Monday, 27 June 2011

Following Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I was wandering around Wightwick Manor with a crowd of other people, when I came across a display on the history of Morris and Company.  I found myself next to a young lady in her late teens who seemed very disgruntled.  She gestured to the photograph of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in disgust. ‘I used to really fancy him,’ she complained, ‘then I found out he didn’t look like Aidan Turner…I was gutted!’  I felt somewhat defensive of poor DGR, after all he created such beautiful work, he inspired others, led others to create greatness…then I looked hard at the photograph…

Oh, I see.  Yes, well if you’re expecting this:

Aidan Turner and Rebecca Davies in Desperate Romantics
And you get, well, Tim Curry on a bad day, then possibly it is fair enough to be ‘gutted’.  However, I got to thinking, why didn’t the makers of Desperate Romantics go with a more realistic physical portrayal of Rossetti?  Why did they choose to make him like the London Underground in August: hot and unpleasant?  People chose to follow this man, they fell in love with him, he inspired them – was it really only his looks that made them do that?  If he wasn’t an obviously handsome man, then what was it that brought people to him and is this shown in any performance of him?  Let’s start with our hero…

Self Portrait (1847) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Hello Manflesh, are we pretty?  Excuse me, how unprofessional… Here we have a very handsome young Rossetti at around age 19 with flowing hair and poetic looks.  The ladies may fan themselves and swoon if they wish.  There is no doubt that young Gabriel is very beautiful and so I can see why all the ladies flocked to him, all the men followed him etc etc.  Hang on though, this is a self-portrait.  It’s not that I doubt his honesty or artistic skill, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t say maybe, just maybe he showed himself in his very best light.  I’m not for a moment saying he took a few artistic liberties.  By the way, as I’m typing this I’m not at all sat in my pyjamas, I am the spitting image of Astarte Syriaca. Honest.

Honest, it's me.
 Well, whether or not that is a realistic portrayal of Rossetti, the next image we have of him is in 1853, six years after the portrait above.  This time we can have a little more faith in it because firstly it’s by someone else and secondly, we have a photograph from the same time. Ta dah!

The Rossetti Brothers 1853
Date Gabriel Rossetti (1853) William Holman Hunt
Now, hats off to William Holman Hunt because that isn’t bad at all.  It’s hard to tell in the photo if he had such enormous bush-baby eyes, but I have to say that Hunt captured him amazingly, down to the way his hair flicked out over his ears.  Compared with the picture of him at nineteen, this is an entirely different Rossetti, quite thin, very serious, huge forehead.  Blimey, even then William Michael seems to be his brother’s minder.

We have to wait almost a decade before we have another image of him.  In the December of 1862, this cabinet photo was taken:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1862)
 We now enter the ‘Tim Curry’ phase of Rossetti.  His eyes are very direct and prominent in this picture, and he looks somewhat rumpled.  William Michael wrote in 1889 that the picture was an excellent likeness showing his rather ‘complicated’ expression.  His nature was both intense and indolent, and ‘easily capable of imposing its will upon others’, but WMR did confess that was perhaps from knowing his brother rather than from the picture alone.

The year after, pictures abound.  1863 was a good year for Rossetti photos, as he had a number taken of his friends and family, which he appeared in.

Worst. Blind Date. Ever.
1863, back garden of Tudor House. From left: A C Swinburne, DGR, Fanny Cornforth, WMR
In the year, not much has changed.  He looks a little tidier, but not much. If you consider that Aiden Turner is supposed to represent Rossetti between the years of the first photograph and the ones above, then no, sadly, he does not look the slightest bit like him.

So, why make Rossetti look like Aidan Turner? At the time of Desperate Romantics, Turner’s star was ascending due to his marvellous performance in Being Human, and he would go on to other very convincing roles, including my personal favourite in Hattie.  He is an actor with depth and talent, neither of which seemed to be allowed in his portrayal of Rossetti, although he was given some funny lines and got to take his clothes off a bit.  Smashing.

What about other Rossettis?  I know of three others on television – Oliver Reed, Ben Kingsley and Clive Swift.  So how did their performances express Rossetti’s depth and charisma, or did they also fall back on looks to explain his appeal?

Ken Russell gave us an unhinged, brooding Rossetti in Dante’s Inferno (1967).  He personified Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll, an angry young man for 1960s Britain.  Russell saw a direct link between Rossetti’s outlook and the ethos of the 1960s and brought us Oliver Reed, who was also very sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Judith Paris as Lizzie, Oliver Reed as DGR in Dante's Inferno
I love this portrayal of Rossetti, partly because I love Ken Russell’s films but also because it is not an easy film to watch, filled with anger, contradiction and giddy joy.  Although Oliver Reed isn’t hard on the eyes, he does give a fair approximation of what I understand ‘charisma’ to be.  Reed’s Rossetti is not in control of his life, as action snaps back and forward, but he appears as the eye of his own storm, bringing people to him.  It feels as if both Russell and Reed had empathy with Rossetti, feeling a definite connection with the poet/painter, and their joint presentation of Rossetti is of a man whom they understand and appreciate.  Contrast this with Aidan Turner’s comment that Rossetti was ‘one of those people we all kind of hate’.  Well, yikes, channelling your inner git-weasel isn’t a great compliment to the painter of Venus Verticordia, now is it?

Contrast Reed’s hulking Rossetti with Ben Kingsley more slight portrayal in The Love School and you would think they both couldn’t be right.  However, from what I have seen of Kingsley’s Rossetti, through the wonders of YouTube, I actually want to see more.  His quick movement, childlike need for approval and general whimsy are entirely in keeping with Rossetti.  His Rossetti is close to the Desperate Romantics period, but unlike the later production The Love School seemed to understand Rossetti.  Plus, Kingsley looks like a young Rossetti.

Patricia Quinn as Lizzie, Ben Kingsley as DGR in The Love School
I would like to see more, so again appeal for the BBC to let us have The Love School on DVD.  Likewise, I have no way of knowing how 1978’s News from Nowhere represented Rossetti (as portrayed by Clive Swift), but they chose to cast Timothy West as William Morris, can you imagine?  That is just inspired.  I need to see it, please release it on DVD.

Are we so shallow now that in order to hail a man as a leader he has to be hotter than York in August?  If Rossetti truly was the kind of man we all kind of hate, then why in God’s name did people flock to him?  I mean him no disrespect in saying that certainly after the first flush of youth, he was not outrageously handsome, but maybe I am just judging him by modern standards.  It is possible that this... what ‘hot’ looked like in 1863.  Mind you, I think we are doing his contemporaries and ourselves a great disservice.  Leadership has very little to do with looks and more to do with what is inside, attraction likewise.  I have met a few men in my time whom I would merrily follow over hot coals and aside from Mr Walker (who is a God among men, aren’t you dear?) their looks have been the least of my concerns.  

Possibly it’s time that programme makers had the courage to allow actors to compel us with the force of their performance not the prettiness of their faces, and to credit an audience with the ability to understand what is hot and what is not.


  1. Great post. But many commentators (particularly women) noted how charismatic he was and very (Italian) charming. Janey, Lizzie and Fanny certainly thought so!

  2. There are occasions when a time machine would really come in handy.

  3. I'm laughing so hard over your caption "Worst. Blind date. Ever." that I've lost my train of thought...

  4. The expression on Ruskin's face does it for me: 'He didn't look like that in his self-portrait!'

  5. By the bye, I just read William Morris who thought that Michael Rossetti was an utter bore. He looks so different in this picture to the portrait by Julia Cameron.

  6. Yet another reason why I love William Morris! Possibly unfairly, I always think WMR has a face I wouldn't tire of slapping. I am a harsh woman...

  7. DGR was like Elvis and Jim Morrison...young and handsome and then older and bloated. The year that Daniel Day-Lewis won his first Oscar he had on a Victorian-ish topcoat that made me think Young Rossetti. Aidan Turner didn't seem terribly off to me because I thought he captured the Rossetti charisma VERY well!

  8. Oh my god. I never thought about it, but you're right...Tim Curry on a bad day is a GREAT description of Rossetti's middle-aged look.

    I'm still chuckling.

  9. Between us I think we could write a decent script for the second half of Rossetti's life. Mr Curry would no doubt love to do it.


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