Wightwick Manor, the beautiful Arts and Crafts house near Wolverhampton, has finally closed its wonderful Elizabeth Siddall exhibition (though there are still many of Siddall’s works, and those of other women Pre-Raphaelites, on display), and its next exhibition, due to open on March 4th 2019, is of a collection of early drawings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and I was delighted to have a preview. Wightwick Manor was the home of Lord and Lady Mander, who were Pre-Raphaelite enthusiasts, and much of the research carried out for this exhibition relies on Lady Mander’s ‘Portrait of Rossetti’. ‘Rossetti Pre the Pre-Raphaelites‘ features 30 of Rossetti’s drawings 1844-48, when Rossetti was studying art, being a teenager (aged 16-20) and learning how to be Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As the first panel tells us, many of the works included ‘illustrate the preoccupations of a young man, what he was reading, the gothic macabre and ladies of questionable virtue.’
The exhibition makes much of the state of adolescence: how Rossetti was deciding on his monogram, reading Gothic novels, learning his art, and still known as Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, having not yet decided to emphasise the Dante in his name. The drawings, which are part of a collection accepted in lieu of inheritance tax, show Rossetti learning how to construct a work of art: the shapes, faces, light and shade, and subjects, are all in flux here. In fact, it’s relatively difficult to trace a line backwards from the later works to the drawings here: I’m fairly sure that if I’d seen these drawings without any attribution, I probably wouldn’t have realised whose they were. And although I’m pretty familiar with the works of Rossetti, I hadn’t seen these before, and they are a fascinating, widely assorted collection.
At 16, Rossetti was sent to a private art school, and at 18 admitted to the Royal Academy, where he was bored and disdainful of their methods. These are in many ways the works of a restless teenage boy who thinks he knows better than everyone else, who is trying to find a way to shape his work, drawing only what interests him – and there are some fascinating subjects here. For example, there is ‘Man with a Woman wearing trousers’ (left; please forgive the awful photo) – an oddly entertaining, unconventional subject for the period, and one which shows some real life and character. Others, such as ‘Man and Woman in 16th Century Costume’ show the beginnings of Rossetti’s interest in painting historical scenes, perhaps, though they would hardly be identified as the work of the artist he was to become. More entertaining because more improbable is ‘Old Woman Brooding by the Fire’ (right), in which a grumpy-looking woman hunches over the fire with a cat on her shoulder, in a depiction more cartoon-like than the others. Some, such as ‘Night and his Lady’, have a rather eighteenth-century feel, as though Rossetti is testing out his inner Sir Sloshua (the Pre-Raphaelites’ name for Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy), while others (such as ‘Gretchen and Mephistophiles in front of the Church) have backgrounds of detailed architectural drawing which he eschewed in his later work.
The photographic realism and attention to detail is mostly missing in these works; what we have instead is a sense of spontaneity, enthusiasm, life and movement, which is a long way from the polished and posed works of his Pre-Raphaelite period and beyond. It is in the subjects that we see ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti’ forming; he draws on literary sources, poetry and Gothic in particular, but he is also drawn to certain subjects:
He became fascinated by the concept of beauty, death, and the separation of lovers, themes he would revisit for the rest of his career.
His interest in Edgar Allan Poe appears in what seems to me the drawing most indicative of his later work, ‘The Raven: Angel Footfalls’, of which several versions exist. (Find out more here). Angels pass between the seated male figure and the raven, and the angels seem to prefigure the Pre-Raphaelite woman in her facial appearance. However, I also noted a distinctly Blakean influence on two works: ‘A Girl and a Demon’ and ‘Grotesque figure’ seem to me to bear the imprint of William Blake’s use of expression and line (more awful photos below). This is again in keeping with what we know of the adolescent Rossetti, whose interest in Blake was life-long.
I spoke to the House Steward, Helen Bratt-Wyton, who enthused about this opportunity to see Rossetti’s early work:
This is Rossetti before he was Dante Gabriel, and we can see him finding himself, as a teenager, thinking about ‘who am I? What am I interested in?’ – and that is literature, poetry, art. This is a whole new side to Rossetti, as you’ve never seen him before!
All drawings (c) National Trust, Wightwick Manor, unless otherwise stated.