Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Alas Poor Walter...

Poor Walter Deverell.  Scarcely known or mentioned in Pre-Raphaelite writings and missed entirely in Desperate Bromantics (as I am now calling it), the brief flame of Walter's talent was well and truly snuffed by not only his short life but also his omission from the cannon of Pre-Raphaelite art.  It could have been so different for lovely Walter, so what went wrong?

Walter Deverell (1853) William Holman Hunt

Partly it's due to the fact that Walter never made 'Brother'.  He declined full membership, despite being very close to the other Brothers, due to his appointment as assistant master at the Government School of Design which he felt may be jeopardised by being a member of a revolutionary group.  It was rumoured that he was to have replaced James Collinson in 1850, but it was never to be.  Similar to others who were present at the early days of the Brotherhood, he was both a painter and a model, sitting for figures in the works of Holman Hunt, Millais and Madox Brown.

Claudio and Isabella William Holman Hunt

Walter's face can be seen in the expressive features of Hunt's Claudio, being denied by his sister the key to his freedom, her virginity.  I love the awkwardness of his long legs and pointy shoes (even more pointy in the sketch) and the petulant expression on Claudio's face.  Equally as wicked is Isabella's brother in Millais' Isabella, and Deverell's face can be spied at the back beyond hot Fred Stephens.

Walter Deverell, at the back of the picture.  How apt.
Born in Charlottesville in 1827, his family moved back to England after his Father left his brief post as tutor at the University of Virginia.  He met Rossetti in 1845 at Sass's Drawing School and the two became firm friends, sharing rooms in Red Lion Square in 1851.  Look, there is a plaque commemorating it:

Oh, sorry Walter, they missed you off...
Rather cruelly, I have a book that says his most important contribution to art was his discovery of Lizzie Siddal in a hat shop. Well, now, that's fighting talk.  Anyway, he used Lizzie for his model in Twelfth Night, a painting which says a lot about the situation between Walter, Lizzie and Rossetti...

Twelfth Night (1850) Walter Deverell
On the left, Lizzie as Viola (who is dressed as a boy) looks adoringly at Duke Orsino (looking remarkably like Walter) while Rossetti plays the fool.  I'm sure he didn't mean anything by it...This is the first of Lizzie Siddal's many appearances in paintings, and it seems appropriate that the gentleman who discovered her got to paint her first.  This is certainly his most famous picture, and often the only one of his works shown, mainly due to its overt Pre-Raphaelite pedigree.  It would be easy to see him as a one-trick pony, but I personally love The Grey Parrot of 1852 and A Pet of 1850 far more than Twelfth Night.

The Grey Parrot
A Pet

They both may carry a 'women as caged birds' message but the colours in both are gorgeous, especially the muted tones of The Grey Parrot. The same can be said of Eustatia from 1853.

The woman has an air of mystery, all that is visible is her face and her hand, clutching a handkerchief.  Her expression is vaguely teasing and proud, in conflict with the presence of the hankie, which hints at sadness.  She doesn't look sad, she looks like she will break your heart and stomp on the pieces.

Deverell was by all account a pleasant looking young man, and jolly, flirty company.  For me, the essential portrait of him has to be the figure in Ford Madox Brown's Chaucer at the Court of Edward III:

Deverell and lady-friend....
Poor Walter had a promising start to his career, and his work The Irish Vagrants gained much praise, even though Hunt complained that Walter had fallen for the fashion of 'dwelling on the miseries of the poor, the friendless and the fallen' (which is rich coming from the painter of The Light of the World).

The Irish Vagrants (1853)
All in all, Walter's painting career lasted around five or six years before he died of Brights Disease, a terrible kidney illness, abandoned by his troubled family and fading in a small house in Chelsea.  Apparently, he was working on the cheerily titled The Doctor's Last Visit and Young Children watching a Funeral before his death, which hints at his state of mind.  Had he lived, it has been written that he may have outshined Millais, and achieved mainstream success without diminishing romantic and poetic qualities.  However, poor Walter died and all we know him for now is a handful of paintings and a fortuitous visit to a hatshop.


  1. Thank you for the interesting introduction to Walter Deverell's life and work. Not being too familiar with art in general and the Pre-Raphaelites in specific, I've enjoyed reading your posts about them. To my taste, Deverell as a model is more enjoyable than as a painter, but of course I haven't the context you do!

  2. Walter is indeed a handsome young man and some of his paintings seem a little awkward, but I think he had potential to develop into a marvellous artist. Thanks for your comments Emily and I'm glad you enjoy the blog :)

  3. 'Poor Walter', indeed, reminds me a bit of 'Poor Charlotte' in Room with a View. Great blog as ever and they repay revisiting in these strange times, keeping one in a bubble away fron Nasty News (tho' one has to be a bit aware, getting a balance is all important). He seems to have been lively and intelligent and well-loved, a very sad early exit. I've just killed him off in my novel, but I do feel very bad about it. Great legs too! Thank you for all you do.

  4. PS ... forgot to say above, as he was Walter Howell Deverell, any chance of him being related to a certain Donald Sutherland lookalike with a bad rep and a handy fixer for exhumations ...


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