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Art review: The Rossettis: Radical Romantics at Tate Britain

by
18 August 2023

Nicholas Cranfield sees the show about the creative and variously devout Rossettis

© Tate, Purchased 1886

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation) (1849-50)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation) (1849-50)

“FOUND” is an ambiguous word in the English language. In the sense of Luke 15 or of a lost-property office at a railway station, it has a rather different sense from how children playing hide-and-seek might shout “Gotcha!”.

At the heart of this substantial retrospective exhibition is a remarkable painting by Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), Found, loaned from Delaware Art Museum, where the exhibition transfers (21 October 2023-28 January 2024). Delaware has the largest public collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the United States; who knew?

Rossetti struggled for years to make sense of his own composition, and various surviving drawings and sketches suggest that he worked on it, with an artist, Henry Treffry Dunn, from 1854/55 to 1859/91, leaving it unfinished at his death.

It is a violent and abusive depiction of street prostitution around Blackfriars Bridge (Dunn was responsible for the landscape background), in which a man has thrown a woman to the side of the street, her head against the hard brick wall of a churchyard. The model’s only recollection of posing for the painting was that Rossetti had made her lie on the ground up against a wall.

Her assailant roughly grasps her wrists while, behind him, in a cart abandoned on the cobbled street, stands a netted and muzzled calf that makes silent comment on the foul action. It is a thoroughly unpleasant picture, even if a description of the scene will be all too well known to doctors, priests, parole officers, the police, and those in the social services or who work in women’s refuges today.

The very first painting in this show is a more familiar one, painted some thirty years earlier. Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation) (Tate) was painted a year after The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (also Tate) in the next room. Rossetti was newly a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and, aged just 21, portrayed his brother William as the archangel and his sister, the published poet Christina, as the young Mary. In The Girlhood, their mother is depicted as St Anne.

Despite the work’s title, there is no dialogue, no hint that Mary has accepted her divinely appointed role. Rather, she shrinks backward on the low divan, cowed by the fear of what it means to lose her virginity. She looks bleakly out, not at (as the Tate label would have us believe) us, terrified and yet perhaps beginning to realise that her future will lie beyond.

There is something unwholesome about the silent composition, perhaps increased by our knowledge that these two are siblings. The archangel’s fire-wrapped feet do not touch the ground, and only the central lily stem is in the sharp focus of Now. It is far from conventional and would never have served as an altarpiece.

In the other painting, a thought visibly crosses the young Mary’s mind, and she momentarily stops embroidering a lily on to the red fall that she is decorating (her finished handiwork appears in the scene of the Annunciation) and looks beyond the seriously bored angel, who stands next to the lily, perched in a red-and-white pot on a pile of books. Unlikely impedimenta in a Galilean household, each of the volumes is inscribed with one of the Virtues.

Dante (as he renamed himself from 1849) Gabriel Rossetti was the second child and first-born son of a Neapolitan immigrant in London and a second-generation Italian woman. His father translated the works of Dante into English and taught commercial Italian for a living at the King’s College School in the Strand, where both boys were educated. A fellow critic told me that Dickens also sent his sons there, but took them out of school early, as it was so rough.

The exhibition offers the first major retrospective of his work in years and sets it in the context of both his family and the society of his day, including furniture, books, and photographs. Inexplicably, his 1847 seductive self-portrait in pencil and white chalk (National Portrait Gallery, London), in which he drew himself as the ardent “Byronic” artist, is absent.

In 1843, Gabriel’s sisters, Maria and Christina, started attending Christ Church, Albany Street, in Camden, with their mother. It was then a fulcrum of the emerging High Church tradition under the Tractarian William Dodsworth, and the Rossettis may have been attracted by his reputation as a preacher. He resigned his Anglican orders to become a Roman Catholic in 1851. The neo-classical church, designed by Sir James Pennethorne in 1837, has accommodated the Antiochian Orthodox church since 1989 as the Cathedral of St George.

Maria joined the All Saints’ Sisters in Oxford as an associate Sister, and many who know Christina’s poem “In the bleak midwinter” might be surprised by how deep her devotion was. Their brother showed rather less piety; the ease that he exercised around working-class models and his own tumultuous relationships offer a different picture of social and sexual responsibility.

His crowded The Beloved (Tate) offers a discussion on how easy it was to pick up a black teenage boy on the streets of London outside a hotel, with the agreement of “his master”. The same group painting, which might have been inspired by the Song of Songs, includes a mixed-heritage Jamaican-born woman, Fanny Eaton, and another who was Roma. How far were they exploited?

The auburn-haired models appearing as Lady Lilith, Monna Vanna, La Ghirlandata and Veronica, and the darker-haired Proserpina and Mnemosyne are displayed in their original frames, making a stark comment on Victorian wealth and values.

We see a photo of how the Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland (1831-92), noted for his own extra-marital affairs, “imprisoned” many of them on the walls of his Prince’s Gate London house. We are reminded that his money derived from the cotton trade with the American South. The Bibby Line still flourishes and provides our own Home Secretary with temporary accommodation for migrants. The exhibition would fulfil its radical purpose if it led us to reflect on how future generations will judge our trade links with China.

 

“The Rossettis: Radical Romantics” is at Tate Britain, Milbank, London SW1, until 24 September. Phone 020 7887 8888. tate.org.uk

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