A Family Affair

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

Dante Gabriel's illustration for his sister's Goblin Market

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.

Bower Meadow by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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.

15 thoughts on “A Family Affair

  1. What a great review. I think I’d like to read this–I don’t read a lot of biographies, but this is such an interesting bunch. What I’ve found about the paintings is that they are far less easily dismissed in real life: the colours are so astonishingly vivid, and the faces so intense. The Birmingham art gallery has a really fine collection.

  2. They are so utterly fascinating those Pre-Raphaelites. I love reading about them . I’m not sure why they hold so much fascination but they do.
    This sounds like a very well written and interesting biography I hadn’t heard of. I will add it to my list immediately.

  3. Hello there. This is Dinah Roe, the author of The Rossettis In Wonderland. I hope this isn’t out of place, but thank you so much for the perceptive (and generous!) review and the kind comments. The book was a labour of love, and it’s wonderful to know it’s reaching the readers for whom it was intended. I’m rather new to the blogosphere, so forgive me if this rather public vote of thanks is in violation of internet etiquette. One of the regrets I have was not being able to include all the images and stories I found fascinating in this book, so if anyone’s interested in reading the overspill, please have a look at my blog ‘Pre-Raphaelites in the City’ at http://www.dinahroe.com/blog

    I’m so glad to have found such an interesting books blog, and I’m looking forward to following your reviews. I’m always looking for new ways to shape my reading list. And I’ve just put A Thousand Acres at the top! (apologies for not putting titles in italics – sadly, I cannot figure out how to do this).

  4. This is a wonderful book blog, Dinah–one of my very favourites. And I am so glad to see you post here! Lovely review, Litlove, perceptive as always. I didn’t know all that about the Rossetti’s, and like you went through a phase with them that has a special place for me.

  5. I’ve always been intrigued by the Pre-Raphaelites but have only read bits and pieces about the different members and their muses. As I was reading your post the family reminded me a little of the Brontes–it’s always interesting when so much creativity runs through almost a whole family. I’ll have to suggest this one to my library (and take a good look at it myself).

  6. I feel like a dope because I never made the connection that Gariel and Christina were brother and sister! doh! The biography sounds really fascinating. And as always, wonderful write up

  7. The Rossettis, what a great choice of subject for a group bio! Christina in particular is pretty fascinating to me. Well, I suppose I should say “Goblin Market” is pretty fascinating to me, as I haven’t explored her work or life much beyond that…but I am intrigued! And poor William, outliving all his siblings by so many years after they were all so close. Thanks for the great post.

  8. Danielle mentioned that the Rossettis’ story reminded her of the Brontes. Lots of similarities there indeed. There is a wonderful biography of the Bronte family by Juliet Barker, which I heartily recommend to anyone interested in them.

  9. I do not know enough about the pre-Raphaelites, and for years the whole of my knowledge about any of them was that Dorothy Parker poem “Dante Gabriel Rossetti / Buried all of his libretti”, etc. :p And now I know a bit more! Was it Rossetti who was obsessed with wombats and used to let them sit on his dinner table while he was entertaining?

  10. Rohan – Now somewhere, at some time, I heard about the Pre-Raphaelites in Birmingham (maybe you blogged about them when you were here?) but I had forgotten. They are really quite close to me and one day I MUST see them. I would certainly recommend this biography to you – it is very intelligent and accessible with a wealth of interesting Victorian data, too. I would love to know what you think of it!

    Caroline – I admit I still like them very much. From the biography, I can see now that there is quite a lot of symbolism in the earlier works that’s very intriguing, so they were certainly more than just pretty pictures. I’d love to know what you think of this book, and I do think you’d enjoy it.

    Nymeth – I would love to hear your thoughts on it – very much up your street, I think!

    Dinah – I’ve been blogging 5 years and still don’t know how to italicise in the comments section! It is a delight to have you visit and I’m really glad you liked the review. The very best of luck with this biography – I’m sure it will be the go-to book on the Rossettis for a long time to come. Oh and I really hope you enjoy A Thousand Acres; I thought it was an amazing book.

    Helen – they were chilling deaths, both of them (and made me feel that medicine has come a long way in palliative care but not so very far in treatment). Thank you for your lovely comment!

    Lilian – aw you are too kind, thank you. Usually, when I’m interested or admiring of art, I learn all about it. But because the Pre-Raphaelite days were university ones when I was so busy learning about other things, I realised I knew absolutely nothing about them! Now I have a much better understanding, and as always, that enriches the art for me.

    Danielle – Oh yes, I think I’ve seen that book on the Brontes, and they are a family about whom I know very little. I’ve actually read very few of their works (remind me again, what have I been reading all these years? lol!). But that’s a great comparison to make, as I expect they are very similar, particularly with the indulged favourite son. I will have to read more about them. And definitely get this book out and have a look at it – it’s definitely worth a try.

    Andrew – I really hope you enjoy it – let me know if you can!

    Stefanie – you know that is the sort of mistake I could easily have made – I confess I had never really thought of Christina and Gabriel as *related* if you see what I mean! This was a lovely biography and very easy to write about – I had it lucky!🙂

    Dinah – Juliet Barker! Thank you, that’s a name that was on the tip of my tongue but I couldn’t properly get hold of. I will look out for that, too.

    Jenny – yes!! It was that Dante Gabriel. Oh I should have put that in the review. The wombat was a delight (although I think he killed it off quite quickly – he was very bad at looking after his exotic pets. Please don’t let that upset you, I know you have a soft heart!).

  11. It’s nice to find a biography informative and well-written.

    “After the Impressionists, I should think that the Pre-Raphaelites are some of the best-known artists in the Western world”
    Then France isn’t in the Western world. There’s an exhibition about the Pre-raphaelite movement nowadays in Paris; I’ve been there because the title mentioned Oscar Wilde and realized I knew nothing about that movement. The paintings were familiar, I knew Burne-Jones but nothing beyond. I felt silly that such an important movement had escaped my radar. But last week, I was listening to an interview of an Art historian and he recommended to go and see this exhibition. He said it was such a pity that this movement isn’t more known in France. I felt less silly and then wondered why they aren’t more famous here. After all, the story of their lives is rather glamorous. Before, this, if you had asked me the name of a 19thC British painter, I would have said Turner. I’ve never seen posters of Rossetti’s paintings in a shop or on anyone’s walls.

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