Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his Circle/Chapter 6


Story of the blue Nankin dish—Ionides Brothers—Leonard R. Valpy—George HowardGeorge Price BoyceGeorge CruikshankJohn William Inchbold.

Between Rossetti and Howell there existed a friendly rivalry as to who could display the finest show of old Nankin. Howell, perhaps, possessed the greatest facility of the two for picking up china bric-a-brac—or anything that was worth buying—from the fact that his time was generally spent in ferreting out all the old shops in the most likely neighbourhoods, as well as in the various sale rooms which he was always frequenting. He had, moreover, a keen eye for what was good, together with an unrivalled amount of assurance, that assisted him wonderfully in all his bargains with dealers, who were wont to get the advantage of customers less acute.

On one occasion, Howell's rambles took him to some out-of-the-way and unfrequented part of Hammersmith, which at that time abounded in small furniture-dealers' shops. Often, some very valuable thing might have been purchased there for a few shillings, that at present could not be procured for pounds. In one of these old furniture shops, Howell, with hawk-like eye, espied the corner of a blue dish peeping out from a pile of miscellaneous odds and ends in the window. It was not so much the shape of this visible portion of crockery but the colour, that attracted him; it was the blue, the sweet, rich blue, only to be found in the choicest Nankin. He entered the shop, and began prying about, asking the price of first this thing and then that in the window until at length, as though by an accident, the whole of the dish that had lain almost hidden was exposed to view. O heavens! What a thrill of delight passed through his soul when it was pulled out for inspection. It was a veritable piece of Imperial ware, and a fine specimen, too! His mind was made up. Have it he must; but, not to appear too anxious to get possession of it, he commenced by buying one or two things he did not want rather above their value, and then, by artful cozening, got the dish thrown in as a final make-weight to his other purchases for next to nothing. His afternoon's work was done; he had secured a prize which would fill Dante Gabriel's soul with envy when he saw it. A cab was called, and away he drove home, chuckling with delight to himself over his acquisition.

That evening was spent in arranging the menu of a choice little dinner, which was to be given in order to display his treasure, and in selecting the names of those of his friends who should be chosen to see the dish. Invitations were written and duly sent. Dear Gabriel's name, of course, was first on the list; then that of Whistlerbetter known amongst his friends as "Jimmy"—as he was one of the triumvirate of Chinese worshippers; then came the Ionides Brothers,76 Leonard R. Valpy,77 George Howard,78 George Price Boyce,79 Burne-Jones, Morris, old George Cruikshank,80 John William Inchbold,81 and several others who were habitués of the house.

As it had got about that Howell had something to show that would knock them all into fits, there were no absentees. The table was set, and the guests had all arrived, brought thither not only by the prospect of spending a pleasant evening, but also by curiosity to see what Howell had to exhibit. When the substantial part of the feast came to a full end, Howell felt his guests were in a sufficiently appreciative state of mind, and so the dish, for the advent of which each one of the party had been on the tip-toe of expectation, was at length produced, Howell himself bringing it in, carefully wiping it with a silk handkerchief. There was a concentrated "Oh!" from all assembled at the table, which, having been partially cleared, had space enough to allow the dish to be placed in its centre, that all could view and admire it. And it bore the closest inspection, for it was certainly as good a piece of Nankin as could be found in the best of a lucky day's hunt. Rossetti waxed enthusiastic over it; he turned it round, and examined it from every point of view, and not a flaw could he find, nor the ghost of a crack, or a suspicion of an inequality of colour in it. Everyone congratulated Howell on his being the possessor of such a beautiful specimen of "Blue." After it had been admired and breathed upon, coveted and delighted in, fondled and gushed over, hustled and almost fought for—in short, after having created as much squabbling and controversy as, once upon a time, the partition of Poland did among the Powers, the dish was tenderly removed by its owner, and carefully deposited in its shrine on a cabinet in an adjoining room.

As there were ladies present, a little music was indulged in, but as a rule Howell's parties were chiefly composed of people who were not very musically inclined. As in Rossetti's house, the place abounded in musical instruments, but never a one that could be played upon; all were of antiquated construction, only to be looked at, and talked about in a hushed whisper of admiration for their workmanship and adornments. It was now getting well on towards midnight, and most of the party began to think of getting home—Howell's Fulham villa was not a very easy place to get at, and after twelve o'clock it was only by chance a cab could be found. Whilst the ladies of the party were upstairs wrapping themselves up for their journey, and the men were downstairs occupied with their hats and overcoats, Rossetti was hanging about the hall in a thoughtful kind of way. He had on the Inverness cape which he generally wore at night, and I saw him go into the room where the dish was deposited, to have, as I thought, a last look at the treasure,—but shall I tell it?—he hastily dislodged that dish by stealth, concealed it beneath the cape of his cloak and carefully wrapped its ample folds around it, that none could perceive what he carried under his arm. Having so done, he took leave of Howell and his wife in the most charmingly innocent manner possible.

We walked towards Cheyne Walk together, but on the road Rossetti hailed a cab that happened to be in view, and the rest of the distance was soon got over. On our arrival at his door, having dismissed the cabman, he let himself in, and pulling out the dish from under his cape had a good look at it by the gaslight in the hall, chuckling the while with glee, for in his mind's eye he saw the long face Howell would pull on discovering his loss. He cautioned me not to let him know anything which would give him a clue as to the disappearance of the dish, or its place of concealment. Then, finding his way to the back hall, he proceeded to carefully hide it in the recesses of the massive oak wardrobe that stood there, and the more effectually to conceal it, swathed it round and round with model's dresses and other artistic draperies for the custody of which the wardrobe was employed. Having done all this to his satisfaction, Rossetti took his candle and went to bed.

Next morning, when he made his appearance at the breakfast table, we had our usual chat respecting the day's work, and whatever else required to be discussed. In the course of our conversation, Rossetti said, suddenly,

"Dunn, I shall give a return party to that of Howell's last night. This is Tuesday: I'll ask him for Friday, and tell him he must come as I have picked up a piece of 'Blue' that I think will rival his."

Accordingly, he wrote him a note to that effect, and also dispatched invitations to most of those who were present at Howell's party, and to a good many more, making altogether enough to fill the dining table, which was able to accommodate at least twenty.

On the afternoon of the day of the dinner, Howell called in a cab, bringing his factotum with him, a useful fellow by whom he was generally accompanied in his expeditions. He left his man waiting in the cab, and on gaining admission to the house, and hearing that Rossetti was in the studio, he went in and found us both there. After an inordinately long confabulation over everything that could be talked about, but without a word concerning the dish, Howell, by and bye, went from the room upon some pretext or other and left Rossetti busily painting away. As I afterwards learnt, Howell guessed pretty shrewdly who had his dish, and where it was to be found. Instinct took him to the old wardrobe; softly opening its massive doors, he peeped in, then searching about with his hands, felt his precious dish underneath the pile of draperies that Rossetti had heaped over it. To remove these and disentangle his property was the work of a few seconds; recovering his prize, he softly stole away along the back hall, round to the front door, which he opened, and went out to his man who was waiting his instructions. To him he handed the dish through the window, receiving in return another of the same size and shape. Howell went back, and after putting this dish into the wardrobe in the place of the other, re-entered the studio, and with the accompaniment of Irish cold and the indispensable cigarette, resumed the conversation for another hour or so. When he could find nothing more to talk about, he took his leave in order to dress for the dinner. Rossetti was strangely unsuspicious of Howell's movements; I suppose he thought the hiding place he had fixed upon was so secure, that it never occurred to him to go and see what Howell had been up to and whether the dish was still there.

At the appointed hour, our guests came flocking in until the whole of them had arrived. When they were assembled in the dining-room, and had taken their seats around the table they formed a goodly company. The dinner was well served, a professional cook having been engaged to prepare it, and a distinct success; the wine was excellent and the conversation sparkling. At last, Howell managed to divert the talk to the subject of Blue china, and the dish of his that had excited so much admiration on the night of his party, whereupon Rossetti declared he had something just as fine. Howell challenged him to produce it, so off went Rossetti to the wardrobe most confidently: he fished out the dish and brought it away swathed in drapery, just as he supposed he had left it. In a few minutes he returned to the dining-room with the package, and began to carefully remove the wrappings. As the dish became uncovered, a curious, puzzled expression came over his face, and when it was entirely exposed to view, he stood still in blank astonishment. For a few moments he was silent; then his pent-up feelings burst out in a wild cry.

"Confound it! See what the spirits have done!"82

Everyone rose to look at the dish. A dish it was, certainly, but what a dish! Instead of the beautiful piece of Nankin that was expected, there was only an old Delft thing, cracked, chipped, and discoloured through the numerous bakings it had undergone. The whole party, with the exception of Howell, who looked as grave as a judge, burst into a roar of laughter. Rossetti soon recovered himself and laughed as heartily as any of his guests at Howell's ingenious revenge.

Corner of the Dining-Room at No. 16, Cheyne Walk, from a sepia drawing by Henry Treffry Dunn
Corner of the Dining-Room at No. 16, Cheyne Walk, from a sepia drawing by Henry Treffry Dunn