Salute! Frances Rossetti’s rum punch.

Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori Rossetti

With kind permission from the University of British Columbia, and the help of author of The Rossettis In Wonderland, Dinah Roe, I have a Christmas treat to share with you: Mama Frances Rossetti’s recipe for a frightfully boozy rum punch!

The Rossetti family’s little London parlour was always crammed with displaced Italian revolutionaries, carousing and debating while the cat warmed herself in front of the fire. Christina talks about “chestnuts, cake, and a social glass of grog”, although Dante Gabriel didn’t drink at all until much later in life. (That didn’t stop him, as a child, from feeding beer to a hedgehog and watching it stagger about, the unusual boy). However, I like to think he partook of the occasional sip of family punch. Especially if it was anywhere near as tasty as my attempt!

Let’s give it a go, shall we?

Frances doesn’t give especially detailed instructions, so most of this is guesswork verging on generosity. Here’s the recipe as it appears in Frances’ recipe book:

2 lemons
1 orange
Lump sugar to taste

The lemons being first scraped white, therewith, boiling water.

Looking for further details, I found this fantastic article on Charles Dickens’ favourite punch, circa 1847, involving a pint of rum (!) and a glass of brandy. That, between myself and Mr May, would be lethal, so I’m going to tone down the quantities a bit for the sake of propriety.

Yes, this is classed as research.

…said the bells of Saint Clements.

I sliced the lemons (first scraping them white with a knife, because for some reason I don’t own cheese grater) and cut the orange into four. I ended up slicing the lemons in half because I didn’t quite believe the juice would get out through the zest. Maybe that was a mistake. We’ll see.

On the hob, I boiled a pint and a half of water, brought it off the boil and added the fruit. I left the lot to simmer for three minutes while I repeatedly got the maths wrong and ended up deciding on half a pint of rum, which, on reflection, was a bit much. Oh, well.

Both the brandy and rum were the finest El Cheapo supermarket bathtub plonk, because, unlike the myriad characteristics of gin, all brands of rum taste to me like aviation fuel. So I added the half pint of rum directly into the pan over a gentle heat, letting it ‘mull’ a bit in the fruit juice, which was beginning to smell pleasantly like Christmas cake.

I then ‘measured’ out roughly a quarter of a pint of brandy. I’m not used to brandy (the stuff I used smelled like a dentist’s surgery) so I took Charles Dickens’ advice (sorry, Uncle Thomas) and spooned it in, setting it alight spoon by spoon. To what benefit, I can’t say, but it made a nice “voomph!” sound and made me feel like some kind of pagan Goddess of winter debauchery.

At this point, mind your hair.

So! Next, I had a little taste test, resulting in flashbacks to childhood toothache remedies. It was quite bitter, and the lemons had crumpled slightly, leaving floating bits of lemon on the surface. I don’t know what Mrs Rossetti would have done, but she seemed the sensible type, so I removed the lemons and let the oranges take over.

I added a liberal quantity of brown sugar, and stirred the punch for a few minutes. The rum really needs a bit of sweetness to balance it out, but it’s all personal taste.

Once the lemons were out, the punch began to taste much more recognisably fruity (I suspect winter lemons in this country are just a bit mean-tasting) and the sugar and alcohol complemented each other nicely.

Serving suggestion: On the face of Holbein’s Ambassador

* Don’t let it boil
* Take a distinctly un-Victorian swizzle stick and give it a good stir.
* Pour into a tall glass because I don’t own any other kind of glass.
* As Christina wisely suggested, add cake.
* Toast General Pepe, repeat.

It actually tastes delicious. It is distinctly piratey – grog! – though the citron gives it a more festive kick than something you’d swig before pillaging a small coastal town.

Queer loaves are the best loaves. 

Frances did her best to reproduce Italian food for her family. Indeed, Dante Gabriel was still sourcing cannelloni from Soho decades later. However, I always think of him when I buy my Christmas panettone. In 1874, he wrote to Frances:

I have been painting from a little Italian boy who highly appreciates Toscone; but on my giving him a piece of Panattone (that queer loaf) he said in a startled tone, “Quanto costa questo?”* I replied “Non credo molto,” & he rejoined “Crederei quasi neinte”. Such was his verdict on that comestible.

To complete the experience, I’m going to curl up on the sofa with my copy of The Collected Letters of Jane Morris, an incredibly thoughtful gift from Becki of Fifteen Precise Facts.

Buon Natale, everyone!

*“How much is this?”
“I do not think much.”
“I would think almost nothing.”

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A call for establishment of The International Deverell Defence League

Since I blogged about Walter Howell Deverell’s Twelfth Night, I’ve been wanting to spend a bit more time with the poor doomed boy. So here’s a treat – the study for his ill-fated The Banishment of Hamlet. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was most likely the model for Hamlet.

Walter is mostly remembered as the ‘lost’ Pre-Raphaelite who discovered Lizzie Siddal in a hat shop. Had he accepted full membership into the Brotherhood, he may have been better regarded today, but Walter was the eldest of seven surviving siblings, motherless and later fatherless, too. Linking his name to a controversial gang of artistic upstarts seemed like another way to make life difficult for him and his dependants. As such, he tends to be relegated to a walk-on character in the story of Rossetti’s love-life.

By all accounts, Walter was a nice young thing, and highly sought-after as a model among the PRB. He was especially close to Rossetti, cackling over clueless patrons in the rooms they rented together in Red Lion Square – purportedly so dingy that Walter’s doctor was moved to pat Rossetti on the head and mutter “poor boys, poor boys”.

Looking like a Victorian Johnny Depp, Walter had a mildly-exaggerated reputation for driving girls to distraction, although his infamous comment about PRB standing for “penis rather better” was probably in reference to the constant pain he would have suffered with the Bright’s Disease that eventually killed him, aged 26. Having had acute pyelonephritis aged 14, I can attest to its utter mind-bending awfulness, which is one of the reasons I feel so sympathetic towards poor old Walter.

The Banishment of Hamlet was doomed from the beginning, receiving a typically venomous Athenaeum review:

Hamlet himself, in spite of his being perched upon a square box in the gawky, shrinking attitude of a delinquent school-boy, might, with an effort, be allowed to pass as not wholly un-Shakespearian; but his yellow, pink, and blue majesty Claudius, who pokes towards his nephew in a withering attitude – copied, perchance, from the Bayeux Tapestry – is.

The painting was roundly abused when it appeared at the National Institution in 1851, went unsold, and then, depending on the source, was either blown up in a gas accident or lost in a fire. The study above resides in the Ashmolean under another name, making it difficult to trace.

William Michael Rossetti penned a kinder review*, praising the prince’s moodiness in the same terms he reserved for descriptions of his brother around the same time:

There is a certain brooding indolence in his whole figure; irresolution is shown in the movement of his hand, and mingles even with the settled scorn of his eyes.

The ‘delinquent school-boy’ attitude of Walter’s Hamlet may well have been inspired by his friend’s air of insouciance; his habit of pulling his sleeves down over his hands and flicking his long fingernails when nervous. The painting certainly seems to have been the subject of jokes between the pair as seen in these cartoons by Rossetti in which the lads’ Irish patron MacCracken erupts with delight at the sight of something that looks an awful lot like Walter’s Hamlet:

‘The long expected Deverell, arriving at length/ find M’C laid up with the sickness of/hope deferred. Owing to an unfortunate error/of packing, the patient is strongly excited on seeing it/and there seems every reason to fear the worst.’ – DGR’s caption

There are lots of these over on The Rossetti Archive, suggesting that Hamlet’s unsaleability was a source of humour rather than anguish. Indeed, Walter exhibited a strange, fatalistic disinterest in the way no one seemed to want his pictures.

Rossetti and Deverell sip wine and snigger as MacCracken reacts in typically understated fashion.

I love the way Rossetti always depicts himself as scruffy and round-shouldered next to Deverell’s rather natty figure. Perhaps the ‘delinquent school-boy’ comment appealed to his sense of humour, or perhaps it was a gentle dig at Walter’s popularity with the girls.

The Dauphin Of France, camping it up bigtime

It’s a shame that Walter has become a footnote in Rossetti and Siddal’s relationship. There’s a sweetness to his surviving paintings that I find refreshing. Pretty girls pose with pretty birds, and Shakespearean characters totter about in pointy shoes and bright tunics like tableaus from a child’s picturebook. It would be easy to write them off as twee, and perhaps that’s precisely what happened, but I think Walter may have sought out idyllic scenes on purpose, what with the stress of his family responsibilities, the purgatives prescribed for Bright’s Disease, and the eventual realisation that he wasn’t going to make it. His poetry, published in The Germ, betrays a troubled frame of mind:

The Sight Beyond.

Though we may brood with keenest subtlety,
Sending our reason forth, like Noah’s dove,
To know why we are here to die, hate, love,
With Hope to lead and help our eyes to see
Through labour daily in dim mystery,
Like those who in dense theatre and hall,
When fire breaks out or weight-strained rafters fall,
Towards some egress struggle doubtfully;
Though we through silent midnight may address
The mind to many a speculative page,
Yearning to solve our wrongs and wretchedness,
Yet duty and wise passiveness are won, —
(So it hath been and is from age to age) —
Though we be blind, by doubting not the sun.

Walter died on the 2nd of February 1854. He only sold one painting in his lifetime.

Rossetti wrote to Ford Madox Brown: “He had been told in the morning that he could not live through the day and he appeared to receive the announcement without emotion or surprise, saying he supposed he was man enough to die”.

It was the first big loss of Rossetti’s life. “I have none left who I love better, and I doubt whether any who loves me so well,” he wrote to Walter’s family. By 1870, he was still trying to sell The Banishment of Hamlet to raise funds for Walter’s surviving family. If he had succeeded, perhaps we would still have it today.

*It has been argued this was DGR writing under WMR’s name, but I’m going to trust the original citation for the time being.

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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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As it’s National Poetry Day, I’d like to share my favourite Dante Gabriel Rossetti poem. (Besides the one rhyming ‘wombat’ with ‘flings a bomb at’, lest we forget).

Sudden Light was written in 1854, when life was relatively good for Rossetti. This was the period when he and Lizzie Siddal were holidaying in Hastings together, and the romantic optimism of the poem makes it a lovely window into that time.

Sudden Light

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before,—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow’s soar
Your neck turned so,
Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore.

Then, now,—perchance again! . . .
O round mine eyes your tresses shake!
Shall we not lie as we have lain
Thus for Love’s sake,
And sleep, and wake, yet never break the chain?

There are two versions, with differing final stanzas. This is the earlier of the two – the other was published some time after Siddal’s death, with a more melancholy slant. I prefer the first, but make up your own mind.

Has this been thus before? 
And shall not thus time’s eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death’s despite, 
And day and night yield one delight once more? 

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Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at Tate Britain

I spent yesterday trapped in a gridlock of uncomfortably warm bodies amongst the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Yes, it was as fantastic as it sounds.

This post isn’t going to be remotely succinct or clever. I just want to gush. I loved it. So many of my favourite things in one place. And having the opportunity to sit and chat with fellow PRB-lovers afterwards was just terrific.

Kirsty Stonell Walker of ‘The Kissed Mouth’ and I, modelling Doc Martens, the unofficial footwear of PRB-admirers everywhere.

A lot has been said in the press recently, some more sensible than the rest. There’s been the obligatory game of Hunt The Phallus, and general moaning about how the PRB would have been so much better if they’d just dropped a shark into a tank of formaldehyde. But were the PRB truly Avant-Garde?

I come at the PRB from a literature point of view. My MA focused on Rossetti’s cycles of desire and denial in The House of Life. So although I know a fair bit about the PRB’s visual art, the wider subject of Avant-Garde isn’t something I feel I can comment on.

However, I can give my top five moments:

5. I saw Rienzi. It was blue. So blue. Hunt’s colours are so  psychedelic and trippy – mountains are purple, flesh is orange, goats are bizarre and terrifying. His work has to be seen to be fully experienced.

4. The passion flowers in Rossetti’s The Blue Bower were like glossy photographs. As Edward Burne-Jones said, Rossetti somehow makes everything look as if it’s under glass, though he swore he didn’t use glaze.

3. Rossetti’s Paulo and Francesca da Rimini. Strangely washed-out and chalky compared to the print on my wall. Francesca’s incredibly long hair has the texture of real long, fine hair in contrast to the lustrous thickness of the hair in his later work.

2. Speaking of lustrous hair, Rossetti’s teenage self-portrait was hung in the first room to lure in all the ladies.

1. Walter Howell Deverell’s Twelfth Night. I hadn’t allowed myself to read spoilers about the exhibition, so turning a corner and seeing this was a huge surprise. I was so happy for him.

You see, poor Deverell had no luck.  So handsome (that’s him in the middle and Rossetti on the right) and so promising a talent, his work was badly hung at the RA, his The Banishment of Hamlet was later destroyed in a gas explosion, and he died of kidney disease and dysentery three months after his 26th birthday.

Deverell’s decline and death hit Rossetti hard. One of the last times Rossetti visited him, “[Deverell] rose up in bed as I was leaving and kissed me, and I thought then that he began to believe that his end was near”.

The whole story is so sad. It was good to see him represented.

I had a few small criticisms, but only on the understanding that the exhibition was wonderful and I’ll probably go back at least twice.

Of course, there were pieces I was dying to see that weren’t included. Julia Margaret Cameron’s Pomona, for one: Alice Liddell, all grown up and threateningly beautiful. And I’m always hoping for a second viewing of a lock of Rossetti’s hair, which I saw at the Fitzwilliam a few years ago (alongside Keats’ hair!) – a sight I never fully recovered from.

I did feel that the show could have been organised differently. It was a mammoth undertaking and difficult to tackle, but I felt that the different facets of the Pre-Raphaelite circle needed their own space. There was an element of jumbling that was interesting for people with prior understanding of the PRB, but perhaps confusing for those coming in cold.

I think the problem in creating an entire PRB exhibition is that you’re dealing with so many people who all evolved dramatically in taste and execution over a period of decades. So you’ve got Rossetti offering tiny jewel-toned watercolours in one room, and then massive red-lipped vampiric creatures in the next. You want to ask what happened.

Perhaps a clearer linear structure could have added something. For instance, ‘this is what they hated, here’s how they banded together, here’s how they evolved and the legacy they left’. I also would have loved to have seen at least part of the manifesto emblasoned somewhere, because everyone loves a good manifesto.

I dare you to open that fridge door.

And then there was the gift shop. The £25 strings of plastic beads would have left William Morris reeling. Expensive satchels and striped scarves were very nice but had nothing to do with the PRB. We were hoping for a bit more effort. Having said that, my life has been enriched by the possession of a Scapegoat fridge magnet.

Overall, though, what an overwhelming experience. Next up, Edward Burne-Jones at Kelmscott!

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“Madam, I am not an ‘ite’ of any kind.”

In later life, Rossetti liked to shrug off his connection to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. To admirers, he gently dismissed the whole movement as “the visionary vanities of half a dozen boys.”

To which I say “pah!”, because tomorrow is the 164th anniversary of the formation of The Brotherhood – #PRBday on Twitter – and, unlike Claret Day, the celebration is officially sanctioned by The Pre-Raphaelite Society and not simply another excuse to drink red wine and look louche.

This is the autumn of the PRB. My date with The Tate is looming. I’ll be meeting up with Kirsty of The Kissed Mouth and Robyne of Artistic Dress on the first Saturday to empty the Tate’s shop of frighteningly expensive fridge magnets. Then, in October, it’s straight to Kelmscott Manor for the little-advertised Edward Burne-Jones exhibition which will probably prove my undoing.

I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, but… The Tate has Holman Hunt’s Rienzi (full title Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions – what were you thinking, Hunt, honestly?) which was on my wall for five years when I was a student and has been hidden away in a private collection for the entire span of my life. Rossetti modeled for the hero, hence the flying saucer eyes and the my-uncle-knew-Lord-Byron-actually hair. That’s Millais, dead on the ironing board. If I can get a long, clear look at it, I’ll be happy for years.

How will you celebrate PRB Day? Catch me on Twitter and vote for your favourite painting using #PRBday. I will be baking a cake in honour of great art.

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It’s been one of those summers.

I took a short writing holiday at the end of last month. There were graphs and coloured pens and a real teapot. Strictly no gin, and no Internet – serious stuff. During those four days, I rediscovered the immense mental health benefits of just knuckling down and doing the one thing in life you truly want to do. Surprisingly, I also came to appreciate how the everyday commitments that keep you from writing can be useful. The frustration steels your determination. There must be a proverb to that effect floating around. Probably by Hafiz.

The result is that the novel is so much closer to completion and I’m so much more buoyant about life in general. And also petrified. I’m human.

On the subject of terror and joy, today is exactly one month away from my visit to the Tate’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. How am I going to contain myself in the gift shop? What am I going to wear? How am I going to stop myself from standing in front of a minor sketch with my hand clamped over my mouth, whimpering “isn’t it just the most wonderful thing in the world?” like I did to some poor man at the Fitzwilliam who was just trying to be friendly by pointing out the extra piece of paper Rossetti had glued on to extend Alexa Wilding a few inches.

“[Rossetti] did not sleep, and neither did he compose himself to rest, though the lamps of the carriage were darkened by their shades. During the greater part of the night he sat up in an attitude of waiting, wearing overcoat and hat and gloves, as if our journey were to end at the next stopping place.” – Hall Caine, Recollections of Rossetti.

You and me both, DGR. See you in London!

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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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Fifth of May is Claret Day!

While I was researching my Masters dissertation on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, I was lucky enough to handle his notebooks in the British Library. Tiny little things, like books of stamps, leather-bound, and in my hands. I was delirious. One of the happiest days of my life. All those poem-snippets, the cryptic notes to himself, the fingernail sketches. He felt so close, as if when I went on my break he’d be there in the café to meet me for a cup of tea.

Amongst many sad things and many funny things, this note on one of the 1870s pages caught my eye:


No indication of whether he was referring to wine or just the colour, or why the date was significant. But since then, every year on May the fifth, I’ve bought a cheap bottle of red plonk and enjoyed it in honour of the dear old DGR.

Yes, you have to involve a wombat.

Happy Claret Day!

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Some thoughts on the 150th anniversary of Lizzie Siddal’s death

Yesterday, I travelled to Highgate cemetery for the 150th anniversary of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal’s death.

That morning, Lucinda Hawksley, author of The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, and Jan Marsh, one of the leading lights of Pre-Raphaelite studies, laid lilies on Lizzie’s grave in the west cemetery. Being also the resting place of Christina Rossetti, they chose to read Christina’s In An Artist’s Studio, probably the most telling sonnet ever written about the iconic artist’s model:

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.


That evening, in the sub-zero chill, Lucinda Hawksley gave a talk on Lizzie Siddal’s life and sudden death. For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel (the publisher’s title, not Hawksley’s), there are few better ways to enter the world of The PRB. It’s an entertaining, thoughtful study of a fascinating period of artistic innovation, and, what’s more, it allows Lizzie Siddal the space to stand alone – not as a legend, but as a fully-formed human.

As is often the case with historical women, Lizzie Siddal has always been in danger of being overwhelmed by her own image. Even today, we’re told she simultaneously froze in Millais’ bathtub, killed herself after a blistering row with her husband, and slowly wasted away with Romantic Consumption™. Legend has it, she spent her life quietly enduring victimisation, and (conveniently for a stunner) never decomposed*. It’s saddening to see yet another woman artist and poet reduced to 2D, and it’s an especial problem with the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood. Annie Miller is cast as the foulmouthed slut. Christina Rossetti is the religious one. Lizzie is relegated to a pedestal as The One Who Died. It is for this reason that it was so wonderful to spend yesterday with people who truly care about Lizzie and her legacy.

I first met Lucinda Hawksley a few years ago, while I was dissecting Lizzie’s poetry for my BA dissertation, and I was glad of the opportunity to see her again. She’s a charismatic speaker, and people always leave her talks smiling. Yesterday was no exception. In the newly-renovated Highgate chapel, she opened with the admission that she was glad to be talking about something other than her great-great-great-grandfather, Charles Dickens. With the recent bicentenary of his birth, Hawksley has been the guest-speaker du jour and she feels she’s rather Dickensed us to death. Hawksley’s talks manage to be rollicking fun. She has a way of putting the PRB humour back into what could be dry art history. When talking about Hunt being reviled for painting the holy family as Jewish: “As we know, Mary was from Sweden.”

The evening was full of the lovely anecdotes that flesh Lizzie out as the creative, funny, intelligent woman she was. How she silenced the bullies in her ladies’ art class by turning up in French fashions they could never hope to emulate; how she told ghoulish tales of her childhood neighbour, Mr Greenacre, who was hanged for dismembering his fiance; how she was shrewdly aware of her own image as a romantic figure, and embellished it with heightened depictions of her working-class upbringing. Lucinda Hawksley brings to the fore all those charming human elements of the PRB story that so often get swept away in the myth-making. As silly as it may sound, by the end of the evening, there was a warm sense of shared energy in the room, as if we were being told stories of someone we had all once known and loved.

The talk took place in the newly refurbished chapel, which, until recently, was in dire need of repair. Now, it’s an optimistic, bright space. Highgate is sadly neglected when it comes to funding, relying heavily on volunteers despite being one of the most beautiful places one is ever likely to see. The whole Highgate cemetery area is quiet and green – very ‘un-London’. It’s always a surprise to catch a glimpse of The Gherkin in the polluted horizon. I wonder if Lizzie would be pleased to know her body rests in such a peaceful spot. Christina, I’m sure, would be relieved. “O grave, where is thy victory?”

Although she was at the cemetery in the morning, Jan Marsh wasn’t able to make it to the talk, which is a shame, as I’d love the opportunity to tell her how important her writing has been to me. On a personal note, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is my absolute overwhelming passion. Even after a BA and an MA, with a PhD on the backburner, it’s difficult for me to talk about him and his work without becoming insufferable. I once turned a corner in the Fitzwilliam museum to find Rossetti’s 1882 Joan of Arc, and promptly had to pivot and faint on a bench. (Apparently, Stendhal syndrome does exist). He’s important – I’ll leave it at that.

Was Lizzie’s death a suicide? I’m unconvinced. But moreover, I don’t believe it’s the detail we should fix Lizzie’s life around. Yes, she died young and she died troubled, but she left an indelible imprint on British art and aesthetics. She was a skilled satirist and frequently reduced Algernon ‘sado-masochism’ Swinburne to giggles. She was a quick learner and impressed the major artistic players of the day, not as a novelty, but as a figure in her own right. She delighted in collecting the Oriental china the Aesthetes were so wild about. Her Christian faith was important to her. She was human.

Overall, it was heartening to see so many people gathering together yesterday to honour Lizzie by keeping a more accurate image of her alive, even after all these years. As one of the talk’s organisers reassured me as we prepared to step out into the snow: “We look after her”.


*Turn to the late Ken Russell’s hilarious Dante’s Inferno for zombie-Lizzie rising from her coffin and Oliver Reed as Rossetti scrambling across boulders to escape.


The new Highgate Cemetery website is soon to launch, with a list of upcoming events. I highly recommend becoming a member of the society, not only because funding is vital to the cemetery’s survival, but because the newsletters are a taphophile’s dream.

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