Prosperine at Auction

Two very important Pre-Raphaelite paintings go up for auction at Christie’s in New York later this month. An 1878 version of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Prosperine and John William Waterhouse’s The Soul of the Rose will be offered at European Art Part I on October 28.

I have written about the models Jane Morris and Muriel Foster who are depicted in the paintings on this blog and in my book Victoriana.

Both works are expected to sell for between three and five million dollars—a far cry from mere decades ago, when the Pre-Raphaelites were out of favor, and David Lloyd Webber saw Leighton’s Flaming June for sale in a London shop for £50.

Agatha Christie and the Pre-Raphaelites

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Kirsty Stonell Walker connects two of my favorite subjects: Agatha Christie and the Pre-Raphaelite artists:

At first glance, you wouldn’t think Agatha Christie had any relevance in a conversation about Victorian art. A Golden Age queen, her novels are decidedly modern, reflecting a world after first one then another world war, and filled with skittish women, world-weary men, and murders galore. However, the more you read her novels, the more her Victorian roots show. Take for example, the short story ‘Miss Marple tells a Story’, where Miss Jane Marple tells her nephew Raymond (a novelist) and his girlfriend Joan (a modern artist) all about how she solved a murder that was brought to her by her solicitor and the accused man (husband of the deceased). I won’t spoil the plot for you, but when Miss Marple wants to explain how she isn’t as ‘up-to-date’ as her companions she says ‘I am hopelessly Victorian. I admire Mr Alma Tadema and Mr Frederick Leighton and I suppose to you they are hopelessly vieux jeu.’ Miss Marple is the archetypal maiden aunt, born around the 1870s (as she appears to be a woman of 50-60 in her first appearance in 1927, and grows older up to the 1950s). Jane Marple expresses many examples of what it meant to be a Victorian, for example in ‘Greenshaw’s Folly’, Miss Marple says ‘When I was a girl Inspector, nobody ever mentioned the word stomach’, together with admonishments that a lady would never be over-emotional in public. I especially love her inability to talk frankly about what litmus paper is used for, in ‘The Blue Geranium’, even though she knows from experience of being a nurse. She is shrewd but always finds a way of being delicate about matters of bodily fluids.

The entire post is wonderful with lots of references picked out of various novels and a gallery of Christie paperback covers with Pre-Raphaelite influences.

Victoriana, Coming Soon

My second book, Victoriana, will be published later this month by Castle Imprint. The official release date is May 21. From the Castle Imprint website:

The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 coincided with an unprecedented flourishing of invention, industry, and creativity within her realm. This volume offers a general introduction to the arts and letters of nineteenth century Britain with authoritative analysis. Historian Nick Louras describes a civilization involved in a process of renewal, whereby historical forms and traditions were drawn into a culture of innovation, to create a society that was both rooted and forward-looking, traditional and vital. He examines the influence of Charles Dickens, the Pre-Raphaelites, Lord Tennyson, John Ruskin, Thomas De Quincey, and the Queen herself to reconstruct that society for the reader.

The Waterhouse Muse

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John William Waterhouse was among the last artists to make use of the Pre-Raphaelite style in direct continuity with the first generation of Pre-Raphaelite painters. He was not strictly a Pre-Raphaelite. His interest in Classical and mythological subjects placed him, with Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, somewhat out of the mainstream of the genre. However a series of Arthurian, Shakespearian, and Christian paintings in the 1890s are boldly Pre-Raphaelite in style.

Beginning in the 1890s, and continuing until his death in 1917, Waterhouse worked primarily with one female model. Her likeness appears in his most famous works: La Belle Dame sans Merci (1893); A Naiad, or Hylas with a Nymph (1893); Ophelia (1894); The Mermaid (1901); and Tristan and Isolde (1914). In perhaps his most famous painting, Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), she appears duplicated as multiple figures.

For many years there was a mystery surrounding the identity of this model. “Who was she?” Christopher Wood asked in his 1981 book, The Pre-Raphaelites. “One cannot help speculating about the identity of the mysterious and beautiful model who reappears so often in…Waterhouse’s pictures…It remains one of the few Pre-Raphaelite mysteries, and one that will probably never be solved.”

The “Waterhouse Girl,” as she was long known, is a striking and prepossessing beauty. Her looks are characterized by doe-like eyes, celestial nose, a modest sensuality about the lips, and the long reddish-golden hair associated with Pre-Raphaelite models since Rossetti’s early paintings of Elizabeth Siddal. Peter Trippi writes that, “given their three decade relationship,” she “surely functioned as the artist’s muse.” We see her age over time from a young seductress in the earliest works to a woman of dignity and adult beauty in later paintings such as The Soul of the Rose, or My Sweet Rose (1908) and The Annunciation (1914). That Waterhouse changed his themes and approach to suit his model, rather than the other way around, is a tribute to her profound influence on his work.

The mystery of the model’s identity was at last solved. In 1988 a pencil study by Waterhouse for his 1905 painting Lamia was bequeathed to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. It depicts the upturned face of the model. Her name is inscribed by Waterhouse on the paper: Miss Muriel Foster.

We are fortunate to know her name, not as a mere piece of trivia. Waterhouse’s best work had for its foundation one of the most successful partnerships between artist and model in the history of painting. Muriel Foster’s contribution to that partnership comes through to us as viewers today. As Rossetti wrote in another context, “Beauty like hers is genius.”

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La Belle Dame sans Merci, by John William Waterhouse, 1893.
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A Naiad, or Hylas with a Nymph, by John William Waterhouse, 1893.
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Ophelia, by John William Waterhouse, 1894
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Hylas and the Nymphs, by John William Waterhouse, 1896
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The Soul of the Rose, by John William Waterhouse, 1908
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The Annunciation, by John William Waterhouse, 1914

Sources:

Baker, James K. Baker, Kathy L. (Fall 1999) “Miss Muriel Foster: The John William Waterhouse Model,” in The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies. New Series 8.

Baker, James K. Baker, Kathy L. (2004) “The Lamia in the Art of John William Waterhouse,” in The British Art Journal. Vol V, No 2.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Rossetti, William Michael (ed). (1895) The Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: Ellis and Elvey.

Trippi, Peter. (2003) “John William Waterhouse,” in Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters: The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection. London: The Royal Academy of Arts.

Wood, Christopher. (1981) The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: The Viking Press.

‘The Silent Voice’

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I notice (belatedly) that Gerald Moira’s 1898 painting The Silent Voice sold at auction last summer. The piece illustrates a stanza from The Two Voices, a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

Thereto the silent voice replied;
“Self-blinded are you by your pride:
Look up thro’ night: the world is wide.

A contemporary critic described the painting as follows: “In the blue moonlight, close about the dazed and doleful figure of a seated girl, a silent voice, or half perceived figure, whispers a coming comfort.” It is a beautiful painting in the late Pre-Raphaelite style.

The Watercolors of Anna Alma-Tadema

The reputation of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema has been revived lately thanks to the major exhibition of his paintings at the Leighton House Museum last year. His daughter Anna (1867–1943) was an equally talented artist in her own right. I would like to see her given proper due. Below is a selection of her watercolors and a self-portrait in oil.

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Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Library in Townshend House, London, by Anna Alma-Tadema, 1884

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The Drawing Room, Townshend House, by Anna Alma-Tadema, 1885

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Eton College Chapel, by Anna Alma-Tadema, 1886

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Self-portrait, by Anna Alma-Tadema, 1887

On Cheyne Walk in the 1860s

The photographer James Hedderly lived in Chelsea in south-west London during the mid-nineteenth century. He was a friend and contemporary of the American painter James McNeill Whistler who had his home and studio there. Hedderly photographed the neighborhood in the 1860s. The sepia-tinted prints shown below depict Cheyne Walk around the time that Dante Gabriel Rossetti moved into his house at Number 16.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti reading proofs of Sonnets and Ballads to Theodore Watts-Dunton in the drawing room at 16 Cheyne Walk, London, by Henry Treffry Dunn, 1882

How William Morris Printed Wallpaper

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William Morris’s quintessential Victorian wallpaper patterns—lush, verdant, botanical—were printed using simple wood-block presses and a maximum of human craftsmanship. This was in accordance with the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, which he founded, advocating workshops over and against factories.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, which holds a fine collection of Morris prints and textiles, produced a video to demonstrate how Morris’s patterns were (and in some cases still are) printed. The process is painstaking and impressive. Watch below.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe

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The Sleeper, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1846-7

Shortly after the publication of Poe’s “The Raven” in 1845, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, then an art student, undertook a series of pen-and-ink illustrations of the poem. Completed between 1846 and 1848, the four drawings represent variations on the fourteenth stanza,

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by seraphim whose faint foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

Rossetti titled each of the drawings, Angel Footfalls. As Robert Wilkes notes, “These are among Rossetti’s earliest works as an artist which even predate the founding of the [Pre-Raphaelite] Brotherhood in 1848.”

During the same period Rossetti illustrated two other poems by Poe, “The Sleeper” and “Ulalume.” The latter was begun in 1847, the same year the poem was published. In all of these early works, with the exception of the first Angel Footfalls, Rossetti’s mature style is instantly recognizable in nascency.

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

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

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

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

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Ulalume, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1847-8

The Pre-Raphaelite Journal

One of the joint projects of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a literary journal, intended to circulate the ideas and aesthetics of the group. The first issue of The Germ appeared on January 1, 1850. The title was an expression of the Brotherhood’s commitment to honor nature down to the smallest detail—the germ, the seed—but also of their creative aspiration: it was “the germ of an idea.”

The inaugural issue contained essays; reviews; poems by Thomas Woolner, Ford Madox Brown, Dante, William, and Christina Rossetti; and an etching by Holman Hunt to illustrate Woolner’s poem, “My Beautiful Lady.” It is not surprising that the Rossetti siblings dominated the contents of the journal. They belonged to a multigenerational literary family of mixed Italian and English stock. Their father, Gabriele Pasquale Rossetti, was an exiled Sicilian Dante scholar. Their maternal uncle was John Polidori, the physician and confidante of Lord Byron. Dr Polidori had created the modern vampire genre with his short story, “The Vampyre,” written on a challenge from Lord Byron to compose a ghost story. That same challenge, issued to Byron’s guests one evening at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland, inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.

The Rossetti household revolved around the study of Dante, Petrarch, and other early Italian writers and was often full of émigré scholars. Dante Gabriel was immersed in the life of his namesake and like his father would contribute to the corpus of literature on Medieval Italian poetry. A fourth sibling, Maria, later wrote her own volume on Dante.

The children enjoyed a happy childhood. They were baptized in the Church of England and educated at home by their parents, learning from the Bible, St Augustine, Pilgrim’s Progress, the English classics, pedagogical novels, and fairy tales. The bohemian family, though highly cultured, was never financially secure. When health problems forced Gabriele Rossetti to step down from his professorship at King’s College in 1843, much of the burden of supporting the household fell on the children. Christina was often left alone during this time and suffered bouts of depression and weak health, though she found catharsis in Christianity and in poetry. Like her mother and sister, Christina became involved in the Oxford Movement of the Church of England. Her faith permeated her writing. Biographer Lona Mosk Packer cites “the Bible, hagiographies, folk and fairy tales” as her first influences. Christina’s best known poem, “In Bleak Midwinter,” is sung as a Christmas carol in Anglican churches to this day.

The two poems that Christina Rossetti contributed to The Germ stand out in their maturity. At this point she was already an accomplished poet, having published work in the Athenaeum. “Dream Land” contains a nimble, subtle interweaving of her influences, at once evoking the enchanted slumber of a sleeping princess from fable, and the soul of the dead awaiting the resurrection of the body. In this, her verse achieves a melancholy beauty:

Rest, rest, a perfect rest,
Shed over brow and breast;
Her face is toward the west,
The purple land.
She cannot see the grain
Ripening on hill and plain;
She cannot feel the rain
Upon her hand.

The sadness that permeates her early poems no doubt reflects the emotional turmoil that Christina was then undergoing, though it was also perfectly characteristic of Victorian late-romantic verse. Her second contribution to the inaugural issue of The Germ, titled, “An End,” is no less mournful. Appropriately the last entry in the issue, it begins,

Love, strong as death, is dead.
Come, let us make his bed
Among the dying flowers:
A green turf at his head;
And a stone at his feet,
Whereon we may sit
In the quiet evening hours.

In reading through the four numbers of The Germ one is struck by the consistency of approach and subject matter in the poetry. The verse represents an extension of the Brotherhood’s artistic preference for Biblical and Medieval themes. James Collinson wrote a long poem, “The Child Jesus,” published in the second number. It was influenced by Millais’ picture, Christ in the House of His Parents.

Three cottages that overlooked the sea
Stood side by side eastward of Nazareth…

Within the humblest of these three abodes
Dwelt Joseph, his wife Mary, and their child.
A honeysuckle and a moss-rose grew,
With many blossoms, on their cottage front;
And o’er the gable warmed by the South
A sunny grape vine broadened shady leaves
Which gave its tendrils shelter, as they hung
Trembling upon the bloom of purple fruit.

In the same issue, the poem “Morning Sleep,” by William Bell Scott, an art teacher and friend of Rossetti, combines images of nature with Arthurian legend. When the contribution was submitted, William Michael Rossetti described it as “gloriously fine.” Scott writes,

The spell
Of Merlin old that ministered to fate,
The tales of visiting ghosts, or fairy elves,
Or witchcraft, are no fables. But his task
Is ended with the night;—the thin white moon
Evades the eye, the sun breaks through the trees,
And the charmed wizard comes forth a mere man
From out his circle.

Although Scott was not formally a member of the Brotherhood he was certainly a fellow traveller in the initiative to memorialize in pictures the glories of Medieval Britain. At Penkill Castle in Scotland he painted a series of murals on a staircase illustrating the fifteenth-century poem, The Kingis Quair, attributed to a Medieval Scottish king.

The Germ was not a success in its own time. Only 70 copies from an initial print run of 700 were sold. There were fewer readers of the second issue published on January 30, and still fewer for the third and fourth, published in March and April, respectively. The expenses of this venture were too onerous for the ambitious, though virtually penniless, artists to bear, and the support of their better-heeled friends was soon exhausted. After four issues the enterprise folded. Although The Germ was not a breakthrough for the Brotherhood it remains a vital record of its ideas in their earliest phase, and was reprinted several times beginning in the late nineteenth century, when the Pre-Raphaelites had achieved greater fame.

All four issues of The Germ can be read online here.

See also: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Sources:

Packer, Lona Mosk. (1963) Christina Rossetti. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Elizabeth Prettejohn (ed). (2012) The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rossetti, William Michael (ed). (1901) The Germ: Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature and Art, Being a Facsimile Reprint of the Literary Organ of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Published in 1850. London: Eliot Stock.

Rossetti, William Michael; Fredeman, William (ed). (1975) The P.R.B. Journal: William Michael Rossetti’s Diary of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1849-1853, Together with Other Pre-Raphaelite Documents. Oxford: Clarendon Press.