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Christina Rossetti and her role in the Victorian art world 1

a panted portrait of a young woman with centred parted long dark black hair, blue eyes and pale complexion

John Brett, Portrait of Christina Rossetti, 1857. Private collection

Watts Gallery uncovers the fascinating story of Christina Rossetti and her pervasive influence on the Pre-Raphaelites and the Victorian art world

Most surviving portraits of Christina Rossetti (1830–1894) capture the poet in pensive or reflective mood – either evoking the prevalent Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic of the time, personal struggles with her health or indeed her lyrically Romantic poetry.

There are many examples of Rossetti’s wonderfully brooding countenance in this Watts Gallery exhibition as well as a luminous selection of paintings, illustrations, works on paper and photography that together uncover her often forgotten yet significant connection with the Victorian art world.

Among the most popular of all the English Victorian poets – and after the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1861, probably England’s foremost woman poet – Christina Rossetti was born into an intellectually minded Anglo-Italian family as the youngest of four brilliant children, all of whom succeeded as artists and writers.

Today, the best remembered of this progeny is Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the painter (himself a published poet of some repute) and it is his radiant early portraits of the charismatic Christina that set the tone.

a coloured chalk drawing of a woman with neatly buched black hair leaning on a book

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Christina Rossetti, 1866.

a panel painting with five individual panels showing Christ and apostles with halos and backgrounds of gold

Thomas Matthews Rooke after a design by Edward Burne-Jones, Memorial to Christina Rossetti, 1897-98

a painting of a very pale corpse like man lying in brambles attended by black crows

‘Robert Edward Hughes, ‘Oh what’s that in the hollow…?’, 1893. Royal Watercolour Society

Together with his brother, the painter William Rossetti, Dante Gabriel was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which the younger Christina played an active role in by writing prose and poetry for their inaugural journal, The Germ, which was published for a few months in 1850.

These early prose outings are said to be among her first, although the Athenaeum magazine had already published two of her early poetic meditations on mortality in 1848, but as the 1850s progressed and the rich symbolism of the Pre-Raphaelite style of painting took hold, Christina became a key figure in Victorian art.

Apart from modelling for several of Dante Gabriel’s paintings, the publication of her most famous volume of poetry, Goblin Market in 1861, made her one of the go-to poets (Keats and Tennyson were among other favourites) for painters in search of a rich literary theme.

As exhibition co-curator Dr Susan Owens, says “Christina Rossetti’s enigmatic words and vivid imagery inspired artists ever since her poetry was first published”.

“Sometimes the results alarmed Rossetti, but these reinterpretations set a trend”

The works of art brought together in this exhibition to reveal this often forgotten aspect of one of the UK’s best-loved poets include Christina and Dante Gabriel’s creative collaborations, notably his illustrations for Goblin Market (1862 and 1865) and The Prince’s Progress (1866).

There are also some lively illustrations to her poetry by Arthur Hughes and Frederick Sandys, and from the 1860s, paintings inspired by Rossetti’s poems, such as Arthur Hughes’s The Mower (1865), began to appear at London exhibitions, offering freer interpretations of Rossetti’s words than were usually possible with printed illustrations.

The celebrated pioneer of art photography, Julia Margaret Cameron, based her composition The Minstrel Group on a Rossetti poem. Sometimes the results alarmed Rossetti, but these reinterpretations set a trend for artists to reimagine her works in pencil and paint that continues to this day.

a soilver framed painting of a man with wielding a scythe in a country landscape

Arthur Hughes, The Mower, RA 1865.

a black and white photo of two women in Victorian dress - on leaning over the other as she reads

Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Portrait of Christina and Frances Rossetti, 1863. Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, University of Delaware Library

While ostensibly reclusive, Rossetti remained very well connected in the British art world throughout her life, and cared deeply about how her poetry was illustrated, as it was regularly from the 1850s onwards.

The intensity of Rossetti’s vision, her colloquial style and the lyrical quality of her verse continued to speak powerfully after the poet’s death in 1894, and as this exhibition reveals, Rossetti’s striking imagery has continued to inspire visual artists.

Rossetti also studied art herself, attending the North London Drawing School in the early 1850s. Her own charming and rarely seen animal drawings feature, as does Sing-Song, her collection of nursery rhymes for children which are by turns humorous and touching.

But thanks to her poetry, which often dealt with lyrical themes of mortality, her own periodic bouts of depression, illness and her early death at 64 from breast cancer, Christina Rossetti’s life is inevitably framed by a narrative of tragedy – something which was the stock in trade of artists of the Victorian period.

As to the poignant collection of Christina Rossetti portraits, it is an unfinished watercolour sketch by the Pre-Raphaelite landscape artist, John Brett, that steals the show.

Brett’s 1857 portrait captured the young writer before her literary fame had taken hold and it displays a simplicity and beauty absent from some of her brother’s portraits of her. That Brett was one of several artists she turned down as a suitor, makes it an even more poetic rendering of love, loss and romance, which is very much in keeping with this multi layered exploration of the ceaselessly fascinating Victorian art world.

a simple pencil drawing of a woman with ling hair tied back and in a centre parting

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Christina Rossetti, c.1847-8. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Three crude pencil sketches of animals

Christina Rossetti, Three Animal Studies: A Fennec Fox, Squirrels and a Wombat, c.1862, pencil on paper. Private collection

Christina Rossetti: Vision & Verse is at Watts Gallery and Artist’s Village from November 13 2018 – March 17 2019

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Watts Gallery — Artists' Village is a unique family day out in the Surrey Hills. Explore the newly opened Watts Studios then discover Victorian paintings and sculpture in the historic Watts Gallery before treating yourself to lunch or cream tea in The Tea Shop. Stroll to the nearby Grade-I listed…

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