Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his Circle/Chapter 3

Chapter III.

Blake's "Songs of Innocence"—Alexander GilchristWilliam Michael Rossetti—The tobacco box—Blue Nankin—James McNeil Whistler—The Præ-Raphaelite Brotherhood—William Bell ScottFord Madox BrownTheo Marzials—Rossetti's indifference to music—His curio hunts—First ideas and sketches—John RuskinRobert BrowningAlgernon Charles SwinburneWilliam MorrisTennyson reading "Maud"

To return to Rossetti and the studio. His well-stocked Chippendale bookcase suggesting, I suppose, we began to converse upon books and then about William Blake24, for whose works I had a great reverence and admiration. Observing this, Rossetti went to the shelves and took down a little, unpretentious volume that looked just like a schoolboy's exercise book. Such it was originally intended to be, but the use to which it had been put made it very precious in my sight, for on turning over the leaves I saw it was filled with Blake's first thoughts for his Songs of Innocence, interspersed with pen-and-ink and slightly-coloured pencil designs for the same.25 Rossetti told me he had bought the book many years previously26 from one of the attendants in the British Museum, who had let him have it for half-a-sovereign, and it was from this manuscript collection that the recently published edition, over which he and the late Alexander Gilchrist27 collaborated28 had its origin.29 This rare little book fetched over one hundred guineas at the sale of Rossetti's effects which took place after his death. When the Blake manuscript was well conned and discussed, another curiosity took its place, in the form of Hypnerotamachia Poliphili,30 of great interest to book collectors, because the numerous woodcuts illustrating the text are said to have been designed by Botticelli.31 Rossetti's copy was faulty, as it lacked the original title-page and binding; but this did not interfere with my enjoyment of the designs. Many other books there were in that Chippendale case of a similar kind, such as the Nuremberg Chronicle, with its quaint and interesting illustrations.

As the afternoon wore on, William Michael Rossetti,32 the painter's brother, came in. He generally spent three evenings a week at Cheyne Walk. I had heard and seen his name pretty frequently in connection with critical papers upon Art which had from time to time caught my eye in some of the periodicals that came in my way. William Michael Rossetti I soon got to like, and as he was a smoker it gave me an opportunity of producing my pipe and blowing a cloud with him. A special tobacco box, always on the mantelpiece, was reserved for William Michael Rossetti, who invariably brought a two-ounce packet of some choice brand of tobacco which generally disappeared by the time his next visit came about. A good many of the visitors to Cheyne Walk were smokers, and if their own stock ran short, William Michael Rossetti's was usually drawn upon. The box itself was a bit of 18th century pewter work, four-square shaped, designed in high relief with sporting and rural scenes. I always intended to make a cast of it for my own use, and as a memento of the house, but never did so.

Rossetti's fancy for collecting old blue Nankin and other china was just at this time in full swing. James McNeil Whistler33 had set the example with his "Long Elizas,"34 and was closely followed by Rossetti and Howell. Each tried to outvie the other in picking up the choicest pieces of "Blue" to be met with. A pair of splendid blue hawthorn ginger pots stood on a table in the studio. These were not the first ginger pots I had seen; I recollect that when a boy they were common enough—of course, not such magnificent specimens as these were, but very good ones—although they were then thought very little of, and many a one such as would fetch ten or fifteen shillings now were given away to anybody who chose to ask for them. The two hawthorn pots in question were certainly beautiful, and exquisite in their blue and design, nevertheless when Rossetti informed me he had paid sixty pounds each for them, I confess I was astounded. The investment, however, proved a good one, as some time later, when money
Tobacco Box, from a drawing by Edith Hume
Tobacco Box, from a drawing by Edith Hume

The Tobacco Box.

was needed, the pair was disposed of for six hundred pounds.35

Whilst the hawthorn pots were being admired and discussed, Rossetti was hastily pulling out drawer after drawer from an old cabinet that stood in one of the recesses of the room. He was searching for something suitable to paint round the neck of the girl in his picture The Loving Cup, and before him lay a rare store of necklaces, featherwork, Japanese crystals, and knick-knacks of all kinds, sufficient to stock a small window. At length his choice was made of a necklace, and when this was satisfactorily settled, his costumes, which were kept in a large wardrobe at the back of the studio, were overhauled for one that was needed for another painting which he had in progress.

In going towards this wardrobe, I noticed upon one of the walls of the studio a gilt frame containing about half a dozen drawings and sketches, chiefly by members of the Præraphaelite Brotherhood,36 with the names of John Everett Millais,37 William Holman Hunt,38 Thomas Woolner,39 William Bell Scott,40 Ford Madox Brown,41 and James McNeil Whistler attached.

Wherever I went, I noticed musical instruments of some kind or another; all were old and mostly stringed mandolines, lutes, dulcimers, and barbarous-looking things of Chinese fashioning, which I imagine it would have been a great trial to the nerves to hear played upon—and yet in all the after years that I lived in the house I never heard a note of music. It had no home there. Our neighbours in the next house, however, were abounding in it, and often in the summer evenings, when the windows would be thrown wide open, the fine baritone of Theo Marzials,42 who was frequently there, would come floating into our front rooms. Rossetti had a great admiration for Marzials as a poet, and often spoke of the high quality of his poems and songs, which were then becoming very popular and much discussed. But for music itself he did not care a whit, and was very much of the opinion of Dr. Johnson, who, when once he was asked if he liked music, replied that perhaps of all noises it was the most bearable!

In relation to this indifference to music shewn by Rossetti, I recollect in the course of one of our conversations whilst working together, something led to his giving me an idea of what he thought of Handel's Messiah, which was at the time being performed at one of the Crystal Palace festivals. Once, he said, he had been induced by a friend to listen to it, and it seemed to him that everybody got up and shouted at him as loudly as possible! Another time, Mr. Leyland43 took him to the Royal Opera House to hear Fidelio. The next morning I was curious to know what he had to say in regard to such a masterpiece, but he could not give me a clear idea of what it was all about. The only notion he had of it was that of a man who was taken out of prison, where he had been for a couple of days without food, and who, when a loaf of bread was given to him, instead of eating it like any starving man would do, burst out into a long solo over it lasting for ten minutes which he thought was obviously absurd!

But the musical instruments were only a few of the many odds and ends of all sorts that were stacked away wherever a place could be found for them. Anything Rossetti saw in his rambles that might be of possible use to him for a picture he would buy. He delighted to take an evening's walk through Leicester Square, visiting the various curiosity shops in that neighbourhood, or through Hammersmith, a district where many a Chippendale chair or table could be met with and bought for next to nothing, such things not being then in the repute that they have become since the taste for Queen Anne houses and fittings sprang up.44

On returning to the studio, we found there Howell, who had dropped in, and now the flow of talk became lively. Howell had a lot to say, and it consisted of the most astounding experiences and adventures he had gone through. He had just left Whistler, and was full of a "long Eliza" he had picked up somewhere, of his etching of old Battersea Bridge,45 of which he had been shown a proof, and of his latest witticism.46 The main object, however, of Howell's visit was to get from Rossetti a drawing he had made of a lady. I infer some bargaining had been going on between them, and that the drawing formed part of the bargain, but as Rossetti prized it highly, to gain possession of it was not a very easy matter and required much diplomacy.

I now had an opportunity of looking over and admiring a series of Rossetti's first ideas and sketches for many of his pictures, and studies of heads, which were contained in a large, thick book, lying on a little cabinet in a distant corner. It was a great and unexpected treat to see this collection, a most varied one, amongst which were many carefully finished likenesses, some in red chalk, and others in pencil and in pen and ink, including pencil sketches of John Ruskin47 (not bearded then), Robert Browning,48 Algernon Charles Swinburne,49 William Morris,50 and other well-known men.

At last we came to the page at which the drawing Howell had come to secure was affixed. It was a beautiful face, delicately drawn, and shaded in pencil, with a background of pale gold. Howell, with an adroitness which was remarkable, shifted it from the book into his own pocket, and neither I nor Rossetti ever saw it again.

As we turned over the contents of this volume, a small, hasty, but exceedingly realistic pen and ink sketch, that had nearly got passed over, arrested my attention. It was of Tennyson,51 seated and reading out his poem Maud. This reading took place in Browning's London residence, in the presence of Browning, Mrs. Browning, Rossetti, and his brother.52 Whoever possesses the little sketch ought to prize it very highly.53

Tennyson Reading "Maud," from a sepia sketch by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Tennyson Reading "Maud," from a sepia sketch by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The pages of the book were still being turned over, slowly, by reason of the accompanying flow of lively recollections and stories of this or that individual whose face formed the subject of a sketch. The book was a rich record of past days and memories. And many a tender little sketch of his late wife was to be found there, with the same sad, beautiful weary expression that had struck me so much in his Beata Beatrix.54