Unfun Art: The Rossettis, Tate Britain

Susan Tailby
9 min readSep 6, 2023

Critiquing the mythology that has arisen around Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sister Christina, this exhibition aimed to provide a wider range of art than is usually seen. Whilst the art was beautiful, a lot of the information cards alongside were less informative and more just miserably po-faced. Sadly if I’d carried on reading the info cards alongside each painting, I’d have come away with a serious lack of enjoyment of art — even Anhedonia. Though I can’t help but snigger as the exhibition highlights prejudice and exposes its own, our own. The Pre-Raphaelites made us think again about who was powerful, who was worthy of representation, what was modern and what was beautiful? Most of all, how to show the inner life as well as making us think hard with classical/mythological, even Biblical and allegorical allusions. Plus a massive accumulation of complex symbolism and Latin/Italian titles.

Dantis Amor (Dante’s Love). A standing gleaming golden angel with red double winged divides the two worlds — not above subtly or nuance, Dante Gabriel is Dante flaming like the sun towards his starry Beatrice — Janey Morris. The Dante-Beatrice lovers look towards each other, yearningly separated across mystical backgrounds.
Monna Vanna (Vain Woman). Irony or truth? Huge amounts of luxuriant hair, coral beads swagged about her neck, swathes of gold and white silky textiles, a fan which looks like fur, long elegant hands with minimal big rings. The model poses her head at an angle to best display her statement gold ear rings. She may be vain, but we can’t help but look and gasp — she is stunning! Originally she was just a sumptuously dressed Venetian lady! (Venus Veneta)

And some medieval musical madness!

Like a Dutch painting of people in an inn up to no good, a woman plays the dulcimer with a man in green who leans forward to listen, resting on her chair arms and staring at the dulcimer resting on her lap. To her other a servant is also languidly listening. Only a distant woman is preparing a curtained bed ‘off-stage’. The woman musician dominates the painting in a red dress, and fantastically pointed headdress, a truncated linen Hennin.  Is it innocent or sinister enchantment?
Two medieval women are making music accompanied by two singers. But it’s really all about the fabrics and the hair — the picture is a riot of textures, textiles and elaborate long hair. Plus intense listening as they play the notes of the shared instrument.

What the exhibition did well was give us a vast array of art, including designed and painted furniture; even wallpaper designs brought to life and up on the exhibition room walls, as well as comparing how the Rossetti siblings and Mrs Rossetti (Elizabeth Siddall/Siddal) chose to portray the same topics. Additionally there were rooms devoted to the muses, the models, behind the most famous works and who they really were. Wonderful too was the poetry round the walls, and if you stepped in the right place, they would be read to you — I’m sure I heard Bill Nighy at one point! Albeit only Christina’s verses got read — it would have been good to have had more of Dante Gabriel’s too, given his name and all.

However, with the selection of ‘No, thank you, John’, In The Bleak Midwinter and Goblin Market the cliched and stereotyped image I had of somewhat grumpy Christina Rossetti were solidly reinforced. What I didn’t register was that there were more Rossetti siblings — we encountered all their images (another brother and sister); it was so interesting to learn about the pre-Pre-Raphaelite family and friends. The menagerie of pets didn’t get much of a look-in in this exhibition — nor did the romance.

Veronica Veronese. A woman in the act of creation. Wearing a sumptuously thick velvet green gown with many gathers, a woman begins to write on a fresh page seated at a wooden writing desk. Inspired she plucks the string of a violin hanging on the wall. Behind her a cage bird seeks to be free. There are cut daffodils scattered over the desk too.
Roman Widow or Dîs Manibus. A grieving widow in swathes of flying drapery sways as she mourns her departed husband surrounded by heaped swags of pink roses (symbols of Venus and of love), playing an elegy on a small harp in one hand. A memorial urn to her husband is behind her.

There were amusing caricatures of Pre-Raph chums with much laughing at Ruskin. But this is where, according to the exhibition interpretation, the jokes stopped, and it was puzzling to see what was and what was not worthy of mention. Heaps of words were spent about Lady Lilith, but nothing really about the Rossetti’s faith/spirituality — presumably they were an Italian Catholic family at a time when Emancipation was finally a thing. Nor was politics really mentioned — where were all the 1830s and ‘40’s revolutions? Garibaldi? While I appreciated the exhibition highlighting Orientalism, the information cards seemed determined to bash and bash some more. Despicably an art collector who made his art purchasing wealth through cotton had a phrase next to his opulent collection, that even tho the enslaved had been freed, cotton was produced in exploitative circumstances. Whilst this is true, I think we do this man’s character a disservice. Without more focused examination, of him, his life, who and how he traded (and how he treated his workers) and how he lived, this feels like character assassination against someone who can no longer defend themselves. Fair enough to highlight those who outright bought and sold, and enslaved — but this? How can we know for sure without more information? It was one of many sour notes throughout the exhibition, sucking these lively and vivid works of any joy — for they were all tainted and wrong!

Moreover, what was done well was the examination of class and how Rossetti portrayed women of different social status. More could have been said about how Elizabeth Siddal was shown compared to his much more sexualised treatment of Fanny Cornforth. Intriguingly there was a photograph of Cornforth and an artist, and we saw her as she was — an equality of model and artist. Nothing was said at all of his portrayal of a widow, where he didn’t (as many of his time did) overly other people of different ethnicities, nor stereotype. Whilst he was certainly classist, though the exhibition tried to make him yet another racist white man, I’m not sure that he was. Whilst he made a comment about contrasting skin tones, I think he was more obsessed by colour generally rather than race or ethnicity or eugenics, contrasts, extremes than othering and demeaning — he wanted over the top pomp and pageantry, and all the world had to be in it. Even when painting a small boy, who was behaving as young children do, he expressed care and concern, thinking that he missed his mother. He saw humanity rather than separateness — but the exhibition inisted that he be a rotten type, not a person. Whilst Rossetti’s works showed the opposite — he embraced all ethnicities as people, even to an extent, classes too.

What it missed was how he othered and exalted women into class types — hence Cornforth was put into degraded or very sexualised roles (often with crude in-jokes behind them), whilst Siddal was exalted and respectable. No comment was made at all of his extraordinary usurpation of his friend’s marriage — by having an affair with his friend’s wife, Janey Morris. What was he thinking? We’ll never know as the exhibition had whirled on to the addictions of the day, which would explain the heightened and headiness of the paintings. Why did Rossetti obsessively create a type over and over and over — why was he so focused on big hair, dramatically big necks, on the spiritual nature of women? Why Raphael? Again, a silence — there was precious little about his art technique.

Drawing of Fanny Cornforth sitting reading a book in a crinoline and caped jacket. Her eyes are cast down.

Wonderfully, if you ignored the info, you could get right up to the paintings and read the poetry beneath — I’d never grasped how interconnected verse and images were with Rossetti before. Or really look at all the strange symbolism in Beata Beatrix.

Additionally, the early works were lovely — often Christina was a model, then Rossetti drew women walking about and eventually approached would-be models (such as shopgirl Lizzie Siddal). Missed by the exhibition, but what struck me, was how respectable these models were — working class women earning their living by posing for Pre-Raphaelites, such as widowed Fanny Eaton and another stunner of Roma descent. And stunning they were and he’s made them — forever.

Enthrallingly, Rossetti cheekily painted Elizabeth Siddal being helped to paint by her lover — the ultimate in mansplaining. Surely she seemed to scream from the canvas they get that I want to be an artist in my own right. It was, after all, her look which inspired them — the comfy clothes she wore about the house and her hair. Shiveringly I beheld a lock of her hair preciously preserved, as well as a letter probably buried with her entangled in her luxuriant hair and dug up some years later by Rossetti. Yet in this youthful work and others, there seemed to be real jealousy as Rossetti kept showing Siddal with someone else — the lover was never him. And yet, is it a joke for himself or about himself, or a teasing of her?

Coming away from this exhibition, I had a sense of Rossetti’s curiosity (he drew women walking about in trousers, for example and all kinds of things), and a much deeper awareness of how artistic Christina was too — not just words but drawing and painting too. Startlingly both Rossetti sisters were Protestant (I think) in the community nuns, which made the lack of discussion about spirituality and faith all the more jarring. Why did they choose this path? I also saw how he noticed people — in the powerful images he created, in the way he drew a widow and her children as people (apart from when he was in epic pantomime mode then everyone had to look extra and exotic) — not ethnic, and yet his personal prejudice revealed itself in classism and differing behaviour towards working and more genteel upper working class women. Exhausted I was by how much Janey Morris was trying to do — the ultimate multi-tasker — and how many people she was trying to support as one woman. Equally unexpected was the series of modern looking photographs of Janey, although I knew that she had to stand still for some time — the sense of vivacity, life, movement is stupendous -as are those pre-Cara Delevingne eyebrows.

Rossetti himself was a real mystery — he was a free love artistic revolutionary [I can’t help but insert Aiden Turner image here] and yet even as he bought sex, he could still wonder about and try to give a voice and humanise the woman who had sold herself, or atleast her body and some of her time, to him. He saw people, and sadly this exhibition failed to help us see through his eyes. Rather than the Christina with a smidgeon of Dante Gabriel poems alone, I would have liked more of his verse; indeed, more explanation of Christina’s artistic motivations. (Ignoring the creepy info card which suggested that the fierce Rossetti siblings were emotionally incestuous). Moving on from the strange and mealy mouthed interpretation, it was excellent though to see more Siddal art works on display — tiny canvases some of them!

Paolo and Francesca da Rimini. An intxicating love is all around triythc, On one side a couple embrace deeply and passionately, distracted from the book they’ve been reaidng togeher. The longing is palapable. In the middle are a couple, staid and steady, at an angle — stunned, disapproving or envious onlookers. On the other side, the same couple soar in an eternal embrace into the heavens. It’s Chagall before Chagall was a thing.

Less a celebration, and more a carping, the art still leapt off the walls and seized us by the throats, demanding to be looked at. More too was needed about why Rossetti went so wild with one model (Alexa Wilding), producing extraordinarily off the scale images.

Venus Verticordia (Venus, Changer of the Heart). An extremely sensual Venus, with a mass of dark red hair, who embodies Venus’s ability to turn a woman towards virtue. Venus is like Eve in a garden full of flowers bursting behind her, holding an arrow which points to her heart, and an apple across her chest. A yellow butterfly alights on the arrow, another on the top of the apple. She has a solid golden halo.

For me I found one muddy version of Fanny Cornforth as a shamed fallen country woman about to be rescued from the urban mire (if she will let herself be) so emotionally impactful. It was still shocking, even as the urban industrial contemporary background was immaculately rendered. Who are we, Rossetti kept asking? Not a question answered by this exhibition and one that he could never finish either. Personally I was taken with how much Rossetti battled to portray Joan of Arc, avoiding the ‘too horrible’ burning — so whilst capturing sensational works, he was not sensationalist. He had humanity and compassion, seeing others and encouraging us to enjoy too.

Found. A dirty urban industrialised Victorian street, next to a bridge and a busy river port. A woman in a grubby greyish-blue dress and bonnet with a januty white feather cringes on the ground against the wall. A healthy looking farmer grasps her wrist to pull her up, towards him, free. She turns her head in agony and shame, she is faded beauty. We see the suffering, pain and shame of her hard life on her face and in her twisted posture, her face turned towards the wall. But there is hope.
Fanny Cornforth. For once not shamed or suffering, cheerfully having fun and equal — she leans over, beautful blonde chignon and practical dark crinonline and rests on an artist’s shoulder to see what he’s made of her, smiling and intelligent. An artist with a quiff and pointy stylish beard looks straight ahead painting at an easel by a light and airy big window. On the wall is another potrait of Fanny Cornforth also in profile. All is cheerful and relaxed.
Joan of Arc. An armoured, red haired Joan turns her face up in profile, resting her raised sword along her cheek.

For they are fun — the works, the subjects are compelling, exhilarating, stimulating. Ignore the interpretation and enjoy the many works on display! (All hair, textiles and flowers). Also a sense of Elizabeth Siddal’s struggle to be an artist and be taken seriously — she was obviously a great model. Even in visiting friends with Rossetti, they couldn’t help but put lilies in her hair, get her posed and start drawing. What a personality and what a force she must have been, and such a tragic way to go, withdrawn from Rossetti, seeking relief from illness and a greater artistic life.

Elizabeth Siddal rests her head on her hands and contemplates. She has a beautiful thick twist of auburn hair in a chignon and delightfully delicate eyelashes.

Much more complex and more human than this exhibition allowed them to be, Rossetti not only presented the complex but could produce the startingly simple — presenting holiness as everyday, scandalising everyone with an ordinary, humble, working class Jesus and his family, or the simplicity of the extraordinary — in the Annunciation.

Ecce Ancilla Domini! A very young, ordinary looking and vulnerable Virgin Mary is surprised in her room by the Angel Gabriel proferring an ornate lilly. We sense the seriousness of her choice and what it will mean next. The Angel Gabriel’s feet are a flame with a golden glow. It’s not a sinister painting — very simple and focused. Our focus is on Mary’s face as she looks, hears and thinks, about to lean forward and make her choice in faith.

Or just plain weird in urging us to go and day dream in a tree full of blossoms with some poetry!

Day Dream/Monna Primavera. Seated up in a tree heavy with spring blossoms, a woman sits, with an open book of poems and dreams…It is Janey Morris in an extraordinary green dress with some Honeysuckle blossom in a Sycamore tree!

For another view — The Rossettis review — lurid, luscious-lipped beauties drown out the family’s real talent | Art | The Guardian

A much more epic life than suggested by this exhibition — Dante Gabriel Rossetti — Wikipedia

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Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....Theatre, Movies, Dance & Art!