Part 3 of The Dream of a Victorian Quattrocento: D.G. Rossetti's answer to the Dilemma of his Anglo-Italian Identity
Because he was born and educated in London, Rossetti felt at home in England. The culture he had acquired from his childhood readings — full of chivalric adventures by Sir Walter Scott, tragedies by Shakespeare, gothic tales by Byron and Maturin, as well as old English and Scottish ballads — made it possible for him to develop an Anglo-Saxon imagination. Mrs Helen Angeli, Rossetti's niece, wrote of him that he was "noticeably English in attitude and tastes" (Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood 93) and in fact Rossetti as a social man was well integrated in Victorian London : he had many English friends, eventually married Elizabeth Siddall, an English-born girl, he was recognized and championed by the most famous English art critic of his time. His Englishness was due to his perfect mastery of the language, to his "Anglo-Saxon wit" (Weintraub 82), to his down-to-earth Victorian businessman's concern about the price of his paintings, and his taste for the relaxed ways of the cockney girls whom he used as models.
Moreover, Dante Gabriel Rossetti had found in the poet and painter William Blake another possible prior possessor of his soul. Blake's poetry had become accessible to a larger public from 1839 when Songs of Innocence were first printed in ordinary type. Therefore it is not surprising that when Rossetti, at the age of 18, was offered the chance of buying for ten shillings Blake's own note-book, he enthusiastically accepted. He kept the precious volume with him for the rest of his life. Obviously, "the 58 leaves crammed full of Blake's sketches and scribblings" (Preston 43) had a deep and lasting influence on the young painter-poet, whose imagination had come to dwell on an intriguing coincidence : Blake had passed away on 12th August 1827, whereas he, Rossetti, was born on 12th May 1828, exactly nine months later. Could it be possible that the soul of Blake had been intercepted at the moment of his conception? K. Preston suggests that Rossetti fondled the idea that he could be a reincarnation of Blake (38-41).
Indeed, it seems that just like William Blake before him, Rossetti was unable to find inspiration in the contemporary scene: the one "social subject" he ever tackled was that of prostitution, and he never finished painting Found, with which he struggled from about 1854 until the end of his life. No matter how English he felt, "the ordinary world of vision scarcely supplied any inspiration to him" (Doughty 157). One notable instance of Rossetti borrowing from Blake in his iconography can be seen in the winged spirit of Love escaping from the hand of the female figure in La Donna della Fiamma (1870.
Finally, the most obvious element that contributed to the Englishness of Dante Gabriel Rossetti was his attraction for, and frequent treatment of the Arthurian legends. Subjects drawn either from Malory or from the new Tennyson version of the Arthurian cycle inspired 8 out of the 14 works produced between 1856 and 1859 listed in the appendix. This interest, possibly initiated by William Morris, reached a climax at Oxford in 1857 where Rossetti had planned to decorate the walls of the Union building with illustrations of the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Rossetti was to paint three out of the ten panels himself, but eventually only painted one, Sir Lancelot's Vision of the Sanc Grael (1857). The pen and ink drawing of Sir Lancelot in the Queen's Chamber (1857) could have been intended for another compartment. After the Oxford episode, Rossetti's interest in the Arthurian legends did not abate : seven years after the "Jovial Campaign" he was still influenced by the mediaeval Arthurian theme and painted How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors, and Sir Percival were fed with the Sanc Grael; but Sir Percival's Sister died by the Way (1864) - a watercolour based on one of the murals. His enthusiasm for putting his art at the service of contemporary craftmanship did not fade either: in 1857 he was involved in the illustration of the Moxon edition of Tennyson's poems on the Arthurian legends, for which he contributed five designs, and in 1859 he painted a watercolour, Sir Galahad at the Ruined Chapel which is an expanded version of one of them. He also took part in his fiend's firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, for which he produced designs for The Story of St George and the Dragon (circa 1861-1862), a series of six stained-glass panels. In most of his contributions to "utilitarian" craftmanship, Rossetti drew upon the English theme of Saint George, as well as British literature, both traditional and contemporary, ranging from Malory and Shakespeare to Tennyson and Coleridge.
Last modified 27 February 2017