As a young, keen Pre-Raphaelite researcher, back in the last century, I turned to the library copies of Virginia Surtees’ Catalogue Raissones of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (2 volumes: one indispensable text volume and one eminently more fun picture volume). It was from them I learnt about his work, hours of endless pouring over them, photocopying pictures, making notes, and when I came to make the catalogue at the back of Stunner, I added Surtees' numbers. Of course, these days I go straight to the Rossetti Archive online not least because I can no longer borrow the Surtees catalogues from the library because they are worth hundreds of pounds per volume (our librarian helpfully suggested I asked for them for Christmas, to which I answered that I would be sure to ask my Sugar Daddy for them as she obviously took me for some rich man’s poppet), but the on-line archive also uses Surtees' numbers. After all this rambling I have to admit that today’s post is not about M’Lady Surtees, but her great grandmother, the Pre-Raphaelite Stunner, Ruth Herbert.
|Ruth Herbert (1858) D G Rossetti|
Now, I’m guessing you all know Miss Herbert’s name. She is quite a presence in the history of the Brotherhood. Rossetti was obsessed with her, Boyce fancied her (Boyce fancied everyone), Watts thought she was a bit swoony, but on the whole she remains on the outside of discussions of Stunnerdom. Her likeness was present in many a Rossetti sketch, and beside her head he wrote ‘STUNNER’. So why do accounts of the women in Pre-Raphaelite art remain so, well, ‘Ruth-less’?
Louisa Ruth Herbert was born in Clifton, Bristol in the early 1830s. Daughter of a Brass Founder, she married Edward Crabb, a respectable share and stock dealer at a young age. In the 1851 census, she was living with her widowed mother in London, living on their own means. At some point Louisa had dispensed with her unlucky husband (despite being known as Mrs Edward Crabbe, with an extra 'e') and was treading the boards in London. She began in the rather more seedy theatres, like the Royal Strand, before moving through The Olympic and up to St James' Theatre.
|Apologies to Bridgeman Art Library for pinching their image...|
She was a contemporary of Mary Elizabeth Braddon and when Lady Audley's Secret was adapted for the stage, Ruth gave the defining performance of the damaged Pre-Raphaelite heroine. By 1856, she was a celebrity, being invited to the best gatherings, a regular at Little Holland House, the home of the influential Prinsep family. She was noticed for her Pre-Raphaelite appeal early on, as the Illustrated Times wrote 'Ah! If I were Millais I would paint her in my next picture in her pure white silk dress, if I were Munro I could carve a lovely medallion from her profile.'
It took Rossetti a little time to secure her services as a model. He wrote to William Bell Scott in 1858 "I am in the stunning position this morning of expecting the actual visit at 1/2 past 11 of a model whom I have been longing to paint for years – Miss Herbert of the Olympic Theatre – who has the most varied and highest expression I ever saw in a woman's face, besides abundant beauty, golden hair, etc. Did you ever see her? O my eye! she has sat to me now and will sit to me for Mary Magdalene in the picture I am beginning. Such luck!"
|Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon (1848) D G Rossetti|
This is possibly the best known of the pictures of Ruth, tall, blonde, long of neck and striking of features. Rossetti became utterly bedazzled by her, which must have gone down well with poor Lizzie/Fanny/Annie/Jane, but her position in his life is less 'mistress' (in the mould of Fanny or Annie) but more 'goddess' (in a role that Jane would take up later), a sort of untouchable and awesome beauty, to be captured. I'm not saying he didn't try his luck, this is Rossetti after all, but he seems to have used her purely as a model of beauty.
|Ruth Herbert (1859) D G Rossetti|
If you look at the top left of this picture there is a pointing hand and the word 'STUNNER'. This is a beautiful image of the actress and fairly true to life, if compared with a photo of around the same time...
|Again, sorry Bridgeman....|
I love the curve of her hair waves, the curve of her neck, the very curve of the woman. Sigh, she is a stunner... Anyway, Rossetti's relationship with Ruth was such that he included her in one of the more intimate pictures of his private life during this period...
|Fanny Cornforth and George Boyce Dante Gabriel Rossetti|
While drawing his mistress and his best friend, Rossetti included Ruth in a small portrait on the wall. He was verily obsessed with Ruth, possibly because they weren't in a relationship so her image was not restrained by reality. However, seeing that the following image is enough to give anyone pause for thought...
|Beauty and the Bird 1858 D G Rossetti|
Miss Herbert leans in to blow kisses to a pet bullfinch, sketched after Rossetti had seen her again at Little Holland House. The image is quite cute and reminiscent of other pictures of women and their metaphoric bird (it's really them in a gilded cage etc etc) but there is a poem that is dated from 1858, during Lizzie's absence from her troublesome lover's life, about a woman and a bullfinch, which is ripe with sexual symbolism.
|For the benefit of Miss Herbert D G Rossetti|
Ruth seems to have been the flavour of the month, as Rossetti recorded in this sketch. The swan-necked actress is surrounded by admiring gentlemen. The men in question are not flatteringly drawn, and it is suggested that the figure in the background is William Morris. A 'benefit' was held for Ruth in July of 1858, and Rossetti promoted it, pressing his friends to attend, and it seems at this point the artist saw the actress as the pinnacle of stunner-dom.
Their friendship survived far longer than I realised, seeing as Rossetti produced this image in 1876...
|Head of a Woman called Ruth Herbert (1876) D G Rossetti|
I think this image of her could easily be mistaken for Jane Morris, especially given the date, but the hair is too light. Mind you, comparing the sketches of Ruth as the Virgin Mary in the Llandaff Triptych and the subsequent replacement images of Jane, the two women bore much in common, as far as Rossetti's eye was concerned. As for her life, she married again to an Oxford graduate from Ireland, John Downes Rochfort and actually published a cookery book, 'The St James Cookery Book' under her married name, Louisa Rochfort.
|Ruth Herbert (1858) D G Rossetti|
Ruth lived out the remainder of her life in Hove, at 3 Grand Avenue Mansions, living alone with her servants after the death of her second husband in Paris, until she died in April 1921. Her moment in Pre-Raphaelite art was brief, but her star shone bright. It seems a shame that in the boiling down and condensing of the chronology of stunners in the 'official' version of events, there is no room for Ruth. Mind you, anyone wanting to know more will be pleased to know that M'Lady Surtees wrote a book on her great grandmother, available very cheaply from Amazon. Right, that's going on my wishlist...
Oh look, I found a stunner who lived a long and reasonably happy life. I may have to go and celebrate...where's my St James Cookery Book? There must be a cake for such an occasion...