Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his Circle/Chapter 7


Rossetti's dinners—Frederick SandysGeorge Augustus SalaWestland Marston—Lady Nicotine—The Tichborne trial.

Rossetti's greatest pleasure was to gather around him those whom he liked, and his little social dinners, when they took place, were events to be remembered.83 When the party was an exceptional one—I mean as regards the number of friends invited—the table was laid in the so-called drawing-room, an apartment comprising the entire width of the house and boasting of five windows, which afforded an extensive and interesting view of Chelsea Reach and its picturesque old wooden bridge. It was a beautiful room by day, when the sun streamed in and lit up the curious collection of Indian cabinets, couches, old Nankin, and the miscellaneous odds and ends with which it was crowded almost to the point of superfluity; and at night, when the heavy Utrecht velvet curtains were drawn and the dining table was extended to its utmost limits, when the huge Flemish, brass-wrought candelabra with its two dozen wax lights, that hung suspended from the ceiling midway over the table, was lit up, and the central, old-fashioned epergne was filled with flowers, the room was filled with a pleasant warmth and glow anticipatory of the company expected.

On such occasions, Rossetti would relinquish his poetry or painting, and devote half-an-hour or so to allotting to his guests the several places that they were to occupy.

"Dunn," he would say to me, "we'll have Howell here; so-and-so is slow and he shall sit next to him; he'll be sure to be amused and wake up when that droll fellow begins pouring out his Niagara of lies. And here," he would add, "Sandys84 shall have his place, just opposite, so that whatever Howell relates, Fred shall have a chance of capping his romances with some more racy."

And thus with each guest; all were placed as he considered would be most conducive to the harmony of the evening. And so happily did Rossetti arrange matters, that his dinners never failed to be indeed festivals of exuberant hilarity. Christopher North's Noctes Ambrosianæ might have equalled, but certainly did not surpass them, for wit and humour danced rampant up and down the table. At such times, would be present Burne-Jones, George Augustus Sala,85 Westland Marston,86 Ford Madox Brown, Morris, and other well-known men.

But it was not really until the feast was over, and an adjournment to the studio came about, that the night's enjoyment commenced. If the conversation took a turn to suit Rossetti's humour, he was pretty sure to be first and foremost in the fun.87 Howell was the greatest romancer of all the Rossetti circle, and he had always some monstrous story to tell about anybody who happened to be enjoying notoriety at the time, with whom he would claim to have a perfect intimacy. Rossetti had a keen relish for these yarns, and would roll back in his chair with delight at Howell's latest adventures, the relation of which used to proceed in the most plausible and convincing manner possible. Fred Sandys was also a splendid raconteur, and these two men between them would keep us all listening and set us all laughing until long past midnight.

Smoking was indulged in by most of Rossetti's friends, although he, to his frequent regret, could never venture to touch either pipe, cigar, or cigarette. William Michael Rossetti, however, made up for his brother's inability on this score. Swinburne was also a non-smoker. I do not think I ever saw him attempt even a cigarette. Howell was never without one; from morn till night he smoked, and the amount of cigarette ends he threw away in a day might well have made a good ounce weight of tobacco.

During the period in which these convivialities were rife, the Tichborne trial88 formed the all-absorbing topic of the day, and though Rossetti as a rule carefully avoided reading the newspapers, he nevertheless took a keen interest in the claimant, and followed the record of the case closely from day to day; that the claimant was an impostor, I believe was his conviction at an early stage of the proceedings. It was upon one of these evenings, when the conversation respecting the great case had set in, and the opinions of those present as to the rights and wrongs of it fizzed about as confusedly as squibs on a Guy Fawkes night, that Rossetti propounded a highly original solution of the question.

"Let," he said, very gravely, "the carcass of an ox be taken into the court, and let the claimant be brought forward and told that he must cut that ox up in the presence of the judge and jury. It would be seen at a glance," he maintained, "whether that man had ever been a butcher; unconsciously he would hold the knife in a way no tyro could, and unconsciously he would set to the task of cutting up the carcass and betray himself at every slash he made."

Such was Rossetti's idea. It was an ingenious one, but whether reliable or not was a matter of opinion, and led to a protracted discussion in which nobody was convinced.