Friday 27 December 2013

The Defence of Wombat Friday

Hello m'darlings and I hope you all had a good Christmas.  Today, believe it or not, is Friday (I always lose track over the Christmas/New Year fortnight) and therefore is Wombat Friday.  However, just before Christmas my attention was drawn to a piece on Wombat Friday criticising the practice.  Now, I read the article and while not agreeing (for reasons I will go into in a second) I respect the right of anyone to say they have a problem with it.  Were it only that and nothing more I would be happy to agree to disagree and leave it at that.  However, things got a little personal in the comments and I quote:

 'Nothing like dumbing-it-down for the masses - at least these earnest damsels (and mostly they are) might have considered that 'Wombat Wednesday' has a decidedly nicer ring to it. But you know, they are self-proclaimed experts on all things PRB, so I suppose one must grin and bear it all and ignore.'

Oh dear me.   Shall we begin?

Last March I wrote a piece here on this blog about Wombat Friday.  It had really just begun among the blogging Pre-Raphaelite community and it seemed like a jolly good thing because it gave everyone a light-hearted excuse to celebrate some aspect of Pre-Raphaelitism at the end of every week.  Everyone.  Lawks knows what we did for the sales of stuffed cuddly wombats but even one of those was not strictly necessary. You just had to turn up on-line and have a giggle.  Where could be the harm in that?

Rossetti's Wombat by William Bell Scott (Actually, probably a woodchuck)
Rossetti, Morris and that short-lived wombat 'Topsy' are the cause of the problems apparently.  Rossetti (along with a large slice of Victorian society) had a passion for exotic animals and acquired his wombat whom he named Topsy.  Why did he call the blessed beast Topsy when that name was already applied to his friend William Morris?  It is suggested it was a sexual slur against the man he was busy cuckolding but I take issue with that.  Firstly, since when did wombats mean sexual disfunction?  Buy a panda if you wish to make that point.  Secondly, and I do hate being crude but someone dismissed my 20 years of research and academic achievement in a throw-away comment on the internet so there you go - show me one piece of evidence that Rossetti ever had sex with Jane Morris.  Really.  Just one.  

Jane Morris denied it.  Rossetti was affected by hydrocele of the testicle.  I'm not arguing that his relationship with Jane Morris was an affair, just not a sexual one.  It's not always about sex you know.  Also, just because Rossetti had the relationship with Jane it did not mean he hated William.  To be honest I have always thought that Topsy the Wombat gives us an insight into the relationship between Morris and Rossetti.  Rather than the wombat being a figure of contempt Rossetti loved the creature.  His grief when Topsy died was more demonstrative than when his wife died, for goodness sake.  This tells me that (a) Rossetti was a mess and (b) something more symbolic was going on.  Topsy the wombat is the perfect symbol of how more complicated interpersonal relationships between the Pre-Raphaelite circle of the late 1860s was.  But you knew that.

The sleeping wombat at the wedding feast in The Red House mural
The National Trust's involvement with Wombat Friday happened just before the summer.  I'm sure they will happily respond to any criticism of their involvement, but do you know why I think their participation is genius?  Because my visually-impaired 7 year old daughter walked very slowly around The Red House, spending around an hour and a half looking at everything.  Sure, she was searching for cuddly wombats but on the way she looked at murals, wall paper, stained glass, tiles, furniture, the contents of the garden.  I want my daughter to appreciate the art that I love and that has to start somewhere.  I don't want to wait until she is old enough to grasp the fine points of design and socialism, I want her to be comfortable in that situation now.  If she doesn't get warm, happy feelings about her heritage when she is 7 then maybe she won't be inclined to visit when she is 17 or 27 or ever.  I've worked in heritage as long as I've researched the Pre-Raphaelites, and the art of getting children engaged and active within a challenging collection is a tough one.  Wombats are a way in.  I'm all for a way in.

My wombat, my cake, my Stunner...
Hello.  You know me.  I'm Kirsty Stonell Walker, author of Stunner: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth.  I've written this blog for a couple of years now, I get 15,000 people a month look at it.  I have a masters in art and literature and my thesis was on the Pre-Raphaelite visual language of Tennyson's poetry.  I work my backside off researching and writing and do you know something?  You are just like me.  I'm not different from any one of you lovely people, just possibly a bit louder.  This isn't just a rambly aside.  Wombat Friday is a perfect example of what I believe in - it's not dumbing-down, it's access.  Wombat Friday isn't about wombats, okay maybe just a bit, it's about people feeling that they have the right to be here, the right to have fun, the right to enjoy the paintings that touch their hearts and make their souls sing.  Pre-Raphaelite art is not about big words and complicated notions of the proto-colonial feminist complex or whatever.  It can be, but first and foremost it is about that 'ping' when your eye meets a painting and you love it.

This is not a clique.  This is not a closed party.  This is your art, if you are reading this, this is your passion.  The wombat in London was a stranger, an exotic, at odds with society.  The wombat was our Pre-Raphaelite heroes and heroines, at odds with their society,  in a cuddly furry bundle of mischief.  Wombat Friday goes beyond whether one man slept with another man's wife (Really, can we not move on?) and gives those of us who adore this unfashionable, maddening, curious, beautiful, familiar, strange art movement somewhere to go and meet people who love the same thing.  

Wombat Friday is a smile amongst friends - it's just that some of your friends are bona-fide art historians, some work in universities, some are brilliant novelists, some are men and women who dedicate their life to researching the art we all love.  

Hi, I'm Kirsty Stonell Walker, self-proclaimed expert and earnest damsel and this is Wombat Friday.  
And you are all very much invited to play along.


  1. Brava, Kirsty! I've been happily wrapped in holiday fun at my parents' until late last night, so this is the first I've heard of any disparagement of Wombat Friday. As I'm perhaps too fond of saying, I do not suffer snobs gladly, and it makes my heart happy that someone of your caliber shares that position. Thank you for expressing it so well.

  2. As if Wombat Friday needs to be defended! I love the Pre-Raphaelites, and since I began to re-post some of the #WombatFriday pictures, some of my friends have begun to understand my passion.

  3. Bravo! Long live Wombat Friday!

  4. This is all spot-on.

    I spent about a year during my MA watching the PRB bloggers socialising online, and thinking "Do I dare join in? What if I have nothing useful to say?", but when I did, everyone was so welcoming. I've made loads of friends. Inclusivity is important. As is having a laugh.

    - Verity

  5. Dear Kirsty
    Go you (and all Wombat Friday fans). I am a firm believer in everyone being entitled to an opinion, after all, that is a major part of living in a democracy, but I also think that tolerance and respect for other people's views is important too. Tony Pinkney, please do continue to defend Morris on your blog, if you feel he needs it and as for anonymous, in your comment on Tony's blog, perhaps you would be kind enough to leave us 'earnest damsels' to enjoy the Pre-Raphaelites and their art in whatever way we want to celebrate it - who dictated that art appreciation always had to be serious, anyway?
    Best wishes Kirsty (sorry for the little rant there!)

  6. Verity, I am so glad you joined in because I treasure your friendship. I love your humour and your point of view. Kirsty makes a good point about our online activities being inclusive. The connections and friendships I have made through my blog mean so much to me. To find people with the same passions and interests is a great gift.

  7. Excellent point, well and amusingly written. Long live Wombat Friday! (Some people are just afraid of their sense of humour, in case it makes them look un-serious!)

  8. Personal story - When I was much younger I spent about 6 months working at the large zoo in the city where I lived. One of my friends cleaned the wallaby - wombat pen and told me that the wombats would slowly climb up a reclining branch to get out of the cleaning water and the wallabies would sneak up and shove them off. I used to go watch. The other things the wallabies did was shove their cold wet paws down in your wellies when you were cleaning their cage but that's not a wombat story. I love wombats and wallies but they never, never had chocolate cake with me. I'm glad you are Kirsty Stonell Walker and you have lovely stories to share. I want cake now.... Have a joyous holiday with your family!

  9. Thanks chaps, our community is what makes all the work worthwhile. Plus it is jolly good fun.

  10. You can count me in as a token earnest (male) damsel Kirsty. I love Wombat Friday too.Ignore the bores. Methinks they take themselves too seriously.

  11. I think it was wombats that broke the ice with me and let me have more fun than I've had in years. My name is Raine Szramski and I'm normally a very shy person (really!) but I adore the Pre-Raphaelites so much I began drawing some very silly cartoons about them. Through sharing my own love for the PRB in my own ridiculous way, I was able to find many, many new friends and talk about the art and the artists I loved. And thanks to a wombat. (And if it really matters that much to anyone, I have five years of art history behind me at 2 different art colleges. I am an earnest damsel with a degree.) Even Ned Burne-Jones drew wombats and he was Morris' best friend. And Morris loved it. .

  12. Absolutely spot-on, Kirsty! Thank you for this. I had not read any of the comments on that article, so had not been aware of the condescension aimed at us. This is a very well-written and calm response to that nonsense. Thanks again!

  13. Merriest of Yules to you and your wombat! (Guess the pre-Raphs didn't have personal razors, eh?) 8-)

  14. I was feeling pretty down after I read that essay on the Morris blog. But you just made me feel a lot better. I never thought Rossetti meant it a true malice but I never could have expressed it as well as you. Thank you! Hugs.

  15. It seems a shame when discussion is ruined by rudeness, but there you go. Thanks again chaps for the support and jolly comments. I would kiss you all but I can't what with being an actual academic professional art historian with actual letters after my actual name. If only I was a self-appointed so-called expert, I'd be sat on your lap swigging from a sherry bottle by now. You'll have to make do with a stout handshake instead.

  16. I find it slightly odd that Tony Pinkney characterised this situation as a spat between Rossettians and Morrisians. Are we really that tribal? I've always perceived Rossetti as a pretty dislikeable character, but that's never interfered with the pleasure I've got from his work. I always assumed that he called the wombat Top because it was fat and hairy, like Morris. I expect that the comparison was intended to wound, like the caricatures Tony mentions, but I agree that it has nothing to do with sex. Hiding behind anonymity when being deliberately offensive is just pathetic, and 'earnest damsels' is SO wide of the mark. Anybody less earnest than you lot I find it difficult to imagine. 'Anonymous' is probably a middle-aged academic with a disappointing career and a tiny penis. Of course he hates you! He's envious.

  17. I agree, Rossetti had loads of problems and was a gitweasel, but his paintings are sublime. Such is life.
    Lawks Simon, I'm sure Anonymous has perfectly standard equipment and meant no offence by their highly offensive comments. However, thank you and we love you.

  18. My main wombat issue is my inability to find a plush one which is both decently enough made and affordable.

    But then, there's Wingate's definition of the Internet as a device for the amplification of human stupidity.

  19. I probably AM an earnest damsel, but I don't mind being that. As long as I don't have to be a damsel in distress, there are no objections to being referred to as a damsel (or mademoiselle as I am in French), and earnest - well, being earnest always struck me as a positive attribute.

    I feel that one is entitled to disagree with Wombat Friday (and to suggest that Wednesday may have a better ring to it, that part I have to admit I agree on ) but there's absolutely no reason to get catty or to call into question your academic credentials over something like that. It's stooping, undignified and quite rude.


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