Exploring Rossetti’s Home

“I was ushered into one of the prettiest and most curiously furnished old-fashioned parlours that I had ever seen. Mirrors and looking-glasses of all shapes, sizes and design lined the walls. Whichever way I looked I saw myself gazing at myself.”–Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his circle (Cheyne walk life), Henry Treffry Dunn.

Henry Treffry Dunn, who was at one time Rossetti’s studio assistant, gives us an intimate glimpse into the artist’s home. Rossetti moved into Tudor House at 16 Cheyne Walk (located in Chelsea) soon after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, from an overdose of Laudanum.  His years at Tudor House are often described as bohemian and his behavior did become quite eccentric.  It was in this home that he began collecting a menagerie of exotic animals and developed a passion for hoarding antique furniture, blue-and-white china, and vast amounts of bric-a-brac. His former lover and model Fanny Cornforth became the housekeeper of Tudor House and the household also consisted of poet Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Algernon Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Fanny Cornforth, and William Michael Rossetti posing in a sort of mock family portrait in the garden of 16 Cheyne Walk.

Algernon Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Fanny Cornforth, and William Michael Rossetti posing in a sort of mock family portrait in the garden of 16 Cheyne Walk.

It was an almost all male existence at Tudor House and it does not seem to have been a haven of peace.  Whistler, who lived nearby, visited often. One morning the excitable Swinburne flung an egg in the face of novelist George Meredith during a disagreement about Victor Hugo.  Apparently Meredith didn’t fare well at Rossetti’s house at all, since Wilfred Scawen Blunt’s diary also describes Rossetti throwing a cup of tea in Meredith’s face in a similar argument.  Visitors were reportedly disgusted by Rossetti’s large breakfasts; Hall Caine wrote that Rossetti ate six eggs and half a dozen kidneys. A story also persist about Swinburne sliding down the banisters naked.  In the midst of all of this ribald behavior, there were elements of sadness.  Rossetti’s displayed his late wife’s art in the drawing room, as mentioned by Georgiana Burne-Jones in Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones:

“No Thames Embankment had reached Chelsea then, and only a narrow road lay between the tall iron gates of the forecourt of 16, Cheyne Walk, and the wide river which was lit up that evening by a full moon.  Gabriel had hung Lizzie’s beautiful pen-and-ink and water-colour designs in the long drawing-room with its seven windows looking south, where if ever a ghost returned to earth hers must have come to seek him: but we did not sit in that room, the studio was the centre of the house.”–Georgiana Burne-Jones (more of GBJ’s memories of Lizzie can be found here.)

Not only did Dunn give us a written account with his Recollections, but his watercolours of Tudor House provide us with a unique look at several rooms.

Rossetti’s sitting room:

'D.G. Rossetti and Theodore Watts-Dunton in the sitting room at Cheyne Walk.  Watercolour by Henry Treffry Dunn

‘D.G. Rossetti and Theodore Watts-Dunton in the sitting room at Cheyne Walk. Watercolour by Henry Treffry Dunn

In his Recollections Dunn states that the mantelpiece seen on the far right was an “original make-up of Chinese black-lacquered panels bearing designs of birds, animals, flowers and fruit in gold relief.”  Blue Dutch tiles decorated each side of the fireplace. In addition to the mirrors Dunn mentioned at the beginning of this post, we can also see Rossetti’s portraits of his mother and sister on the wall.  On the left is the portrait of Rossetti’s mother Francis Polidori Rossetti with his sister Christina.  On the far right is his portrait of Christina, author of Goblin Market.

Christina Georgina Rossetti; Frances Mary Lavinia Rossetti (née Polidori)

Christina Georgina Rossetti; Frances Mary Lavinia Rossetti (née Polidori)

Portrait of Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Via the Rossetti Archive.

Portrait of Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Via the Rossetti Archive.

Rossetti’s Drawing Room:

'Rossetti's Drawing Room at Cheyne Walk', Henry Treffry Dunn

‘Rossetti’s Drawing Room at Cheyne Walk’, Henry Treffry Dunn

“When the party was an exceptional one, I mean for the number of friends invited, the table was laid in the so-called drawing room — an apartment comprising the whole width of the house, boasting of five windows giving an extensive and interesting view of Chelsea reach…”–Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his circle (Cheyne walk life), Henry Treffry Dunn.  Although Dunn says five windows, I do believe this is the same seven-windowed room mentioned by Georgiana Burne-Jones that contains Elizabeth Siddal’s art.  Sadly, I can’t see any discernible details in the art on the walls in Dunn’s painting.

Rossetti’s bedroom:

'Rossetti's bedroom at cheyne Walk', Henry Treffry Dunn

‘Rossetti’s bedroom at Cheyne Walk’, Henry Treffry Dunn

Dunn gives us a look at Rossetti’s bedroom as seen through a mirror.  His description of the bedroom sounds oppressive and claustrophobic: “I thought it a most unhealthy place to sleep in.  Thick curtains heavy with crewel work in designs of print and foliage hung closely drawn round an antiquated four-post bedstead.” In fact, Rossetti’s bedroom sounds exactly as I imagined it would, as Dunn also mentions it is cluttered and filled with ‘Chinese monstrosities in bronze’, blue china vases filled with peacock feathers, lots of shelves filled with brass repousse’ dishes and that the only modern thing in the room was a box of matches.

16 Cheyne Walk today

16 Cheyne Walk today

Stories from Tudor House have added to Rossetti’s eccentric reputation, this is the Rossetti we see as a mad collector of animals, the bohemian artist living with the decadent Swinburne.  It all seems a bit wild and lascivious, but is it all the truth?  I honestly don’t believe that Rossetti was in search of a frat-boy existence in the years following the loss of his wife.  Where others may want to see him as a crazy libertine, I see hints of sadness. As much as it was a house of frivolity, it was also the house in which Rossetti experienced deep depression and paranoia.  It was during this time when his obsession for Jane Morris reached its pinnacle, for Rossetti was the kind of artist who desperately needed a muse.  Which brings me to another of Dunn’s representations of Tudor House. Rossetti’s Studio.  We can see several works depicting Jane Morris, notably Proserpine at the right.

'Rossetti's Studio', Henry Treffry Dunn

‘Rossetti’s Studio’, Henry Treffry Dunn

'Proserpine', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Proserpine’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Also see Forbidden Fruit, Katabasis, and Those Rossetti Lips

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Her enchanted hair

Lady Lilith, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lady Lilith, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Alexa Wilding

And  her enchanted hair was the first gold./And still she sits, young while the earth is old –from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnet Lady Lilith

Lilith appears here with pale skin and clad in a white gown, making her luxurious hair the most vivid thing in the room.  In this painting, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is not showing us a simple image of a beautiful woman. He’s giving us Lilith, the first woman, the witch, the goddess.  Her face seems strangely passive as she looks at her own reflection, until we read Rossetti’s sonnet and understand that even while she gazes at herself she is fully capable of tearing you apart: And,subtly of herself contemplative/Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave/Till heart and body and life are in its hold. Look at the mirror that hangs on her wall and you will see that all is not right here.  Where the room should be reflected, we glimpse an enchanted world.  Beware Lilith and her enchanted tresses before you fall under her spell.

Rossetti created a similar work in his 1864 Woman combing her hair, except this time there is no sonnet or title to warn us of her intent. Instead of gazing at herself, her thoughts appear elsewhere.  This time, the mirror on the wall performs its proper and mundane function so that we can see the room’s reflection.  There is no threat here. These tresses are merely pretty, not enchanted.  Although, you could still fall under her spell.

'Woman combing her hair', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Woman combing her hair’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Fanny Cornforth

It is impossible not to notice similarities between Lady Lilith and Woman combing her hair with Fazio’s Mistress (Aurelia).

Fazio's Mistress, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Fanny Cornforth

Fazio’s Mistress, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Fanny Cornforth

Hair figures strongly in many of Rossetti’s works and is important symbolically in many Pre-Raphaelite pieces.  The Victorians attached great importance to hair:  only children would normally be seen with theirs unbound.  Married women would not wear their hair down in the presence of men other than their husband.

It has been said that when model Elizabeth Siddal posed for Rossetti as Delia, he began to develop feelings for her when she happily took her hair down to get into character.  How ironic that hair should be mentioned at the impetus of their relationship.  A decade later they would marry, with their marriage cut short by her overdose of Laudanum.  Seven years later when he had her coffin exhumed to retrieve poems he had buried with her, the false and strange rumor spread that her famous hair had continued to grow after death.

Study for Delia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Study for Delia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Study for Delia, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Study for Delia, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Another example of ‘enchanted’ hair is William Holman Hunt’s The Lady of Shalott.  Many Pre-Raphaelite artists painted the Lady of Shalott, some of them repeatedly.  But only Holman Hunt depicted her hair whipping wildly, perhaps by supernatural means, when the Lady has fallen in love with a vision of Lancelot and decides to ignore the curse that has come upon her.

'The Lady of Shalott', William Holman Hunt

‘The Lady of Shalott’, William Holman Hunt

The Lady of Shalott', William Holman Hunt

The Lady of Shalott’, William Holman Hunt

Isabella and the pot of basil is another supernatural, yet gruesome, tale in which hair is used symbolically.  Based on the poem by Keats, Isabella’s lover was murdered by her brothers. His ghost later appears to Isabella and he leads her to his buried body.  She digs him up, removes his head and buries it in a pot of basil.  She then cares for the pot of basil obsessively, pining away and consumed with grief. She is seen here, in William Holman Hunt’s painting, her hair mingling with the leaves of the basil plant. (Also see Love, Death, and Potted Plants)

'Isabella and the Pot of Basil', William Holman Hunt

‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’, William Holman Hunt

Victorian hair was meant to be up, put away, private. When I see images such as these it strikes me that there is this sense that, like Samson, perhaps a woman’s hair was a source of power.  To have it free was to resist boundaries and rules.  Years later, women would take their hair into their own hands, drastically cutting it into the bobbed and shingled styles of the 1920s.  Now, we’ve become the complete opposite of the Victorians and our society seems surprised when we see a woman over 35 or 40 who dares to keep her hair long.  I say wear your hair however you think it suits you, regardless of societal norms.

'The Bridesmaid', Sir John Everett Millais

‘The Bridesmaid’, Sir John Everett Millais

No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid lightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.–Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret

Also see:

The Beautiful Necessity: Pre-Raphaelite Tresses

The Kissed Mouth: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite

Hair Adornment in Rossetti Paintings

Posted in Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Fanny Cornforth, Lady of Shalott, Millais, William Holman Hunt | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Millais’ Ghostly Apparition

When it comes to ghost stories, the Victorians were absolutely the best. It was an era that birthed Industrialism and scientific discovery, yet people held firmly to superstition and folklore. Death closely hovered around every family, regardless of wealth or class. Mourning was so common that there were societal rules about it that were to be strictly observed. When death is an almost palpable part of a culture, it is inevitable that it would be reflected in their literature and art. Ghost stories were embedded in the fabric of Victorian life and neither science nor rational thought could inhibit the lure of a supernatural tale. The possibility of an apparition both frightened and delighted in equal measure. Which, of course, brings me to Sir John Everett Millais’ ghostly painting, a concept that had been on his mind for forty years before he began to paint it.

'Speak! Speak!', Sir John Everett Millais

‘Speak! Speak!’, Sir John Everett Millais

“The picture tells its own tale. It is that of a young Roman,who has been reading through the night the letters of his lost love; and at dawn, behold, the curtains of his bed are parted, and there before him stands, in spirit or in truth, the lady herself, decked as on her bridal night, and gazing upon him with sad but loving eyes.  An open door displays the winding stair down which she has come; and through a small window above it the grey dawn steals in, forming, with the light of the flaring taper at the bedside, a harmonious discord, such as the French school delight in, and which Millais used to good effect in his earlier picture, ” The Rescue”. — The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais

Like his fellow Pre-Raphaelite artists, Millais took great pains to find just the right furniture and props to create his work.  You may be familiar with the extremes he took when painting Ophelia, where model Elizabeth Siddal almost drowned (see my site LizzieSiddal.com.)  For Speak! Speak!,Millais purchased an old four-poster bed and attempted to borrow an antique lamp from a museum.  Upon learning that borrowing the lamp was forbidden, the artist drew the object and had an iron worker create a facsimile.  Millais’ son remarked that from beginning to end of the work, his father took a romantic interest in the picture.

Punch had an amusing note on the painting that Millais used often to chuckle over, the suggestion being that it represented a young man whose wife had run up a fearful bill for diamonds, and this so haunts him that he has a nightmare in which she appears in a her finery. –The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais

The painting, for me, also brings to mind Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. It’s one of my favorite Victorian mysteries and the author and Millais were great friends. Here Millais has created that same spectral presence of a startling woman in white. For more on The Woman in White and other paintings using the symbolism of white-clad ladies, see Gowns so White and Fair. 

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Nature as Feminine

'Listening to My Sweet Pipings', John William Waterhouse

‘Listening to My Sweet Pipings’, John William Waterhouse.  Earth reclines as Pan serenades her.

In Listening to my Sweet Pipings, Waterhouse has shown the figure of Earth reclining as Pan serenades her.  Notice that Earth holds a poppy in her hand while Pan wears one in his hair.  The title of Waterhouse’s painting is taken from Hymn of Pan by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The notion of Nature as feminine is an ancient one, dating back to Gaia of Greek myth. Gaia is probably the first ‘Mother Nature’ figure and she is depicted as a Primordial Goddess.

Gaia with her four children (the four seasons).  The god Aion is seen in the background. (Mosaic tile from a Roman villa in Sentinum, first half of the third century BC,)

Gaia with her four children (the four seasons). The god Aion is seen in the background. (Mosaic tile from a Roman villa in Sentinum, first half of the third century BC)

Sir Edward Burne-Jones shares his vision of the goddess of nature in Earth Mother.

'Earth Mother', Sir Edward Burne-Jones

‘Earth Mother’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones

'At the First Touch of Winter, Summer Fades Away', Valentine Cameron Prinsep

‘At the First Touch of Winter, Summer Fades Away’, Valentine Cameron Prinsep

In Prinsep’s At the First Touch of Winter, Summer Fades Away, the vivid contrast of the two figures gives us a dramatic representation of Winter touching Summer.  Summer drops her flowers and they cascade around her.  Her end has come, nature’s cycle continues to turn.

It’s common to see Pre-Raphaelite artists’ and their followers depict the seasons as female.  Walter Crane depicted them together in The Masque of the Four Seasons while Burne-Jones depicted them individually in a series.

'The Masque of  the Four Seasons', Walter Crane

‘The Masque of the Four Seasons’, Walter Crane

Burne-Jones Four Seasons:

'Autumn', Burne-Jones

‘Autumn’, Burne-Jones

'Winter', Burne-Jones

‘Winter’, Burne-Jones

'Spring', Burne-Jones

‘Spring’, Burne-Jones

'Summer', Burne-Jones

‘Summer’, Burne-Jones

In an era that was the birth of Industrialism and scientific reason, to see Nature personified as Divine Feminine was perhaps a way to hold on the the magic of Nature.

I sang of the dancing stars,
I sang of the dedal earth,
And of heaven, and the Giant wars,
And love, and death, and birth.
And then I changed my pipings,–
Singing how down the vale of Maenalus
I pursued a maiden, and clasped a reed:
Gods and men, we are all deluded thus;
It breaks in our bosom, and then we bleed.
All wept–as I think both ye now would,
If envy or age had not frozen your blood–
At the sorrow of my sweet pipings.  (excerpt from Shelley’s Hymn of Pan)

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William Morris and Fantasy

William Morris’ fantasy books resonate with my bibliophile heart. Epic voyages told through folkloric narratives, his fantasies contributed to the birth of the Fantasy genre as we know it. As if that weren’t enough, he presented these works to the world in breathtaking volumes that are the epitome of typography and ornament.

'The Water of the Wondrous Isles'

‘The Water of the Wondrous Isles’


It is his character Birdalone that intrigues me.  The heroine of The Water of the Wondrous Isles, Morris seems ahead of his time in her characterization.  Avoiding gender stereotypes, Birdalone is both educated and brave. Unlike the usual damsel in distress, she is assertive and self aware.  She embraces hard work of both body and mind in a way that many nineteenth century women fought to achieve.  Furthermore, she experiences her own longings instead of being a mere object of desire.

Morris not only wrote his fantasies during a time when realist novels were extremely popular, but he wrote them in an archaic style that sets them apart from other Victorian literature.  His unusual prose later inspired the fictional worlds of both JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, authors whose works enjoy a large fan base to this day. Readers unfamiliar with Morris’ works may lament the archaic language upon first reading, but I believe that this is his way of immersing us in his created worlds. Morris’ syntax pulls us elsewhere and we are one with the world of Romance.

Burne-Jones illustration for 'The Wood Beyond the World'

Burne-Jones illustration for ‘The Wood Beyond the World’

Many works by William Morris are available to read at Project Gutenberg.  The William Morris Archive offers a web-based and text-searchable scholarly edition of the poetry and selected prose of William Morris.

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The Lost Pre-Raphaelite: The Secret Life & Loves of Robert Bateman

RoL jacket v1

If you have even the slightest interest in the Victorian era, I highly recommend The Lost Pre-Raphaelite.  It’s a unique hybrid of biography, mystery, and architectural restoration that is unlike any book I’ve ever read.

'The Pool of Bethesda', Robert Bateman

‘The Pool of Bethesda’, Robert Bateman

The book has been compared to A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession and as a devotee of Byatt’s work, I tell you that it lives up to the comparison. When Nigel Daly and his partner Brian Vowles purchased Biddulph Old Hall, the restoration process led to more than resurrecting bricks and mortar. From the rubble of this once stately home, they uncovered questions about the life of artist Robert Bateman.  Assembling the facts of his life gave birth to an intriguing puzzle:  what is the truth behind many of the artist’s works and the inexplicable dates included in them?  Why did Bateman abandon his artistic life?  Does the relationship with his wife hold a secret that has been kept for over a century?

The questions raised about Bateman’s life are compelling and it’s the way that Nigel Daly presents it all that delighted me most.  He takes us along for the journey, allowing us to view each new question and each new discovery as it happens.  The reader takes on the role of the proverbial fly on the wall, so that Daly’s interest into Bateman’s life becomes our own.  It’s fascinating.

'Three Women Plucking Mandrakes', Robert Bateman

‘Three Women Plucking Mandrakes’, Robert Bateman

I’m frightened of accidentally including spoilers in this post so, at the risk of being annoyingly enigmatic, I will end here. It’s a superb book and I hope that it raises interest in Bateman’s works.  He is definitely deserving of renewed interest.

Visit the author’s website at http://www.nigeldaly.co.uk/ and follow on Twitter at @dalygroup1

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Welcoming Autumn

I’m particularly happy to welcome Autumn this year, with its crisp breezes and the promise of adventure.  Autumn Leaves, painted by Sir John Everett Millais, is a wonderful example of the beauty I find in the season.  It is an impressive example of a Pre-Raphaelite twilight and Millais has captured an unmistakable Autumn glow.  His models included his sisters-in-law Alice and Sophie Gray, a Miss Smythe of Methven, and an unidentified local girl.

'Autumn Leaves', Sir John Everett Millais

‘Autumn Leaves’, Sir John Everett Millais


That it was highly appreciated by Mr. Ruskin may be gathered from the Academy Notes, 1856, in which he refers to it as “by much the most poetical work the painter has yet conceived; and also, so far as I know, the first instance of a perfectly painted twilight.  It is easy, as it is common, to give obscurity to twilight, but to give within its darkness is another matter; and though Giorgione might have come nearer the glow, he never gave the valley mist.  Note also the subtle difference between the purple of the long nearer range of hills and the blue of the distant peak.”  –The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais

John Ruskin’s description of Autumn Leaves dates from 1856, and he should be lauded for writing so objectively about Millais’ work considering that it was not too long after Ruskin’s wife Effie left their marriage in order to marry Millais.  This dramatic affair is mentioned quite often when discussing scandalous relationships among the Pre-Raphaelites (see Pre-Raphaelite Marriages: Ruskin, Effie and Millais and Playing Ruskin’s Advocate).

After a few delays, Emma Thompson’s film about the Ruskin/Effie/Millais triangle is slated to be released in the UK in October.  The US release of Effie is reportedly in November.

Effie-Gray-posterOphelia, one of Millais’ most famous works, is an unexpected addition to the movie poster.  Unexpected in that his model was Elizabeth Siddal, not Effie.  Are Pre-Raphaelite women interchangeable?  Most certainly not. However, Ophelia is an image full of pathos and drama and is instantly recognizable as a Pre-Raphaelite work, so I assume these are the reasons why it was chosen.  By the way, you can read about Elizabeth Siddal’s chilling experience posing for Ophelia at LizzieSiddal.com.  Other related posts include Ophelia’s Flowers and the lure of water-women.

Pre-Raphaelites on the big screen?  Count me in.  I fully expect a few inaccuracies and mind-boggling dramatic license, but the cast includes many actors I enjoy and admire, so I’m prepared to appreciate the film and will review it here soon.  Don’t miss Kirsty Walker’s recent post about the film, in which she wonders why situations such as this demand a “victim” and a “culprit”.


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Obligatory photo of a cat.


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Exploring the Beauty of Melancholy

“Our sweetest songs are those that tell of the saddest thought” –Percy Bysshe Shelley

At what point in human history did we decide that in music, a slow tempo is sad while upbeat music with a faster beat is happy?  Instinctively we have always known that certain music and art reflects a sense of melancholy.  While many people try to avoid it, there are those of us who embrace the beauty that can only be expressed and understood through melancholy.  It is an emotion often explored by artists inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites.

Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words) Frederic, Lord Leighton

Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words) Frederic, Lord Leighton

Art allows us to process feelings we may have thought we were successful in avoiding.  Opening yourself up to melancholy can be healing.  Do people avoid it because they are perpetually happy?  Or because they hide from what they are not ready to face?  I would argue that it is for these people that melancholy art exists.  Perhaps they have become so skilled at avoiding their emotions in an honest,forthright way that fictional melancholy allows a safe way to explore these necessary emotions.

'Mariana in the South', John William Waterhouse

‘Mariana in the South’, John William Waterhouse

The very creation of it can be cathartic.  Frederic, Lord Leighton was already ill with heart disease when he painted his melancholy painting Lachrymae, the title of which literally translates into tears.

Lachrymae, Frederic, Lord Leighton

Lachrymae, Frederic, Lord Leighton


Is melancholy to be avoided?  Can it not be aesthetic? A haunting, captivating image most assuredly captures my attention more than a happy, motivational poster of flowers and rainbows.  Not that I am disparaging sweet and cheerful images.  But it is worth pointing out that some people may gravitate towards saccharine images when the opposite may contain a wealth of emotion to explore. Happiness is simple and while melancholy may be complex, one does not preclude the other.

Isabella and the pot of Basil, George Henry Grenville Manton

Isabella and the pot of Basil, George Henry Grenville Manton

When we are drawn to a melancholy painting, we don’t necessarily experience sadness or grief.  It is deeper than that.  It is a slowing down, a stillness.  A sense of calm that allows us to recognize “this is beautiful, this resonates with me.” Then, if we desire, we can explore why it spoke to us.  Or not.  Sometimes it is enough to acknowledge its beautiful truth and then walk away secure in the knowledge that we can return to it when needed.  Whenever we want, it is there to nourish, to heal, to attend our soul.

Broken Vows, Philip Hermogenes Calderon

Broken Vows, Philip Hermogenes Calderon


Life has a rhythm.  Sometimes the beat is up, we can ride the wave as it crescendos, not realizing the extent of our happiness until it has passed.  Other times the tempo is slower, we linger in the downbeat wishing things would pick up again.  Don’t wallow in it, but don’t long for that crescendo again either.  It comes when it comes.  In the meantime, find the beauty that exists in a melancholy tune. Without it, there’d be no Moonlight Sonata, no moving Requiems. Explore it.  Understand it; demand its truths without letting it own you.

'Boreas', John William Waterhouse

‘Boreas’, John William Waterhouse

Melancholy deserves to be differentiated from depression.  It is not merely another word for sadness.  I am fully aware that Freud described melancholy as a state of dejection and that elsewhere it has been described as mourning that has failed to be resolved.  My personal definition of melancholy is that it is a contemplative period–a period that may include elements of sadness without being sadness.  It is a necessary decompression of the spirit, an introversion.  It may be darker, but it is a thoughtful time. It is not an abyss.  Neither is it pessimistic.  It is the moment before the phoenix rises again.  A rest, a respite.

Thoughts of the Past, John Rodham Spencer Stanhope

Thoughts of the Past, John Rodham Spencer Stanhope

Sometimes a sense of melancholy can surface when you least expect it.  Learn how to use it.  If you experience it when hearing an old love song, for example, that reminds you of a long-gone relationship, do not use it as an excuse to languish in glowing memories or interpret it as a sign to renew what was already gone.  That is an inexcusable waste of melancholy. Do not go backwards in your life. You want to know how to use melancholy?  It is your fuel.  We are all artists, even if you have not yet discovered your medium.  When melancholy knocks at your door, welcome it in, explore and create.

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Upcoming Exhibit: A Victorian Obsession

victorianobsessionLeighton House Museum has announced an upcoming exhibit: A Victorian Obsession (November 2014 – March 2015), which will present fifty exceptional and rarely
exhibited paintings by leading Victorian artists including Lawrence Alma-Tadema,
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne Jones and Lord Leighton
himself amongst others. The collection which belong to Mexican collector Juan
Antonio Pérez Simón, has never been shown in the UK and will be hung throughout the
stunning interiors of Leighton House.

crenaria leighton __rvb hdef2_v_Variation_2

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Katabasis: Descend into Hell

After my recent post on Dante’s Divine Comedy, I’ve been thinking about metaphorical descents into the Underworld.  The rather beautiful Greek word for descent is katabasis, usually used to describe a hero’s journey into the underworld on a quest of some sort.  It’s a journey seen in not only a  variety of myths, but multiple cultures and religions.

In reading The Divine Comedy, it stood out to me that in order to get to Paradise, Dante had to first go through Hell. It has become a part of our collective unconscious, this notion of Hell as a journey.  In life, we go to dark places and endure all sorts of torture and heartbreak and, somehow, some of us emerge from that hell stronger and wiser.  We are on the Fool’s journey and it is a universal path that everyone has trod.  No matter who you are, life is going to throw something hellish thing at you.  So we’ve created stories for ourselves to help us navigate.  Those stories take us along through the underworld.  Katabasis. It’s not always an Underworld, mind you.  It’s just some place other.  A place like Oz or Wonderland or Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland. It’s a separate place with the learning of new rules and the meeting of unexpected people.  And as you make your journey, you seem to discover yourself.

For me, katabasis begins and ends with Persephone.  It is my myth, the tale that resonates with me on so many levels that I don’t even think I can fully explore them all.  And for me,  it began with this painting:

'Proserpine', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Proserpine’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rosssetti’s painting of Persephone captivated me from the first moment I saw it and seeing it repeatedly never dulls my intense love for it. Her pomegranate-colored lips, that mass of gorgeous black hair and the swathes of green drapery.  Rossetti certainly knew how to use color.  And his choice of model, the striking Jane Morris, was perhaps a personal commentary as well.  He was in love with Jane –he idolized her– and in casting her in the role of Persephone, he may have been saying that this is how he wished to see her marriage:  Persephone is the wife of Hades against her will.  She will spend part of her time each year in the Underworld with him, just as once her relationship with Rossetti began, her time was divided between him and her husband.  Rossetti wrote about Proserpine:  “She is represented in a gloomy corridor of her palace, with the fatal fruit in her hand. As she passes, a gleam strikes on the wall behind her from some inlet suddenly opened, and admitting for a moment the sight of the upper world; and she glances furtively towards it, immersed in thought. The incense-burner stands beside her as the attribute of a goddess. The ivy branch in the background may be taken as a symbol of clinging memory”

Modern representation of Rossetti's Proserpine by photographer John Knight

Modern representation of Rossetti’s Proserpine by photographer John Knight

In the ancient myth, young and virginal Persephone was abducted by Hades while she picked flowers so that she may be his bride.  Her mother, the goddess Demeter, searches frantically for her.  The goddess Hekate guides her into the Underworld and after Persephone is found, Zeus decrees that if Persephone has not partaken of any fruit of the Underworld, she may return.  But since Persephone has eaten six pomegranate seeds, she must now divide her time to six months in  the Underworld and six months with her mother on Earth.  It is a myth about seasons since Demeter causes nature to enter stasis when her daughter is  gone; Spring returns when Persephone does.  It is also a myth of motherhood and grief.  It is so many things.


What of Persephone herself?  Is it possible that Persephone wanted to be taken away? That she purposefully ate the pomegranate seeds?  Was her mother too overbearing?  Did she long for escape? Persephone’s story can be interpreted in so many ways and I enjoy them all. I want to dive into her tale and explore. It is the story of every woman and it is the story we must spend our lifetime exploring and then pass it on to our daughters for their own interpretation.

Persephone is not the only descent into the Underworld, of course.  Orpheus traveled there to save his deceased wife and failed when he didn’t trust that she was behind him.  See my post Don’t Look Back


Stories of Hercules, Theseus, Odysseus, even Harry Potter create journeys into the Underworld.  It is the classic quest.  Is it our greatest fear and our ultimate challenge.

Art depicting the Underworld is often dark and brooding, but I choose to see it as a hopeful message, a reminder that we all encounter challenges but with strength we will make it if we keep going. If you are going through it now, I tell you from personal experience that Art helps.  Any Art.  Literature, movies, music, paintings. It doesn’t matter.  Find something beautiful.  Hang on to it.

Frederic, Lord Leighton 'The Return of Persephone'

Frederic, Lord Leighton ‘The Return of Persephone’





Posted in Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Leighton, myth, Watts | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

La Mandolinata

La Mandolinata, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

La Mandolinata, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

La Mandolinata is an excellent example of opulence in jewelry in Rossetti’s work.  Complementing her brocade gown, we see that familiar spiral hair pin set among strands of pearls. (I love pearls in Pre-Raphaelite art.  See The Pursuit of Pearls and More Pre-Raphaelite Pearls)

The necklace is similar in style to the one seen in Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata and Fair Rosamund, both featuring model Fanny Cornforth. For more, see Rossetti and his Baubles. 

Bocca Baciata, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Bocca Baciata, Dante Gabriel Rossetti


Fair Rosamund, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Fair Rosamund, Dante Gabriel Rossetti



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Shades of Dante

Gabriele Rossetti, drawn by his son Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Gabriele Rossetti, drawn by his son Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Victorian poet, painter and co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, grew up in the shadow of Dante Alighieri.  Although he lived several centuries before, Medieval poet Alighieri was a permanent fixture in the Rossetti household. Rossetti’s father, Professor Gabriele Rossetti, was an Italian expatriate who came to London in 1824. He was a Mason and he believed that in Dante’s works (Vita Nuova and Divina Commedia) there were allusions to Freemasonry. It became his life’s work to find and prove these connections. Unfortunately, his beliefs were unfounded and the connections he tried to make were tenuous at best. After his death,his wife burned much of his work. I strongly recommend that you read Dinah Roe’s book,The Rossettis In Wonderland: A Victorian Family History, which is an in-depth account of the Rossetti family and delves into Professor Rossetti’s Dantean scholarship and the effect it had on his family more deeply than I can here.

In 1828, Professor Gabriele Rossetti named his oldest son Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti. The reasons for ‘Gabriel’ and ‘Dante’ are obvious; ‘Charles’ was chosen in honor of Charles Lyell who was chosen to be the boy’s godfather and shared Professor Rossetti’s passion for Dante. After Lyell’s death, his godson dropped ‘Charles’ and used the name Dante Gabriel Rossetti professionally from then on. Among friends and family,though, he was always known as Gabriel.

The influence of Dante Alighieri was Gabriel’s birthright; he was an inescapable ghost in their home. Although in his younger years he preferred English writers such as Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott, Dante seems to have been absorbed into Gabriel’s DNA and became a frequent subject of  his work.  Gabriel would later translate Dante’s Vita Nuova and his own personal life and relationship with Elizabeth Siddal would seem at times to parallel Dante’s love for Beatrice, the love immortalized in both La Vita Nuova (The New Life) and Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy).

Dante Alighieri first saw and fell in love with Beatrice when he was nine years old. He would later write about his instant love for her in Vita Nuova, saying “Behold, a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me.” He loved her from afar for the rest of her life.  She would die in 1290 at age twenty four.

'The first anniversary of the death of Beatrice', Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1849

‘The first anniversary of the death of Beatrice’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1849

'Dante in meditation holding a pomegranate', Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Like the myth of Proserpine in the underworld, the pomegranate represents Dante's visit to Hell

‘Dante in meditation holding a pomegranate’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Like the myth of Proserpine in the underworld, the pomegranate represents Dante’s visit to Hell

Rossetti’s drawing of Dante above fascinates me, as it is inspired by a copy of Seymore Kirkup’s painting of a lost image of Dante.  Kirkup, an artist, was a friend of Rossetti’s father and shared an intense passion for Dante.  In 1840 he began searching for a lost portrait of Dante painted by Giotto.  Upon finding it, Kirkup made a tracing and a painting of the lost portrait, which was fortunate since the original was destroyed during restoration.

Via 'a href-"http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/op15.rap.html'RossettiArchive.orgThis image may be the copy made by Kirkup, or it may be a copy of Kirkup's work by Rossetti.  It remains unidentified.  The original was part of a fresco discovered under whitewash by Kirkup and his party.

Image via RossettiArchive.org This image may be the copy made by Kirkup, or it may be a copy of Kirkup’s work by Rossetti. It remains unidentified. The original was part of a fresco discovered under whitewash by Kirkup and his party.

Rossetti painted a recreation of Giotto painting the lost portrait Kirkup discovered.

'Giotto painting the portrait of Dante', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Giotto painting the portrait of Dante’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

While Giotto paints his portrait, Dante looks at his unrequited love Beatrice.  Also seen in the painting are the artist Cimabue (looking over Giotto’s shoulder) and Guido Cavalcanti (the Dante’s left).

'Beatrice meeting Dante at a marriage feast, denies him her salutation', Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1855

‘Beatrice meeting Dante at a marriage feast, denies him her salutation’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1855

In Rossetti’s 1855 watercolor of Beatrice meeting Dante at a marriage feast, we can see Elizabeth Siddal’s features as Beatrice.  At this point, Siddal was Rossetti’s muse and the primary female face seen in his work.  In this watercolor, Rossetti illustrates a passage from Vita Nuova:

I began to feel a faintness and a throbbing at my left side, which soon took possession of my whole body.  Whereupon I remember that I covertly leaned back unto a painting that ran round the walls of that house; and being fearful lest my trembling should be discerned of them, I lifted mine eyes to look upon those ladies, and then first perceived among them the excellent Beatrice.  And when I perceived her, all my senses were overpowered by the great lordship that Love obtained, finding himself so near unto that most gracious being, until nothing but the spirits of sight remained to me.

Elizabeth Siddal was discovered by artist Walter Deverell while she worked in a millinery shop.  After posing for Deverell’s Twelfth Night, she began to model for other Pre-Raphaelite artists, including Rossetti.  Upon learning that she also had artistic intentions, Rossetti took her on as a pupil and from then on, she posed only for him.  This led to what would be an important yet complex relationship for both and they married ten years later.  Rossetti confided to artist Ford Madox Brown that when he first saw Lizzie, he felt ‘his destiny was defined’.  This sense of destiny may not have been the literal truth, but it illustrates his efforts to identify Lizzie with the type of love Dante had for Beatrice.  It may have been that Rossetti so identified with Dante that he mimicked his relationship with Beatrice, casting Lizzie as the ideal woman and declaring her to be his artistic muse. For more on their relationship, see my previous post Pre-Raphaelite Marriages: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal.

Elizabeth Siddal can also be seen in Rossetti’s painting Dante’s Vision of Rachel and Leah:

'Dante's Viosion of Rachel and Leah', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Dante’s Viosion of Rachel and Leah’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

'The Meeting of Dante and Beatrice in Paradise', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘The Meeting of Dante and Beatrice in Paradise’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Siddal also appears as Francesca de Rimini, taken from Dante’s Divine Comedy.  In Canto V, Dante encounters lovers Francesca and Paolo de Rimini in the second circle of Hell.  When Francesca first meets him, she quotes great works to him (including his own).  This establishes Francesca’s great love for reading and she later tells him that she fell in love with her brother-in-law while they read the tales of Lancelot together.  Francesca and Paolo then brought the King Arthur/Guenevere/Lancelot triangle to life by pursuing their relationship.  When Francesca’s husband caught them, he stabbed the pair to death.  They remain in the winds of the second circle of hell, along with other famous lovers who have sinned.

'Paolo and Francesca de Rimini', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Paolo and Francesca de Rimini’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In Rossetti’s triptych design, we can see the lovers kissing as the read Lancelot, Dante and Virgil in the middle as they encounter the pair, and the lovers as they brave the winds of Hell.

Rossetti completed the work in a rush in order to sell it to John Ruskin.  Elizabeth Siddal was traveling in Paris at the time and was short on funds.  Ruskin’s purchase allowed Rossetti to visit Lizzie in Paris and bring her the necessary cash.

As I read Canto V of the Divine Comedy, I was interested to see the imagery of birds.  As doves/By fond desire invited, on wide wings/and firm, to their sweet nest returning home/  Rossetti frequently described Elizabeth Siddal as a dove and used bird-like references when discussing her. He called her dear dove divine in a Valentine poem and had been known to use a heiroglyphic of a dove to represent her in letters written to his brother.  He once wrote to his sister, poet Christina Rossetti, describing two dresses that Lizzie made as making her look like a “meek unconscious dove” and a “rara avis in terra” (a rare bird in the lands).   I wonder if the bird symbolism in relation to Francesca de Rimini inspired Rossetti’s use of it in relation to Siddal.   Or perhaps, like Rossetti’s father, I am seeing connections where there are none.

Rossetti was influenced by Dante’s Beatrice and Poe’s The Raven when he wrote The Blessed Damozel.  This idea of love after death would take on a deeper meaning after the untimely passing of Elizabeth Siddal from a Laudanum overdose.  His identifying with Dante had reached a frightening new level.  With his wife no longer a living muse she becomes an even more Beatrice-like figure, unreachable in the after-life.   In his posthumous tribute to her, he painted her as Beatrice on the brink of death.

'Beata Beatrix', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Beata Beatrix’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In the background of Beata Beatrix, we see the figure of Dante and the allegorical figure of Love.  Love also appears as the center figure of Dantis Amor, completed in 1860, the year Rossetti and Siddal were wed.  Rossetti had been working on this design since 1848.

'Dantis Amor', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Dantis Amor’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dantis Amor (Dante’s Love) includes a quotation from the Vita Nuova: ‘that blessed Beatrice who now gazeth continually on His countenance qui est per omia saecula benedictus’ (Who is blessed throughout all ages).

After the death of Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti fell in love with Jane Morris, the wife of his friend William Morris.  As with Siddal, Jane became his muse and is also seen in Dantean works.  In La Pia de Tolomei, she appears as Pia from Canto V of Purgatorio in the Divine Comedy.

'La Pia de Tolomei', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘La Pia de Tolomei’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Pia is found by Dante during his travel through Purgatory, where she remains since she has died without absolution. She says to Dante “remember me, the one who is Pia;
Siena made me, Maremma undid me:
he knows it, the one who first encircled
my finger with his jewel, when he married me”

The one who “first encircled my finger with his jewel” refers to her husband, Nello, who was responsible for her death so that he could marry a Countess. Nello imprisoned her in Pietra Castle, which is the scene we see in Rossetti’s painting. Rooks, omens of death, are flying in the background. 

Rossetti also painted Jane as Beatrice in this uncharacteristically simple work.  Devoid of his usual props, flowers and symbolism, Rossetti casts Jane as the role once held by his wife.  Note the spiral hair pin. 

'Beatrice', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Beatrice’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti


The largest of Rossetti’s Dantean works is Dante’s Dream, a representation of Dante dreaming of Beatrice’s death in Vita Nuova. Notice the poppies scattered on the floor.  Jane Morris appears as Beatrice, although Rossetti has given her Elizabeth Siddal’s red hair.

'Dante's Dream', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Dante’s Dream’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante is a thread that seems to weave continually throughout Rossetti’s life. His interest may have been initially inspired by his father’s fanatic scholarship, but through Rossetti’s translations and his striking paintings of Dantean subjects, he has definitely made the world of Dante his own.

“In that book which is my memory,
On the first page of the chapter that is the day when I first met you,
Appear the words, ‘Here begins a new life’.”  –Dante Alighieri, Vita Nuova


Posted in Dante Alighieri, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Burden Morris | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Pre-Raphaelites and Shakespeare: The Tempest


In The Tempest, Shakespeare tells us the story of Prospero, duke of Milan.  Prospero was dethroned by his brother Antonio and abandoned at sea with his three year old daughter Miranda.  Eventually they landed on an enchanted island, where the sole inhabitant is the creature Caliban.  Prospero works his magic and places Caliban and all other spirits on the island under his control, including the spirit Ariel.  Ariel is described as an ‘ayrie spirit’ (Air spirit) and was confined in a cloven pine by the witch Sycorax until Prospero broke the spell.  Interestingly, Shakespeare isn’t clear about when Prospero became a sorcerer.  Before or after landing on the island?

Years later, Prospero used his magic to create a tempest that caused his brother Antonio as well as Ferdinand, Sebastian, and others to become shipwrecked on the island.

'Ferdinand Lured by Ariel', Sir John Everett Millais

‘Ferdinand Lured by Ariel’, Sir John Everett Millais

When Millais painted Ferdinand he used fellow Pre-Raphaelite F.G. Stephens as his model. Stephens describes his experience posing for the painting in The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais:

“In the summer and autumn of 1849 he [Millais] executed the whole of that wonderful background, the delightful figures of the elves and Ariel, and he sketched in the Prince himself. The whole was done upon a pure white background, so as to obtain the greatest brilliancy of the pigments. Later on my turn came, and in one lengthy sitting Millais drew my most un-Ferdinand-like features with a pencil upon white paper, making, as it was, a most exquisite drawing of the highest finish and exact fidelity. In these respects nothing could surpass this jewel of its kind. Something like it, but softer and not quite so sculpturesque, exists in the similar study Millais made in pencil for the head of Ophelia, which I saw not long ago, and which Sir W. Bowman lent to the Grosvenor Gallery in 1888.”

My portrait was completely modelled in all respects of form and light and shade, so as to be a perfect study for the head thereafter to be painted. The day after it was executed Millais repeated the study in a less finished manner upon the panel, and on the day following that I went again to the studio in Gower Street, where ‘Isabella’ and similar pictures were painted. From ten o’clock to nearly five the sitting continued without a stop, and with scarcely a word between the painter and his model. The clicking of his brushes when they were shifted in his palette, the sliding of his foot upon the easel, and an occasional sigh marked the hours, while, strained to the utmost, Millais worked this extraordinary fine face. At last he said, “There, old fellow, it is done!” Thus it remains as perfectly pure and as brilliant as then –fifty years ago– and it now remains unchanged. For me, still leaning on a stick and in the required posture, I had become quite unable to move, rise upright, or stir a limb till, much as I were a stiffened lay-figure, Millais lifted me up and carried me bodily to the dining-room, where some dinner and wine put me on my feet again. Later the till then unpainted parts of the figure of Ferdinand were added from the model and a lay-figure.”

The subject of the painting is Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples.  When the King’s ship wrecks upon Prospero’s island, Ferdinand was separated from the rest of his shipmates.  He was led by Ariel’s enchanting music to Prospero’s cell where he meets Miranda.  Miranda believes him to be a spirit at first, ‘nothing natural I ever saw so noble’.  Ferdinand speaks to her as ‘the goddess on whom these airs attend’.

Although not strictly a Pre-Raphaelite, the works of John William Waterhouse are definitely Pre-Raphaelite in style.  He painted Miranda from The Tempest twice; both works depict her as she looks upon the storm created by her father.

'Miranda', John William Waterhouse

‘Miranda’, John William Waterhouse

Miranda (The Tempest), John William Waterhouse

Miranda (The Tempest), John William Waterhouse

The first one is beautiful, but his later Miranda is the most captivating.  Waterhouse has captured the drama of nature, the waves exhibit the strength of the storm that will soon capsize the ship and its passengers.  Miranda’s face is half-turned, so we can not read her expression.  We can only use Shakespeare’s lines to learn her feelings:
If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,
that the sea, mounting to th’ welkin’s cheek,
Dashes the fire out. Oh, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer. A brave vessel
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her
Dashed all to pieces. Oh, the cry did knock
Against my very heart!

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Posted in Millais, Pre-Raphaelite Subjects and Themes, Shakespeare, Waterhouse | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment