Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Uxorious Unearthing by the Pre-Raphaelite Poet


                   Gabby loved Guggums and Guggums loved Gabby. 
To death. 

Self Portrait 1847

Gabby was Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, son of Italian émigrés, born in London in 1828, and savvy, street-smart and cocky. He was a charmer, good-looking (and he knew it), a smouldering Latin-lover with an eye for the girls, his ‘stunners’. When he was twenty, Gabby started a gang – but these were no Mohocks or Hawkubites. They were the PRB - The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Seven young Turks, out to make their mark. There was Gabby, poet and painter, and there was his brother William Michael, writer and would-be critic. There was John Everett Millais, an artistic child protégé from the Channel Isles, naive and brilliant. There was William Holman Hunt, passionate and troubled, whom Gabby had sought out when he had seen Hunt’s painting The Eve of St Agnes


W H Hunt - The Eve of St Agnes - 1848

There was James Collinson, a confused Christian who secretly fancied Gabby’s sister, Christina. There was Frederic George Stephens, another would-be critic, writer and poet. And there was Thomas Woolner, the only sculptor in the group. All seven believed that Art (with a capital A) had taken a wrong turn and needed to return to the honesty and intensity of the painters who worked before Raphael, the artists who were pre-Raphael, the Pre-Raphaelites. The PRB derided Sir Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy of Arts, who they called Sir Sloshua Slosh, mocking the influence of his contrived compositions, his commonplace conventionality and his academic conformity. Gabby’s gang wanted complex compositions, intense attention to detail and concentrated observation drawn directly from Nature. In 1848, the year of revolutions in Europe, they started a revolution of their own. 


J E Millais Lorenzo and Isabella 1849

When Millais exhibited Lorenzo and Isabella in 1849 it provoked the intended sensation. Based on a poem by an almost unknown poet, John Keats, it depicts the doomed lovers from the poem, in startling detail and vivid colour, obtained by using the oil painting technique of laying thin glazes of colour over a still wet white ground, which allows the light to reflect through the glaze, giving it a jewel-like intensity, in stark contrast to the heavy, brown bituminous varnishes favoured by Sloshua Slosh and his ilk. The composition is complex, angular in the manner of the Quattrocento, the figures stark and without the chiaroscuro of the Mannerists, and drawn entirely from life. That’s Gabby at the far end of the table, draining his wine-glass. Millais’s Mum and Dad are at the table, and the servant on the right is an art student called Plass. On the bench where Isabella sits, Millais has tagged the painting with the letters PRB. He was nineteen when he painted the picture. 


J E Millais Lorenzo and Isabella 1849 (Detail)

Holman Hunt followed his signature with PRB on his Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions (he was fond of long, descriptive titles), which hung beside Millais’s Isabella at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1849, and Rossetti did the same on his painting The Girlhood of the Virgin Mary


D G Rossetti - The Girlhood of the Virgin Mary 1849

D G Rossetti - The Girlhood of the Virgin Mary 1849 (Detail)

But the PRB needed new models – they could not paint each other or their families forever – and one was to change Rossetti’s life forever. She was first spotted working in a milliner’s shop in Cranbourne Alley – tall and slender, with intensely blue eyes and a mass of copper-coloured hair, she was eighteen years old. Her name was Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal. At first, she sat for them all – she is a Celt in Hunt’s Christians sheltering from the Persecution of the Druids and Sylvia in his Two Gentlemen of Verona, Viola in Deverell’s Twelfth Night and Ophelia in Millais’s painting of the same name. 

D G Rossetti - Elizabeth Siddal

When Rossetti saw her, he instantly fell in love with her. It was an odd kind of love – he was, after all, Italian. It was the intense, passionate, idealised love of Dante for Beatrice in the Vita Nuova. In his written works, Rossetti moved the name Dante to the start of his name, in honour of the great Italian poet, Dante Alighieri. Dante was part of Rossetti, not just in name. Miss Siddal became ‘Lizzie’, ‘Liz’, ‘The Sid’, ‘Sids’ and eventually ‘Guggums’ but in his heart, she was his dream woman, his Muse, his Beatrice. 


D G Rossetti - Elizabeth Siddal

He drew her to the point of obsession, over and over again, the same sad, hooded eyes, the flowing tresses, and the long, stately neck. In 1851, an engagement was announced; in 1860, they married (it was a long, Victorian engagement). But it was not a happy marriage. The intensity of their love had turned stale and stifling, the passion airless, and the longing had become frustrated jealousy. She began to suffer from bouts of intense depression and after the birth of a stillborn daughter in 1861 these intensified, as did the attacks of acute neuralgia. 


Elizabeth Siddal - 1860

Rossetti had always had affairs, known or unknown to her, and on February 10th 1862 they dined together at a restaurant in Leicester Square, after which she returned home while he went to a late drawing class at the Working Men’s’ College. If this was merely an excuse, we may never know, but when he came home he found her unconscious in bed. Doctors were sent for but they could do nothing – accidentally or on purpose, she had overdosed on laudanum, and died at about seven o’clock on the following morning. She was pregnant for the second time. Rossetti’s close friend, Ford Madox Brown, is said to have advised Rossetti to burn a letter that she had left, as suicide was both illegal and immoral, and in addition to the inevitable scandal, would have denied her a Christian burial. She was buried, in Highgate cemetery, and before the coffin was closed, Rossetti placed a notebook containing the only copies of his unpublished poems beside her head, wrapped in her hair. What motivated him? Guilt? Grief? We will never know. 


D G Rossetti - Beata Beatrix - 1864

He painted her again, in Beata Beatrix, once more in reference to Dante, where she sits in prayer, her eyes closed and lips parted (a dying breath?), with a sun-dial behind her (time is passing), and a dove brings her an opium poppy (the source of laudanum). In the background are the shadowy figures of Love and Dante, on his journey through the Inferno and Purgatory to Paradise, where he can be reunited with his dead love, Beatrice. 

Rossetti was devastated by her death – he began to take laudanum in brandy and became addicted to both. He was convinced he was going blind and his hands shook so much he could no longer paint. His mental health declined drastically, he spoke often of suicide and began to suffer from delusions. On day, whilst out walking, he found a chaffinch on the path, which allowed him to pick it up and carry it home; it was, to him, the spirit of his dead wife. He became obsessed with the poems he had placed in his wife’s coffin and tried to recreate them but his memory was too damaged to recall them properly. 


Rossetti in later life

Under the influence of his literary agent, the extremely shady Charles Augustus Howell, discrete enquiries were made and an order from the Home Secretary, Mr Bruce, obtained. On the night of either October 6th or 7th 1869, whilst Rossetti remained at home, Howell and others went to Highgate, where fires were lit, the grave opened and the coffin exhumed. Howell opened it and took the manuscript out. He said later that the body was preserved perfectly, in all her beauty, and her hair had continued to grow so that the coffin was full (an impossibility). The book, with some hair attached, was cleaned with formaldehyde, but a worm had eaten through some of the pages, making them impossible to read. The poems were returned to Rossetti, who copied them out as best he could, and he then destroyed the volume; the poems, with newer works, were published to mixed reviews in 1870. 

Memories of the exhumation haunted him ever after and he spent his final days in a mist of whisky and chloral hydrate. 

He died from Bright’s Disease on April 9th 1882.

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