‘A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep’

Simeon Solomon, Self-portrait, 1 June 1859. Graphite on paper. Tate. At the time of this drawing, Solomon was 18.

This post will be more personal than academic. I can’t remember exactly how or when I discovered Simeon Solomon (1840–1905), but it was certainly during my first year of university, when I was realising my homosexuality. Here was an artist in the Pre-Raphaelite circle (he was not an original member of the PRB, but a later associate), who, even after being prosecuted for ‘homosexual offences’ in 1873, produced paintings and drawings that daringly visualised same-sex desire in an era when private sexual activity between consenting males was punishable by law. Being Jewish, he also produced scenes of Jewish religious ceremonies and illustrations of the Hebrew Bible. He can even be credited with writing an important early gay text, the prose poem A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, which was privately published in 1871 – two years before his arrest in a public lavatory for attempting to commit sodomy with an unemployed stableman. I would direct readers to the brilliant Simeon Solomon Research Archive for a comprehensive account of his life and work. Yesterday evening I went to Tate Britain to watch a performance of Neil Bartlett’s Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, based on Solomon’s book.

Frontispiece and title-page of A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep by Simeon Solomon, 1871. The illustration is captioned ‘Until the day break and the shadows flee away’, a quotation from the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs), 2:17.
Simeon Solomon, Dante’s First Meeting with Beatrice, 1859–63. Ink, watercolour and gouache on paper. Tate. This drawing is a fine example of Solomon’s early style, influenced by D. G. Rossetti.

I quote from the information leaflet that was handed out before the performance: ‘A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, Neil Bartlett’s one-man homage to the life and work of Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon, was originally created and performed at the height of the first wave of the British AIDs epidemic in 1987. To celebrate the inclusion of Simeon Solomon in the Queer British Art: 1861–1967 exhibition, Bartlett has revived the piece for one night only in a collaboration between Tate Britain and the Live Art Development Agency. This solo version of A Vision of Love was originally commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre, and was first performed there as a one-man show in 1987. It moved to a derelict warehouse at Butler’s Wharf, London, where it was presented by the ICA, and then went on a British and European tour in 1988. In 1989–90 the show was expanded to include four further performers and played at The Drill Hall, London.’

Neil Bartlett in A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, 1988.

After the performance, Bartlett addressed the changed tolerance towards homosexuality in Britain since 1987, and how this might affect the play’s relevance – although, crucially, his monologue was for the most part unaltered, and resonated, I felt, just as strongly. Essentially, Bartlett’s Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep interwove direct readings from Solomon’s ‘proem’ with the playwright’s own reflections on being gay in the late 1980s, shifting seamlessly between the two. Sometimes it was difficult to know when Bartlett was quoting from the text or speaking his own words. The performance lasted about 70 minutes, but it didn’t feel as long as that. It took place in Tate Britain’s high-ceilinged ‘1840’ gallery. Bartlett occupied a small platform at one end of the space, lit only by two lights from below; behind him, in the shadows, loomed Waterhouse’s Saint Eulalia and Burne-Jones’s King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid – tall, mythological canvases by two lions of the Victorian art world. Another spotlight illuminated Solomon’s A Youth Relating Tales to Ladies, hanging to the left of the gallery. While we were finding our seats, Bartlett stood silent, motionless, and shirtless (in 1987 he performed in the nude). He held aloft a large glowing lightbulb in his right hand, and a rectangular object draped with a long red cloth in his left hand. The cloth obscured his feet, so he looked to be levitating. His gaze was lowered like a priest in prayer, an attitude borrowed from Solomon’s paintings of beautiful men absorbed in religious rituals. When we were settled, he raised his head and spoke.

Simeon Solomon, Dawn (Head of Hypnos), after 1870 (1901?). Coloured chalks on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Simeon Solomon, The Mystery of Faith, 1870. Watercolour on paper. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Aware of the play’s original contexts, I entered the performance with a question that troubled me: how could I, being born in 1993, ever know or understand the trials and fears of so many homosexuals in Britain in the previous decade? The AIDs epidemic was never a reality for me; I hear about it only through retrospective accounts. It’s as removed from my own experience as the Second World War or the Thatcher years. As if to reflect this, I was among the youngest members of the audience – the majority, I would say, were middle-aged and older, and several had probably watched the play when it was first performed 30 years ago. I was conscious of my youth. To watch the piece alongside men who had might have lived the sorts of experiences Bartlett was addressing, was a reminder of how fortunate I have been to come out in a generally tolerant, post-millennium society. (I had a similar feeling when watching the film Pride in 2014, based on true events from 1984.)

Simeon Solomon, The Annunciation, 1877. Oil on fabric on board. Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth.

Then again, Bartlett’s play – or the particular, ever-so-slightly-modernised manifestation of it that was ‘revealed’ to us that night – is a reminder that there is no single way to be gay, and that what it means to be gay changes over the decades; performing it 30 years later, on 7 July 2017, the present moment became layered over the reality of the 1980s, which was in turn layered over the nineteenth century. Bartlett’s (and Solomon’s) words have therefore been enriched by the shifts in social, political and cultural attitudes since they were first written and spoken. At several points in the performance, Bartlett addressed us directly with the phrase ‘History, eh?’ – an addition, he said afterwards, which came to him only when he was rehearsing the piece in 2017, and looking back on 1987 from a different century. He meant not only the Victorian history of Simeon Solomon, but also the place in history that the 1980s now occupies.

Simeon Solomon, Creation, undated (c.1890). Watercolour on paper. V&A.

I was deeply moved on a personal level by Bartlett’s performance. I attended it alone, and much of the monologue addressed the feelings of isolation and loneliness specific to gay men. At one poignant moment, the quotation from the biblical Song of Songs that provided the touchstone for Solomon’s book, ‘Until the day break, and the shadows flee away’, was cried out by Bartlett as a mantra not just for gay suffering and endurance during the AIDs crisis, but also for the ill-treatment of LGBT individuals then and now. Solomon’s art, as well as the original Vision of Love (found in an anthology of gay writing in my university library), had been instrumental to my coming-out process. I’d been too young for the major Solomon retrospective at Birmingham in 2006 (Visions of Love: Simeon Solomon and the Pre-Raphaelites), but I bought the catalogue secondhand and pored over it. Incidentally, the 2006 exhibition represented the culmination of a renewed interest in Solomon’s oeuvre in scholarship on Pre-Raphaelitism and Victorian art more generally, having been neglected for much of the twentieth century.

Installation view of the first room of Queer British Art: 1861–1967 at Tate Britain, featuring a wall of Solomon paintings, drawings and watercolours against Frederic Leighton’s The Sluggard sculpture. Photo: The Times.

Solomon’s inclusion in Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition this year solidifies his importance as a homosexual who defied convention and punishment by openly expressing his desires in his work. It lost him many friends in his lifetime, but it gained him many more in the present. At the end of A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, as the audience applauded and the lights came up, Neil Bartlett raised a small portrait of Solomon over his head (the red cloth had covered it), so that in that moment we were cheering the latter as much as the former. I sensed the long-dead artist’s presence in the electrified air of the gallery, hovering like one of his own winged beings of Love.

Simeon Solomon, The Bride, the Bridegroom, and the Friend of the Bridegroom, 1868. Pencil and conte on paper. Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin.
Simeon Solomon, photographed by Frederick Hollyer, 1896 (aged 56), from the series Portraits of Many Persons of Note. V&A.

‘But long the dawning of his public day’: the case of Frederic George Stephens

F.G. Stephens 1847 by William Holman Hunt 1827-1910
William Holman Hunt, F. G. Stephens, 1847. Oil on panel, 20.3 x 17.5 cm. Tate.

For my PhD I will be focusing on the Pre-Raphaelite artist, critic and art historian Frederic George Stephens (1827–1907). One of the seven founding members of the PRB, Stephens’s life and work has been consistently overlooked in surveys of Pre-Raphaelitism, with the result that most people either haven’t heard of him or know very little about him. This is despite the fact that he played a vital role in communicating the Pre-Raphaelites’ ideals to the reading public. Stephens has never been the subject of a full-length study, and the only articles about him were written by Dianne Sachko Macleod for The Burlington Magazine in 1986: ‘F. G. Stephens, Pre-Raphaelite Critic and Art Historian’, and ‘Mid-Victorian Patronage of the Arts: F. G. Stephens’s The Private Collections of England‘. Although these articles shed some much-needed light on Stephens’s critical writing, they dismiss his ‘awkward attempts at painting’ and call his The Proposal (1850–1) ‘rigid and uninspired’. Stephens did struggle with the techniques of painting more than his fellow Pre-Raphaelites, but to gloss over his pictures entirely on the simple grounds of being  ‘awkward’ seems to me reductive. Similar opinions were long held about Elizabeth Siddall’s ‘naive’ art, but recently her work has been justifiably reappraised. The time is ripe for Stephens’s paintings and drawings to receive the same treatment; art history has progressed beyond the simplistic notion that ‘bad’ art (deemed bad by previous historians) is unworthy of any kind of analysis.

Mother and Child c.1854 by Frederic George Stephens 1828-1907
Frederic George Stephens, Mother and Child, c. 1854. Oil on canvas (unfinished), 47 x 64.1 cm. Tate; bequeathed by Holman Fred Stephens, 1932.
The Proposal (The Marquis and Griselda) c.1850 by Frederic George Stephens 1828-1907
F. G. Stephens, The Proposal (The Marquis and Griselda), 1850–1. Oil on canvas, 80.6 x 64.8 cm. Tate; bequeathed by Holman Fred Stephens, 1932. This is one of at least three subjects from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that Stephens depicted.

Stephens trained at the Royal Academy schools alongside Millais and Hunt, worked as Hunt’s studio assistant on replicas of The Light of the World (now at Manchester City Art Gallery) and The Hireling Shepherd (The Makins Collection), and helped Dante Gabriel Rossetti with the unorthodox perspective of Ecce Ancilla Domini in 1849. His three surviving paintings are now in the Tate: the unfinished Morte d’Arthur (King Arthur and Sir Bedivere) (begun 1849), The Proposal (The Marquis and Griselda) and Mother and Child (c. 1854). Three works on paper also survive: a delicate sketch of the artist’s mother (Tate); a large and distinctive pen and ink drawing of a Chaucer subject, Dethe and the Riotours, gifted to Rossetti in 1852 (Ashmolean); and a watercolour portrait of Stephens’s wife Clara from the 1860s (Dennis T. Lanigan collection). Two further paintings, portraits of Stephens’s father and mother which were his only exhibited works at the RA in 1852 and 1854, are said to also be in the Tate collection, but there is no record of them on the museum website and they may need unearthing. This makes for a modest oeuvre of 8 works – Stephens claimed to have destroyed everything else. Besides working behind the easel he also modelled for a number of important Pre-Raphaelite paintings, with his features appearing in Millais’s Isabella (1848–9) and Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1849–50), and Ford Madox Brown’s controversial Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852–6).

John Everett Millais, Ferdinand Lured by Ariel, 1849-50. Oil on canvas, 65 x 51 cm. Stephens gave an illuminating account of sitting for this painting in J. G. Millais’s The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais (1899).
John Everett Millais, Study for the Head of Ferdinand in ‘Ferdinand Lured by Ariel’, 1849. Graphite on paper, 17.5 x 13 cm. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund.

For obvious reasons I will keep my initial research findings under wraps. For now, in this post I’d like to just consider why Stephens has been so overlooked over the years. There are several possible reasons for this. Compared with the other Pre-Raphaelites, Stephens’s life was relatively uneventful. Millais, Hunt, Rossetti: artists remembered as much for their ‘colourful’ romantic entanglements as for their art. Millais’s involvement with Effie Gray; Hunt’s love for Annie Miller and the later scandal of marrying his sister-in-law after his wife’s death; Rossetti’s courtship of Elizabeth Siddall and his passion for Jane Morris. There’s no denying that the turbulent lives and loves of these artists have captured audiences’ imaginations as equally as the artworks themselves, forming the basis for numerous films, books, biographies and TV series. But what about Stephens? He married Rebecca Clara Dalton in 1866 and they enjoyed a stable, monogamous relationship that lasted until Stephens’s death in 1907. In 1868 they had a son, Holman Fred. When Stephens became the art editor of The Athenaeum in 1861 (he had abandoned making art by this time), he settled down to writing weekly articles, freelancing and publishing books on architectural history and monographs of British artists – no scandalous affairs, no adventurous travels to the Middle East, no outbursts of bohemian behaviour. In many respects he was quite conventional – something of a taboo word in Pre-Raphaelite studies that contradicts how we feel the Pre-Raphaelites behaved.

Study of F.G. Stephens for 'Jesus Washing Peter's Feet'. Verso: A Head Crowned with Laurels 1852 by Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893
Ford Madox Brown, Study of F. G. Stephens for ‘Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet’, 1852. Graphite on paper, 29.2 x 34.3 cm. Tate.

Stephens appears to have shied away from the limelight more than the other Pre-Raphaelites. Although he wrote a prodigious amount, many of his articles for periodicals (The AthenaeumThe CrayonThe Portfolio) were published anonymously or under a pseudonym, making them difficult to find. This habit began with his important early essays for the short-lived PRB magazine The Germ in 1850: ‘The Purpose and Tendency of Early Italian Art’ appeared under the name John Seward in the second issue, while for ‘Modern Giants’ in the fourth issue he unusually adopted a female pen-name, Laura Savage. William Michael Rossetti, the other prolific critic in the Brotherhood, published a bevy of titles under his own name towards the end of the 19th century, including The P.R.B. Journal, a memoir and a selection of family letters, confirming himself as the PRB’s official chronicler and bibliographer. By contrast, very little of Stephens’s writing is autobiographical; there isn’t much of himself in his work, so to speak. Christina Rossetti picked up on this preference for anonymity in her sonnet, ‘The P.R.B.’, composed in 1853:

Calm Stephens in the twilight smokes his pipe,
But long the dawning of his public day.

Rossetti aptly describes Stephens’s already quite marginal position within the Brotherhood, smoking his pipe contemplatively and offering his critiques from the shadows. It’s an image which is as accurate now as it was then: ‘his public day’ is yet to dawn; his important contributions to Pre-Raphaelitism are still to be recognised.

The Artist's Mother c.1850 by Frederic George Stephens 1828-1907
Frederic George Stephens, The Artist’s Mother, c. 1850. Graphite on paper, 19.4 x 17.5 cm. Tate. Possibly a study for Stephens’s painted portrait of his mother, exhibited at the RA in 1854.

There are other reasons for Stephens’s obscurity, such as his disagreements with Hunt over the idealism of The Triumph of the Innocents (1876–85) that led to the dissolving of their long friendship and a certain blackening of Stephens’s name on Hunt’s part. Consider also the fact that Stephens’s artworks are not frequently reproduced or exhibited, and then only in passing. Stephens’s conservative opinions – his aversion to French Impressionism, for example – also present him as out of touch with the modernity of British art at the dawn of the 20th century (which perhaps he was). But the wealth of writing by him that survives, and the small but intriguing oeuvre of artworks that escaped destruction, should not be ignored.

Pre-Raphaelites in Cornwall

Like my previous post about Pre-Raphaelite livestock, I must begin this with a personal note. In 2001, when I was 8 years old, my family moved from Shropshire down to Cornwall, where I spent the next 10 years. We lived for that time in and around a village called Feock, a few miles outside Truro and near the so-called Carrick Roads (not a road at all, but actually an estuary of the River Fal). Although I no longer live in Cornwall, I remain fond of the beautiful county where I spent my formative years. So I was fascinated to discover that William Holman Hunt visited it and produced a number of exquisite watercolours and sketches of the Cornish coastline. Here I should note that much of the information in this post has been gleaned from two sources: Judith Bronkhurst’s exhaustive and indispensable catalogue raisonne of Hunt’s paintings, drawings and watercolours; and Hunt’s two-volume memoir first published in 1905, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (previously discussed here; available online on the Internet Archive, Volume 1 and Volume 2).

Map of Cornwall, published in Thomas Moule's English Counties (1837)
Map of Cornwall, published in Thomas Moule’s English Counties (1837).

Anyone who has visited Cornwall will have some idea of its geographical remoteness – a characteristic which is both the region’s blessing and its curse. Its miles of rugged cliffs and unspoilt beaches, as well as the exceptional quality of its light and the unusual, even Mediterranean ‘blueness’ of the ocean in the summer months, have appealed to many British artists for more than 200 years. Turner, John William Inchbold, John Brett and Henry Scott Tuke all travelled to the south west in the 19th century (Tuke’s family had moved to Falmouth in 1859). The late nineteenth century saw the flourishing of the so-called ‘Newlyn School’, a colony of realist painters based in the village of Newlyn near Penzance. Virginia Woolf summered in Cornwall as a child in the 1880s and ’90s, and her first truly experimental novel, Jacob’s Room (1922), opens with impressionistic descriptions of the Cornish seaside; not to mention To the Lighthouse (1927), informed by childhood memories of St Ives. In the 20th century, most famously, the county attracted and inspired a large circle of modernist painters, sculptors and writers – among them Barbara Hepworth, Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Patrick Heron, Sven Berlin and Christopher Wood – who decamped from London to settle in St Ives. The Tate opened an outpost museum there in 1993, and also maintain the Barbara Hepworth Museum in St Ives, as a result of the town’s prominent role in the development of modern British art.

Stanhope Forbes, The Pier Head, 1910. Oil on canvas. Geelong Gallery Collection. An example of the Newlyn School style.

In September 1860 Holman Hunt and Valentine Cameron Prinsep travelled from London down to Penzance. They took the boat over to the Scilly Isles to join Alfred Lord Tennyson, Francis Turner Palgrave and Thomas Woolner, who were beginning a walking tour of Cornwall. I speak from personal experience when I say that this is no small journey to make, even today; the trip from London down to the south-westernmost tip of the country must have felt like quite the artistic pilgrimage in 1860. Presumably Hunt and Prinsep travelled by train – the Penzance station opened in 1852, allowing easier access to one of the most remote spots in Britain. ‘After a day spent in visiting the gardens of the Scilly Isles,’ Hunt writes, ‘we returned to Penzance. During the intercourse of this journey we were much engaged in discussions on the character of English poetry of all periods.’ (Woolner had left them by this point.) We are told that F. T. Palgrave was working at that time on compiling his famous Golden Treasury, which would be published the following year. Palgrave was understandably giddy with excitement at spending so much time in the company of the Poet Laureate; The Golden Treasury is actually dedicated to Tennyson, whose ‘encouragement, given while traversing the the wild scenery of Treryn Dinas [in Cornwall], led me to begin the work’.

Valentine Cameron Prinsep, photographed by David Wilkie Wynfield, 1863. National Portrait Gallery.
Valentine Cameron Prinsep, photographed by David Wilkie Wynfield, 1863. National Portrait Gallery.
Francis Turner Palgrave, by Samuel Lawrence, 1872. National Portrait Gallery.
Francis Turner Palgrave, by Samuel Lawrence, 1872. National Portrait Gallery.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, by James Mudd, 1861. National Portrait Gallery.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, photographed by James Mudd, 1861. National Portrait Gallery.

Hunt supplies evocative descriptions of the group as they roamed the Cornish coast: ‘Tennyson in his slouch hat, his rusty black suit, and his clinging coat, wandering away among the rocks, assiduously attended by [Palgrave], and if by chance the poet escaped his eyes for a minute, the voice of Palgrave was heard above the sea and the wind calling “Tennyson, Tennyson”.’ Hunt recounts a conversation regarding Tennyson’s paranoia about his celebrity status – the poet feared that mobs of admirers lurked to accost him at every turn, and asked his companions not to say his name out loud in hotels and other public places – and tells of how the party journeyed to Helston, with Tennyson travelling in a dog-cart because of an injured foot. They also spent three days at Falmouth, where they chanced to meet Julia and Hester Sterling, the nieces of the Reverend F. D. Maurice, the Christian Socialist minister who was depicted in Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1852-63). Most of the time, however, Hunt and Prinsep sat on the cliffs and sketched and painted. Asparagus Island, located in Kynance Cove on the Lizard Peninsula, was the subject of a gloriously detailed and luminous watercolour by Hunt (below).

William Holman Hunt, Asparagus Island, Cornwall, 1860. Watercolour, 20 x 26 cm. Private collection.
William Holman Hunt, Asparagus Island, 1860. Watercolour, 20 x 26 cm. Private collection. Note: I believe this reproduction is slightly more vivid than the original.

Hunt has applied watercolour in a dense, meticulous fashion that disguises the liquidity and spontaneity traditionally associated with that medium. (Compare it with Inchbold’s atmospheric watercolour study of the cliffs at Tintagel in Cornwall executed at around the same time, below.) His depiction of the landscape – or seascape, perhaps – is intensely textural, in that he contrasts the hard ruggedness of the cliffs with the foaming, swirling waves that have gradually and relentlessly hewn the rocks into their present forms over thousands of years. In his memoir the artist expressed a preference for ‘the purple marble rock polished and made lustrous by the sea washing it in calm and storm.’ With this in mind, Asparagus Island appears a kind of semi-precious stone set into a water surround. It also reflects the Victorian interest in geology, previously explored by Hunt in Our English Coasts, 1852, another cliffside scene. The consistent level of detail throughout the watercolour does not prioritise one element over another, and the sea, in a constant state of flux, is depicted with the same minuteness as the island of bastite serpentine rock that squats unmoving at the centre of the composition. Colours are carefully balanced, so that the turquoise gradations of the ocean are softer notes echoing the stronger blues and greens of Asparagus Island. These are beautifully offset by a space of yellow sand to the right, visible at low tide. There are no visible human figures; instead, we as viewers are placed into the picture to become the observers observing the elements. Hunt has positioned us on a high promontory overlooking the cove, precariously, as if in midair. One can feel the strong Cornish sunlight warming the back of one’s neck; the wind blowing off the English Channel ruffles one’s hair.

Kynance Cove with Gull Rock and Asparagus as it appears today. Image: Wikipedia.
Kynance Cove with Gull Rock and Asparagus as it appears today, at a similar state of low tide as in Hunt’s watercolour. Image: Wikipedia.
John William Inchbold, Tintagel, 1861. Graphite and watercolour on paper, 17.6 x 25.3 cm. Tate.
John William Inchbold, Tintagel, 1861. Graphite and watercolour on paper, 17.6 x 25.3 cm. Tate.

It is a testament to Hunt’s powers of concentration that he painted the majority of his painstakingly detailed Asparagus Island in situ, perched on the clifftop – almost leading to the picture being lost forever. He gives an alarming account of how

For two or three days Val [Prinsep] and I remained working on the cliffs. My drawing was on a block, of which the sun had gradually drawn up one corner; this warped surface did not seriously interfere with my progress until one day a sudden gust of wind compelled me to put my hand on brushes in danger of going to perdition, when, turning round on my saddle seat, I saw my nearly completed picture circling about among the gulls in the abyss below. Luckily, a fresh gust of wind bore it aloft, until the paper was caught by a tuft of grass at the brink of the precipice. It proved to be within reach of my umbrella, which fixed it to the spot until with the help of my friend, I was able to rescue the flighty thing for completion. [Hunt, ‘Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’, vol. 2, p. 214-215.]

After its adventure of flying with seagulls and nearly plunging to a watery grave, the picture returned to the artist’s studio and was eventually purchased by Thomas Plint for 60 guineas, two years later, in 1862. This was an impressive sum for a watercolour.

Bronkhurst stresses the importance of the Cornwall tour for the artist: he produced ‘a prolific series [of works] on the trip in a creative burst of energy comparable to that characterising Hunt’s 1854-5 visit to the East.’ This series includes further landscape watercolours of the Lizard and also of Helston (one below, unfortunately in black-and-white).

William Holman Hunt, Helston, Cornwall, 1860. Watercolour, 19.4 x 25.7 cm. Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester.
William Holman Hunt, Helston, Cornwall, 1860. Watercolour, 19.4 x 25.7 cm. Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester.

Two further observational sketches are preserved in an album once in the collection of Charles Stanley Pollitt, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (acquired 2007; accession number WA2007.8). One is an accurate study of the sundial over the south porch of St Pol de Léon’s Church in the village of Paul, near Penzance; the other depicts the ancient Celtic cross in the churchyard at St Buryan, also near Penzance. The latter drawing also bears an interesting inscription, recording a discussion about the cross with the rural-accented sextoness of St Buryan: ‘Is there any history about it? or anything said about why it was put up? “Wull, it’s aboot as oold & ancient as the Church, it’s jist a foin thing for the stranger folk to see, but it wants a dale of pointing”.’

Photograph of cross head with crucifixion in St Buryan churchyard in Cornwall [c 1930s-1980s] by John Piper 1903-1992
Photograph of cross head with crucifixion in St Buryan churchyard in Cornwall, c. 1930s-1980s, by John Piper. Tate.
Although these Ashmolean drawings are undated they were almost certainly executed during the 1860 trip, as Hunt is not thought to have visited Cornwall again until the 1890s, and even that is uncertain. They also indicate the impressive number of sites that Hunt, Prinsep and their travelling companions were able to reach in a relatively short space of time; they ‘got around’. By the end of September they had left Cornwall to explore Devon – at which most Cornish folk will give a sharp intake of breath. They do their scones differently over the Tamar, you see, they spread the cream on first, before the jam, like barbarians.

The case of John Hancock, a neglected Pre-Raphaelite sculptor

Sculpture continues to occupy an uncertain place in Pre-Raphaelite scholarship, and is still much overlooked. The original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood included a sculptor, Thomas Woolner (1825-92), who was also an accomplished poet; he and a close associate of the Brotherhood, Alexander Munro (1825-71), are the two names which generally spring to mind when the subject of Pre-Raphaelite sculpture is discussed. It should not be forgotten, moreover, that one of the PRB’s primary motives was, ‘most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues’ (my emphasis). Notable examples include Woolner’s Puck, a work which actually predates the PRB’s founding, and Munro’s Paolo and Francesca, which exists in several versions in plaster and marble (below). Both sculptors were also known for their portrait busts and medallions of contemporary writers, thinkers and religious figures.

Puck 1845-7 Thomas Woolner 1825-1892 Presented by the Patrons of British Art through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1991 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T05857
Thomas Woolner, Puck, 1845-7. Plaster, 49.8 x 35.5 x 28 cm. Tate.
Alexander Munro, Paolo and Francesca, 1852. Marble. Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.
Alexander Munro, Paolo and Francesca, 1852. Marble, 66 x 67.5 x 53 cm. Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.
Thomas Woolner, Alfred Tennyson, 1856. Plaster, circular, 26 x 26 cm. Tate.
Thomas Woolner, Alfred Tennyson, 1856. Plaster, circular, 26 x 26 cm. Tate.

On more than one occasion Munro’s Paolo and Francesca has been cited as the best example of Pre-Raphaelite sculpture, because of its treatment of a medieval literary subject (from Canto V of Dante’s Inferno) and close attention to naturalistic detail. Yet it also reveals the shortcomings of sculpture as a primary Pre-Raphaelite medium: white marble carries immediate classical associations and lacks the bright, intense, hyperreal colouring of Pre-Raphaelite painting, while the work itself is confined (out of necessity for the sculptor) to the two figures alone, without the detailed and richly symbolic setting which would naturally surround them in the pictures of Millais, Hunt and Rossetti. There is visual and documentary evidence, however, that Munro’s composition was closely in dialogue Rossetti’s own drawings and watercolours of the doomed lovers from Dante in the 1850s (below).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca, c. 1855. Pencil, 22.5 x 16.7 cm. British Museum.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca, c. 1855. Pencil, 22.5 x 16.7 cm. British Museum.

In the midst of all these examples the name of John Hancock (c.1825-69) has rather fallen by the wayside, despite the fact he was very closely involved with the Brotherhood in its earliest years. The majority of his works are now lost or untraced and details of his biography remain somewhat sketchy, thus contributing to a gradual erasure of his talent and reputation over the years. William Michael Rossetti, the PRB’s key documenter during its formation and long after its dissolution, is also partly responsible — he appears to have taken a strong disliking to Hancock from the outset, acidly calling him ‘an ungainly little man, wizened, with a long thin nose and squeaky voice’. This was even though his brother Dante Gabriel was good friends with the sculptor; Rossetti wrote to Walter Deverell in January 1848 that he would be ‘at Hancock’s studio for some time till the Exhibition, all day & every day’, mentioning that he ‘hope[d] this time to drag Hancock & Munro’ to the next meeting of the Cyclographic Society, a drawing club which was an immediate precursor to the PRB. Hancock was also present at several meetings regarding The Germ, the PRB’s short-lived magazine. As a result of this friendship Hancock produced one of the earliest likenesses of the 19-year-old Rossetti in September 1846, a portrait medallion which apparently set a precedent for those by Woolner and Munro (below). William Michael did at least admit, years later, that the medallion was ‘very near to the true appearance of my brother in those early and teeming years’, when considered alongside the softer, more Romantic self-portrait the artist famously drew the following year. The medallion, which was later reproduced as an engraving, survives in the collection of Wightwick Manor.

John Hancock, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1846. Plaster, circular, 20 x 20 cm. National Trust, Wightwick Manor & Gardens.
John Hancock, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1846. Plaster, circular, 20 x 20 cm. National Trust, Wightwick Manor & Gardens.
Engraving by Paul Jonnard after John Hancock, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1846), . Printed in The Magazine of Art, vol. 12 (1888-9), p. 24.
Engraving by Paul Jonnard after John Hancock, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1846). Published in The Magazine of Art, vol. 12 (1888-9), p. 24.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Self-portrait, 1847. Pencil and white chalk on paper, 20.7 x 16.8 cm. National Portrait Gallery.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Self-portrait, 1847. Pencil and white chalk on paper, 20.7 x 16.8 cm. National Portrait Gallery.

Hancock’s most famous surviving sculpture is probably Beatrice, which was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1850 and went on to be exhibited as a plaster version at the Great Exhibition of 1851, no less (below). It is now on public display in the V&A, in the room dedicated to the Great Exhibition — though clumsily placed on a raised level in the corner, and unable to be viewed in the round as it was originally. Beatrice received much praise as a ‘poetic’ subject at the time, with the sculptor Henry Weekes, upon seeing the sculpture in 1851, writing: ‘Will [the visitor] not stop before the beautiful spiritualised figure of Beatrice […] and become for a moment absorbed in expression as is the plaster itself?’

John Hancock, Beatrice, c. 1851. Painted plaster, 183 cm. Victoria & Albert Museum.
John Hancock, Beatrice, c. 1851. Painted plaster, 183 cm. Victoria & Albert Museum.
Hancock's Beatrice on display in the V&A.
Hancock’s Beatrice on display in the V&A today.

Like Munro, then, Hancock successfully depicts a subject from Dante which was also favoured by Rossetti — however, Hancock’s is all the more significant because it presents the female figure at the core of Dante’s spiritual mythos, Beatrice Portinari. The base of the sculpture is inscribed ‘Guardami ben, ben son, ben son Beatrice [Look at me well; I am, I am indeed Beatrice]’, and an extract from one of Rossetti’s sonnets translated from Dante’s Vita Nuova, which Hancock undoubtedly knew from his early friendship with the artist, accompanied the work in the Great Exhibition catalogue:

Last All Saints’ holiday even now gone by,
I met a gathering of damozels;
She that came first, as one doth who excels,
Had Love with her bearing her company;
A flame burned forward through her stedfast eye
Most like the spirit in living fire that dwells;
Gazing with that meek courage which prevails
O’er doubt. I saw an angel visibly
As she passed on…

This describes one of Dante’s first sightings of Beatrice in Florence as she walked by the Arno, a pivotal moment in the poet’s life. Hancock has her striding forward (an impression heightened when the work is viewed from the side), and adds those naturalistic Pre-Raphaelite details in the dress rippling round her feet, in her pointed medieval slippers and her streaming hair crowned with a garland of flowers. The latter can also be taken as a halo of stars, implying that Beatrice simultaneously occupies the earthly and heavenly spheres — Rossetti, of course, later explored this liminal theme in Beata Beatrix, similarly a ‘portrait’ of Beatrice. It is interesting to compare the two artists’ use of clasped hands, an upturned face and a halo effect; moreover, viewers of Hancock’s saintly woman must look up at her from a lowered position, as if taking on the reverential role of a worshipper — she looks away from us, far over our heads into some unseen distance. She could just as easily be a Gothic sculpture in a medieval cathedral, and indeed Hancock’s practice of painting the plaster a sepia or ochre colour to disguise its whiteness was described by one critic (referring to his now-lost sculpture Maidenhood) as ‘barbarous’ (in this case meaning non-classical).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, 1864-70. Oil on canvas, 86.4 x 66 cm. Tate.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, 1864-70. Oil on canvas, 86.4 x 66 cm. Tate.

Other surviving works by Hancock are Penserosa, a marble statue he was specially selected to create for the Egyptian Hall at Mansion House, London, from 1860-2; and a series of bas-reliefs for the former National Provincial Bank of England in Bishopsgate, London, from 1864-5 (now called Gibson Hall and used primarily as an events venue).

John Hancock, Penserosa, 1860-2. Marble, 186 cm. Mansion House, London.
John Hancock, Penserosa, 1860-2. Marble, 186 cm. Mansion House, London.

For reasons unknown, his artistic career petered out in the mid-1860s and he died in October 1869 at just 44 years of age. It is worth quoting a notice in the Athenaeum in full:

The obituary of the 17th inst. notices the death on that day of John Hancock, a sculptor, who not many years since achieved a considerable reputation, which appeared likely to increase. As is not unfrequent in artistic honours, the progress of the sculptor was somewhat suddenly stayed and not renewed. Ill health is reported as the obstacle to Hancock’s advancement. Many will remember with pleasure a statue by him representing the ‘Beatrice’ of Dante, in the ‘Vita Nuova,’ which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850, and other less important works. [‘The Athenaeum’, 23 October, 1869, p. 535]

Hancock’s posthumous status in Pre-Raphaelite sculpture is still much in need of a resurrection, and this post merely scratches the surface. The hope is that more of his works — some 30 in number — will come to light as awareness of them increases.


Further information

There is some secondary literature about Hancock scattered in various publications. Some notable examples are:

  • Thomas Beaumont James, ‘John Hancock: Pre-Raphaelite Sculptor?,’ in Pre-Raphaelite Sculpture: Nature and Imagination in British Sculpture, 1848-1914, ed. Benedict Read and Joanna Barnes (London: Lund Humphries, 1991), pp. 71-76. See also pp. 104-108 for 5 works by Hancock in this exhibition.
  • Benedict Read, ‘Was there a Pre-Raphaelite sculpture?,’ in Pre-Raphaelite Papers, ed. Leslie Parris (London: Tate, 1984), pp. 97-110.
  • Julius Bryant, Magnificent Marble Statues: British Sculpture in the Mansion House (London: Paul Holberton, 2013), pp. 92-95 (for Penserosa).
  • Tim Barringer, Jason Rosenfeld and Alison Smith, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (London: Tate Publishing, 2012), p. 66 (for a small bronze version of Beatrice).

For mentions of Hancock in primary sources, see:

  • William E. Fredeman, ed., The P.R.B. Journal: William Michael Rossetti’s Diary of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood 1849-1853 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).
  • Fredeman, The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Vol. 1, The Formative Years, 1835-1862: 1835-1854 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002).

For an up-to-date biography and list of works, see the entry on Hancock in The Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain.

Much of the material in this post is derived from an assessed essay I wrote for my Masters.

William Morris’s ‘The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems’: a neglected classic?

William Morris in his early 20s, photographed by Walker & Boutall, 1855-7. Source: National Portrait Gallery.
William Morris in his early 20s, photographed by Walker & Boutall, 1855-7. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Victorian poetry is still widely studied in schools and universities in the UK. Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy and Lewis Carroll usually crop up somewhere, and particular poems, such as Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott’, Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’, Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ and Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’, have entered the public imagination. But where, I tentatively ask, is William Morris? Certainly his visual art gets recognised — I remember a friend at undergrad telling me she studied Morris patterns in school art lessons — and more recently his wide-reaching political ideals were the subject of the National Portrait Gallery’s Anarchy and Beauty exhibition. The poetry for which he was equally well-known in his lifetime apparently never made the same leap into twenty-first century recognition and understanding. Today it seems many people are unaware that Morris wrote and published a prodigious amount for most of his life — so much so that after Tennyson’s death in 1892 he was offered the title of Poet Laureate, but declined. If he had accepted, perhaps things would’ve gone differently for his poetry. However, I may be completely wrong in assuming that the only people who still read Morris’s poetry today are the keen scholars and enthusiasts of Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite culture (there are a lot of us!).

Title-page of Morris's first published book of poems. Source: William Morris Archive.
Title-page of the first edition of Morris’s first published book of poems, 1858. Source: William Morris Archive.

Morris’s first collection, The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, has fast become one of my favourite books of poems by a single writer. He was only 24 years old when it was published in 1858, and had written many of the poems while an undergraduate at Exeter College, Oxford from 1852-6, and while he assisted Rossetti with the Oxford Union murals in 1857. On first entering Oxford, as is well-known, he instantly found a lifelong friend in the young Edward Burne-Jones. The two deepened their shared love of the history, architecture, art and literature of the Middle Ages, and devoured Robert Southey’s 1817 reprint of Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century collection of Arthurian legends, Morte d’Arthur. In 1855, while visiting the house of Thomas Combe at Oxford, the young men saw their first Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Hunt, Millais and Rossetti — but it was the latter’s watercolour Dante drawing an Angel on the First Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death (1853) which enthralled them most. Burne-Jones was able to meet the artist in 1856, and Rossetti recruited him and Morris to paint the Arthurian murals the following year (Morris chose to depict Sir Palomides’s Jealousy of Sir Tristram and La Belle Iseult). Under these very specific conditions, in this rarefied atmosphere of high-spirited medievalism particular to Oxford in which, Georgiana Burne-Jones later recalled, ‘Edward and Morris were alone and communed with each other in their own world of imagination,’ Morris began to write poems glimmering with strange, vivid impressions of medieval life. The tendency had clearly started young: as a child, apparently, he took to dressing in replica armour and riding through Epping Forest on a small pony to admire the faded tapestries in Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Blue Closet', 1856-7. Watercolour on paper, 35.4 x 26 cm. Tate.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Blue Closet, 1856-7. Watercolour on paper, 35.4 x 26 cm. Tate.

For some reason I find the poem titles as beautiful as the poems themselves, establishing an alliterative, sing-song, fairy tale quality from the outset: ‘Sir Galahad: A Christmas Mystery’, ‘Rapunzel’, ‘The Gilliflower of Gold’, ‘The Eve of Crecy’, ‘The Little Tower’, ‘The Blue Closet’, ‘The Tune of Seven Towers’, ‘Golden Wings’, ‘Two Red Roses Across the Moon’, and so on. Already an enigmatic, dreamlike atmosphere suggests itself — for we wonder what on earth is a gilliflower of gold, or a blue closet, or a tune of seven towers? What would the tune of seven towers sound like? Perhaps the word ‘suggests’ is the most important here: these poems rarely reveal everything at once, but often remain tantalisingly elusive, withholding solutions, even at their end. They are more like mood-pieces than articulations of particular narratives — as if, instead of simply retelling the types of chivalric stories Morris found in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, he was keen to evoke the colours, sounds and emotions one might experience inside a medieval romance. Indeed, his characters are often entrapped or enclosed in mysterious, isolated locations — an castle on the sea, a tower in a thick wood, a ruined chapel at night — and the reader is drawn momentarily in with them. The general tone, then, is akin to Pre-Raphaelite visual art of the mid-to-late 1850s, especially the watercolours and drawings of Rossetti and Burne-Jones which also act as windows onto imagined medieval worlds populated with melancholy knights, damozels and courtiers. The Rossetti watercolour above, The Blue Closet, directly inspired the Morris poem of the same name, and Morris actually dedicated The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems to Rossetti.

Edward Burne-Jones, The Knight's Farewell, 1858. Pen and ink on vellum. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Edward Burne-Jones, The Knight’s Farewell, 1858. Pen and ink on vellum, 17.6 x 24.2 cm.. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Another Rossetti painting which intrigued Morris enough to write a poem is the watercolour The Tune of Seven Towers (below). We must be cautious, however, about attempting to understand the picture through the poem, and vice versa; each is a separate imaginative work in its own right, and apart from sharing the same title the two actually bear little resemblance to one another. Many years later, in 1872, Rossetti himself famously wrote of Morris’s work: ‘the poems were the result of the pictures, but do not at all tally to my purpose with them, although beautiful in themselves.’ Morris’s ‘The Tune of Seven Towers’ is a perfect example of the kind of lyrical mysteriousness (excuse that vague phrase) outlined in the previous paragraph — very little actually happens in it, but there is much dreamlike, even gothic imagery as well as (like Rossetti’s watercolour, actually) an air of sadness, isolation and entrapment. The best way to explain it is to show it:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Tune of the Seven Towers, 1857. Watercolour on paper, 31.4 x 36.5 cm. Tate.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Tune of the Seven Towers, 1857. Watercolour on paper, 31.4 x 36.5 cm. Tate.

No one goes there now:
For what is left to fetch away
From the desolate battlements all arow,
And the lead roof heavy and grey?
‘Therefore,’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

No one walks there now;
Except in the white moonlight
The white ghosts walk in a row;
If one could see it, an awful sight,–
‘Listen!’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

But none can see them now,
Though they sit by the side of the moat,
Feet half in the water, there in a row,
Long hair in the wind afloat.
‘Therefore,’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

If he will go to it now,
He must go to it all alone,
Its gates will not open to any row
Of glittering spears — will you go alone?
‘Listen!’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

By my love go there now,
To fetch me my coif away,
My coif and my kirtle with pearls arow,
Oliver, go to-day!
‘Therefore,’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

I am unhappy now,
I cannot tell you why;
If you go, the priests and I in a row
Will pray that you may not die.
‘Listen!’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

If you will go for me now,
I will kiss your mouth at last;
[She sayeth inwardly]
(The graves stand grey in a row.)
Oliver, hold me fast!
‘Therefore,’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

What, then, can we be certain of in this poem? Already the opening images of ‘desolate battlements’, ‘the lead roof heavy and grey’ and ‘white moonlight’ in which ‘white ghosts walk in a row’ do not fit with the rich, glowing colours of Rossetti’s watercolour. In stanza 4 there is a subtle shift from a third-person to a first-person narrator, though their speech is not in speech marks: ‘If he will go to it now, / He must go to it all alone, / […] Will you go alone?’ The remaining stanzas are apparently spoken by this unnamed woman, whom we might take to be the lady in red sitting in the peculiar chair in Rossetti’s Seven Towers; while Oliver, the man she addresses, is surely the figure dressed in green and gold sitting mournfully beside her. Again, we can’t be certain of this. In stanza 5 the lady engages Oliver on some sort of quest to retrieve her coif and her kirtle ‘with pearls arow’; if he does go, she says in the next stanza, she and the priests will pray he may not die. In the final stanza she promises to kiss him if he returns — but he apparently does not, and after a rather cinematic cutaway shot in parentheses of ‘(The graves stand grey in a row)’ she cries ‘Oliver, hold me fast!’ and the poem ends. Has he died? Has she died? Have they now become the white ghosts mentioned at the start, sitting by the edge of the moat with ‘long hair in the wind afloat’? Or were they always ghosts, doomed forever to enact the same empty ritual? The refrain at the end of each stanza (a common feature of Morris’s poems), ‘ “Therefore/Listen!” said Fair Yoland of the flowers, / This is the tune of Seven Towers.”‘ gives no clues.

William Morris, La Belle Iseult, 1857-8. Oil on canvas, 71.8 50.2 cm. Tate.
William Morris, La Belle Iseult, 1857-8. Oil on canvas, 71.8 50.2 cm. Tate.

In today’s age of clear-cut answers and thirsted-for fact, ‘The Tune of Seven Towers’ and the other poems in Morris’s Defence of Guenevere are self-contained mysteries which repay quiet, contemplative readings and re-readings. Some do have more of a narrative focus: the title poem, ‘The Defence of Guenevere’, was inspired by Robert Browning’s psychological dramatic monologues and is told from the perspective of Queen Guenevere as she recounts her affair with Sir Launcelot in a long speech of self-vindication. Its prominence within the collection led to Morris’s only surviving easel painting, La Belle Iseult (above) being frequently mis-titled as Queen Guenevere over the years. Admittedly I’m a fan of literary works with ambiguities and open-endings — the two examples I always use are Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Joan Lindsay’s novel/Peter Weir’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock, both of which resist the traditional tell-all ending and are all the more memorable for it (people still speculate what ‘went on’ with the governess; people will always be wondering what on earth happened to the three schoolgirls and their teacher on Hanging Rock).

Edward Burne-Jones (left) and William Morris, photographed by Frederick Hollyer in 1874. Platinum print. National Portrait Gallery.
Edward Burne-Jones (left) and William Morris, photographed by Frederick Hollyer in 1874. Platinum print. National Portrait Gallery.

Victorian critics were mostly baffled by, and disparaging of Morris’s book. In April 1858 the Athenaeum rejected Morris’s ‘book of Pre-Raphaelite minstrelsy as a curiosity which shows how far affectation may mislead an earnest man towards the fog-land of Art.’ To add to this, the work was not a commercial success — although, as Dinah Roe points out, contemporary observers did identify it as the first book of Pre-Raphaelite poetry. In 1933 Laurence Houseman (brother of A. E.) published a lecture he had given in 1929, titled ‘Pre-Raphaelitism in Art and Poetry’. Describing a passage from Morris’s ‘Sir Peter Harpdon’s End’, he declares: ‘This is your Pre-Raphaelite picture, with its strange blend of detailed externality and intense inwardness of feeling.’ Near the end he singles out The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, ‘partly because I think its beauty is insufficiently recognised, partly because in no other does the spirit of the Pre-Raphaelite movement so clearly declare itself.’ The book therefore stands as an important landmark in English poetry as the first cohesive literary product of an art movement whose influence is still felt today.

Although the book itself is now out of print, a generous selection was included in the Penguin Classics anthology The Pre-Raphaelites: From Rossetti to Ruskin, edited by Dinah Roe. A particularly good edition to get is Volume 1 of The Collected Works of William Morris, edited by William’s daughter May and first published in 1910. It includes not only The Defence of Guenevere in its entirety, but also Morris’s equally haunting, dreamlike early short stories, such as ‘The Story of the Unknown Church’, ‘Lindenborg Pool’ and ‘The Hollow Land’, from The Hollow Land and Other Contributions to the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. A reprinted facsimile of this edition is available on Amazon through print-on-demand. I’ll leave you with this beautifully simple passage from ‘Rapunzel’, of course based upon the fairy tale and which inspired Morris to decorate a medieval-style chair with a now-faded image of ‘Glorious Guendolen’s golden hair’ (below):

For leagues and leagues I rode,
Till hot my armour grew,
Till underneath the leaves
I felt the evening dew.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel,
Weep through your hair!

And yet — but I am growing old,
For want of love my heart is cold,
Years pass, the while I loose and fold
The fathoms of my hair.

William Morris and D. G. Rossetti, Glorious Guendolen's Golden Hair, c. 1856-7. Painted chair. Delaware Art Museum.
William Morris and D. G. Rossetti, Glorious Guendolen’s Golden Hair, c. 1856-7. Painted chair. Delaware Art Museum.

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.


Further information

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.

Millais’s Vision of Autumn

Autumn, that deep and most liminal of seasons, is very much upon us. The view framed by my window confirms it: swirling grey-blue sky, cool billowing wind, green treetops singed with browns and yellows; all falls, tumbles, and the light takes on its last moments of vivid brilliance before winter sets in. At this time of year a particular painting is often in my mind, particularly when I walk with flurries of dead leaves skittering at my feet — John Everett Millais captured that mood so evocatively in one of his finest paintings, Autumn Leaves, which he began in autumn 1855.

John Everett Millais, 'Autumn Leaves', 1855-56
John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1855-6. Manchester City Art Galleries.

Millais’s motive was, apparently, to create ‘a picture full of beauty and without subject’. This signalled a shift from the very specific literary, biblical and historical subjects of his earlier paintings — Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’, Keats’s ‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Christ in the house of His Parents — to an emphasis on mood and more universal ideas. It has been said of Autumn Leaves, then, that it anticipates the artistic programme of the Aesthetic Movement, which often favours mood over morals. The universal idea which Millais expresses in this painting is of transience and mortality, with the season of autumn itself as an atmospheric symbol. Autumn’s archetypal emblems — the dead leaves, the smoke wreaths from the leaf pile, the apple held by the little girl on the right, the sunset — are all present, combining to create a richly textural image. (The dense pattern of leaves seems to spill out from the picture plane.) Furthermore, it is clear that the bright, crisp, ‘hard-edge’ style and minute brushwork of Christ in the House of His Parents has been deepened and loosened, with a darker palette and sometimes even sketchy brushwork around the edges of the picture.

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, 'Autumn', 1573
Guiseppe Arcimboldo, Autumn, 1573. Source.

Millais’s portrayal of autumn as a melancholy, transient season is more in line with English poetry than with artistic traditions. Arcimboldo’s eccentric picture from 1573 (above) is a good example of this previous approach in art, which tended to view autumn as a time of fecundity full of ripe fruits and luscious vegetation ready for harvest. Although Keats, writing in September 1819, famously called it the ‘season of […] mellow fruitfulness’ and describes in indulgent detail ‘all fruit with ripeness to the core’, English poetry more frequently aligns autumn with nostalgia and mortality. If the yearly cycle of seasons is taken as a metaphor for the human life, with spring as new life and winter as death, then autumn represents a period of transition between youth and old age. Indeed, the narrator of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 73’ takes autumn as ‘that time of year thou may’st in me behold’, likening it to his advanced years — following this with solemn imagery of ‘yellow leaves’, ‘bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang’ and ‘the twilight of such day’. Millais had more contemporary poetry in mind, since he was reading Tennyson’s The Princess (1847) at the time and would have seen the famous lyric poem within it, which begins:

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

A further connection to Tennyson is that Millais was apparently greatly inspired to paint an autumnal subject after helping to sweep up and burn dead leaves during a visit to the poet’s home at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight in November 1854.

In contrast to Arcimboldo’s image of Nature’s bounties the only piece of fruit in Autumn Leaves, the red apple, appears to be rotting, while the leaves themselves, once fresh and green in spring, are now being gently smoked away. Malcolm Warner, in the 1984 Tate catalogue, informs us that ‘the girls in the foreground, for all their youth and beauty, must inevitably go through the same processes.’ An especially foreboding detail of the painting is the presence of a murky figure holding a scythe in the left midground, veiled through the smoke; a similar portent appears with a more sinister clarity at the far right of Millais’s painting Spring (Apple Blossoms) four years later (below). This could easily be interpreted by the viewer as a symbol of death. The setting of Autumn Leaves in dusky twilight, that most liminal time between day and night, further enhances this theme. On a more practical level it also allows Millais to exercise his skills as a painter, brilliantly expressing the almost hallucinatory tones and harmonies of the sunset — blues, yellows, browns, blacks. One contemporary reviewer noted the painting’s ‘depth of feeling’, ‘grandeur’ and conveyance of ‘the spellbinding power of nature.’

John Everett Millais, 'Spring (Apple Blossoms)', 1856-59
John Everett Millais, Spring (Apple Blossoms), 1856-9. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool. Source.

The garden of Annat Lodge in rural Perthshire provided the backdrop for Autumn Leaves. Millais and his wife Effie (née Gray, formerly Ruskin) had settled there after their marriage in 1855. The spire of St John’s Kirk of Perth can be glimpsed in the background to the left of the painting, just below the horizon, perhaps also acting as a subtle religious reminder. The girls are, from left to right: Alice Gray and Sophie Gray (Effie’s younger sisters), Matilda Proudfoot, a girl from the local School of Industry, and Isabella Nicol, a maid’s daughter. According to Effie they were all ‘under 13 years of age and grouped beautiful[ly].’ There is something of a contrast between the clothing of the Gray sisters — matching dark-green velvet winter dresses, indicating a higher class — and the working-class outfits of the other two girls; Effie wrote that the brown dress worn by Matilda, holding her rake, was ‘the common dress of the School of Industry at that season’. Sophie Gray, who is in the act of dropping a handful of leaves onto the bonfire, is especially striking, with her loose hair and direct gaze. The upward positioning of her head recurs in Millais’s beautiful head-and-shoulders portrait painted in 1857 (below), which Jason Rosenfeld describes as ‘appeal[ing] to direct emotion and desire’.

John Everett Millais, 'Sophie Gray', 1857
John Everett Millais, Sophie Gray, 1857. Private collection. Source.

Millais returned to the dusky setting and mortality theme in his strange, haunting painting of two nuns in a churchyard, The Vale of Rest (below), which is also considered as a pendant piece to Spring (Apple Blossoms). For a simple conclusion, I need only return to Millais’s own words on the autumnal subject. William Holman Hunt, in his 1905 memoir Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, recalls Millais saying:

Is there any sensation more delicious than that awakened by the odour of burning leaves? To me nothing brings back sweeter memories of the days that are gone; it is the incense offered by departing summer to the sky, and it brings one a happy conviction that Time puts a peaceful seal on all that has gone.

John Everett Millais, 'The Vale of Rest', 1858-59. Source.
John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest, 1858-9. Tate. Source.


Further information

  • The Pre-Raphaelites, 1984 Tate catalogue, pp. 139-141
  • Malcolm Warner, ‘John Everett Millais’s Autumn Leaves: “a picture full of beauty and without subject”‘, in Pre-Raphaelite Papers, ed. by Leslie Parris (London: Tate, 1984), pp. 126-142
  • Jason Rosenfeld, John Everett Millais (London: Phaidon, 2012), pp. 92-97

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.


Further information

The Love of Dante: ‘Dantis Amor’ (1860)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Dantis Amor', 1860
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Dantis Amor’, 1860

I thought it would be nice to discuss the namesake of my blog’s url, dantisamor. It’s a typically Rossettian title with allusions to Dante Alighieri and divine love and with a Latin or Italianate feel to it, so I thought it would make a pretty-sounding WordPress name! Contextually, Dantis Amor also has connections with that divine palace of Art which I am sadly yet to visit, Red House, and therefore with William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Let’s see why.

Rossetti painted Dantis Amor, which translates as ‘Dante’s Love’, on a panel on the door of a settle in Red House, Bexleyheath, which had been built in 1860. ‘More a poem than a house,’ in the words of Rossetti, Red House was designed by the architect Philip Webb as the home of William Morris and his new bride Jane. While today Bexleyheath has been absorbed into the suburbs of London, in the 1860s it was still very much a rural village miles from the city, and Red House was actually built on the land of an orchard. Its name derives from the colour of its bricks, and its distinctive style, based on medieval vernacular buildings, went on to influence Arts and Crafts architecture in the nineteenth century and beyond. Morris intended it to become a locus of artistic energy and collaboration, with the Burne-Joneses (Edward was also recently married, to Georgiana MacDonald), Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Ford Madox Brown and other artists and poets frequently visiting of the household. Many accounts of lively parties and garden gatherings survive. Elaborate, collaborative schemes were put in place to decorate the walls, windows and furnishings of the house with paintings and hangings, all in the medieval manner. Beautiful murals by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and others, which were (shockingly!) covered over with panelling and whitewash by later tenants, are still being uncovered today. In the airy, barn-like drawing-room upstairs stands the large, heavy settle whose cupboard doors were originally painted with scenes by Rossetti — these were removed sometime before 1863. Dantis Amor, the central panel, is now in the Tate, and was included in the 2012 exhibition along with two other Dante-themed panels (below) from the Red House settle (although they were only displayed in Washington).

Red House, Bexleyheath, Kent. Designed by Philip Webb in 1859, construction completed in 1860. View from the central half-quadrangle.
Red House, Bexleyheath, Kent. Designed by Philip Webb in 1859, construction completed in 1860. View from the rear garden. Image copyright National Trust.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Salutation of Beatrice in Florence' and 'The Salutation of Beatrice in the Garden of Eden', 1859. Like 'Dantis Amor', these two panels were also painted on the cupboard doors of the Red House settle.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Salutation of Beatrice in Florence’ and ‘The Salutation of Beatrice in the Garden of Eden’, 1859. Like ‘Dantis Amor’, these two panels were also painted on the cupboard doors of the Red House settle. Note the winged figure of Love bearing a sundial in the middle.

The complex iconography of Dantis Amor — and almost all of Rossetti’s other Dante-themed paintings — is derived from a literary source, Dante’s autobiographical La Vita Nuova (The New Life) (1295), in which the medieval Italian poet immortalises his unrequited love for Beatrice Portinari. It was a fundamental favourite of Rossetti’s, who even produced a translation of it in as early as the 1840s. His father, the Italian political exile Gabriele Rossetti, was an eminent Dante scholar, and J. B. Bullen writes of ‘the imaginative life of the Rossetti household [being] dominated by the figure of Dante Alighieri.’ Much has been written of Dante Rossetti growing up to live in a Dantesque dream, venerating and beatifying Elizabeth Siddal as Dante did Beatrice. According to the Rossetti Archive, the title ‘Dantis Amor’ has a threefold meaning, referring to Dante’s love of Beatrice, God and Love itself, even though Dante himself does not appear in the painting. The colour palette of Dantis Amor is just gorgeous, with its blend of rich golds, royal blues and fiery reds. Standing at the centre is the allegorical figure of Love, as an angel with sweeping scarlet wings, a golden robe and a halo of auburn hair. The composition is strikingly geometric, divided up into diagonal, symmetrical segments. Framed in a crescent moon in the bottom left corner is the head of Beatrice — she looks diagonally up to the haloed head of Christ in the top left. A bottom-left to top-right diagonal separates two celestial realms: the golden world of Christ, filled with radiant sunbursts, and the nightly world of Beatrice, patterned with gold and silver stars. Here Rossetti visualises the final words of Dante’s Divine Comedy, ‘Love which moves the sun and the other stars.’

Detail of Christ
Detail of Christ. The Latin inscription, ‘qui est per omnia saecula benedictus’, is the last line of ‘La Vita Nuova’ and means, ‘Who is eternally blessed’.
Detail of Beatrice
Detail of Beatrice. The facial features are probably those of Elizabeth Siddal.
Detail of the winged Love, holding an unfinished sundial
Detail of the winged Love, holding an unfinished sundial

The angel Love holds a long bow and arrow, at an angle which counterbalances the other diagonal, and also what looks at first glance to be a big white bowl. This is in fact an unfinished sundial; a completed drawing for the picture (below) shows that its shadow would have pointed to the 9th hour. For Dante, the number 9 had deep, symbolic connections with Beatrice: he was nine years old when he first met her (she was eight), his love for her lasted for nine years, and she supposedly passed away at nine o’clock. Since Beatrice was represented by the number 3 (also indicative of the Holy Trinity), she could be tripled to make 9. The angel’s sundial points to this number in memory of the hour of her death, as in Rossetti’s later painting Beata Beatrix (see links below), and is thus an indication that Dantis Amor portrays the moment of Beatrice’s transfiguration into heaven. The figure of the sundial-bearing Love can also be seen on the frame between the other Red House Dante painting previously shown above, and a preparatory drawing for this shows the angel in a similar attitude. Clearly, it was an image which fixated Rossetti.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Dantis Amor', design for the Red House painting. This finished version shows the sundial pointing to the 9th hour.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Dantis Amor’, design for the Red House painting. This finished version shows the sundial casting its shadow on the 9th hour, and it’s labelled with 1290, the year of Beatrice’s death.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Dantis Amor', study of Love with a sundial and a torch, 1860
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Dantis Amor’, study of Love with a sundial and a torch, 1860. Like the drawing above, this picture bears the date of Beatrice’s death, apparently on the 9th June. The Latin inscription, ‘quomodo sedet sola civitas’, is the last line of the ‘Divine Comedy’ and means ‘Love which moves the sun and other stars’.

So, there we have it. Hopefully it’s now clear why I’ve chosen such a typically Rossettian name for this blog!


Further information

  • Extensive images of the newly-restored murals in the living-room of Red House can be found on Claudia Fiocchetti’s blog. I’m dying to go and see the paintings in situ soon! A video about the discovery and conservation of a Biblical-themed mural, possibly a collaborative venture between William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and Elizabeth Siddal, can be seen on Youtube.
  • Rossetti explored the theme of the dying Beatrice in one of his most popular paintings, Beata Beatrix, which exists in several versions (the most famous is now in Tate Britain). The painting uses the features of Elizabeth Siddal, who had died in 1862, and many regard the painting as Rossetti’s haunting memorial to his deceased wife and muse. To view the painting and listen to audio commentary by Alison Smith, see the BBC Desperate Romantics website.
  • A videoed lecture from Yale University about Dante’s La Vita Nuova.