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In nineteenth-century England, the artistic Rossetti family gave the world poet-painter Dante Gabriel, poet Christina, and William Michael, an art critic and career civil servant. The bohemian Dante Gabriel has inspired numerous biographies and other anecdotal histories, and his sumptuously painted female “stunners” frequently grace the pages of coffee table books and calendars. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a book complementing the 2003–04 exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, is the latest publication on this Pre-Raphaelite artist. Dante Gabriel Rossetti is a picture book and exhibition catalogue given a scholarly gloss through essays by Edwin Becker (Exhibition Curator at the Van Gogh Museum), Elizabeth Prettejohn (Professor of Modern Art History at Plymouth University), and Julian Treuherz (Keeper of Art Galleries for National Museums, Liverpool).
William and Lucy: The Other Rossettis is an entirely different kind of book. The “Other Rossettis” are William Michael Rossetti (1829–1919) and his wife, Lucy Madox Brown Rossetti (1843–94). Elaborating on the format pioneered in Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtviron’s Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993), an anthology of essays on creative couples, Thirlwell writes an artistic biography that looks beyond individual achievements to also explore the collaborative context of an artistic marriage. Handsomely illustrated, thoroughly researched, William and Lucy intertwines the personal and professional stories of a husband and wife and their artistic circle, which encompassed not only the artistic Rossettis but also Lucy’s family, including her father, painter Ford Madox Brown, and half-sister Catherine—also an artist, and mother to author Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford). The first book-length treatment of either figure, William and Lucy represents a significant contribution to the field of nineteenth-century English art history and Pre-Raphaelite studies in particular. In conventional histories of the Pre-Raphaelites, William is listed as one of the seven founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and then dismissed as “not even an artist” but a civil servant. Information on Lucy, professionally active as an artist from 1869 to 1874, is limited to a few pages in feminist art histories, including Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn’s Women Artists and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement (London: Virago, 1989).
Yale University Press locates this book “at the crossover between art history, literary criticism, social history, and biography”; Thirlwell employs two organizing structures—themes and chronology. She begins with themes that unite the two lives—vScenes from Family Life” and cMarriage”—but also shifts from one partner to the other, shaping chapter topics to suit each subject: “Artist” and “The Patient” (Lucy), “The Victorian” and “Man of Letters” (William). “Portraits” provides a brilliant start, giving the reader pictures of each subject to ponder. The reader is invited to “endlessly scan portraits to glean something significant about the character behind the face and about the past itself. . . . In considering two lives that were both so concerned, in their differing ways, with visual messages, portraits of Lucy and William are not merely fascinating in themselves but also fulfill a special biographical function” (9).
William Michael Rossetti, family biographer, finally gets his own biography. William deserves credit for writing, preserving, and publishing some of most valuable documents of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He was editor of The Germ, 1850, the short-lived mouthpiece of the group, and keeper of the Pre-Raphaelite Diary (1849–53). In the 1880s, William published several volumes on his older brother, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Collected Works (1886) with memoir, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Designer and Writer (1889). After Christina’s 1894 death, which left him the sole family survivor, the pace of publishing accelerated. With retirement from Inland Revenue that same year, William devoted himself to gathering and presenting letters, journals, and other documents pertaining not only to Dante Gabriel but to the Pre-Raphaelites as a movement—Ruskin, Rossetti, Preraphaelitism, Papers 1854–1862 (1899); Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters with a Memoir (1895); Pre-Raphaelite Diaries and Letters (1900); The Germ—facsimile reprint (1901). This material helped shape other authors’ narratives about the artistic reform movement begun a half century before. Not surprisingly, Dante Gabriel is usually celebrated as the most revolutionary, charismatic, and visionary within the artistic cohort. William’s published presentations of his materials appeared when such “lifewritings” were all the rage. John Everett Millias’s Life and Letters, edited by son John Guille Millais, appeared in 1899; Ford Madox Brown, a Record of his Life and Work, edited by grandson Ford Madox Ford, came out in 1896. William Holman Hunt hoped to capture the last word on the movement he helped inaugurate with his 1905 Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. William Michael Rossetti claimed to be a reluctant biographer of his brother. “There are several reasons why a brother neither is nor can be the best biographer. Feeling this, I had always intended to not write a Life of Dante Rossetti” (William Michael Rossetti, Preface, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters with a Memoir, London: Ellis and Elvey, 1895, I, xi-xii). When circumstances compelled him to do so regardless, he did not “tell all” but maintained tact and a clear view to posterity. “I have told what I choose to tell, and have left untold what I do not choose to tell; if you want more, be pleased to consult some other informant” (ibid., xii).
William Michael Rossetti was not only the keeper of family papers and guardian of the Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Pre-Raphaelite myths. His was a prodigiously productive life, full of accomplishments as a critic, poet, biographer, historian, connoisseur, archivist, father, and husband. At age fifteen, he took a post at the Inland Revenue Service, and worked there diligently for forty-nine years in order to provide steady income for himself and extended family. This “day job” did not stand in the way of his writing career. Appointed art critic of The Spectator in 1850 at age twenty, the younger brother of Dante Gabriel was paid handsomely during his eight years as regular critic. William responded to all manner of visual artistry, writing nearly four hundred reviews for English and American periodicals between 1850 and 1878. Thirlwell makes judicious choices from this rich trove in order to demonstrate that, although Rossetti was a brilliant defender of Pre-Raphaelitism, his real achievement was to use his visual acumen to maintain independence and flexibility. William’s reputation as one of the three most important art critics of his day is grounded in what Thirlwell calls his “abiding cosmopolitanism.” William also published numerous works of literary criticism in journals, and edited volumes of work by such controversial poets as Algernon Swinburne and Walt Whitman. William and Lucy shows how the couple’s political and artistic passions came together in literature. William, a sober civil servant who “thought like an anarchist,” was the leading expert on Percy Bysshe Shelley, as renowned at the time for his advocacy of sexual freedom and radical politics as for his poetry.
Lucy, intellectual daughter of Ford Madox Brown, established professional credentials as an artist before her marriage in 1874 at age twenty-nine to Michael, fourteen years her senior. Initially raised by an aunt, Lucy came to live with her father at age thirteen. Her rather haphazard artistic education was conducted primarily in her father’s studio. During the 1870s, Lucy actively participated in the art world of her day. Painting ambitious subjects from history and literature, she exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in London (1871, 1872, 1875, 1877), at the Royal Academy (1871), and in Liverpool (1871–73), Manchester (1870–75), and Birmingham (1874–79). Her total production was small, and relatively few works survive today. Thirlwell adds thoughtful commentary and a few details to the story of Lucy Madox Brown that was initially presented in Marsh and Gerrish Nunn’s Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999). The author also demonstrates the broader range of Lucy’s achievements by looking to her writing, including a long article on her father for Magazine of Art in 1889. Just as William articulated his own politics by writing about the poet Shelley, so Lucy found common cause with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. In a short biography (1890) in the Eminent Women series, Lucy found parallels between her own life and that of her subject: both were daughters of famous fathers, both had suffered from the early death of their mothers, both were distinguished by probing intellects and a passion for women’s rights and education.
Isolated in a women’s art history book, Lucy is easily cast as a victim whose talents were stifled by a marriage that effectively ended her career as an artist. But such a scenario rings hollow within a more symphonic picture of a Victorian marriage inflected by family tensions, social responsibilities, children, and ill health. As Thirlwell demonstrates, Lucy, who became pregnant shortly after marriage, displayed a “boundless zeal for maternity.” Although the first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, she gave birth to five children over the next six years. Michael, a twin, died very young. Lucy took personal responsibility for her children’s early education, expending tremendous energy and creativity. Her curriculum, encompassing classical languages, French, history, political theory, and swimming, was both intellectually rigorous and practical. In 1885, after a bout with pneumonia and lingering grief over the death of Michael, Lucy began to show signs of the tuberculosis that would claim her life. In accord with the medical practices of her day, treatment relied on the therapeutic effects of warmer climates. Lucy spent much of her last decade separated from her family, and died at age fifty in San Remo on the Mediterranean coast.
The Victorian habit of writing letters works to the advantage of the modern day biographer. Thirlwell allows her subjects to speak in their own words through frequent quotes from epistolary remains. Letters add nuance to the story of William and Lucy’s marriage. “The two partners’ wildly contrasting temperaments gave the relationship its dynamism from the very beginning” (238). This book shows the balance of power shifting from one partner to the other and back again against a solid background of affection and passionate sexual connection. Husband and wife were united by common interests in “classical and highbrow” cultural events, as well as politics and women’s rights. Marriage was deeply sustaining for William; he continued writing to Lucy even when depression induced by Dante Gabriel’s death in 1882 curbed all other literary endeavors. William and Lucy also uses letters to shed light on complex and changing family relationships—between and within the Rossettis, Browns, and Bromleys (Lucy’s mother’s family). In the chapter “Scenes from Family Life,” Thirlwell looks at many pairs within and across families, including half-sisters (Lucy and half sister Cathy [Brown] Hueffer), brothers (Dante Gabriel and William Michael Rossetti), and sisters-in-law (Lucy and Christina Rossetti).
William and Lucy effectively reconstitutes two lesser-known members of this renowned Victorian artistic family. The author skillfully balances multiple narratives and accords equal treatment to both Lucy and William despite William’s much longer life. This new “couples biography” offers a refreshing alternative to conventional biographies. For men, these tend to stress professional achievements, while for women, the narratives climax in marriage. Thirlwell presents two entire lives embedded in an age of change and continuity.
If Michael and Lucy are the “other” Rossettis, Dante Gabriel is the Rossetti—the Pre-Raphaelite body to which brother and sister-in-law are mere appendages. Viewed side by side on a coffee table, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is a large luxurious tome on a major artist, while William and Lucy is cast in the smaller, more modest format of a biography or scholarly book. Thirlwell’s challenge was to construct the first book-length treatment of two small dots in the Victorian artistic firmament. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a major art historical star, is already the subject of numerous publications. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the book, is not a new synthetic art historical treatment of the artist. Rather, this 2003 volume is an exhibition catalogue doubling as an introduction to the artist. The first two introductory essays focus on obvious themes. In “‘The Most Startlingly Original Living’: Rossetti’s Early Years,” Julian Treuherz summarizes Rossetti’s artistic formation, early medievalizing style, and the foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Elizabeth Prettejohn reviews Rossetti’s mature or “new” style, embodied in paintings of—to quote her essay title—“Beautiful Women with Floral Adjuncts.” The third essay, “Sensual Eroticism or Empty Tranquility: Rossetti’s Reputation Around 1900,” comes closest to opening new territory. To give this exhibition of a British artist a Continental context for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Edwin Becker connects Rossetti with turn-of-the-century developments in art across the Channel, notably with Symbolists identified with the Rose+Croix group, with Belgian Fernand Khnopff, Austrian Gustav Klimt, and German Franz von Stuck. This chapter, however, highlights only some of the themes addressed thoroughly and eloquently in The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts: Symbolism in Britain, 1860–1910, edited by Andrew Wilton and Robert Upstone (London: Tate Gallery, 1997).
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the first major monographic exhibition of Rossetti’s work in nearly forty years; the exhibition organizers labored mightily to gather together nearly two hundred paintings, drawings, illustrations, and other objects from collections in Great Britain, North America, and elsewhere. Every work in the exhibition is reproduced, making the publication a valuable compendium. The catalogue is clearly organized in sections introduced with brief texts. The last two extend the material offerings beyond the usual paintings and drawings. Sections on “Rossetti as designer” broaden his achievement beyond the fine art media, and “Rossetti as a collector” presents objects of inspiration and illustrates how the artist lived with his favorite things. The world of functional objects, homes, friends, family, and artistic fellow travelers is not treated in any significant way in any of the three essays.
As Richard Dorment wrote in a Daily Telegraph review, the Walker Art Gallery’s Rossetti exhibition “concentrates on his work, not on his life and time. That may sound too obvious to mention, but in fact, it represents a conscious curatorial decision and a considerable box-office risk” (“Visions of Voluptuousness,” Daily Telegraph, November 11, 2003, 21). However this decision played out in exhibition attendance, the book’s primary focus on the work makes for a conservative publication. The pictures are beautiful and beautifully reproduced. But the essays present the artist and his works in near glorious isolation. To best understand Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the reader should plunge into the complex web of connections that constituted the artist in his times. Two little books from the Tate Gallery provide a good beginning: Lisa Tickner’s Dante Gabriel Rossetti (2003) and Elizabeth Prettejohn’s Rossetti and his Circle (1997). One can then throw caution to the winds and delve into Jerome McGann’s Rossetti archive (http://www.rossettiarchive.org), which offers links and connections to occupy more than a lifetime.
Director of Exhibitions and Curator of the College Art Collection, Carleton College