Friday, 27 January 2012

Harry Potter and The Stones of Venice

Sometimes in art history, the strangest connections can be made and one such oddity was made this week and ended up with me finding the link between Lord Voldemort and Burne-Jones. That link? A marvellous, lesser-known Pre-Raphaelite by the name of Thomas Matthews Rooke. My friends, it’s time to have a look at Rooke…

If you can find T M Rooke mentioned in a book, it’s usually in relation to his work with Burne-Jones. Rooke joined his studio in 1869. His job was to transfer the designs for monumental pictures from the sketches to canvas. Rooke assumed the role of chief assistant and worked closely with Burne-Jones for many years, resulting in his recording their conversations, later published as Burne-Jones Talking: His conversations 1895-98 Preserved by his Studio Assistant Thomas Rooke (edited by Mary Lago) (Does what it says on the tin).

Interior of St Paul's Cathedral (1918)
Rooke studied at the Royal College of Art and Royal Academy Schools before applying for work at Morris and Company in 1869. Through this channel he ended up in Burne-Jones studios and there he remained until the painter’s death in 1898. Although best known for his work for Burne-Jones, Rooke also worked for Ruskin, spending his summers on the continent and producing architectural drawings of cathedrals for Ruskin’s publications.

That’s your lot. I will now bring up a slide show of images and you can talk amongst yourself….

(For those old enough to remember, I will also be humming the tune from ‘Vision On’ when they showed the drawings by viewers…)

Hang on, though. That sound you can hear is the murmurings of discontent in the Walker household. Thomas Matthews Rooke’s work is fairly amazing, is it right that he exists as a footnote in another artist’s history? So why don’t people look at Rooke?

The Story of Ruth (1877)

Jezebel Being Thrown to the Dogs (1879)
His work was largely in two areas: Biblical and architectural. One of these is unfashionable and the other just isn’t sexy enough. While it is just about feasible that you’d think ‘Do you know what I’d like on my wall? A lovely interior of a cathedral in watercolour!’, probably there would be less takers for Jezebel Being Thrown to the Dogs. If anyone thought ‘Do you know what I fancy? Jezebel being thrown to the dogs!’ I am now worried about you.  However, I will indulge you.  It is one of the nicest pictures of a woman about to be mauled by dogs I have ever seen.  Nice drapery.

I have no problem with Biblical art, being a certain age and having been brought up a good CofE girl at Sunday School, but it’s not as instantly cool as say ‘The Lady of Shalott’ or ‘Ophelia’, plus also people get thrown to dogs. However, if you look at the whole Ahab cycle in its amazing frame, it is possibly the fanciest graphic novel I have ever seen. It’s clever and beautiful and who doesn’t love that?

King Ahab's Coveting (1879)
 He wasn't all God and dogs though.  So much of his other work exists in private collections, it's hard to get a clear scope on non-biblical and non-architectural pictures, which isn't fair.  Take An Idyll for example...

An Idyll (1881)
Autumn's Pipe (1887)
His work has a gem-like loveliness that is reminiscent of early Rossetti or Arthur Hughes. Although he is often compared to Burne-Jones, and not favourably, his work is possibly closer to J M Strudwick or Spencer Stanhope, even Marie Spartali Stillman.  The reason Rooke is knocked is possibly his closeness to Burne-Jones, even after 'the Master' died.  Rooke became part of the Burne-Jones 'Reputation Machine', led by Lady Burne-Jones, who wanted to edit Rookes personal notes about her husband on the pretext of using them for her Memorials.  Georgie seemed to share her husband's concerns about how he would be remembered, and whether he would be treasured.  Rooke seemed to have a zen-like assurance that his mentor and friend would always capture hearts and minds, and through him we can see Burne-Jones as a funny, sharp man who had an opinion on everything.

I actually found a mention of Rooke in English Pre-Raphaelite Painters by Percy Bate (c.1900, and my knackered copy has a Radio Times clipping about The Love School squirrelled between its shiny pages).  He gets one long paragraph in the chapter entitled 'The Rossetti Tradition' and there is a copy of Ahab's Coveting as illustration.  Bate's words on Rooke are interesting: 'Hardly a great artist, Rooke is at any rate a sincere one...a very genuine artist, who is obviously possessed of the first artistic requisite, a keen sense of the beautiful.'

The Marriage of Editha (1909) Ford Maddox Brown and T M Rooke
I have to admit that a part of me wants to know more about Rooke because of the way Burne-Jones regarded him.  He called his assistant 'Little Rookie' and said of him 'Also there is a very high place in Heaven waiting for him and He Doesn't Know It.'  What a lovely sentiment.  Mr Rooke, I'd like to know you better.  Well, Mr Walker is hard at work on an article about Rooke for The Pre-Raphaelite Review and we have declared 2012 to be the year of the Rooke.  We shall get to know him better and I shall report back.

Oh, and the Harry Potter reference?  Thomas Matthews Rooke had a son called Noel, also an artist who had the dubious pleasure of teaching Eric Gill wood-engraving (wash your hands afterwards).  Noel married the fabulously named Celia Mary Twistleton Wykeham Fiennes (do you see where I am going with this?). Celia's brother Maurice was the grandfather of Ralph Fiennes (last seen by me being Lord Voldemort).  It's like six degrees of Kevin Bacon in the Pre-Raphaelite World...


  1. I like Rooke's works and agree he deserves more recognition. Burne-Jones wrote of him to Ruskin: "Also there is a very high place in Heaven waiting for him and He Doesn't Know It." Which sounds a bit Harry Potter.

  2. He makes Burne-Jones very human and down to earth, which is not a side to BJ I'm used to. The conversations are both touching and funny. Hurrah for Rookie!

  3. Just finished Fiona MacCarthy's stellar bio of EBJ, and I admit that was the first time I'd ever heard of Rooke, when she mentioned him. She does give him a bit of page space, but again only as a footnote to EBJ. It is interesting to see his work, and the influence of EBJ on it.

    As to the six degrees thing? I actually like to play a version of that with William Morris. Try it sometime, it's actually quite amazing!! You can link back to him so easily from so many different Victorian and early 20th century people!

    I've also always assumed that Fiennes is descended from the earlier Celia Fiennes who travelled around in the 17th century and wrote a quite amazing travel diary. The name is just too unusual!

  4. I am so happy to read about TM Rooke as I have a delightful water colour by him of a flying buttress at Gloucester Cathedral of 1911. I'd love to learn more about him, how he came to be painting there and where there might be other similar architectural paintings done at that time. Andrew Hicks


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx