The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has two excellent paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in its collection. I have been in Boston this week and paid a visit to the MFA, as I always do on such trips.
The highlight for any admirer of the Pre-Raphaelites is Rossetti’s 1859 painting Bocca Baciata. This work marked a transition in the artist’s career, away from the narrative Medieval paintings of his youth and toward the sensuous female portraits of his mature period. The title comes from a line in Boccaccio’s Decameron, which is written on the reverse of the canvas:
Bocca baciata non perde ventura, anzi rinnova come fa la luna.
‘The mouth that has been kissed does not lose its good fortune: rather, it renews itself just as the moon does.’
Bocca baciata means, “The mouth that his been kissed,” or “the kissed mouth.”
The model was Fanny Cornforth, who lived with Rossetti at the time. She also sat for the the second painting in the collection: Belcolore, or Girl with Rose, from 1863. It is a fitting companion piece as the subject is likewise drawn from the Decameron. The character of Monna Belcolore is a married woman who is courted by her village priest in one of the stories within the story.
In her youth the author Beatrix Potter knew Sir John Everett Millais as a family friend. Her father Rupert Potter was a member of Millais’s social circle. His photographs of the Pre-Raphaelite artist are the subject of a previous post.
Beatrix Potter was herself an accomplished illustrator, principally of her own Peter Rabbit stories. She was a prolific watercolorist whose landscapes and studies of mushrooms, animals, plants, and insects will be displayed at the Victoria and Albert early next year in the exhibition, Drawn to Nature.
On his death in August of 1896, Potter wrote in her journal that she would “always have a most affectionate remembrance” of Millais, though she was “unmercifully afraid of him as a child” on account of his teasing “schoolboy manner.” Despite this fact she was not afraid to show him her drawings. He gave her “the kindest encouragement” and complimented her, saying, “plenty of people can draw, but you and my son John have observation.” She concluded, “He was an honest fine man.”
At his house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, Dante Gabriel Rossetti kept a menagerie of exotic animals. This included peacocks, owls, parakeets, armadillos, kangaroos, a Brahmin bull, donkeys, and a raccoon who lived in a chest of drawers.
Most of the animals were purchased through Charles Jamrach, a dealer of wild animals with premises in Ratcliffe Highway. Jamrach was well known, mentioned by name in Dracula by Bram Stoker: a wolf that escapes from the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park is “one of three grey ones that came from Norway to Jamrach’s, which we bought off him four years ago.”
In September of 1869, Rossetti acquired the jewel of his collection: a wombat. His interest in the marsupials had evidently been cultivated at the same Regent’s Park Zoo, where several were exhibited. In a letter to Ford Madox Brown in July of 1860, he wrote, “Dear Brown: Lizzie [Siddal] and I propose to meet Georgie and Ned [Burne-Jones] at 2 pm tomorrow at the Zoological Gardens—place of meeting, the Wombat’s Lair.”
An early appearance of a wombat in Rossetti’s art can be seen in the frontispiece illustration he made for his sister Christina’s book, Goblin Market, in 1865.
The wombat that Rossetti purchased from Jamrach was short lived, as were many of his rather irresponsibly housed pets. Rossetti named the creature “Top,” in what seems to have been a reference to the plump, hirsute William Morris, whom Rossetti was cuckolding. Morris had long been known to friends by the nickname “Topsy.” A sketch by Rossetti of Jane Morris leading the wombat Top by a leash can be seen to underscore the point.
The wombat died on November 6, 1869. Rossetti commemorated the event with a sketch of himself in mourning. As Angus Trumble writes, the portrait “is satirical but was apparently prompted by genuine grief.”
Rossetti wrote a stanza of verse to accompany it:
I never reared a young wombat To glad me with his pin-hole eye, But when he most was sweet and fat And tailless, he was sure to die!
In 1893, Rudyard Kipling and his American wife Caroline settled near her family in Brattleboro, Vermont. Kipling designed a house to suit them: an Indian bungalow in the New England shingle style. He named it Naulakha. The word means nine lakh, or nine-hundred thousand, an extraordinary price in rupees, signifying its value. There is a pavilion of that name at Lahore Fort in the Punjab.
Kipling intended to make Vermont his permanent home. But after a very public falling out with his brother-in-law it was not to be. He felt hounded by the local press, his family’s privacy encroached upon, and his home no longer a haven. The Kiplings moved back to England in 1896.
The three years that he lived at Naulakha were fruitful for Kipling. In his study at the back of the house, he wrote The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, parts of Kim and The Just So Stories. In 1896 his daughter Elsie was born there.
Growing up I spent many school holidays in lower Vermont: many long lush summers and white Christmases. I had seen Naulakha once or twice from the road but had never been inside. This week my family and I are up for the foliage, which begins just a little earlier than our own in the Hudson Valley. We have been staying at Naulakha, which is now a guest house. It is little changed from Kipling’s day. The desk where he wrote The Jungle Book sits in the study.
Where the statue of a lion appears on the bookcase today, the statue of a wolf can be seen in a photograph of Kipling from the 1890s (above). We found that same wolf in the attic, one of two plaster pieces given to the Kiplings by Joel Chandler Harris, the author of Br’er Rabbit. They depict Bagheera and Gray Brother from The Jungle Book.
Kipling belonged to a family of artists active in the Arts and Crafts movement. His father John Lockwood Kipling was the subject of a retrospective at the Victoria and Albert in 2017: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London. The Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones was an uncle by marriage. The Arts and Crafts aesthetic permeates the interior design of Naulakha, leaving many built-ins and decorative fittings even as the house changed hands between then and now.
In order to reach Kipling’s study, visitors had to pass through Caroline’s office. She was the arbiter of who was admitted to see him. Above her desk hangs a portrait of the author by his cousin Philip Burne-Jones.
The house has a happy and comforting atmosphere—all the more so this time of year, with a fire in the hearth, and the children marching around exploring. We brought our happiness with us, of course. But the Kiplings found it here too.
“There are only two places in the world where I want to live,” Kipling wrote in 1898, “Bombay and Brattleboro. And I can’t live at either.”
Howard Pyle was born on this day in 1853. He was the first of the golden age American illustrators, followed by his pupil N.C. Wyeth. Through Pyle a faint Pre-Raphaelite influence came to characterize the genre.
It interested me to discover a work by Pyle that I had seen many times before noticing his initials: the ex-libris of The Yale Club of New York City. Pyle’s design was commissioned in 1905. The plate was engraved by Edwin Davis French, whom Pyle described as “the best engraver in the world.” The ex-libris is affixed to every book in the clubhouse library.
Rupert Potter was a longtime friend of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais. A barrister by trade, Potter was a very talented amateur photographer, as was his daughter, the author Beatrix Potter. He made a series of portraits of Millais during the 1880s in Millais’s London studio and house at 2 Palace Gate, Kensington.
Potter visited Millais in July of 1886, capturing the artist at a moment of leisure during work on the painting Lilacs and a portrait of the 5th Earl of Rosebery, which appear on easels.
VICTORIANA: ARTS, LETTERS, AND CURIOSITIES OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY Hardcover, 160 pp (New York: Castle Imprint, 2019) Bookshop Amazon Barnes & Noble
“That after men might turn the page / And light on fancies true & sweet / And kindle with a loyal heat / To fair Victoria’s golden age”—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, To the Queen (draft), 1851.
The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 coincided with an unprecedented flourishing of invention, industry, and creativity in Britain. The transatlantic telegraph, Bessemer steel, modern sewage systems, and the first forays into analytical computing were all introduced during this time, when the British Empire governed a quarter of the globe. In the Anglosphere of the twenty-first century we have inherited the technologies of the nineteenth century but we have not inherited the culture that once contained them. The World Wars obliterated that culture. In the crisis of the early twentieth century the context in which the modern world had been developing was suddenly removed.
Was a different modernity possible? Something more romantic? Something more authentic? A future of dirigibles, telephones, Prussian and Russian monarchy on the Continent, railways (instead of motorways), heritage crafts, muscular Christianity, classical education, art and architecture that continued to develop within the Western vernacular not against it?
The Victorian period occupies a special place in our popular culture. Every year it is recreated on page, stage, and screen in pastiche. No other era is revisited with such regularity. What is it that fascinates us? I believe we see in the Victorian past a future that might have been. Or that might yet be. The Victorians were forced by the exigencies of history to find a balance between tradition and innovation, hierarchy and populism, community and individuality, the old and the new. These forces coexisted, if not always comfortably, then at least sympathetically and effectively. We have lost that balance. Sooner or later the exigencies of our own history will demand that we strike it again.
This book involves a cultural history of nineteenth-century Britain. I write “a” cultural history and not “the” cultural history because it is by no means exhaustive. The major figures in arts and letters are examined in detail: Charles Dickens and the Pre-Raphaelite painters particularly. But you will read nothing of Darwin, Marx, or Freud. And you will read rather more about Thomas De Quincey than you might in another book about the period. Insomuch as I have written a general introduction to Victorian arts and letters, I have also, necessarily, written a very personal one. I trust that you will encounter in these pages interesting people and works previously unfamiliar, and familiar ones from unexpected angles. If I am successful you will come any with a touchstone to that lost future that still fascinates us. What you will make of it (indeed, what we will make of it as a society) remains to be seen.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the subject of a recent post. It is a gorgeous, opulent film. Obviously Coppola, together with art director Thomas Sanders and costume designer Eiko Ishioka, gave a lot of thought to what was happening in the arts both in England and Mitteleuropa at the fin-de-siècle when the film takes place. As a result the scenery, costumes, and mis-en-scène are full of interesting references.
In this post I want to examine the influence of certain nineteenth century and Pre-War artworks on the production design.
Particularly during the first half of the movie we see a visual “dialogue” between Transylvania, represented by the imagery of Symbolism and the Vienna Seccession, and England, represented by Pre-Raphaelite imagery.
An example of the former is Dracula’s castle, which is depicted rising out of an outcrop in the Carpathian mountains, modeled on František Kupka‘s 1903 painting The Black Idol (Resistance).
At various points Dracula (played by Gary Oldman) is depicted sleeping either in his sarcophagus or boxes of earth wearing a golden robe inspired by Gustav Klimt’s 1907 painting The Kiss, which includes a similar pattern of whorls and rectangles.
On Twitter, Richard Wells called attention to a scene when Dracula scatters his vampire brides, causing two of them to withdraw, twisted together in a spidery form. According to Wells the choreography by Michael Smuin was inspired by “Virgil And Dante Looking At The Spider Woman,” an illustration from Gustave Doré’s 1861 edition of Dante’s Inferno.
The scenes involving female characters Mina Murray (played by Winona Rider) and Lucy Westenra (played by Sadie Frost) take place in and around the garden of an English country house, evoking the lush floral backgrounds of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.
Two works by Arthur Hughes, painted concurrently in the 1850s, The Long Engagement and April Love, seem to be referenced. In his book The Victorians, A. N. Wilson reads into The Long Engagement,
an emotional predicament stemming directly from an economic situation. The prosperity which had created the vast bourgeoisie with its gradations from lower to upper middle class had also created a code. You could not marry, and maintain the position in society to which you aspired, until you had a certain amount of money in the bank.
Mina is temporarily separated from her fiancé Jonathan Harker (played by Keanu Reeves) for precisely this reason. He is traveling to Transylvania to represent his firm in a real estate deal with Count Dracula in the hopes of advancing his career before they marry. The young lovers say goodbye in a shot composed similarly to The Long Engagement. Mina is later seen pining for Jonathan through a pergola like the female figure in April Love.
Another depiction of Mina during her separation from Jonathan places her at a table against the window of a solarium looking out into the garden. Although the angle is different the staging is reminiscent of John Everett Millais’s 1851 painting Mariana. The subject is a character from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure whose engagement was broken after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck. Millais portrays her looking out the window longing for the return of her fiancé.
But it is Lucy who is the most overt Pre-Raphaelite character in the film. Her pale skin and red hair are the defining features of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s models Elizabeth Siddal and Alexa Wilding. Her transformation into the monster, the femme fatale, the belle dame sans merci, is a standard Pre-Raphaelite narrative.
In the same scene, when Lucy joins Mina in the solarium, she is shown wearing an off-the-shoulder gown, seated amidst potted flora in a pose reminiscent of Rossetti’s Lady Lilith, which he painted in the 1860s and 70s. Notice roses of the same pink-white hue on the table in Rossetti’s painting and embroidered on the pillow behind Lucy.
This figure of Lilith, a demon from Hebrew mythology associated with seduction and the murder of children, foreshadows Lucy’s fate as the “bloofer lady.”
At The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, Stephanie Chatfield considers whether Bram Stoker based the character of Lucy on Rossetti’s tragic wife Elizabeth Siddal. As I wrote in my book Victoriana, when Siddal died in 1862: “Rossetti buried Lizzie with the manuscripts of his unpublished poetry sealed in her coffin. This romantic gesture came to a ghoulish end, however. He later ordered her body exhumed to retrieve the poems.” Did this story of an open grave inspire Stoker? Chatfield writes,
In his notes made while working on Dracula, Stoker never mentioned the Rossetti/Siddal incident, so we can not definitively confirm that Lucy Westenra was inspired by Siddal. However, Bram Stoker lived in the same neighborhood as Rossetti and he was a friend of Hall Caine, who at one time was Rossetti’s secretary. Stoker dedicated Dracula to Caine, with a nickname used by Caine’s grandmother (“to my dear friend Hommy-Beg”). Stoker may not have included the story of Siddal’s exhumation in his notes, but due to his closeness with Caine he had to have heard an account of it at some point and he had probably read Caine’s book Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1882).
The belief that Stoker used Siddal as inspiration is bolstered by his 1892 short story The Secret of the Growing Gold. The ‘growing gold’ is the hair of a dead woman, the very tresses that had been her most striking feature in life. Her hair grows persistently and with a purpose; her intent is to haunt her husband and avenge her own death. The similarity between Stoker’s story and the claim that Siddal’s hair continued to grow and fill her coffin after death is unlikely to be a coincidence.
The last artwork I will mention is not Victorian or Edwardian. In Dracula’s castle the ancient Count lives among the relics of his past. A portrait of Dracula as a young man is adapted from a self portrait by the early Lutheran painter Albrecht Dürer, circa 1500.
Paul Chapman reminisced about his friendship with poet Coventry Patmore in the October 1904 issue of The Nineteenth Century and After. Patmore was a friend of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite artists. In the essay, Chapman tells the curious story of an encounter between Patmore, the painter William Holman Hunt, and a gnome.
[Patmore] said that one evening he was staying in a house together with Mr. Holman Hunt. They were in a room with double folding doors, and were sitting alone together, when, looking through into the further room, which was lit up, he saw a little figure seated on the corner of the table. It was alive and looked about, and was dressed in a quaint dress with a little peaked hat shaped like a harebell, and with pointed shoes. He called Holman Hunt’s attention to the figure seen by himself, and Holman Hunt saw it equally distinctly. Taking some paper, the latter made a sketch of it exactly as it seemed to him to sit there, the sketch corresponding in every particular with Coventry Patmore’s vision of the same. On looking for it again the figure had disappeared. I remember thinking it strange that the figure was so like that of the conventional gnome of the story-books, and I suppose that my host looked on me as a child, and told me a fanciful story. But it was told in a way to impress me, with its veracity, and some time afterwards I endeavoured to find out if Mr. Holman Hunt remembered anything of the circumstance or possessed the sketch, but was told there was absolutely no foundation whatever for the story. Documentary evidence, as I think Professor Huxley once took the trouble to prove, is always absent in such cases. Happily Mr. Holman Hunt is still with us to delight us, and, should he think it worth while, could clear up the mystery.
As far as I know Holman Hunt never did clear up the mystery. Unless it was he who told Chapman that there was no foundation for the story.
This is not the only anecdote about Holman Hunt encountering a gnome. Paul Johnson relates a story told by Lord Tennyson in The Spectator:
Tennyson loved jokes, stored them up, and told them beautifully. Many were rustic items from his Lincolnshire youth. Others were modern. He said: ‘They say I write about fairies as if I knew them, and they ask, “What are fairies really like?”’ He then told the story of the New Forest gnome: Holman Hunt went into the forest to get some studies of foliage on paper. Sitting in a glade he was so absorbed in his work that he did not notice that a little brown man, not three feet high, had crept up behind him. Then he saw a little brown arm stretch out and take his bottle. He looked round, and the little brown man said eagerly: ‘Gin?’ ‘No,’ said Hunt, firmly. ‘Water.’ The little brown man vanished immediately.
Perhaps the sketch alleged by Patmore is hidden away somewhere in an archive or collection.