The Poetry of Drawing: Pre-Raphaelite Designs, Studies and Watercolours

Those of you living in the UK (or visiting) are in for a real treat this month. From January 29, 2011 to May 15, 2011, The Birmingham Museum is hosting what promises to be “the largest survey of Pre-Raphaelite drawings and watercoulours ever staged.” The museum has assembled works Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s world-class collections, together with important pieces from public and private lenders, including some works by D.G. Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and Edward Burne-Jones that have never previously been exhibited. The exhibit, entitled The Poetry of Drawing, will place special emphasis on the important role that drawing played in the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

The Poetry of Drawing will include pieces from the most prominent members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, including all the original members of the PRB, Elizabeth Siddal, Edward Burne-Jones, Frederick Sandys and Simeon Solomon. Later artists, such as Aubrey Beardsley, who were influenced by the Brotherhood are also included, as are the Arts and Crafts contributions of William Morris, William de Morgan and Florence Camm.

For those of you who are unable to attend, the exhibition’s curator has created an illustrated volume entitled Pre-Raphaelite Drawing. The book will be published by Thames and Hudson. I would love to see this exhibit in person, but if I don’t get the chance, I will definitely be looking into the catalogue!

For more information and ticket prices, please visit the Birmingham Museum’s exhibition website.

Image above is William Morris’ sketch for his Trellis wallpaper design.

Elbert Hubbard’s Little Journeys

If you haven’t already seen it, take a moment to visit Stephanie Pina’s Lizzie Siddal blog to read Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Lovers: Rossetti and Siddal. Stephanie found a 14 volume set of Elbert Hubbard’s Little Journeys at a local bookshop and she’s taken the time to transcribe and scan Hubbard’s rendition of the story of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal. I had a wonderful time reading it – it’s a charming and entertaining version of the story. I found Hubbard’s non-judgmental approach to Rossetti quite refreshing (you could say he tries a little too hard to make excuses for him, but I think Rossetti has enough critics). The story can also be found in Volume 13 of Hubbard’s Little Journeys, which is available on Project Gutenberg (along with a number of his other writings).

Those of you who are familiar with the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States will recognize Elbert Hubbard as one of the founders of the Roycrofters and the Roycroft Press. (His magazine, The Philistine, which was published by the Roycroft Press, is nearly as well known as the The Germ). Hubbard was heavily influenced by William Morris’ philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the Roycroft community in East Aurora, New York, was probably the most ardent attempt to see Morris’ socialist vision put into practice in the real world. His art colony may not have survived, but his writings remain available to readers as a window into his world.

Cast of “Desperate Romantics” announced by the BBC

The BBC Press Office has finally released the casting information for their upcoming series, Desperate Romantics. Most of the actors historically inspired TV dramas are much better looking than their historical counterparts and I’m not complaining. However, the BBC definitely took some rather extreme artistic liberties with this one.

First up: Dante Gabriel Rossetti will be played by Aiden Turner. We all know that Rossetti was a bit of a lady killer, but he wasn’t exactly top model material. The producers have chosen to gloss over this a bit and have chosen an impossibly attractive young man to play Rossetti. While I fail to see much of a resemblance between him and Rossetti (other than the fact that both of them have brown hair!), I’m pretty sure Rossetti would approve. After looking at his photograph, take a look at his self-portrait. Rossetti doesn’t seem to have had a problem with portraying himself as more attractive than he actually was (though, in his defence I’m sure years of drug abuse had taken a toll on his boyish good looks in this photo).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in the flesh

Rossetti’s self portrait:

And finally, his cinematic alter ego :

Correction: it’s not that Aidan Turner, it’s this one:

(And thank you to whoever pointed out which Aidan Turner will actually be starring in Desperate Romantics! A little less soap-opera-ish and a lot more believable.)

And now for the rest of the cast.

Tom Hollander (who bears little resemblance to John Ruskin–for one thing, he’s a bit chubby and Ruskin was practically anorexic) will be playing Ruskin, the famous art critic and patron of the Pre Raphaelites. This casting decision still makes sense to me,though, as Hollander often plays snobby, self-absorbed types. At the same time, I hope he doesn’t overdo it. Ruskin was certainly interesting, even if he was obsessed with his work and had a rather odd way of relating to women.

In more casting news, Samuel Barnett will be playing John Millais, and Zoe Tapper will be playing Effie Ruskin (who later leaves Ruskin to be Mrs. Millais).

Amy Manson has been cast as Pre-Raphaelite “stunner” Lizzie Siddal, Sam Crane as Fred Walters and Jennie Jacques will play Annie Miller. Rafe Spall will also take a turn as PRB founding member William Hunt.

All in all, I predict that the script will be frothy melodrama and the cast will be easy on the eyes. Not a problem, as far as I’m concerned. There’s no denying that the Pre-Raphaelites are ripe for soap opera-esque treatment. I just hope that the series will revive public interest in the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements.

Rossetti: His Life and Works by Evelyn Waugh

It seems like whenever I begin to imagine that I have unique, individual, interests and tastes, I am at once brought crashingly down to earth with the discovery that my likes and dislikes are downright predictable. It’s like those lists on “other readers also bought:”, where I’m always irked that I actually AM interested in the books they recommend. But however much I’d love to be one of those independent thinkers with wildly unpredictable tastes, it seems the more wildly different my tastes seem to be, the more they are somehow interconnected.

Take, for example, my interest in Evelyn Waugh. I’ve loved his witty novels for some time, but I only recently discovered that he had a passionate interest in the Pre-Raphaelites. I really was sort of surprised. I would have thought the Pre-Raphaelites far too modern for Waugh, but it seems I was mistaken. In fact, Waugh’s first book was actually a biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, entitled Rossetti: His Life and Works.

The book has all the wit of Waugh’s novels and is a delightfully gossip-filled take on Rossetti’s life. Through numerous anecdotes, Waugh paints a portrait of Rossetti as an extremely talented, self-absorbed individual with a great appreciation for beauty, but an even greater capacity for self-pity. I found one aspect of Rossetti’s story particularly telling: all of the writing about Rossetti make it clear that he was an animal lover who amassed great collection of exotic pets. What I did NOT know previously was that most of the creatures Rossetti kept in his menagerie perished almost as soon as they were brought home.

It does not appear that Rossetti lavished any personal affection upon his various pets, except perhaps upon the first of the wombats; he met their frequent deaths and disappearances with fortitude; some indeed died or disappeared almost the moment they were acquired…(Waugh, 117-118).

True to Waugh’s usual form, the female characters in Rossetti’s life get little attention compared to the males that populate his story. Nevertheless, I got the distinct impression that part of the reason they get such short shrift in Rossetti’s biography is that they were genuinely not all that important in his life–more ornamental and muse-like than anything else. In fact, it seems that most of Rossetti’s lovers were not treated much better than his pet wombats. Lizzie Siddal fared particularly badly, having been discovered by Rossetti when she was young and beautiful, only ot be gradually neglected over time.

Of course, despite neglecting Lizzie during her lifetime, Rossetti was inconsolable after Siddal’s death from consumption. During a fit of remorse, be famously interred his poetry with her in her coffin, only to have her dug up again so that he could rescue his writings when his grief had run its course and he had bills to pay.

Never one to miss a chance to judge historical actors, Waugh concludes his little book with a chapter entitled “What is Wrong with Rossetti?” In which he decides that Rossetti’s “problem” was his incurable romanticism.

In Rossetti’s own day, no doubt, not a little of the adulation he aroused came from this romance of decay–a sort of spiritual coprophily characteristic of the age. Even now we are inclined to think of him with melancholy tolerance and to say, “If he had not been improvident and lethargic, how great an artist he might have been,” as we say of the war poets, “If they had not been killed…” But it seems to me that there we have the root cause of Rossetti’s failure. It is not so much that as a man he was a bad man–mere lawless wickedness has frequently been a concomitant of the highest genius–but there was fatally lacking in him that essential rectitude that underlies the serenity of all really great art. The sort of unhappiness that beset him was not the sort of unhappiness that does beset a great artist; all his brooding about magic and suicide are symptomatic not so much of genius as of mediocrity. There is a spiritual inadequacy, a sense of ill-organisation about all that he did.

But if he were merely a psychopathic case and nothing more, there would be no problem and no need for a book about him. The problem is that here and there in his life he seems, without ever feeling it, to have transcended this inadequacy in a fashion that admits no glib explanation. Just as the broken arch at Glastonbury Abbey is, in its ruin, so much more moving that it can ever have been when it stood whole and part of a great building, so Rossetti’s art, at fitful moments, flames into the exquisite beauty of Beata Beatrix. It is the sort of problem that modern aesthetics does not seem capable of coping with. It has been the object of this book to state, though, alas! not to solve, this problem. (Waugh, 226-227)

I really enjoyed this book, which is hardly surprising, since I’m a fan of both Waugh and the Pre-Raphaelites. But I think almost anyone with an interest in Rossetti would really enjoy reading all of the letters and anecdotes that Waugh gathered together. And, while my review focuses on the more depressing aspects of Rossetti’s life, there were many bright points worth mentioning as well. I’ll have to mention those another day!

Evelyn Waugh. Rossetti: His Life and Works. London: The Folcraft Press, 1969.

Possessed: Announcing a New Pre-Raphaelite Musical!

What do you get when you combine Pre-Raphaelite art, an infamous love affair, and music? Possessed is a new musical that examines the life of Jane Burden, from her discovery by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to her meteoric rise to become one of the most popular and iconic models of her age, almost omnipresent in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly those of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Possessed focuses on the relationship between Jane, her husband William Morris (“Topsy”) and Rossetti. The full cast also includes Bessy, the Morris’s housekeeper, Lizzie Siddal, Mr. Carter (the foreman of Morris & Co.), and Jane and William Morris’ two daughters, Jenny and May.

Playwright Teresa Howard became inspired to research Jane’s story following a William Morris exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum back in 1996. For Possessed, Howard (who has written a number of other plays) has teamed up with composer and arranger Steven Edis, who has written and arranged music for numerous theatre and television productions.

Not surprisingly, art plays a central role in the production. During the course of the musical, stained glass windows depicting the tale of Tristan and Isolde are constructed on stage, symbolising the close relationship between art and life and alluding to the link between the story being played out on stage and the story of Tristan and Isolde.

The musical was presented on April 27 at the Oxford Playhouse and was a great success, generating a great deal of interest in the project. Hopefully full scale production of the musical will begin at the end of next year…I can’t wait!

To learn more about this production, visit the The musical’s official website. For up to the minute news and information, visit their blog, Putting it Together.

Rehearsal photo of Anna Francolini as Jane Morris and Joseph Millson as Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Rehearsal Photo by Charles Girdham © 2008, reprinted with permission of Teresa Howard