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

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


The Rossettian Hand

There is a particular recurring detail of Rossetti’s images of women which once seen, for some reason, cannot be unseen: the emphasis on hands. In his later work Rossetti frequently elongates the palms and fingers of his female sitters (particularly those of Jane Morris), exaggerating their lengths sometimes to impossibility. Rossettian hands are often curled and tensed, lithe and willowy, and are symptomatic of Rossetti’s tendency to stylise and accentuate female body parts — the lips, the hair — for sensual effect. These curious hands also presumably express the psychological states of the women to whom they belong, or draw the viewer’s attention to particular objects central to the theme or narrative of the images, as will be discussed below.

Take, for example, Rossetti’s chalk version of Pandora (below). The exaggeration of Pandora’s hands makes them the focus of the image, drawing attention to the woeful act which this femme fatale is enacting: using her overly-nimble, almost double-jointed fingers, she opens the lid of the box from which evil is unleashed upon the world for all eternity. It is a moment of tension, and indeed the fingers are tensed as if in regret — in the accompanying sonnet, Rossetti commands her to ‘clench the casket now!’ In a way, Pandora’s clenched hands have doomed mankind.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Pandora', 1878
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Pandora’, 1878
John Robert Parsons, 'Jane Morris' (detail), 1865. This particular photograph has been considered the basis for Rossetti's 'Pandora' drawings.
John Robert Parsons, ‘Jane Morris’ (detail), 1865. This particular photograph has been considered the basis for Rossetti’s ‘Pandora’ drawings.

In a similar vein, the hands of Jane Morris in La Pia de’ Tolomei (below) become an expressive focal point of the painting and highlight a particular melancholy symbol. The subject of the picture is from Canto V of Dante’s Purgatorio. The beautiful La Pia has been imprisoned by her husband, Nello della Pietra, in a fortress in the Tuscan marshes. In Rossetti’s painting she sits on the ramparts of the castle against an ivy-curtained wall, her hands clasped in her lap and her fingers absentmindedly toying her wedding ring, which has now become an emblem of her failed marriage and entrapment by her husband. Preparatory sketches for the painting feature a similar fixation with her hands and wedding ring. Alistair Grieve has pointed out that the change in the position of Jane’s head from tilting back to leaning forward serves to draw attention to the hands and wedding ring.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'La Pia de' Tolomei', 1868-80
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘La Pia de’ Tolomei’, 1868-80
Study for 'La Pia', 1868
Study for ‘La Pia’, 1868
Study for 'La Pia', 1868
Study for ‘La Pia’, 1868

Rossetti’s treatment of female hands in this manner seems a tad fetishistic. Jane Morris was known for having particularly willowy, slender hands, but a comparison between John Robert Parson’s photograph of her and Rossetti’s chalk drawing Reverie based upon that photograph (below) reveals the extent to which he exaggerated them. In the drawing her left hand is longer than her face, and her right hand resting on her lap is of impossible proportions — in the photograph, Jane’s hands are not nearly as pronounced. There has also been a general softening of Jane’s features, a loosening of her limbs, with the lips made fuller and rounder.

John Robert Parsons, 'Jane Morris', 1865
John Robert Parsons, ‘Jane Morris’, 1865
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Reverie', 1868
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Reverie’, 1868

J. B. Bullen posits that Botticelli’s paintings might have had an influence, pointing to the Madonna of the Magnificat as an example. The Virgin Mary in Botticelli’s picture has similarly poised, tensed fingers. The female figures in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Venus and Mars also have enlarged hands. I would also suggest the work of Michelangelo, whose sculptures are frequently endowed with abnormally-emphasised fingers (below).

Sandro Botticelli, 'Madonna of the Magnificat', 1481
Sandro Botticelli, ‘Madonna of the Magnificat’, 1481
Michelangelo, 'Tomb of Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici', 1520-34
Michelangelo, ‘Tomb of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici’, 1520-34

Finally, Rossetti even created a sonnet and painting entitled La Bella Mano, or The Beautiful Hand in English. The central figure of the painting was modelled by Alexa Wilding, a Venus who washes her long hands in a gilded basin while her winged attendants stand by with a towel and jewellery. As in Pandora and La Pia, the graceful female hands are the focus of the painting, even directly addressed in the sonnet:

O lovely hand, that thy sweet self doth lave
In that thy pure and proper element,
Whence erst the Lady of Love high advènt
Was born […]
In royal wise ring-girt and bracelet-spann’d,
A flower of Venus’s own virginity,
Go shine among thy sisterly sweet band;
In maiden-minded converse delicately
Evermore white and soft; until thou be,
O hand! heart-handsel’d in a lover’s hand.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'La Bella Mano', 1875
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘La Bella Mano’, 1875

Here the purpose of the hand of Venus, the hand of Love, is to be bejewelled and eventually entrusted to another’s — her beautiful hand will be entwined with her lover’s, who presumably waits somewhere outside the picture space in the cosy room reflected in the convex mirror haloing her head. Thus, Rossettian hands express a range of symbolic gestures, from bringers of destruction in Pandora, to gentle love-tokens in La Bella Mano.

The Pre-Raphaelites at the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE

Alas, I have neglected this blog of mine for several months! University, and probably life in general, has got quite in the way (I’ve a dissertation to write!). But, no fear, I have returned.

I was recently in the United States on a family visit, and since Bethesda, MD, is only a two-hour drive from Delaware I slyly encouraged a trip to Wilmington with the intention of going to the Delaware Art Museum. The museum occupies a special place in Pre-Raphaelite studies since it holds the largest and most important collection of the Brotherhood’s work outside the UK, which is certainly unusual for such a deeply British movement. Samuel Bancroft, a Wilmington textile mill owner, first rapturously beheld a Pre-Raphaelite painting — Rossetti’s Vision of Fiametta (1878) — in 1880, and in the 1890s began to enthusiastically acquire PRB art to display in his home, now sadly demolished. His fine collection was bequeathed to the museum in 1935, and although his tastes would surely have seemed bizarre to his fellow Americans at the time his passion for the work of D.G. Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, John Millais and Ford Madox Brown resulted in one of the few American collections of nineteenth-century British art (I believe that the Fogg Museum at Harvard University is one another).

Despite an apocalyptically-titled ‘polar vortex’ we were able to make the journey up to Wilmington, and I spent the afternoon at the museum. I was especially privileged to meet with Margaretta S. Frederick, chief curator of the Bancroft Collection, who very kindly took the time to show my father, my sister and me round the main gallery and then to see a substantial number of paintings in storage. She was very friendly and welcoming, and it is always lovely to speak to a fellow Pre-Raphaelite obsessive (if that’s the right word to use!). I am now tempted to return to the museum and make use of its fabulous library (which includes original volumes of The Yellow Book and Rossetti first editions) for future research!

The galleries themselves are beautifully assembled. Some of the walls are papered with William Morris’s Marigold pattern, while others are painted in greens and blues to complement those rich Pre-Raphaelite colours. As you can see from the photographs below the rooms were empty on that cold Wednesday afternoon, so I was able to examine and wander among the paintings and objects in reverential solitude. I had seen some of the pictures in previous exhibitions — Veronica Veronese at the V&A’s Cult of Beauty; Lady Lilith at the Tate Pre-Raphelites — but due to crowded conditions it was difficult to really get close and appreciate them in one’s own time, so this quietude was rather welcomed by me (though it would have been nice to see a few others out Pre-Raph hunting!).

On the wall: ‘Veronica Veronese’ and ‘La Bella Mano’ (bigger than I expected) by Rossetti; ‘The Somnambulist’ by Millais. Photography is allowed, fyi.
‘The Council Chamber’ from the ‘Briar Rose’ series — certainly the largest Burne-Jones I have yet seen!
On the wall: ‘Lady Lilith’ by Rossetti; Charles Fairfax Murray’s lovely copy of Rossetti’s ‘Beata Beatrix’

I thought it would be nice to focus on a few favourite works in the collection. The painting which greets you in the first room (and it was the first Pre-Raphaelite work Bancroft bought) is one I was particularly looking forward to seeing, though its small size makes it seem unassuming and even a little insignificant when compared alongside other, much larger works by Rossetti. Titled Water Willow, it’s a kind of love letter to Jane Morris and was painted at Kelmscott Manor in the summer of 1871. Anyone who read my previous post about William Morris’s bed might have some idea of my deep love for Kelmscott, and Water Willow actually features the house and the village church in the background and what is presumably the River Thames with a boathouse in the middle ground. (A copy of the painting executed by Charles Fairfax Murray in 1893 currently hangs in Jane Morris’s bedroom at Kelmscott Manor, which left me eager to see the original!) Rossetti’s infamous affair with Jane reached its peak at this time, and while William was away in Iceland the two used Kelmscott and its surrounding landscape as a private, rural retreat in which to indulge their passions. The painting can also be regarded alongside several sonnets which Rossetti composed in the same summer, now informally called the ‘Kelmscott Love Sonnets’. One such poem, ‘Silent Noon’, is rich with natural imagery and a quiet atmosphere which matches the Water Willow painting (see links at the end). I particularly love the picture’s cool, aqueous colour palette of watery greens and pale blues, echoing Jane’s eyes and imbuing the painting with a curiously introspective, meditative mood. The willow boughs of course also bring to mind one of William Morris’s best-loved designs, though his pattern was first printed a good few years later in 1887.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Water Willow', 1871
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Water Willow’, 1871
Close-up of 'Water Willow'
Close-up of ‘Water Willow’

Another lovely painting in the collection is John Millais’s The Highland Lassie from 1854. Also small in size, this painting actually reminded me somewhat of those little oval gold-framed daguerrotype portraits popular in the Victorian period; certainly, Millais’s obsessive attention to detail has been described as photographic and this painting’s plain background is perhaps reminiscent of a backdrop in a photographer’s studio. It is one of several paintings executed by Millais in the Scottish Highlands, the most famous of which is his portrait of John Ruskin (recently bought by the Ashmolean), and the sitter’s name is now sadly unknown. She gazes out at the viewer, her blue eyes and the soft pink of her lips and faint blushing cheek complemented by her dark blue collar and the pink and white pinstripes of her dress (though Millais originally requested a dress of Rob Roy tartan).

John Everett Millais, 'The Highland Lassie', 1854
John Everett Millais, ‘The Highland Lassie’, 1854
Close-up of ‘The Highland Lassie’

Finally (though I could write far more!), another Rossetti in the collection is Veronica Veronese, a sumptuous study in greens painted in 1872. A characteristic of Rossetti’s work which I’ve always noticed is his tendency to give his paintings alliterative, pretty-sounding titles which sound vaguely Latin or Italian: Veronica Veronese apparently simply means ‘Veronica of Verona’, and might also allude to the Venetian painter Paolo Veronese. Here a woman swathed in rich green velvet — modelled by Alexa Wilding — sits absorbed in contemplation before a violin, whose strings she fingers absentmindedly, while just behind her a canary sings (symbolically?) outside its cage. This is not a painting with any moral or narrative, as in earlier Pre-Raphaelite work: now, in the quintessentially Aesthetic mode, Rossetti places an emphasis on mood and the senses. Perhaps underlying the painting is the idea of synesthesia, or the stimulation of more than one sense at the same time, and the canary’s song, the daffodils on the table, the suggestion of the woman’s music and the gorgeous colour palette all combine to intensify the viewer’s sensory experience. It is best to supply Rossetti’s own evocative explanation of the picture in order to understand these Aesthetic principles:

Suddenly leaning forward, the Lady Veronica rapidly wrote the first notes on the virgin page. Then she took the bow of the violin to make her dream reality; but before commencing to play the instrument hanging from her hand, she remained quiet a few moments, listening to the inspiring bird, while her left hand strayed over the strings searching for the supreme melody, still elusive. It was the marriage of the voices of nature and the soul — the dawn of a mystic creation.

Echoing Walter Pater’s famous claim in his essay ‘The School of Giorgione’ that ‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’, the painting could thus also be viewed as a representation of the creative process.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Veronica Veronese', 1872
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Veronica Veronese’, 1872
Close-up of 'Veronica'
Close-up of ‘Veronica’

As a souvenir of my visit I decided to buy a particularly beautiful book about the Bancroft Collection with some gifted dollars. Its full title is Waking Dreams: The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites from the Delaware Art Museum, and almost all of the works on display and in storage are photographed with accompanying commentaries. The only downside is that it made the luggage a good deal heavier on the flight home! I could not recommend the museum highly enough to other Pre-Raphaelite fans, and thanks must be given again to Margaretta Frederick for showing me its unique collection.


Further information

  • The Bancroft Collection has its own excellent website which lists all the paintings by each artist, with high-quality photographs.
  • The Delaware Art Museum’s main website, with information of its other collections. Any pirate fans would appreciate its galleries of Howard Pyle!
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Kelmscott Love Sonnet’, ‘Silent Noon‘, composed like Water Willow in the summer of 1871 at Kelmscott Manor. The text here is from The House of Life, Rossetti’s large sonnet sequence published in complete form in 1881.
  • Veronica Veronese in the Rossetti Archive, with a more in-depth discussion of its production and iconography.