by Roderick Conway Morris

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The family whose talents lit up London

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 7 July 2023
Art Institute of Chicago
Beata Beatrix by D.G. Rossetti, 1864-7



The poet and scholar Gabriele Rossetti fled his native Naples the year after the failed revolution of 1820 against the Bourbon dynasty's oppressive rule of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. This autocracy was later to be described by a contemporary Italian journalist as 'the negation of God erected into a system of government'. The phrase was taken up by the English politician William Gladstone, who witnessed the show trials of the regime's opponents after yet another revolt had been brutally crushed.

In 1824 Gabriel settled in London and two years later married Frances, the daughter of another Italian scholar and émigré, Gaetano Polidori, who had married an English governess. The couple produced four children: Maria Francesca in 1827, Gabriel Charles (who later took Dante as his first name) in 1828, William Michael in 1829 and Christina Georgina in 1830.

The family's home in Charlotte Street became a meeting place for exiled Italian dissidents. The Rossettis remained radical in their politics, a tradition maintained by William Michael's children Olivia and Helen, who started an anarchist journal, The Torch, nearly 50 years later. However, it was into the arts rather than politics that the first generation Rossetti offspring poured their energies: Christina becoming one of the most celebrated poets of the century, Dante Gabriel a famous artist and poet and William Michael a respected writer and art critic.

An absorbing exhibition at Tate Britain, 'The Rossettis', curated by Carol Jacopi and James Finch, tracing the interconnected lives and works of the family is notable for displaying a rare gathering of works by Elizabeth Siddal, who married Dante Gabriel in 1860, and emphasizing their mutually beneficial artistic relationship. The show also coincides with the publication of an excellent new book, 'Elizabeth Siddal: Her Story' by Jan Marsh, the pioneering historian of the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood.

The Rossetti family lived in straightened circumstances but their situation was somewhat relieved when Gabriel Rossetti was appointed Professor of Italian at King's College School on the Strand, which opened in 1831. The school was then unique in offering modern languages, though most of Professor Rossetti's pupils would have studied Italian less as a cultural pursuit than because the language was the lingua franca of trade in the Mediterranean and Levant and many of them were destined for commercial and maritime careers.

Gabriele Rossetti's teaching post enabled him in 1837 to send Dante Gabriel and William Michael to the school for minimal fees, while their sisters were home schooled by their mother.

The school, which occupied the basement of the College, attracted a decidedly mixed bag of pupils and came as something of a shock in contrast to the cultured atmosphere of the Rossetti household. As William Michael recalled: 'We both found a grievous descent from the tone of feeling and standard of conduct which we had witnessed at home.' Even if the headmaster reported that mastering his multiplication tables seemed to be eluding Dante Gabriel, the drawing master was none other than the watercolourist John Sell Cotman, a great bonus for the budding artist. (Thomas Bowles, founder of The Lady, later attended the school.)

Although the younger of the two brothers, William Michael left school at sixteen to become a clerk in the Excise Office. As their father's health was failing, his £80 annual salary became the primary support for the entire family and also enabled Dante Gabriel to go on to the Royal Academy Schools.

While Dante Gabriel and William Michael rejected religion both Maria Francesca and Christina became devout High Church Anglicans. When Christina was sixteen, her grandfather Gaetano Polidori, who owned a press, printed her first collection of poems, 'Verses', in 1847 - the same year as the Brontë sisters' Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre were published. Christina went on to publish 900 poems, becoming one of the most renowned poets of her age. A number of them, including 'A Christmas Carol' (In the Bleak Mid-winter) and 'Remember', remain as popular as ever today.

The year after the printing of Christina's 'Verses', Dante Gabriel and William Michael, along with other fellow students at the Royal Academy Schools, John Everett Millais and Holman Hunt, were founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They was rebelling against the academic art of the period, seeking to return painting to what they saw as its pristine innocence before the Renaissance. They attempted to do this by producing brightly lit, minutely detailed images. In one of Rossetti's early works in this manner, 'The Annunciation', he used Christina as a model for Mary and William Michael for the Angel Gabriel.

The Brotherhood's search for suitable models led to the discovery of Elizabeth Siddal - 'tall, slender with red, coppery hair'. Born in 1829, she was the daughter of a Sheffield cutler who had moved to Southwark. She was fairly well educated and had aspirations to be an artist herself, seeing modelling as way into the profession. She was naturally graceful and had innate sense of style, reflected in the progressive looser-fitting dresses she designed and made. While she sat for all the members of the Brotherhood, she soon formed a special rapport with Dante Gabriel. Their passionate relationship during the 1850s has long tended to focus attention on Siddal's role as a muse to Rossetti, which ended with her tragic death at the age of 32.

However, thanks to the researches of Jan Marsh and others, it is clear she was a gifted artist in her own right, in a collaborative partnership with Dante Gabriel. There are numerous written attestations to this from the period. William Michael Rossetti, for example, noted that 'she had much facility of invention and composition, with eminent purity of feeling, dignified simplicity, and grace'. And in the case of a specific work, 'St Cecilia', 'I have no doubt it preceded Rossetti's design and therefore this detail of invention belongs to Miss Siddal.' A number of other witnesses, including Ruskin, who provided her with an allowance of £150 a year, spoke of her 'genius'.

Rossetti himself wrote to a friend: 'Her power of designing even increases greatly, her fecundity of invention & facility are quite wonderful, much greater than mine.' Unfortunately, only around 20 of Siddal's works in watercolour and ink survive, along with a number of what Gabriel called 'scraps and scrawls' (which he continued to use as sources), some of which are preserved only in the form of photographs he commissioned after her death.

Dante Gabriel and Elizabeth finally married, in Hastings, in April 1860. She gave birth to a still-born child in May of the following year. Her health never fully recovered and in February 1862 she died of an overdose of laudanum (almost certainly accidental). Subsequently, Rossetti painted 'Beata Beatrix', from sketches of Elizabeth, casting her in the guise of the love object of his namesake the poet Dante Alighieri, at the moment Beatrice's soul passed into paradise.

After Elizabeth Siddal's death, Rossetti's painting underwent a marked change. He increasingly favoured models of Titianesque voluptuousness with abundant, wavy blonde or red hair, such as Fanny Conforth and Alexa Wilding. Indeed, these later canvases, inspired by 16th-century Venetian paintings were positively Post-Raphaelite. Rossetti's ideal model in due course became Jane Morris, the wife of his friend William Morris, who was also the second great love of his life, with whom he conducted (with her husband's knowledge) an extended affair well into the 1870s.

She had been born Jane Burden, the daughter of a laundress and stableman, and had first been recruited as a model in 1857 after being spotted at an Oxford theatre. But she also became a skilled calligrapher, embroiderer, designer and maker of 'aesthetic' dresses, and helped manage Morris & Co. Rossetti had a life-long habit of drawing and painting the same model in an obsessive fashion and his eight highly worked canvases of Jane as Proserpine are a classic case of this.

The novelist Henry James archly observed of her: 'It's hard to say whether she's a grand synthesis of all the Pre-Raphaelite pictures ever made, whether she's an original or a copy'. A photo shoot of Jane in various poses in Rossetti's garden at Cheyne Walk in Chelsea in 1865, indicate that her distinctive features were more refined than they often appear in his paintings, in which the artist often exaggerated the fullness of her lips, for example.

Holman Hunt had deplored the 'gross sensuality' of one of Rossetti's canvases, 'Bocca Baciata' (The Kissed Mouth), modelled by Fanny Cornforth. But F.W.H. Myers in his essay Rossetti and the Religion of Beauty, published in 1883, the year after the artist's death, saw in these images much greater symbolic significance. For Myers, they were 'the sacred pictures of a new religion' and evidence of 'the steady rise in the status of women; that constant deepening and complication of the commerce between the sexes which is one of the signs of progressive civilization.'

The Rossettis; Tate Britain; 6 April - 24 September

Elizabeth Siddal: Her Story by Jan Marsh, Pallas Athene

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024