After the Impressionists, I should think that the Pre-Raphaelites are some of the best-known artists in the Western world. With their sumptuous use of colour and detail, and religious or medieval subjects featuring ivory-cheeked models with abundant tresses of crinkly hair, you really can’t mistake them for the work of any one else. In my college days I went through a Pre-Raphaelite phase and covered my walls with posters by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, although we might keep this just to ourselves, and not mention it to the artist husband of a good friend of mine, who would cut me dead if he knew. Then as now, the paintings caused endless dissent over their artistic merit. The Pre-Raphaelites were also a literary movement, with both Dante Gabriel and his sister, Christina Rossetti producing poetry. Now this was as much as I knew about them, until I read Dinah Roe’s excellent biography of their family, The Rossettis in Wonderland.
The Rossetti patriarch, Gabriele, was an Italian poet and Dante scholar who was obliged to live in exile in London due to his political beliefs. A cheerful, sociable soul who became melancholy and paranoid in old age and illness, he married a young woman from another Italian family, Frances Polidore. Frances was one of a batch of fairly formidable sisters. Most were very successful governesses, apart from the youngest, Eliza, who stayed home to nurse elderly parents until they died and she became Florence Nightingale’s right-hand woman in the Crimean wars. Gabriele and Frances quickly had four children – Maria, Dante Gabriel (known as Gabriel) William and Christina. These children were ‘the calms and the storms’, Gabriel and Christina having inherited the passionate temperament of their father, Maria and William the more serene, sensible character of their mother. Frances had particular ideas about child-rearing, and unusual ones for the time. She brought them up in a fiercely intellectual and artistic environment, encouraging them towards achievement and borrowing the talents of her sisters to teach a wide range of subjects. In later years she was to lament this choice: ‘I now wish there was a little less intellect in the family, so as to allow for a little more common sense,’ she wrote. But their education was uneven in ways Frances would not have realised; as the eldest male child and the most obviously gifted, Gabriel was indulged by everyone. Christina, equally talented, was subject to the policed repression that was considered necessary for a young, Christian woman. Frances was very religious, in an era that naturally required self-effacement from what it insisted must be a gentler sex. In consequence, Gabriel grew up wild and unreliable, even if generous and sociable, whereas Christina was obliged to implode in a series of breakdowns. For both of them, art provided the answer and the solace to their difficult temperaments.
All the children were extremely competitive with one another, which must have made life awkward at times for the less
obviously talented Maria and William. Inevitably, they became the mainstays of the family and the source of its financial salvation. As Gabriele sunk into a deluded old age, writing fervent but crazy tracts about Dante, the family fell into poverty. Maria was sent out as a governess and William became a civil servant, and their salaries kept them all afloat, just about. This was a loving and tight-knit family, despite the sibling rivalry, and when Gabriel found fellow feeling with some of his artist friends from the Royal Academy and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded (down the pub, more or less), he involved his brothers and sisters as much as he – and they – were able. William adored being part of an artistic movement and would provide loyal support throughout his life. But he was not particularly gifted as an artist. In the end, he began to be known as a reviewer, and eventually as a literary critic. The group was a godsend for Christina, who would probably never have been allowed an outlet for her talent otherwise. Her poetry was the first serious success the movement had, and her reputation was to grow steadily throughout her life.
Gabriel’s paintings were struggling with the usual reaction against the disturbingly new. He had been inspired by Keats, and his doctrine of intensity and thrilling to beauty. Furthermore, Keats had fought to become a poet despite the insignificance of his birth, a noble battle that Gabriel Rossetti, poor first generation Italian immigrant would be thankful for. Rossetti wanted to see a return to realism in art, particularly in nature, but there was no great agenda for the PRB, even if the paintings bear a close family resemblance. One of his early works, The Annunciation that graces the cover, was considered to be blasphemous and ugly, as the thin, red-haired Virgin Mary conformed to the stereotypes of the Victorian working class, and was by no means a suitable image for the mother of God. An intriguing response, when you think that the charge levelled against the Pre-Raphaelites these days is that they are pretty paintings but substance-less. However, what Gabriel could do, every bit as well as paint, was network and self-publicise. He managed to find himself rich patrons and promoted the group at every opportunity, making friends over time with critics like John Ruskin, whose spirited defence of the PRB marked a turning point for the group’s reputation.
What I found so intriguing about the biography, and part of the reason it works so well, is the strength of family feeling that kept the Rossettis together. The siblings spent their lives mostly in each other’s pockets, and relationships were hard to have because no outsider really met their lovingly jealous standards. Gabriel was the one to break away most (although he lived in London all his life) and the family never properly took to Lizzie Siddal, his model turned companion. Gabriel tried to fix up a husband for Christina, who was good at having furtive relationships of the mind with shy, retiring men, but always backed out of marriage. William married, but very late in life, and Maria became a nun. In the closing chapters of the book, as the siblings begin to die off, you can feel the grief and desperation that grips the remaining family members. Maria died first, suddenly and painfully from cancer, Gabriel followed with a good Victorian death from chloral abuse, then Christina, another cancer victim who succumbed to a hideous, drawn-out, screaming death. William, however, had inherited his longevity from his mother’s side, and lived on for another 25 years. Left the sole remaining member of the family, he poured his energy into promoting the paintings and poetry of his siblings. As a cautious, reserved man with an accountant’s temperament and a natural desire to canonise his family and sanitise their history, his avalanche of publications did as much harm as good to the memory of the Rossettis. Their star had risen high during their lifetimes, but afterwards, William’s hagiographic writings led others to wonder whether Gabriel’s paintings, in particular, were as great as all that. But William wrote to keep his family alive, not to deliver an objective account of their art.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable biography that manages to keep vast quantities of material under gentle control. It is elegantly written with a faintly scholarly air but genuine warmth towards its subjects. It gives a vivid account of a family whose bonds prevented its members from really turning outwards into the world, but which equally gave the siblings the love, support and artistic opportunity they might never have found without one another. A definite must for anyone interested in the art of this era.