Monday, 9 April 2012

9th April 1882

One hundred and thirty years late, Team Walker and Miss Holman made a rather special journey.  As my mother always said, better late than never, so off we tootled in the car to the north coast of Kent and a village called Birchington on Sea to see the last resting place of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

I had been meaning to make the journey to Birchington and the fact that today is the 130th anniversary of Rossetti's death meant that I couldn't refuse, I had to go and drag my nearest and dearest with me.  To be fair, Miss Holman is now a dab hand at this Pre-Raph Grave lark, and honestly we felt a little cheated as his grave is nicely tended and fairly obvious.  There was no scrambling through brambles or anything, mind you the sideways slicing wind and rain made up for it.

A little history then - As I said in the post about Lila's cheque, 1881 was a year of worsening health for Rossetti.  He had been a little shaky for the entire preceding decade, but despite moments of happiness, his continuing mental health problems and drug abuse was destroying his physical health.  He wrote to Fanny in November 'Such difficulties are now arising with my family that it will be impossible for me to see you here till I write again.'  His family had gathered around him as he deteriorated and Rossetti suffered a stroke in December of 1881. 

But we need to go back further...There was once a minor Pre-Raphaelite follower called Thomas Seddon, famed for his rather good pictures of the Holy Land...

Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehosophat Thomas Seddon
He died in 1856, but his brother John Pollard Seddon excelled in architecture, commissioning members of his brother's profession to assist in his work.  He commissioned the Llandaff Cathedral Seed of David from Rossetti and had remained friends with him.  When Rossetti had his stroke, Seddon offered the use of one of his new-fangled 'bungalows' on the north east coast of Kent.  Seddon had bought land in Birchington after the railway boom of the 1860s and together with builder John Taylor, built the country's first bungalow estate beginning in 1870.  Rossetti rented a bungalow on Shakespeare Road, and together with Thomas Hall Caine, Caine's younger sister Lily (later an actress), and a nurse called Mrs Abrey, they set off.  Rossetti complained and resisted every step of the way, but was persuaded to continue in his journey by young Lily, who remembered him as a lovely man, full of stories and interest.  They pitched up at Birchington on 4th February 1882.  I can only hope that it was a nicer day than we had today, as it redefined bleak today.

The Rossetti Bungalow, Shakespeare Road (sort of)
If lovely Birchington was meant to soothe the troubled Rossetti then it failed spectacularly and he went slowly out of his mind with utter boredom. The weather was bad, he was Rossetti, drugs weren't forthcoming, he was Rossetti, and so on and so forth.  His mother and sister came down at the beginning of March (let the party begin) and William Michael realised that things were not looking good for his brother and came up, but all too late.  Rossetti sicken, had a further stroke and on Easter Sunday, 9th April 1882 died in the arms of his friend Theodore Watts-Dunton (according to William Michael) or Hall Caine (according to Hall Caine) and was buried 14th April in the churchyard of All Saints Church about a mile from his bungalow.

So today, if you go to Birchington, what can you see?  Well, despite the erasing of Birchington's Victorian past in the 1960s, some of it clings on...

I assume it's because he really only was there for around eight weeks (alive, that is) that Birchington does not make more of Rossetti, but really, I was surprised that his presence had not been embraced, if not exploited, more.  I was pleased to see this plaque...

...on a new house, as the original bungalow had been pulled down in the 1960s, but the church was locked which seemed a great shame as I wanted to see inside (I understand why they do it, but I hate being locked out of a church, it's a pet peeve).  The grave was looking in fine condition, compared to some we had seen of late...

Detail of the Ford Madox Brown Celtic cross

The grave is inscribed 'Here sleeps Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti / Honoured under the name of / DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI / Among Painters as a Painter / Among Poets as a Poet / Born in London / Of Parentage mainly Italian 12 May 1828 / Died at Birchington 9 April 1882.'

It is mentioned in P F Baum's Letters to Fanny Cornforth that none of Rossetti's great loves were present at his funeral; one was buried at Highgate, one was not invited, and as for Jane Morris, it's unclear whether she knew or just refused to go. To me, it feels like an unkindness, to remove Rossetti from his circle of love, imperfect as it was, and take him to the seaside to die.  Mind you, his lack of responsibility for his actions and life led directly to his choices being removed all the way to his lonely Birchington Bungalow.  A lesson for us all: if you behave like a child, don't complain when you are treated like one.

A 'fact', which I pray is true, is that Rossetti holds the dubious honour of being the first man in England to die in a bungalow.  Surely that deserves a plaque at the very least?  Go, my friends, go, but for the good of your mental health, pick a nice day or, like Rossetti, you may not return...


  1. Oh, thank you, Kirsty, for taking us along on your fascinating little trip - dreary though it might have been outside. As I recall, things weren't so "hot" between Rossetti and Jane by this point. Surely, she stayed away from the sad mess he'd become. It does seem a sad end for such a big, vibrant personality, stuffed into a bungalow with two men vying for deathbed honor. It's wonderful to live vicariously through the reports of your travels!

  2. The more "grave hunter" posts you write the cooler they get! I loved this and happy birthday, a bit delayed! :)

  3. Thank you ladies, it was miserable indeed but utterly worth it. There are a couple more grave hunts planned very soon....

  4. Strangely, only the other day I wondered where Rossetti died/was buried and now you've answered that question very fully! Thank you. A very interesting post.



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