achieve the effects of light and shadow.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Ruth Herbert', 1858. Graphite on paper framed as an oval, 50.8 x 43 cm (frame). Source: artfund.org.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Ruth Herbert’, 1858. Graphite on paper framed as an oval, 50.8 x 43 cm (frame). Source: artfund.org.

This beautiful drawing of the Victorian actress Louisa Ruth Herbert was acquired by the Ashmolean last year, along with a few other Rossettis (I was fortunate enough to be shown another portrait of Herbert, in watercolour, in the Print Room). Rossetti first saw Herbert at the Olympic Theatre in London in February 1856, only a few months after her official stage debut — as with Siddall, Jane Morris and Fanny Cornforth he sketched Herbert in numerous poses and varying degrees of decorum. The above has all the qualities of a Rossetti ‘stunner’, with abundant wavy hair, a long-throated neck, full lips and heavy-lidded eyes, lending it a definite air of sensuality despite the neat collar of her dress beneath. The drawing itself is finely detailed (note the stray strands of hair) with an overall softness.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Dante drawing an Angel on the First Anniversary of Beatrice's Death', 1853. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper, 42 x 61 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Facebook.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Dante drawing an Angel on the First Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death’, 1853. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper, 42 x 61 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Facebook.

I have Rossetti’s watercolours on the brain at the moment, so it was a joy to examine one of his largest and most sumptuously coloured pictures at my leisure. The subject is related to Dante Alighieri’s 13th-century autobiographic text La Vita Nuova, one of Rossetti’s favourite pictorial sources which he also translated from the Italian in the 1840s. His brother William Michael posed for the figure of Dante, who, as the title suggests, has been drawing an angel a year after the death of his beloved Beatrice Portinari. What really came home to me in standing before the picture is that it presents the act of the visionary painter: rather than sketching the Florentine cityscape visible through the window, Dante has turned his gaze inwards for a far more unearthly vision, though one perhaps suggested by the curious angel heads lining the cornice of his chamber. Like Rossetti, too, Dante becomes both poet and painter; the latter is evident from the flasks of colour on the windowsill. The exhibition catalogue succinctly describes the artist’s highly inventive watercolour technique: ‘Rossetti painstakingly applied the almost dry pigment, giving a deep saturation of colour quite unlike the effect of traditional watercolour washes, but akin to the appearance of medieval manuscript illumination.’ The traditional layering of broad transparent washes, usually associated with the landscapes of Turner and others, are represented elsewhere in the exhibition, and it is a rare opportunity to compare such equally radical but aesthetically and technically different watercolour techniques.

Great British Drawings is on at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 31 August.

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Rossetti’s Raven

There is some sense of kinship between Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Poe famously asserted that ‘the death […] of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world’, which brings to mind all those Pre-Raphaelite images of doomed Ladies of Shalott and, in real life, the death of Elizabeth Siddal which haunted Rossetti for the rest of his life. There can be no doubt that Rossetti was in some way influenced or affected by Poe’s writing: he actually produced a few illustrations of, and wrote a poetic response to, Poe’s most famous poem, ‘The Raven’. These are among Rossetti’s earliest works as an artist which even predate the founding of the Brotherhood in 1848.

‘The Raven’ was first published in 1845; only a year later, Rossetti drew a frantic pen-and-ink illustration of the poem’s narrator plagued by cavorting spirits and skeletal spectres, his beloved ‘lost Lenore’ looming gigantically behind him (below). J. B. Bullen recognises in this drawing the visual influence of a German draughtsman, Alfred Rethel, whom Rossetti apparently admired. There is also a possible trace of Henry Fuseli’s phantasmagoric paintings in the many strange little sprites leaping at the narrator’s feet, and in the sinuous quality of the lady Lenore.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Angel Footfalls', illustration of 'The Raven' by Edgar Allan Poe, 1846
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Angel Footfalls’, illustration of ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe, 1846
Henry Fuseli, 'Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen', c. 1788
Henry Fuseli, ‘Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen’, c. 1788

Over the next two years three more drawings followed, less tumultuous and nightmarish in tone and in an angular style which is more recognisably Rossetti’s.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Angel Footfalls', illustration of 'The Raven' by Edgar Allan Poe, 1846
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Angel Footfalls’, illustration of ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe, 1846
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Angel Footfalls', illustration of 'The Raven' by Edgar Allan Poe, 1847
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Angel Footfalls’, illustration of ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe, 1847
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Angel Footfalls', illustration of 'The Raven' by Edgar Allan Poe, 1848
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Angel Footfalls’, illustration of ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe, 1848

Despite the differences in style, however, the four drawings depict the same supernatural moment in the poem (the Rossetti Archive titles all of them ‘Angel Footfalls’), feature the same long-haired male figure, and share the same general composition of figures grouped around a table and a single lamp providing the only light source, with the Raven perched on the bust of Pallas Athena over the door in the top left-hand corner. Rossetti creates the illusion of a procession of angels materialising forward out of the air by retreating from detailed faces and hair in the foreground to faint, wispy outlines in the background. Interesting contrasts between the drawings emerge upon closer inspection: in the two earlier drawings the male narrator is fraught with anxiety, grasping his head in his hands in a gesture of mad, psychological fear; in the two later images he is far more composed, oddly accepting of his supernatural guests and, in the 1847 drawing, even willing to confront the apparition of Lenore face-to-face. Rossetti also appears to have been experimenting with different manners of portraying supernatural figures, moving from the grotesque, frenetic, Fuseli-esque phantoms of the first drawings, to the slender, angular medieval forms of the angels in the next two drawings, to the oddly childlike, frail phantoms of the 1848 drawing. This is a decidedly Gothic, supernatural brand of Pre-Raphaelitism which is rather at odds with the PRB’s creed of ‘truth to nature’, but it was a genre to which Rossetti returned in his images of doppelgängers.

These drawings by Rossetti predate the far more famous illustrations of Poe’s poem by John Tenniel and Gustave Doré. Doré’s engravings, published in 1884, are similar in some respects to Rossetti’s sketches, particularly when portraying the narrator surrounded by angels and spirits (see below). However, Doré’s images are far more refined and not as angular and archaic as Rossetti’s. It is highly unlikely, probably impossible, that Doré ever saw Rossetti’s drawings (which were never published), but it is worth comparing how these nineteenth-century artists from different countries visually interpreted Poe’s ‘The Raven’, clearly sharing an interest in portraying angels and phantoms. That Rossetti never refined or published his sketches indicates that he created them for his own private world of fantasy, already romanticising the ideals of love, death and the heavenly woman which he also found in the poetry of Dante Alighieri.

Gustave Doré, Illustration of 'The Raven' by Edgar Allan Poe, published 1884
Gustave Doré, Illustration of ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe, published 1884

Rossetti’s poetic response to Poe, which also led to a painting, was well-known in his lifetime. ‘The Blessed Damozel’, which the Rossetti Archive calls Rossetti’s ‘single most important literary work’, was first written in 1846-47 and went through several extensive revisions from 1850-1881. Rossetti continued to return to the poem and its subject matter throughout his artistic career, and eventually began work on a large oil painting as a visual commentary and elaboration upon it from 1871-78 (see below). The poem and painting are so central to Rossetti’s oeuvre that they deserve a separate post all to themselves, but it’s worth noting here the inspiration of ‘The Raven’ on the budding, pre-Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter. In Poe’s poem the narrator madly mourns his dead lover, the ‘rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore’; by contrast, Rossetti’s ‘The Blessed Damozel’ shifts the focus up to heaven, where the angelic maiden ‘lean[s] out / From the gold bar of Heaven’ and looks down to her lover on earth from Paradise. This time it is the woman who fantasises, in a state of patient, expectant sorrow, of the day she will ‘lie i’ the shadow of / That living mystic tree’ in heaven with her lover — she awaits his death, ‘when round his head the aureole [will] cling’ (an interesting use of the word ‘cling’, suggesting a steadfast bond, clinging like her memories), and the day they will be reunited. Much more can be said of the associations and contrasts between Poe and Rossetti, but I have at least shown that one of Rossetti’s most famous poems and paintings can be traced back to a work by an American Gothic writer.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Blessed Damozel', 1875-78
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Blessed Damozel’, 1871-78. Rossetti painted a reduced replica from 1875-78.

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