Wednesday 19 August 2015

Rossetti's Reputation in the 20th Century

If you have ever had the pleasure/misfortune to study the Pre-Raphaelites at University level, you probably came across the fact that the Pre-Raphaelites were desperately unfashionable for most of the twentieth century.  I encountered such phrases as 'artistic cul-de-sac' and 'popularist, chocolate box art' which didn't deter me one little bit but did make me wonder what on earth was going on.  This may well be a phenomena that afflicts British universities, as it seems that the Pre-Raphs have always been valued abroad far more than they are at home.  Either way, it has been an interest of mine for the last few years to see how their reputation fluctuated over the years between their deaths and the Great Revival of the 1960s and 70s.  Today's post is a little survey of this, via the reputation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as seen through the lens of the local press of Great Britain...

A very twentieth century Rossetti
 By the time Oliver Reed donned the floppy bowtie (above) in Ken Russell's Pre-Raphaelite biopic Dante's Inferno (1967), a lot of water had passed under the posthumous-reputation bridge.  Turning back to the beginning of the century, just as the last of the brotherhood had died, Rossetti was coming in for close scrutiny due to the work of Thomas Hall Caine...

Rossetti pacing as Hall Caine wrote (1894)
Hall Caine had made quite an industry out of his Rossetti memories.  The above illustration come from a book of stories by well-known writers of the period, such as Kipling and Rider Haggard, of their life experiences.  Hall Caine's is predictably about his time with Rossetti which was ironically brief as compared with the amount of time he spent subsequently milking it.  When he published The Prodigal Son (1904) it was met with complaints.  One incident in the novel had the hero place a manuscript of poems in the his beloved's coffin, then digging her up for them some years later.  I wonder where he got that idea.  The Lancashire Post referred to it as a 'lapse from good taste' and the Shields' Daily Mail said it was 'interesting without a doubt, but we don't think admirers of Rossetti will be under any sense of gratitude to him for writing it.' These strike me as being polite ways of calling the odious Hall Caine a grave robber, which is ironic really...

Rossetti paints Elizabeth Siddal (from Look and Learn)
Possibly thanks to Hall Caine, an interest in Rossetti and his loves appeared in the newspapers quite frequently and Elizabeth Siddal's name was always spoke of with reverence.  The Burlington Magazine published five previously unseen pictures of Elizabeth by Rossetti in June 1903, and this also added interest into her life, often giving it the prefix 'tragic'. One thing that struck me was how confused the reports are as to which model they are talking about.  For example, this quote from the Shields' Daily Gazette of 1904 about Elizabeth:
'We are all familiar with the woman's face and figure which play so greater part in Rossetti's later and least conspicuously artistic work - her dark golden hair, her languorous pose, her full lips and Grecian brow, and sad eyes, testifying to the burden rather than the joy of life.'
 That to me sounds like they are describing Alexa Wilding, especially as they place her at the 'later' part of his life. Still, there was a doomed romance about the pair and that was popular in newspapers, so the sad stories of Lizzie and Gabriel continued.

Dante's Dream (1871) D G Rossetti
On the whole, the press loved the Pre-Raphs and Rossetti in particular. When the massive canvas Dante Dream became cracked and bowing in its frame, a panicked piece appeared in the Dundee Evening Telegraph (May 1905) about the 'imperiled' picture. In the marvellously-titled Cheltenham Looker-On of 1905, the writer says that to the 'severest' audience, Rossetti's pictures might have seemed 'a trifle luscious' but to call them improper was ridiculous. It seems the Edwardians were game for a bit of lusciousness...

Fazio's Mistress (1863) D G Rossetti
When the Tate purchased George Rae's collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in 1916 (including Fazio's Mistress, above), there were calls for it to be put on immediate display. The Liverpool Echo of 1916 reported that Rae's collection should be displayed in the National Gallery if the Tate was not able to house it.  The Tate was closed in 1916, but as George Rae had been a Liverpudlian, it was seen as a matter of local pride that the works be on show : 'The pictures represent Rossetti's powers at their prime and are essential to any comprehensive study of his art.'  In times of war, it's interesting to see how strongly people felt about that, and how the local newspaper felt it to be essential.

Rossetti being amazed by Elizabeth's loveliness, or something (from Look and Learn)

Debate over Rossetti's love-life continued.  In the Bath Chronicle of 1913, it was delightfully stated that 'Miss Siddal possessed all the qualities that were needed to make a good wife', which I'm sure brought her great comfort.  However, 'artistic men rarely made the best husbands. They were not calm enough.' Yes, I'm sure that was the problem.  Interestingly, in the Gloucester Chronicle of 1914, the description of the ideal Rossetti face was that of Mrs William Morris.
'Strangely enough, the great painter's ideal, which he found at last in one woman's face, was that towards which the mysterious trend of human countenance was moving through the ages.'
  The piece concluded that the 'Rossetti' face had become the pinnacle of beauty and was typically English and modern. During times of war nothing is more attractive than a pouty pair of lips...

Douglas Malcolm
Possibly my favourite Rossetti mention occurred in reporting of the sensational murder of Count de Borch (say that quickly) by the everso English Lieutenant Douglas Malcolm.  The erstwhile Dorothy Malcolm, wife of the above had been carrying on with the dastardly foreigner while her brave hubby had been fighting for King and Country. In the Dundee People's Journal of the summer of 1917, Dorothy was described as having 'a Rossetti face and neck as cold as chiseled marble, lips of vivid scarlet and dark, deep eyes veiled by long lashes'. Malcolm discovered the affair when home on leave, challenged the beastly foreigner to a dual (which the coward did not turn up to!) and then just went round and shot him four times.  Hurrah! The jury found him guilty only of justifiable homicide due to self-defence, which is marvellous.

The Seed of David (1856) D G Rossetti
In the 1920s, Rossetti celebrated his centenary.  Unfortunately he was long dead by that point so he didn't enjoy it as much as you'd expect. William Kerr, writing in the Gloucester Journal on the 12th May 1928, hit the nail on the head in terms of how reputations shift. Please excuse the long quote, but I find this fascinating...
'There is one great difference between birth-centenaries and death-centenaries. The death-centenary of a great artist or a man of letters sees him a classic, with his due place in the cannon of classics. The birth centenary finds him at the nadir of his influence, if not of his reputation. For a master in the sphere of the imagination has three generations of readers, spectators, "subjects". The first, his contemporaries, adore or hate him from a level of frankly critical contemporary equality: the second, his much younger contemporaries, his posthumous disciples, adore him quite uncritically, as not only a master, but the last and most significant of masters. The third generation find it a duty and a pleasure to pull down the false gods - its fathers - and set up in its place the new true gods. As a generation is roughly thirty years, and an artist's influence begins about his thirtieth year, his birth-centenary falls in the hey-day of that third generation, and the celebration has something of the gruesome interest of an exhumation.'
Kerr believed on balance that Elizabeth Siddal had been the true muse and her presence had heralded his period of genius - 'The Rossetti one would remember with love is the Rossetti of the fifties'.  Elsewhere Rossetti's centenary was a chance for people to weigh up his contribution to art and poetry.  In the front page article in the Hull Daily Mail on the 12th May, the writer remarked that 'in both sides of his art Rossetti fell short of the highest' and speculated if he had applied himself wholly to one discipline he might have achieved genius.  They conclude by admitting 'it would be ungrateful to grumble, since Rossetti has left us so much of beauty'.

So many of his contemporaries were of course dead at this point but The Yorkshire Post reported on a picture unveiled for the centenary by Arthur Foord Hughes, painter and son of the Pre-Raphaelite Arthur Hughes.  Mr Hughes now in his later years recounted how he had modelled as a baby for Rossetti (possibly for The Seed of David) and how Ruskin almost sat on him. True story.

With the publication of The Wife of Rossetti by Violet Hunt in 1932, further interest in the love life of Rossetti was ignited. The Lincolnshire Echo of November 1934 ran a piece under the headline 'Rossetti and his Elizabeth' - 'She was sweet seventeen and a milliner's assistant. He was a young artist out with his mother who was choosing a bonnet.' Well, before you complain, the piece goes on to say that's how Walter Deverell met Elizabeth, not Rossetti.  Rossetti and Elizabeth's courtship was the subject of Frances Winwar's Poor Splendid Wings (1933-4) which inspired various articles in the newspapers. Love the cover. Many thanks to Stephanie Piña for telling me that the cover contains the statement to the effect that 'gossip holds no place here'.  yes, Violent Hunt, we're looking at you.

There was also a play about Rossetti at The People's Theatre in 1935 that was so scandalous that William Michael Rossetti's descendants complained and it never opened.  The director of the theatre, Nancy Price gave a statement saying that the unnamed descendent did not wish the life of Rossetti to receive any more publicity, but I suspect there might have been something about shovels and graves mentioned. 

I don't believe it is the same Rossetti-related play as 'The Merciless Lady' of 1934, which the above photograph is a still from.  I suspect 'The Merciless Lady' was as bad as it looks (observe the horror of Lady Lilith, and the amount of make-up everyone is wearing) and it seemed a good idea to ask for a ban on all future Rossetti-themed plays.

The Second World War put a hiatus on Pre-Raphaelite gossip. A brief mention in The Western Morning News of the Pre-Raphaelites in an exhibition of 1941 questions their relevance during the Blitz. By the time of the centenary exhibition in the Tate for the Pre-Raphaelite in 1948, the tiny piece is nothing more than a dozen lines.  The currency of Rossetti's style of beauty can be seen in the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury review of the film The River of 1952, describing the heroine as 'a Pre-Raphaelite beauty' (I'm guessing that's her up there with the pompom flower). Two crosswords of the 1950s use Rossetti as their hints (24 across: Like Rossetti's damosel, 6 down: She had three in her hand (Rossetti)) but on the whole the mentions just stop.  There is little in the way of good or bad, they just slip from common mention in the press, giving the impression which must have been mainstream in academic work by this point that they just weren't relevant.  How far we seem to have come from this point can be illustrated by a review of an exhibition in 1952 of the Hamilton Bequest at the Arbroath Art Gallery.  The reviewer complains that the more famous pictures are examples of great artists on bad days and the Rossetti picture is so bad it 'lets the Pre-Raphaelites down with a thud'.  The picture on show that disappointed the writer was this one...

Regina Cordium (1866)
I can't imagine anyone feeling let down by this beautiful picture but by 1952 it was seen as disappointing.  The neglect of the Pre-Raphaelites is evident in the silence that surrounds them in the press at this time and it is a marked difference to the media clammer nowadays to say how good/bad they are (witnessed at the time of the most recent Tate exhibition in 2012).  For Burne-Jones, things seem to take a different path and his later reputation is often tied to press feeling about his nephew Stanley Baldwin.  For Rossetti, there is a great deal of interest in the first half of the century - acknowledgements of his failings, defending him against the disclosures of Hall Caine and endlessly playing the love story between him and Elizabeth Siddal as a dodgy, drugged up Romeo and Juliet.  All in all though, there is a fondness for the man who provided a good story, which in the end is not the worst way to be remembered.

Roll on the revival...


  1. This is an amazing post! I love your sense of humour matched by detailed research. I have long been fascinated by how in my own life the pre-Raphaelites have fallen in and out of fashion. In the 60s/70s they were much admired by youthful folk whose love made all the Athena posters best sellers. Then as far as I could see forgotten at some point thereafter only to resurface as favoured by a new generation which followed mine. Yours, and for this I am very grateful. I have learned much here, and especially enjoyed the tale of Count de Borch. (snicker as I say that quickly ....)

  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, I loved doing the research, especially when I came across Count de Borch!

  3. Love this. What an excellent post!

  4. I do so love the Pre-Raphs. Great post!

  5. Dear Kirsty
    A fascinating post. I was intrigued to read about our local paper 'The Lincolnshire Echo' running a piece on Rossetti in 1934 - who'd have thought it (especially as I can't imagine them doing that now!) I wish I'd been around and had the money to buy a few paintings and drawings when they weren't popular though...
    Best wishes

    1. That might have been because 1934 was William Morris's birth centenary and there would have been some publicity around Pre Rafes.

  6. I know - imagine having a couple of hundred quid in 1959...

    Thanks for your comments!

  7. Look and Learn, now there's a blast from the past.

  8. Ha! It could well be renamed 'Look, Learn, Recaption, Snigger', as many people liked the 'surprised Rossetti' picture.

    Thanks for the comments!

  9. Brilliant! Look and Learn was a great publication!

  10. Most interesting and informative. Thanks!


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