Sound the Important Artistic Discovery Klaxon

Excuse me while I let the Red House press release do the talking. I’m busy gnawing the furniture with excitement.

Remarkable wall painting by Pre-Raphaelite artists is uncovered at home of William Morris

For years, two figures painted on a wall and concealed behind a cupboard at the former home of William Morris were believed to have been the work of a single artist.

Now, major conservation work has uncovered an entire wall painting which experts believe is by William Morris and friends, all of whom were important Pre-Raphaelite artists.

Red House in Kent, owned by the National Trust, was the home of Morris between 1860 and 1865. Regular visitors were Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal, Edward Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown.

At different times, the friends helped Morris to decorate walls, ceilings and items of furniture at the house with colourful wall paintings and decorative patterns inspired by their love of the medieval past.

After Morris left Red House, until the Trust acquired it in 2003, it remained in private ownership. As tastes changed, much of his original decoration was covered over with panelling, wallpaperor paint.

The bedroom wall painting had been hidden for years behind a fitted wardrobe and covered with wallpaper and until this year only two indistinct figures were visible.

Following generous funding, the Trust has been able to undertake conservation which has uncovered the complete painting, measuring six feet by eight feet. The painting, designed for what had been Morris and his wife Jane’s bedroom, depicts Biblical characters: the figures of Adam and Eve (with the serpent), Noah (holding a miniature ark), Rachel and Jacob (with a ladder) and is designed to resemble a hanging tapestry with the illusion of folds.


Before restoration and (nearly) after. Magic.

It is not known for certain which artist painted which figure, and further research and analysis will be undertaken.

Jan Marsh, author and President of the William Morris Society said: “The concept of the overall design was almost certainly by Morris. Our initial thoughts are that the figure of Jacob was by Morris, Rachel possibly by Elizabeth Siddal, Noah by Madox Brown. But who painted Adam and Eve? Maybe Rossetti or Burne-Jones?”


There’s even a wombat snuggled up under a chair.

James Breslin, House Manager at Red House said:

“The early years at Red House were a flowering of ideas and creativity for Morris, who encouraged his friends to help him design a home uniquely medieval in feel. To uncover such a remarkable example of this early decoration has been so exciting.

“As we uncover more and more of those original schemes, we have been delighted that our visitors today have been able to share in these discoveries, and see the conservation in action, every step of the way.”

If the thought of incredible collaborative artworks hiding behind wallpaper makes you foam at the mouth, there’s still time to reserve your place at the Pre-Raphaelite Pilgrimage on the 7th of September – a thirteen-mile Chaucerian trek from The George Inn on London’s Borough High Street to Red House. You don’t even have to walk it, and there will be beer. I, for one, might need it.

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Wunderkammer: Doctor Sayre’s Spines

Victorian medical photography often crosses the border into art. There’s a soft, fetishistic quality to even the most gruesome of images.

There’s something about spines in particular that catches my attention. Whether it’s the fact that I narrowly dodged the genetic scoliosis bullet, or that spines are anchored to our language of courage and stability, Lewis A. Sayre’s 1877 publication, Spinal Disease and Spinal Curvature (which you can download free at stands out in terms of beauty and weirdness.

scoliosis rack
Sayre – shown above – recommended patients with spinal curvatures suspend themselves twice daily on a contraption resembling a tripod for flogging errant soldiers. The result were these strange photographs, with Sayre and his aides standing by like attendants to martyred saints.

scoliosis rack2
Many of Dr Sayre’s patients are described as working class labourers, ‘stout’ and ‘surprisingly’ healthy, including children whose parents attributed their deformities to heavy manual work; lugging pails of coal, bad school conditions, and the repeated trope of the severe fall in infancy.


After treatment, they are nearly all reported to be interacting with nature, paddling ‘stockings off’ in seaside rockpools, feeling ‘no fatigue’ on long country walks and rounds of croquet, as if transported from their working class lives into a J. M. Barrie fantasy. These images are the purgatory between those two stages.



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The strange, corporeal afterlife of James Legg

If you were lucky enough to catch Doctors, Dissection, and Resurrection Men at the Museum of London, you’ll remember this fellow…


This is murderer James Legg. In 1801, the 80-year-old Legg challenged a fellow pensioner, Lamb, to a duel. When Lamb refused, throwing the pistol to the ground, Legg did the ungentlemanly thing and shot him anyway. Although apparently well-received in the courtroom, not to mention the ramifications of his advanced age and plea of insanity, Legg was sentenced to be hanged on the 2nd of November, and his body dissected.

Meanwhile, sculptor Thomas Banks and painters Benjamin West and Richard Cosway had always wondered if artistic representations of Christ’s crucifixion were anatomically correct. How they justified this is a mystery (“It’s for art, dears, art”) but surgeon Joseph Constantine Carpue apparently saw no moral issue with procuring the hanged Legg’s body fresh from the gallows and crucifying it in situ. The four men created two casts, one with skin on, one with skin off. The casts were moved to Banks’ London studio, where they attracted much attention from the curious public before being displayed for art students in the Royal Academy.

The ‘experiment’ still brings up uncomfortable questions about ownership and consent. But awfulness aside, the cast is incredible, and enormous. Legg must have been an imposing young man if he were that size at 80. The photograph is somehow more dreadful than viewing it in person. Perhaps it was the low light of the exhibition, or the woman sat at his feet, sketching, but I found it rather beautiful.

When I first set eyes on James Legg’s plaster remains and learned of his strange corporeal afterlife in the RA, I hoped Dante Gabriel Rossetti would have seen him. The student Rossetti hated drawing from sculptures in the same way most of us hated doing our times tables, but this is the boy who, dismayed by the sight of cancan dancers’ petticoats, took William Holman Hunt to a Parisian morgue to view a drowned man. On holiday. For fun. (He was a pleasant traveling companion, wrote Hunt, for certain values of pleasant.)

I think he would have loved James Legg.

Rossetti’s prolonged phase of reveling in the macabre produced some amusing works and letters: the ballad Jan Van Hunks about a smoking contest against the devil (DGR never smoked), general delight in ‘stunner’ murderesses and all things Poe. A cast of a flayed murderer would probably have persuaded him to pay more attention in class.

Playing card, 1840

Look at this jaunty little Death, done in 1840. Note the odd leg bones. It was never meant to be a serious anatomical study, but the disregard for details is there. “I have nearly finished studying the bones,” he wrote to Mamma Francis in 1843, ” and my next drawing will most probably be an anatomy-figure.” He sounds bored to tears.

Sadly, the cast of James Legg was removed from the RA in 1822, seven years before Rossetti was born, and only returned in 1917, thirty-five years after his death, when it narrowly avoided being blown up by a zeppelin bomb.

In light of their commitment to realism and the religious nature of so many Pre-Raphaelite paintings, it is tantalising to wonder how the PRB would have reacted to such a ‘teaching aid’, had it been available.

Although Rossetti would probably argue, it doesn’t matter how accurate the cast – it’s the soul of the thing that matters.

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Fall into the house of Severs – still life drama at 18 Folgate St

severs1The first rule of Dennis Severs’ house is that you do not talk in Dennis Severs’ house.

Not that you’re given a chance to say anything. As we rounded the corner into Spitalfield’s Folgate Street and rang the bell on number 18, the door immediately opened to reveal a composed gentleman in warm winter clothes.

“Is this your first visit to my friend Dennis’ house? Entry is ten pounds. I warn you, there is a mad cat.”

What were we in for? The Californian Dennis Severs moved into Folgate Street in 1979, when the run-down area was attracting colourful types like Gilbert & George. Bypassing frivolities like electricity and modern plumbing, he decorated each of the house’s eleven rooms in the style of a different era, from 1724 to 1914. The aim, or ‘game’ as he put it, was to give the impression the original occupants of the house – the Jervises, a family of Huguenot silk weavers – had just left the room.

Ring the bell, hand over your tenner, and slide into the past.

Photograph by Roelof Bakker

Photograph by Roelof Bakker

The motto of the house, Aut Visum Aut Non (‘you either see it or you don’t’), hints at the ghostly quality of the place. Severs died in 1999. In his Will, he asked the house be kept as it was during his lifetime, still admitting the curious, silent public.

Inside the tall, dimly lit house, you see no ghosts. But you hear them, oh yes. The atmosphere is an entity in itself, following you, touching you. You learn to minimise your movements to avoid the naked flames. You tune into the language of the nibbled scone, the glistening yolk of a cooling boiled egg, the afternoon sherry guiltily abandoned. Upstairs, in the paupers’ room, the collapsing ceiling admits sighs of freezing London air.

“Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.”

Performance art of this kind offers strange intimacy. I was reminded of Punchdrunk’s incredible 2007 production of The Masque of The Red Death in which the audience were given masks and let loose in the industrial cavern that is Battersea Arts Centre. You could rifle through tattered paperwork, watch contortionists getting violently busy on a four-poster bed, or enter a mad puppet show…but you had to remain silent.


In my mask, I laid eyes on a boy (man? It was so dark, I couldn’t tell), taller than me – rare, as I’m over six foot – lurking in a chamber of piled silks and wools. He beckoned; I unthinkingly obeyed. Without permission, he laid a velvet cloak around my shoulders and slowly fastened the clasp. Was he gorgeous? I don’t know; I never saw more than his eyes, which I stared into with inebriated fascination for far longer than was polite until he laid his hand on my back – a touch! – and moved me on.

That, I think, is the trick of performance art. Like a parasite, it knows your boundaries and wheedles inside. Think of Venetian prostitutes with their Servetta Muta masks held by a bit between the teeth. Anonymity is intimacy.

“Those in the past were also dizzy and dumbstruck”

Severs left a note for us in Mrs Jervis’ pink confection of a rococo dayroom. To experience the house without sensing the long-gone occupants would be “like celebrating the Millennium as a number, without Christ.” It’s safe to say he took his still life drama seriously. But that heavy statement was interesting…

dickensroom“You must forgive the shallow who must chatter,” says another note. We have the Internet, 24 hour news, the telephone with the police on the end waiting for our call. The Severs house recreates the cut-offedness we’ve learned to forget. If you love history, you spend eons inside books offering first person accounts of a moment 100 years old or more, but when you enter the closed atmosphere of 18 Folgate Street, with its strange sounds, strong smells, and unreliable light, you at once feel vulnerable.

But the house is merely a pretty illusion if you aren’t willing to let down your barriers –  a fact brought home by the frequent smacks on the wrist in the form of signs saying, “STOP LOOKING AT INDIVIDUAL OBJECTS/ARE YOU STILL LOOKING AT THE OBJECTS/WELL STOP IT”. The spirit of the age was what Severs wanted to capture, not a cabinet of curiosities. These signs are more off-putting than the small anachronisms such as supermarket labels on the claret bottles. Besides, I like to think they were all part of the game. Where would Hogarth’s revelers get their cheap plonk if they were around today? Sainsbury’s, like the rest of us.

It takes an experience like 18 Folgate Street to illustrate how different we are to our ancestors – and how viscerally similar.

As Severs said:

“You are 100 years old; you are wise.”

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Rossetti as Subject: ‘Screechy’ Hancock & The Teenage DGR

One of the pleasures to be had from Pre-Raphaelite artworks is spotting the cameo appearances: Millais lying on an ironing board, Fred Stephens ignoring the fairies, or Lizzie Siddal’s hair on Jesus’ head… It’s fascinating to see the individual artists’ stamp on a set of familiar features.

Despite being a compulsive fidget, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was, according to William Holman Hunt, a ‘good-natured’ sitter. His Italianate features appear in many PRB works, and likenesses of him, from sketches dashed off in chop houses to carefully-rendered portraits, often provide an interesting insight into the dynamic of the group at the time.

NPG P1273(56); Dante Gabriel Rossetti by Paul Jonnard, after  John HancockSculptor John Hancock’s 1846 plaster medallion is the earliest known likeness of Rossetti in adulthood. This is the young, dreamy Gabriel Hunt and Stephens remembered shirking classes at the Royal Academy: 18, girlish and moody, with unbrushed ‘elf locks’, and an insouciant air masking rickety self-confidence. Always surrounded by what Hunt called his ‘following of clamorous students’, the adolescent Gabriel wore his poverty with bravado: if you took exception to his unfashionable, mud-spattered clothes, well, you obviously didn’t have a poet’s soul.

John Hancock (not to be confused with the American periwig enthusiast) is one of those fleeting blips on the radar of PRB history. From the glimpses we get of Hancock, it seems he was one of the many little fishes swept up by Gabriel’s net of enthusiasm. (Everyone was a stunning painter! Even if he’d never touched a brush.) Hancock’s young cousin Tom was certainly bewitched by this long-haired teenager bursting with admiration for Shelley and Keats. “How much I owe to listening to his talk at a very impressionable age,” he later wrote.

Like everyone else Gabriel was fond of, Hancock received a ribbing in verse. Here he is, getting on everyone’s nerves at a PRB gathering:

Dante's Beatrice

Dante’s Beatrice by John Hancock

The hop-shop is shut up: the night doth wear.
Here, early, Collinson this evening fell
“Into the gulfs of sleep”; and Deverell
Has turned upon the pivot of his chair
The whole of this night long; and Hancock there
Has laboured to repeat, in accents screechy,
“Guardami ben, ben son, ben son Beatrice”;
And Bernhard Smith still beamed, serene and square.
By eight, the coffee was all drunk. At nine
We gave the cat some milk. Our talk did shelve,
Ere ten, to gasps and stupor. Helpless grief
Made, towards eleven, my inmost spirit pine,
Knowing North’s hour. And Hancock, hard on twelve,
Showed an engraving of his bas-relief.

(Rhyming ‘screechy’ with ‘Bay-ah-tree-chi’ – amazing. Almost as good as ‘wombat’ with ‘flings a bomb at’.)

But not everyone took to Hancock. Gabriel’s brother William described him as ‘an ungainly little man, wizened, with a long thin nose and squeaky voice’. Such venom was possibly because he failed to produce promised funding and content for The Germ. It certainly wasn’t the last time William took the hump with someone who encroached upon his and Gabriel’s twin-like bond – see Lizzie Siddal, Fanny Cornforth etc – but, tantalisingly, we don’t have details.

Unlike the majority of the PRB circle, Hancock had steady financial backing from his family and experienced early success, exhibiting successfully in London and Paris and gaining widespread praise for his lovely plaster statue of Dante’s Beatrice. But something, somewhere, went wrong.

Hancock died of gastric irritation and exhaustion just after Christmas 1869, aged only 41, with just £20 to his name (very roughly, £1400 of today’s money). In his obituary, The Athenaeum lamented: ‘the anticipated progress of the sculptor was somewhat suddenly stayed and not renewed’. We do know that Hancock asked to use the PRB initials, but, for unknown reasons, was never permitted to do so. William alluded to ‘unfortunate circumstances into which it is not my affair to enter’ (but apparently enough of his affair to draw everyone’s attention to in print).

What happened to Hancock between the lovely plaster medallion of the teenage Gabriel and his early death? I’d love to know.

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The Wombat is a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness!

Wombat Friday

Wombie the World-Travelling Wombat looks nervous in the face of so much arsenic and adultery.

I emerge from a week of sinus infection horror raring to plough through the pile of books I’ve accrued and to – finally! – take part in #WombatFriday with the rest of the Victorianists on Twitter.

If you’re unaware of the long and illustrious saga of the noble marsupial in art history, pick up a copy of Rossetti’s Wombat: Pre-Raphaelites and Australian Animals in Victorian London and enjoy the account of Rossetti’s wombat, Top, plodding up to Ruskin (in mid-flow on the subject of communal artistic living as a means of saving humanity) to snuggle between his coat and waistcoat. Ruskin, being British and not the host, carried on “wring[ing] his hand and soul” as though nothing was happening.

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Inconvenient People

When I was fifteen, I had a summer work experience placement at Ipswich’s psychiatric hospital. St Clements was one of the old ‘asylum’ style hospitals with high-ceilinged wards, green grounds, and a big, romantic entrance hall like something from a smart Edwardian hotel.

Among the patients I got to know, there were two shuffling old men who always stuck together. They rarely said a word, even to each other, and spent their days in the potting sheds propagating seeds to sell in the hospital shop. Someone told me these two men had spent their whole lives in the hospital; that their mothers were sent there because they’d given birth out of wedlock. I was sceptical, not because I didn’t believe such awful things had happened, but because I thought that particular social shame was Victorian in origin.

However, one of the many surprising things I learned when we hightailed it to Highgate this week for a talk hosted by Sarah Wise, author of Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England, is that the old story of the dissolute male knocking up the maid and having her put away in a mental hospital to avoid a scandal was in fact a twentieth century phenomenon. And, more surprisingly, Victorian men were more likely to be maliciously accused of insanity than women – because that’s where the money was.

Those who were eccentric, wayward, rebellious, different in some fashion or even just stood in the way (often of money), were often locked up at the behest of family members who stood to benefit. They were aided and abetted by a growing number of ‘mad doctors’ who readily certified ‘madness’. There was money in the lunacy trade — certainly more than in certifying people as sane…

I haven’t yet read the book, but the talk reminded me of when, in Venice this summer, we took the vaporetto out to San Servolo, the so-called ‘island of the mad’ to see the remains of the hospital there. Most of the building is now occupied by the University of Venice, but the pharmacy remains intact, along with a small museum and an imposing white chapel amongst the botanic gardens, radiating heat.

Like the subjects of Sarah Wise’s research, most of the inmates of San Servolo were not mentally ill at all, but dipsomaniacs (alcoholics) or suffering from malnutrition. Being cheap and plentiful, polenta was the dietary staple of the Venetian working classes, but too much of it can cause hallucinations and erratic behaviour. The doctors only realised this when patients who’d come in raving returned to the community – and thus their regular diet – only to be readmitted soon later with the same old symptoms.

In the museum, there was a long, long line of before-after shots of some of the nineteenth century patients, as if physical appearance can ever really tell us anything.

Having had depression for most of my adult life, there’s always a slightly guilty sense of “there but for the grace of…” when viewing the records of people in similar situations a hundred or so years ago. As Sarah Wise explained, those suspected or accused of mental illness in England were at the mercy of unqualified ‘mad doctors’ and The Commissioners of Lunacy (which sounds like a rubbish steampunk band), a system open to abuse, especially when the theory of monomania drifted across the continent.

Monomaniacs were defined as individuals who appeared fully sane except for one triggering factor, one preoccupation. Monomania was a worrying concept for the public, a) because it was a French theory and therefore probably cobblers, and b) because it made them confront the possibility that mad people looked and behaved just like everyone else.

Which, in my experience, sounds precisely like today’s attitudes.

But doesn’t everyone, healthy or otherwise, have a right to eccentricity? Particularly in England, or so the English tell themselves. And this cognitive dissonance led to some astonishing, uplifting cases of the public turning out in droves to support the accused, even going as far as staging daring rescues. In response to the incarcertion of Lady Lytton — a bona fide case of a disgruntled husband using his influence to silence an intelligent wife — The Somerset Gazette printed in 1858:

Rouse, and assert Old England’s boast
With indignation rife;
From Orkney to The Scilly Isles
Cry ‘Liberty in Life’!

I can’t wait to get stuck into the book. Thank you, Sarah, for an eye-opening talk.

While reaching this article, I was saddened to discover that St Clements, with its vast grounds and grand halls, was turned into a middle class golf resort in 2011. I wonder what happened to those two old men who knew nothing but the asylum.

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Nudity, holy dirt, and bone-picking at Kelmscott Manor

“I am inclined to think that sort of thing is mostly rubbish” – William Morris, on his own work.

I managed to crawl my way out of last week’s all-pervading October fog – Dickensian or Hitchcockian, depending on the monsters looming out of it – to get to the Edward Burne-Jones exhibition at Kelmscott Manor.

The Body Beautiful: Burne-Jones At Work, was partly a goodwill gesture on behalf of The Tate, who carefully dismantled William Morris’ Kelmscott bed and took it to London for the Pre-Raphaelite: Victorian Avant-Garde show*. To be honest, I was expecting the Tate’s rejects. (“We’re having Love Among The Ruins. You can have this teacup.”) But the collection of hazy nudes and tactile studies, although small, was well worth the three-hour drive from Cambridge.

“It’s so flat that to see anything is not easy, and when you do see it, it isn’t worth seeing” – Rossetti, indulging in a grump.

For those of you who haven’t ventured out into the wilds of Lechlade to William Morris’ earthly paradise, let me first explain that Kelmscott exists inside a cosmic bubble. The modern world has been kept at such a distance, you can comfortably believe it no longer exists. The house and surrounding farm buildings have been preserved as sensitively as possible, encouraging visitors to see it as a home and not a museum. The weather is constantly mellow and glorious, and the carpark and the cafe are minor details – you can convince yourself that Morris has just pootled off to Iceland, and Jane is probably embroidering in the next room.

The illusion is compounded by little domestic details unfettered by velvet ropes. Rossetti’s satinwood writing desk (on wheels!) is so dinky, I wouldn’t get my legs under it. The general smallness of the house’s Victorian occupants was especially apparent in Morris’ overcoat, hanging from a door in the same room. Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Paris says the label, as if fresh off the catwalks. You can imagine him bustling about in it.

And then, upstairs…

The Body Beautiful: Burne-Jones at Work  

What I love about Burne-Jones’ nudes, especially the females, is their long, cold, anatomical beauty. There’s a sickliness about them I enjoy.

Of the small collection of studies, especially striking was the snake-necked Disiderium, the head of Amorous Desire, as dangerous as she is gorgeous. While some of the sketches looked scratched out and hurried, Disiderium oozes off the paper with the same anthropomorphic sensuousness present in Beguiling Merlin. More ‘the body bewitching’ than ‘the body beautiful’.

Woman In An Interior features Rossetti’s cockney darling, Fanny Cornforth, looking hard as nails. She wasn’t invited to stay at Kelmscott with him, strangely enough. I like her masculinity, here. Many men in Rossetti’s circle were mildly afraid of her, despite her being, by most accounts, a cheerful presence.

It’s a shame the exhibition was so little-publicised, because fans of Ned would really have loved this, especially given the extraordinary setting.


The certain secret thing he had to tell

Some of Rossetti’s worst illness and addiction was played out at Kelmscott, so it’s a sad place as much as a lovely one. When I last visited, I was in the midst of post traumatic stress disorder, and it was easy to see how the landscape of flat, marshy fields and slowly-flowing streams could be as much a help as a hindrance to someone suffering from an untreated mental illness. May Morris remembered him in his black cloak, “tramping away doggedly” across the landscape alone.

Jane, whose collected letters were published this month, doesn’t get much in the way of a ‘voice’ in comparison to the men at Kelmscott. Her job is muse. Embroiderer. In the dining room, I tried to imagine her as Burne-Jones described her at nineteen, laughing “until, like Guinevere, she fell under the table”, and found I couldn’t. Amusingly, on her bedside table today are the collected letters of noted drunkard and amateur sadist Algernon Swinburne, open on a page extolling “cannibalism as a wholesome and natural method of diet”. Oh, Algie, you card.

It’s amazing I ever got back in the car.

I have a bone to pick with The Society of Antiquaries.

Rossetti’s bombsite of a paintbox resides upstairs in the tapestry room he commandeered for the light. In hilarious contrast to Millais’ pristine palette, Rossetti’s paintbox looks like something you’d find at the bottom of a skip. All his squeezed tubes (missing their tops, naturally) are congealed together in a shallow tin box encrusted with lead drippings, studio detritus, and a sort of greenish, yellowish coating of grotesquery and rust.

It’s gorgeous.

The room attendant, who very tolerantly said, “I’m touched you react that way” when I basically had a fit of the vapours over the thing explained the paintbox is a conservationist’s nightmare. Like Beata Beatrix, which was restored in time for The Tate, the paintbox contains a certain amount of ‘holy dirt’: original detritus from Rossetti’s studio. The trick is to separate the holy dirt from the decades of accumulated filth and decay without damaging the artefact. The trouble is, they haven’t started the process yet. And from the sounds of it, there are no plans to.

I wish I could share a photograph of it here, but photography is strictly forbidden. There are no postcards of the paintbox either, and because it isn’t labeled, half the visitors are walking by it without ever knowing what it is.

I feel the need to start a campaign. Look here, Society of Antiquaries, print some postcards, and put the proceeds towards protecting that precious paintbox!

* Before any Morris fans worry, the crew photographed each step of the disassembly, so not a single tiny, precious screw will be forgotten when the bed eventually returns.

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Rossettifest – the Rossettis at Highgate Cemetery with Dinah Roe

Yesterday, I hopped on the train to attend another talk at Highgate cemetery, this time by Dinah Roe, author of The Rossettis In Wonderland: A Victorian Family History. A great chance to meet up with friends and talk about my favourite thing in the world – the wonderful, strange Rossetti family.

Jan Marsh had advice for Dinah when she embarked upon Wonderland: “Be careful not to let Dante Gabriel run away with the story”. Sure enough, DGR Superstar wasn’t centre stage last night. Instead, Dinah focused on those family members interred at Highgate:

  • Mother Frances, who quoted Byron in her commonplace book and wished her children had been born with a little less genius and a little more common sense.
  • Father Gabriele, revolutionary poet, exile, and prime example of how excessive close-reading under the influence of the Freemasons will do you no good.
  • Daughter Christina, the baby of the family, who struggled with feelings of under-achievement. (What hope is there for the rest of us?)
  • Son William, The Dependable One, who made his mark as Pre-Raphaelite chronicler and a respected critic of art and literature.
  • Daughter-in-law Lizzie Siddal, grudgingly accepted into the family, perhaps only after her death.
  • The three Polidori aunts: Eliza, Charlotte, Margaret. Intimidating, witty and tough.

Italian, exiled, religiously and intellectually radical, the two families were always going to encounter suspicion in Victorian England. Viewing themselves as Londoners first and foremost, they tended to close in on themselves for emotional and creative support, creating an intense environment that makes for a fascinating talk in a pseudo-medieaval chapel whilst sheltering from June rain.

What I enjoyed most about Dinah Roe’s talk, and the book, was that she allows space for the family to be tremendously funny and surprising. It’s all too easy to take a High Romance view of the Rossettis, obscuring their wit and affection. These were, after all, the siblings who liked to roll around on the floor, re-enacting violent deaths from the novels of Walter Scott.

Thanks to William chronicling the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s every move, we know that the critics called Dante Gabriel and the other PRBs ‘young gentlemen with animal faculties morbidly developed by too much tobacco and too little exercise’ – which sounds great – or, in other words, ‘unmanly’. Because being feminine is the absolute worst of the worst, obviously. You might as well be some kind of mollusc.

The unmarried Polidori sisters, on the other hand, were comparatively macho. Wearing threadbare unfashionable dresses, striding across decks, appreciating ‘pretty boys’, and healing the wounded alongside Frances Nightingale, these weren’t women content to sit at home and embroider. I shan’t recount all their adventures here, but if you’re in need of an antidote to the Victorian matriarch – read the book.

I was inordinately pleased to hear the Polidoris getting some attention. John Polly-Dolly Polidori, author of The Vampyr and possibly the first man to deliberately hit Lord Byron with an oar*, is a favourite of mine. He must have been the coolest uncle for a romantically-minded bunch like the Rossetti children. This rather fetching portrait hung in the family home. To be reading Shelley as teenagers and knowing their uncle knew him, bickered with him, and eventually shared a similarly sad, early death, must have been yet another reminder that theirs was a very special family indeed.

The highlight of the evening – and I’m about to betray my geekiness here – was the inclusion of three recipes from the family cookbook. Histrionic Gabriele hated English food, so his wife duly replicated Mediterranean dishes for him throughout their marriage: Macaroni soup (containing a mere 2lb of beef), a cheeseless lemon cheesecake allegedly safe to store for six months, and a sugary rum punch Christina called ‘grog’. If I ever feel like adding diabetes to my list of ailments, I’ll give them a go.

Something interesting happened when the floor was opened to questions. A lady asked a question I’d asked Lucinda Hawksley last time: does anyone know what happened to Lizzie and Dante Gabriel’s stillborn baby? I’ve never found the slightest clue. So, if you know what generally happened to stillborn babies in the mid-Victorian period, chime in.

As always, Highgate is the loveliest possible place to gather for a talk. The staff (who now know my boyfriend and I by name – have we been spending too much time there?**) are friendly and sympathetic to the misguided compulsion that sends guests creeping up the steps to the unstable west cemetery, where you’re as likely to stumble upon a Victorian luminary as get brained by a falling tombstone.

It’s always lovely to meet other PRB enthusiasts, and Dinah Roe was no exception. Especially in the rain, when I was glowing under the influence of one too many £1 glasses of Highgate red wine. The Rossettis will have that effect on you.

* See Benjamin Markovits’ Imposture (Byron Trilogy) for a fictionalised account of John’s adventures.

** I have a thing about visiting Highgate in inclement weather. The first time, on a snowy Valentine’s day out, my boyfriend and I managed to get ourselves locked in after twilight closing time. So, on one hand, we had to lurk around the gate and beg a passing couple to alert the gatekeeper, but, on the other, we now get to reminisce about “the time we were locked into a Victorian necropolis…on Valentine’s day. Sigh.”

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The Victory of The Victim

Thank you to everyone who has already downloaded Contraindications.

We arrived back in London two days ago to a dismal reception of rain and royalty, but I could talk for weeks about Venice. The aftershocks of the earthquake 80 miles away (which I mistook for one of my dizzy spells until the doors began to rattle); Watching dumbstruck from our darkened kitchen as a tremendous electrical storm battered Lido with white strobe light; The sad sight of St Mark’s Square flooding at night, as if the Doge had left his bath running…

But of all the wonderful things the city had to offer, my favourite was this 3 Euro postcard.

I found it – along with some startlingly expensive tin ex votos – on a market stall run by two little old ladies who managed not to laugh at my bad Italian.

After scampering away with my prize, I wondered if the skeleton was King Cholera, hence the K, but after some Googling, it turns out that this postcard is called The Victory of The Victim. It’s the final card in a series of six commemorating the shooting of nurse Edith Cavell in 1915. Here they all are, in their shameless gothic glory. Higher resolutions scans of four can be found here.

I’ll admit I don’t know much about Edith Cavell beyond the fact that she was from Norfolk and that, by killing her, the Germans created an Allied martyr whose image went global in days. And it’s little wonder. Artist Tito Corbella, usually so frothy and Art Nouveau, turned Cavell into a Madonna-like wraith wafting around on a background of bloody hellfire, while Kultur (the symbol of German supremacy, replete with cloak and harpsichord) might as well be played by Peter Cushing. For someone so accustomed to painting pretty pastel frocks, Corbella had form when it came to propaganda.

Interestingly, the English batch of Corbella’s postcards were printed in London’s Red Lion Square, where Rossetti lived on two occasions. Small art world.

The idea of an international martyr from Norfolk is a touch surreal. It’s Norfolk. Norfolk. That flat black wasteland of impassioned fiery doom, and… Bernard Matthews. And the image is so Italian. That stare. Those fetishised silent film lips. I love it. What a find.

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