Understanding Stephens

F. G. Stephens, photographed by Cundall, Downes & Co., probably in April 1859. Reproduced in Jeremy Maas, The Victorian Art World in Photographs (1984), p. 119.

For over a year now, I’ve been researching the life and work of Frederic George Stephens, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, for my PhD at Oxford Brookes University. This has taken me to surprisingly far-flung places: in June, notably, I spent a week in Vancouver, going methodically through the 100-plus letters Stephens wrote to William Michael Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, in the University of British Columbia Library. (The story of how these documents ended up at Vancouver is fascinating in itself: William E. Fredeman, the pioneer Pre-Raphaelite scholar who belonged to the English faculty at UBC, charmed the descendants of W. M. Rossetti – his daughter Helen Rossetti Angeli, and his granddaughter Imogene Dennis – into bequeathing their vast troves of family papers to the university in the 1960s and 1970s. These form what is now titled the Angeli-Dennis Collection, a still-untapped resource for scholars.)

William Henry Fisk, Frederic George Stephens, ca.1882.

Given the fact my thesis is still in progress and unpublished, and because of certain copyright limitations, I must keep much of what I’ve discovered (and there’s a lot of it) under wraps for the time being. However, I thought I would highlight some overlooked curiosities in the public domain which further our understanding of Stephens’s personal connections with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. In a way, these connections go without saying, given his status as an official PRB from the outset in 1848, a fact of which he remained staunchly proud until his death in 1907, aged 79. While I’m on the subject of dates, I would like to clarify once and for all, definitively, that Stephens was born on 10 October 1827, not 1828, as numerous Pre-Raphaelite books over the decades have stated. Stephens’s baptism record, together with a letter he wrote to William Rossetti in later life (UBC), confirm this. Furthermore, Stephens never spelt his name ‘Frederick’, even in his earliest correspondence; another oft-repeated mistake in secondary literature (William Gaunt’s gossipy The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy, 1942, falls into this trap).

F. G. Stephens, by an unknown photographer, ca.1890–1907. Colonel Stephens Railway Museum.

In 1896, William Michael Rossetti edited and published New Poems by Christina Rossetti, Hitherto Unpublished or Uncollected. After his sister’s death in 1894, Rossetti had ‘looked carefully through the materials which she had left behind her; found many things which I remembered, and others of which I knew little or nothing’. Among them was the following short, pretty verse:

Christina Rossetti, ‘Golden Holly’, in New Poems by Christina Rossetti, ed. William Michael Rossetti (London: Macmillan, 1896), p. 165.

The poem has much in common with the playful nursery rhymes in Christina’s Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book, published in 1872, the year ‘Golden Holly’ was probably written. With its simple AA BBB rhyme scheme, and its light, skipping iambic tetrameter, the poem could have been written for a child. Which, in fact, it was, and for one child in particular: Holman Fred Stephens, the son of Frederic and his wife Rebecca Clara, born on 30 October 1868. William Michael Rossetti’s explanatory note for ‘Golden Holly’ reveals all:

New Poems, p. 385.

Young Holman had been named after his godfather, Holman Hunt, at a time when Hunt and Stephens were still friends – this friendship, which dated back to 1845, was not to last, and ended on a tragically bitter note. Hunt’s lengthy, two-volume autobiography, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (vol. 1, vol. 2), published in 1905, abounded with personal attacks against Stephens and other PRBs. Stephens rose to defend himself by printing letters in The Times and issuing a pamphlet to a long list of artists, writers and editors that included Lawrence Alma-Tadema, John William Waterhouse, Philip Burne-Jones (son of Edward, who had died in 1898), Edmund Gosse and the widows of Thomas Woolner and William Allingham.

William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (London: Macmillan, 1905), vol. 2, p. 436.

What had begun as a homosocial artistic friendship in the 1840s and 1850s – consider, for example, the painting expedition Stephens and Hunt made to Sevenoaks in autumn 1850, and the sensitive portrait Hunt painted of Stephens in 1846–7 (below) – had soured, over half a century later, into a battle of words, mediated through publicly and privately printed texts. The reasons behind this are numerous, beyond the scope of a simple blog post – or one to save for a future post, perhaps.

William Holman Hunt, F. G. Stephens, 1846–7. Oil on panel, 20.3 x 17.5 cm. Tate.

One issue I’m still grappling with is Stephens’s posthumous descent into near obscurity, owing to which I’ve titled my thesis The Hidden Pre-Raphaelite: Frederic George Stephens, Artist and Critic. His name has long been to known at least to adherents of Pre-Raphaelitism – usually when trying to remember the roll call of all seven original PRBs (it takes some remembering), or when quoting the occasional well-known passage from his writing, such as his insightful analysis of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s watercolour The Blue Closet in 1894 which likens the picture’s colour harmonies to a musical composition. Art historians have either unanimously dismissed Stephens’s own paintings as inferior to those by the other PRBs, or simply overlooked them. This disregards the artist’s years of training at the Royal Academy (he enrolled in 1844), his demand as a portrait painter (he had at least five portraits on the go in 1854) and the documented fact of his having helped to teach Rossetti the rules of perspective (William Michael Rossetti’s PRB Journal, 16 December 1849: ‘In the evening Stephens came to Gabriel’s study to do his perspective.’)

Frederic George Stephens, Morte d’Arthur, 1849 (unfinished). Oil on wood, 59.5 x 74 cm. Tate; bequeathed by Holman Fred Stephens, 1932.

One of the central aims of my thesis is to examine Stephens’s art in a fresh light, and with the same close visual analysis and attention to primary sources – letters, journals, drawings – that have been paid to the paintings of Millais, Hunt and Rossetti throughout the twentieth century. Stephens’s fellow PRB, James Collinson (‘Who?’, some would ask) has been similarly neglected, as have the sculptures of Woolner, although I’ll leave those projects to other scholars for the time being. In his art writing, which gathered steam in the mid-to-late-1850s with articles in the Critic in the UK and the Crayon in the USA, he disseminated Pre-Raphaelite ideals and aesthetics to a wide readership both at home and overseas. After being appointed chief art critic for the Athenaeum in 1860, he championed the innovative photographic techniques of Julia Margaret Cameron in a series of reviews praising her work. Stephens’s written oeuvre became so vast in later years – for the Athenaeum alone he wrote over 2,000 articles; it was a weekly publication, and he retired in 1900 – that I have had to refine the chronological parameters of my thesis to cover the years between 1827 and 1870, focusing solely on his Pre-Raphaelite work whilst still acknowledging his connections to a much wider circle of other Victorian artists and writers. A coda section will address the 1905 controversy involving Hunt’s autobiography. Ultimately, I hope my thesis will generate a renewed interest in this founding Pre-Raphaelite Brother who played a crucial role in constructing the narrative of Pre-Raphaelitism we know today.

William Michael Rossetti, Frederic George Stephens, 27 July 1853. Pencil on paper, 22.2 x 15.8 cm. The Leicester Galleries.

Header image: F. G. Stephens, probably in the garden of 10 Hammersmith Terrace, London, by an unknown photographer, ca.1890s; Colonel Stephens Railway Museum collection, Kent.


‘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.

Painting the Flock: Pre-Raphaelite Livestock

I spent the first 8 years of my life on and around the family farm in south Shropshire, near the town of Ludlow where I was born—the same rural landscape described so evocatively in A. E. Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad (‘From Clee to heaven the beacon burns, / The shires have seen it plain, / From north and south the sign returns, / And beacons burn again’). Although we moved away from the farm in 2001 to go and live down in Cornwall, my memories of those early years are still very vivid: the land changing with the seasons; racing across open fields with my dad on his quad bike; the shimmering summer heat in the hay fields; the bloody massacre of a fox in a chicken coop; the dim, distinctive hush of the big barn, smelling earthily of hay and animal feed. Our livestock chiefly consisted of cattle and sheep, and I still remember the times I could sit with a warm, newborn lamb in my lap to feed with the milk-bottle.

Scan 14 copy
View from Nordy Bank, an Iron Age hill fort in the Shropshire Hills near the village where I grew up. Own photograph, spring 2014.

So perhaps I have been more conditioned than other viewers to notice the surprisingly frequent appearances of livestock—particularly sheep—in Pre-Raphaelite painting. The first that springs to mind is, of course, Hunt’s Our English Coasts, 1852, with its alternative title of Strayed Sheep (below). When I first showed this painting to my dad, an ex-sheep-farmer, he was (luckily!) impressed, though reproductions don’t do justice to the vibrant, singing colours of the original now hanging in Tate Britain. Hunt, as a kind of artist-shepherd, deploys his sheep for blatantly symbolic purposes. The idea of a straying flock representing the precarious state of the nation, when anxieties about England’s south coasts being vulnerable to Napoleon III’s invading fleets were heightened in the public consciousness, can still easily be grasped by modern viewers. Interestingly—though don’t quote me on this, and I may have to ask my dad!—this particular flock is comprised of a number of different breeds perched all together on the cliffside, which would reflect the diversity of the British population. I’m reminded of Bathsheba Everdene’s (very accurate) lamentation in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd:

Sheep are such unfortunate animals!—there’s always something happening to them! I never knew a flock pass a year without getting into some scrape or other.

William Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts 1852 ('Strayed Sheep'), 1852. Oil on canvas. Tate.
William Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts, 1852 (Strayed Sheep), 1852. Oil on canvas. Tate.

The symbolism of the flock in Our English Coasts, then, is decidedly secular, in that it refers to the socio-political climate of its day (hence the specific date of 1852 included in the title). But Hunt also recognised the religious and moral potential of a flock of wayward sheep. In the same period as English Coasts he painted The Hireling Shepherd (below); another icon of High-Pre-Raphaelitism, with its minute, meticulous realism and dense arrangement of symbols—including a death’s-head hawkmoth, unripe apples and a lamb enfolded in a blood-red cloth. (No doubt the flowers in the foreground carry their own Victorian meanings too.) On the one hand, it is a somewhat questionable portrayal of the rural working class, which apparently can only descend into indolence and—most shocking!—wanton sexuality.

William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd, 1851. Oil on canvas. Manchester City Art Galleries.
William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd, 1851-2. Oil on canvas. Manchester City Art Galleries.

The title itself refers to the Book of John, Chapter 10, which tells the parable of the Good Shepherd:

I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth. […] The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.

With this in mind the painting’s ‘message’ becomes clearer, pointing to the fatal consequences of letting one’s (metaphorical) flock stray into (metaphorical) unknown pastures. According to Tim Barringer, Hunt intended the painting as ‘a commentary on a contemporary controversy concerning Anglican pastors neglecting their worshipping flocks, on which [John] Ruskin had published a tract.’ The result is chaos among the sheep: two rams are locking horns (not a pleasant sight, if anyone has ever seen rams fighting); some have slumped tiredly to the ground; others, probably out of starvation, have noticed the tempting golden cornfield behind the backs of their careless, lusty guardian and his sweetheart. Readers of Far from the Madding Crowd will also recall the dangers of sheep eating clover when left to their own devices, leading to bloat—but Hunt’s shepherd is no Gabriel Oak! One scholar has said it is fatal for lambs to eat unripe apples, though I’m not sure if this is true.

The Hireling Shepherd in its original frame, carved with ears of wheat and corn to reflect the subject matter. Source: The Frame Blog.
The Hireling Shepherd in its original frame, carved with ears of wheat and corn to reflect the subject matter. Source: The Frame Blog.

Hunt was not the only Pre-Raphaelite Brother to utilise the symbolism of the flock. Millais’s controversial masterpiece of 1849-50, Christ in the House of His Parents (below), features rows of sheep crowding expectantly behind a fence in the left-background, as if to watch the foreshadowing of the Crucifixion happening inside the house. Millais, always striving for truth to nature, famously used heads bought from a butcher to paint these rams and ewes. In this instance the sheep can be interpreted as a congregation of churchgoers; interestingly, Alistair Grieve has proposed that the layout of the carpenter’s shop explicitly echoes that of a church chancel or presbytery, with the viewer looking westwards from the east end.

John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents ('The Carpenter's Shop'), 1849-50. Oil on canvas. Tate Britain.
John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’), 1849-50. Oil on canvas. Tate Britain.

A study for the painting demonstrates that the sheep were included early on, and Millais retained them even after removing other compositional elements around the edges (the window and flower box on the left, the standing figure on the right).

John Everett Millais, Study for 'Christ in the House of His Parents', circa 1849. Graphite on paper. Tate.
John Everett Millais, Study for ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’, circa 1849. Graphite on paper. Tate.

Ovis aries are also the subject of Ford Madox Brown’s ‘The Pretty Baa-Lambs’ (below), which was commenced in April 1851 using Brown’s garden at Stockwell and also Clapham Common as a backdrop (the distant seaside was added later, creating an imagined, composite landscape). Despite the eighteenth-century costumes of the figures, the painting does not illustrate any specific literary or historical subject and it is safe to assume that the sheep, in this instance, are there simply because they are.

Ford Madox Brown, Pretty Baa-Lambs, 1851-9. Oil on canvas. Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.
Ford Madox Brown, ‘The Pretty Baa-Lambs’, 1851-9. Oil on canvas. Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

The idyllic, languid innocence of the scene is best expressed in the lamb lounging flat on the grass on the far right—there are no encroaching dangers, no worm-in-the-bud undertones as in The Hireling Shepherd. As various scholars have noted, Brown was much more interested in trying to capture, as accurately as possible, the effects of bright, full, overhead sunlight on the English landscape and the human figure; scarcely any portion of the picture is in shadow, and in the hot light the mother and her baby become statuesque forms against an unusually low horizon. The colours of white fleece against green grass are particularly lovely. Brown’s plein air method of painting had a considerable influence on Hunt and Millais when they began to paint The Hireling Shepherd and Ophelia respectively, while the unusual perspective of ‘The Pretty Baa-Lambs’ may have contributed to the jarring, lopsided composition of Hunt’s English Coasts.

Ford Madox Brown, The pretty Baa-Lambs, 1852. Reduced oil on panel replica of original. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Ford Madox Brown, The pretty Baa-Lambs, 1852. Reduced oil on panel replica of Birmingham original. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

From these paintings it is possible to see the humble sheep as a kind of quintessentially English animal, embedded in the rural landscape and variously neglected and petted by humans. Pre-Raphaelite painters could cast their flocks in a surprising number of symbolic or metaphorical roles, ranging from Victorian anxieties of a French invasion to more moral and Biblical messages.

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.

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

‘Te Deum Patrem colimus’: ‘May Morning on Magdalen Tower’ by William Holman Hunt

The crowd gathered on Magdalen Bridge before sunrise on May Morning, 2013. Own photograph.
The crowd gathered on Magdalen Bridge just before sunrise on May Morning, 2013. Own photograph.
Magdalen Tower at sunrise on May Morning, 2013. Own photograph.
Magdalen Tower at sunrise on May Morning, 2013. Own photograph.

Anyone who lives in Oxford will be familiar with the ceremony of May Morning, on the 1st of May, when hundreds of students and citizens from Oxford gather on Magdalen Bridge in the minutes before sunrise. At 6 a.m., shortly after dawn, the bell of Magdalen Tower chimes the hour and the choir of Magdalen College sing the Hymnus Eucharisticus to greet the coming day. It’s a centuries-old practice in which, for a few moments suspended in time, the Christian and the pagan coexist in beautiful harmony: the act of praising the arrival of spring and the rebirth of nature on May Day is a British custom rooted in the pre-Christian past, expressed in Oxford’s May Morning through Christian prayers and hymns. I’ve attended the ceremony twice now — last year and last week — and both times I’ve been haunted by the beauty of it all; the hymn echoes from the battlements over the gathered crowd and melts with the dawn birdsong into the still air and bright sunlight. For a long time I’ve been interested in the rites and rituals of pre-Christian Europe, and there’s something particularly special about Oxford’s tradition which may be Druidic in origin. So I was intrigued to discover that William Holman Hunt had painted his own version of May Morning on Magdalen Tower.

Hunt began the first version of the painting in 1888. On May Day of that year he was present on the Tower to witness the ceremony firsthand, and in the following weeks (as he writes in his memoirs) he ‘mounted the Tower roof about four in the morning with [his] small canvas to watch for the first rays of the rising sun, and to choose the sky which was most suitable for the subject.’ Here, then, Hunt remains ever faithful to the Pre-Raphaelite creed of portraying nature as truthfully as possible. This smaller painting, now in Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, was a preparatory version for the much larger canvas which Hunt worked on at the same time, which is now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool. (Compare the two versions below.)

William Holman Hunt, 'May Morning on Magdalen Tower', 1888-91, retouched 1893. Oil on canvas, 38.8 x 48.9 cm. Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.
William Holman Hunt, ‘May Morning on Magdalen Tower’, 1888-91, retouched 1893. Oil on canvas, 38.8 x 48.9 cm. Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.
William Holman Hunt, 'May Morning on Magdalen Tower', 1888-90, 1890-91, retouched 1865. Oil on canvas, 154.5 x 200 cm. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.
William Holman Hunt, ‘May Morning on Magdalen Tower’, 1888-90, 1890-91, retouched 1865. Oil on canvas, 154.5 x 200 cm. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.

The large version was first shown in a one-picture exhibition at the Gainsborough Gallery, London, in May 1891. According to the pamphlet which accompanied it, Hunt expressed an interest in painting the May Morning ceremony as early as 1851, during his visits to Oxford. Thus, according to Judith Bronkhurst, May Morning may originally have been conceived as a pendant piece for Hunt’s A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids of 1849-50. The pamphlet also suggests that Hunt considered May Morning a religious work, in its portrayal of ‘a reverent act of worship [that accepts] the sun as a perfect symbol of the creative power’. No doubt the timeless, spiritual atmosphere of the ceremony chimed with his universalist, all-embracing religious sympathies: although the majority of the painting’s figures are clothed in Anglican choir gowns the act of singing to the rising sun is practiced in many world cultures, while the scattered flowers on the roof are a throwback to the venerations of Flora in spring festivals. In keeping with this pantheist ethos, on the far right of the painting is the figure of a Parsee, modelled for by ‘Mr Cama, an Indian merchant’ who apparently wished to be present on the roof. It’s also worth noting that the Indian Institute in Oxford was established five years before in 1883. All the other figures in the picture were painted from life, and Hunt searched the choirs of St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the Duke of York’s School for models. Yet the boys found posing for Hunt a little tiring, and one boy, named Bramley, complained: ‘I had to stand for an hour on a plank with my mouth wide open.’

Detail of the choir boys from the smaller Birmingham version. Hunt's son Hilary is on the far right, garlanded with apple blossoms and holding the score of the Hymnus Eucharisticus.
Detail of the choir boys from the smaller Birmingham version. Hunt’s son Hilary is on the far right, garlanded with apple blossoms and holding the score of the Hymnus Eucharisticus. The lily held by the red-haired choirboy, at the centre of the composition, is an emblem of Magdalen College, a college dedicated to the Saints Mary Virgin and Mary Magdalene.

This painting is one of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite images — not only because of its connection with Oxford, reawakening memories of previous May Days in the city, but also for its gorgeous colours and abundant floral details. I particularly admire Hunt’s depiction of natural light on a spring morning, with large portions of the canvas filled with pinkish wisps of clouds and the brightening sky. It makes the painting feel airy and open, with glimpses through the battlements of the distant blue horizon to the south which the golden rays of the rising sun are yet to illuminate. Further details of the River Cherwell and, I presume, the greenhouse of the Botanic Gardens, can also be seen through the gaps in the Gothic masonry. The flock of birds flitting joyously overhead echoes the line of  young choristers underneath; both the birds and the people are singing their dawn choruses in the fresh light of spring. If online reproductions are anything to go by, the two versions of the painting are different in colouring: the Birmingham version is brighter, paler and more golden; the Liverpool version has deeper contrast and shadows and the light is rosier and more vivid, with a stronger sense of the sun having only just risen. Bronkhurst also notes a difference between the two versions in the bearded figure in the left foreground of Dr Varley Roberts, Organist of Magdalen College. In the Birmingham picture his right hand is raised over his head (see the detail above), but in the main version Hunt corrects this by positioning the hand outstretched at shoulder level, making it clearer that he is conducting the Hymnus Eucharisticus. Apparently, too, the larger version is more accurate as there were only 16 choirboys at Magdalen, and you can count 17 in the preparatory version. Nevertheless, in both paintings Hunt beautifully recreates the mood of reverence and the veneration of nature on May Day. Finally, a note on frames. The Birmingham version is set in a large circular copper frame which Hunt designed. It was executed by John Williams, a member of the Guild of Handicraft, which was founded by the Arts and Crafts designer Charles Robert Ashbee in 1888. Sunbursts radiate from the oblong panel, and on ribbons a quotation from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale is inscribed in Middle English: ‘And Fyry Phoebus ryseth up so brighte / That all the orient laugheth at the sight [sic]’. The outer edge of the frame is decorated with a scrolling floral pattern, and a lark outstretches its wings at the top. A considerably lavish treatment, given that this version is a study for a larger work! Pictures of the equally beautiful frame of the Liverpool version can be viewed on the Frame Blog.

The Birmingham version of 'May Morning on Magdalen Tower' in its spectacular round frame, designed by Hunt.
The Birmingham version of ‘May Morning on Magdalen Tower’ in its spectacular round frame, designed by Hunt.


Further information

  • Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. 1: Paintings (Yale: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 265-269.
  • Many videos of the May Morning ceremony and the Hymnus Eucharisticus can be found on Youtube. Here is a particularly good one from 2013, taken from the quadrangle of Magdalen College. The Latin words of the hymn, with engravings, can be read here.
  • The Birmingham version on the Google Art Project.

‘Goblin Market’ (1862): the Rossettis in collaboration

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Christina Rossetti', September 1866
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Christina Rossetti’, September 1866

Morning and evening 
Maids heard the goblins cry: 
‘Come buy our orchard fruits, 
Come buy, come buy.’

So begins Goblin Market, one of Christina Rossetti’s most popular and distinctive poems and an acknowledged classic of Victorian literature. It is a fairy tale, an allegory of sin and redemption and a feminist tribute to the powers and bonds of sisterly love all in one, though there have been many more critical interpretations besides. Its story follows two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, who live by themselves in a little house near a wood. They are accustomed to hearing the eerie calls of the goblin merchants selling their exotic fruits pass near the house, until one day Laura, despite her sister’s warnings, succumbs to curiosity and tastes the fruits. Having eaten she then craves for more, eventually growing sickly with yearning. Lizzie decides to go to the goblins to get more fruit for Laura; she is violently attacked by the creatures who attempt to force-feed her their fruits, yet she remains steadfast and keeps her mouth closed until they give up. Lizzie returns home covered in juices and pulp, and Laura, who is on the verge of death, sucks and drinks it from her until she is miraculously restored to life. ‘For,’ Rossetti declares, ‘there is no friend like a sister’. I always find the poem’s irregular, shifting rhyme scheme and metre rather hypnotic and dreamlike, though John Ruskin complained that Rossetti’s use of such irregularities was detrimental. ‘Your sister,’ he wrote to Dante Gabriel after reading Goblin Market, ‘should exercise herself in the severest commonplace of metre until she can write as the public like.’ Ever the traditionalist!

John Brett, 'Christina Rossetti' (unfinished), 1857. I particularly like the gorgeously patterned oversized bird feather Brett incorporates into the background,
John Brett, ‘Christina Rossetti’ (unfinished), 1857. I particularly like the gorgeously patterned oversized bird feather Brett incorporates into the background.

Christina composed the poem in April 1859, and in August 1861 Macmillan agreed to publish it in a volume along with some of her other famous poems, including ‘Remember’, ‘After Death’ and ‘The Convent Threshold’. Her brother Gabriel immediately set about the task of designing illustrations, and completed them in December that year before the book was eventually published in 1862. Gabriel actually only produced two drawings to be printed in the volume, both of which illustrate Goblin Market only, and they are the first of many attempts by artists over the years to visualise Christina’s haunting and sometimes disturbing poem. Gabriel’s two illustrations appear at the very front of the book, one as a frontispiece and the other on the title-page, and the exact lines in the poem they depict are clearly indicated by the swirl-lettered captions beneath. Gabriel also designed the borders of the title-page, complete with rose motifs set in a geometric grid, as well as the external binding — thus, the book itself becomes a kind of art-object, beautiful both in cover and content.

Gilt binding of 'Goblin Market and Other Poems' designed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Gilt binding of ‘Goblin Market and Other Poems’ designed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, frontispiece and title-page of 'Goblin Market and Other Poems' by Christina Rossetti, published 1862
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, frontispiece and title-page of ‘Goblin Market and Other Poems’ by Christina Rossetti, published 1862

The frontispiece (detail below) portrays line 125 of the poem, as Laura succumbs to the temptation of the goblin fruit. Although she has ‘no coin […] No copper in [her] purse’ (ll. 116-118) to pay with, the goblins instead beseech her to ‘buy from [them] with a golden curl’, for the gold of her luscious hair is deemed more valuable by faeries than the gold of human currency: ‘You have much gold upon your head.’ (l. 123) In Rossetti’s picture, Laura kneels and poises to snip off a tress with a pair of scissors while the goblins jostle towards her. The composition is flat and crowded, and a close-up of the printed wood-block reveals a dense variety of textures, patterns and lines which lend the image a rich, detailed and decorative quality. The six goblins themselves seem to have stumbled out of some curious, anthropomorphic menagerie: human hands are juxtaposed with the heads of a rat, a fish, a cockatoo, an owl and what I take to be a dormouse and a wombat. (In the case of the latter, a whole book has been written by John Simons about Gabriel’s obsession with wombats and exotic animals!) Another interesting element of the picture is the presence of another female figure in the top left-hand corner, who walks away uphill from the gathering. She looks back over her shoulder and carries a jug in one hand — we can tell that the jug is heavy because she swings out her other arm to steady herself. Is this Lizzie, running off after warning her sister about the goblin men? Simon Humphries notes that Gabriel has interpreted his sister’s poem wrongly in portraying Lizzie looking back at Laura, since it implies that she is intentionally deserting her without making an effort to save her as she later does — that is, if it is even Lizzie at all. I would here point out that Christina makes much of the sisters both having golden hair; this woman on the left has dark hair, and the poem makes no mention of her bearing a jug at this point. Dante Gabriel has come up against one of the great challenges which any illustrator faces: whether to follow the text as closely as possible, or interpret it more subjectively.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Buy from us with a golden curl' (detail), c. 1861-62
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Buy from us with a golden curl’ (detail), c. 1861-62

The second illustration (below) depicts another instance of the word ‘golden’, which occurs a little later on line 184. Laura has tasted the treacherous goblin fruit and that evening craves for more, saying that she will go and buy more the next night. For the time being, she and her sister nestle together in ‘their curtained bed’ to sleep. There is no denying the air of dreamy sensuality in Rossetti’s illustration; as in the poem, the sisters lie ‘golden head by golden head, / Like two pigeons in one nest / Folded in each other’s wings’. (ll. 184-186) Their arms enfold and enclose one another in a circle of intimacy, and furthermore there is barely a straight line anywhere in the drawing: it’s all arabesques, soft curves and floral patterns to mirror the soft rhymes and lullaby tone of the poem’s lines. The viewer is also left uncertain as to which is Laura and which is Lizzie. They are virtually indistinguishable and inseparable from one another, both having the same cascading hair, slumberous eyelids, pouting lips and thickset jaws. You might recall my previous post about Gabriel’s fascination with doppelgängers and doubling, and here is another image of a pair of identical female figures. This is suggested in Christina’s poem that the sisters are ‘like two blossoms on one stem, / Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow’ (ll. 188-189), and have similar-sounding names (it’s easy to get ‘Laura’ and ‘Lizzie’ confused). Aside from this, a circular hole on the left appears to be a window into a dream, perhaps Laura’s yearning vision of the goblins and their tempting fruit. They dance down a hillside beneath a crescent moon, led by the same owl-faced goblin from the previous image. Both illustrations have top-left-to-bottom-right diagonals in the left-hand corners of their compositions, subtly suggesting an echoing of the daytime reality of the first picture in the nighttime dreamworld of the second. This particular illustration could be seen to contribute to homosexual readings of Goblin Market: its portrayal of close, intense female intimacy — the woman on the right even with her dress slipping down to nearly reveal her breasts — anticipates the incident later in the poem in which the sisters kiss one another with an almost erotic intensity.  I always recall with interest an English seminar last year in which we discussed this illustration, and the general consensus of my classmates that there is something decidedly masculine or ‘mannish’ in the women’s physiognomies, as if androgynously blurring genders.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Golden head by golden head', c. 1861-62
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Golden head by golden head’, c. 1861-62

Gabriel’s drawings for Goblin Market only depict the poem’s first half, and he did not then go on to portray Lizzie’s quest to redeem her sister’s fall into temptation, the notorious sequence in which, ‘white and golden’, she bravely resists the goblins’ violent attacks upon her (ll. 408-446). Nevertheless he has selected a moment of temptation and a moment of sisterly love, certainly two of the poem’s core themes, as the focus of his pictures. It is, in my view, a very successful collaboration between sister and brother, and out of the many illustrations produced by later artists I consider Gabriel’s to be closest to the dreamy spirit of his sister’s famous poem. Is this because they were created contemporaneously? Finally, the Rossetti Archive lists a stained-glass window designed by Gabriel and manufactured by William Morris’ Firm, depicting a group of mischievous animal-faced creatures all sporting rather swanky sun-hats, which is apparently titled Goblin Market. Another scholar reckons the window was actually designed by Arthur Hughes, but it would make a nice ending to this story if it were by Gabriel!

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Goblin Market', stained-glass window, c. 1862
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Goblin Market’, stained-glass window, c. 1862


Further information

  • The full text of Goblin Market, with line numbers
  • An overview of Christina Rossetti’s work on the Victorian Web, with numerous articles on context and themes.
  • Listen to an episode of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time about Christina Rossetti on BBC iPlayer, first broadcast 1 December 2011 (if iPlayer doesn’t work in your country, this link may work instead)