This highly finished drawing is related to a painting of the same date (1867) and almost identical size (fig. 1). The painting was bought in 1876 by George Rae, a Liverpool banker who was one of Rossetti's staunchest patrons, although in this case the purchase was made from a dealer rather than from the artist himself. By 1971, when Virginia Surtees published her catalogue raisonné, the picture belonged to the late Lord Leverhulme, but it did not appear in the sale of the contents of his house, Thornton Manor, Wirral, that was held by Sotheby's in June 2001.
The painting's frame is inscribed with what seems to be a stage direction from a medieval mystery play: 'Here a maid, well-apparelled, sings a song of Christ's birth with the tune of Bululalow: ''Jesus Christus nodie Natus est de Virgine'''. The choice of such a text smacks of the willfully quaint medievalism in which Rossetti had indulged in the late 1850s, and indeed to some extent the picture harks back to this period. He had actually painted a watercolour with the same title in 1857-8 (Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University), and although the composition, which includes three full-length figures, is quite different, the two works were confused by William Sharp in the monograph that he rushed out in 1882, the very year of Rossetti's death.
Yet the picture of 1867 is also very much of its time, in the sense that it is a female half-length designed to embody the Aesthetic ideal. Rossetti had been painting such half-lengths since 1859, when he had defined the idiom at a stroke in Bocca Baciata (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), a likeness of his mistress Fanny Cornforth conceived essentially for decorative and chromatic effect. It was axiomatic of this style that the model should be attractive and her dress and jewellery rich. The singer in A Christmas Carol wears what Marillier (loc. cit.) calls 'a gold and purple robe of Eastern stuff', and the cataloguer of the 1883 exhibition identifies as an 'Indian dress'. Either way, she is 'well-apparalled', as the text on the frame has it. If the quotation as a whole satisfied Rossetti's passion for medieval quaintness, this phrase in particular sanctioned yet another expression of the highly personal form of Aestheticism he evolved in the 1860s.
Maybe the dress was one of the many costumes that Rossetti kept in his studio to adorn his models, or perhaps, since he does not seem to use it elsewhere, it was borrowed for the purpose. No such doubts arise in the case of the heart-shaped medallion on the wall and the spiral of pearls that the girl wears in her hair, both of which were almost certainly in Rossetti's possession. The medallion had already appeared in Regina Cordium, a picture of 1866 (Surtees, pl. 280), the only difference being that the amorino it bears there is changed to a Virgin and Child in A Christmas Carol to suit a more Christian context. As for the brooch, this was one of Rossetti's favourite studio properties at this period, featuring not only here but in Fiammetta (1866; Surtees, pl. 282), Joli Coeur (1867; Surtees, pl. 286) and Monna Vanna (1866; Surtees, pl. 281). The last, which was also in the Rae collection, is one of Rossetti's most wholehearted essays in Aesthetic values. As he wrote himself, it was 'probably the most effective (work) as a room decoration that I have ever painted'.
The model for A Christmas Carol was Ellen Smith, not as voluptuous as Fanny Cornforth or as regal as Alexa Wilding, who sat for Monna Vanna, but prized when more homely charms were needed. She was a laundry girl, and, like so many of the models who passed through Rossetti's studio at this period, of equivocal virtue. She also sat for Washing Hands (1865), The Beloved (1865-6), yet another Rae picture, Joli Coeur (1867), and the three watercolour versions of The Loving Cup (1867), one of which was sold in these Rooms on 26 November 2003 (lot 17). Nor did she only sit to Rossetti; Burne-Jones, Poynter, Spencer Stanhope, Simeon Solomon, G.J. Pinwell and G.P. Boyce also employed her. Her modelling career seems to have ended when she married in 1873. Boyce, who often mentions her in his published diary, recorded that on 17 February that year, now under the name of Mrs Elson, she 'called on me to tell me she had been married about three weeks ago to an old acquaintance and suitor, a cabman. She wishes to do some laundry work on her own account, as her husband's earnings are small'.
There is a pencil study for the painting in the British Museum (fig. 2), and our drawing too is often described as a 'finished study', implying that it was the definitive rendering of the subject before Rossetti embarked on the painting itself. However, so close are they in detail, and so unhesitating is our drawing in its delineation of the forms, that the possibility should be considered that it is not a preliminary study but an independant chalk version made after the painting was finished. Rossetti, of course, often made such drawings for commercial purposes, and there is no reason why he should not have done so here. Another possibility, however, turns out to have no substance. A Christmas Carol is almost unique in Rossetti's oeuvre in being the subject of a reproductive etching, but the drawing cannot have been made for the etcher's guidance. Eugène Gaujean (1850-1900), the print-maker in question, was only seventeen in 1867, and the print was not published (by Robert Dunthorne) until 1891, nine years after Rossetti's death.
The drawing's first owner was Aglaia Coronio (1834-1906); a label on the back, perhaps in her own hand, is inscribed with her name and address, 1A Holland Park in Kensington. Aglaia belonged to the Ionides family, a wealthy and cultured Anglo-Greek clan that plays a prominent part in the annals of Victorian art. She was the second child and eldest daughter of Alexander Ionides, the head of a merchant house who had settled in Tulse Hill and was famous for his hospitality in artistic, literary and diplomatic circles. Her elder brother, Constantine, formed the well-known collection of paintings now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, while her younger brothers, Luke and Alecco, had belonged as young men to the so-called Paris Gang, later immortalised by George du Maurier in Trilby. Aglaia herself was on close terms with many artists, particularly William Morris, to whom she was a confidante. She was painted by G.F. Watts and Alphonse Legros, while Rossetti made a chalk drawing of her in 1870 (Ionides Bequest, Victoria and Albert Museum).
Our drawing was almost certainly a gift rather than a purchase. It could conceivably have been a house-warming present since Aglaia moved to 1A Holland Park (next door to 1 Holland Park, where her brother Alecco created one of the great Aesthetic interiors of the day) in 1869, only two years after the drawing was executed. Or perhaps it was given in return for services rendered. Aglaia was adept at finding the draperies that played so crucial a role in Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Her 'perfect taste', wrote Lady Burne-Jones in her biography of her husband, 'helped (Edward) a hundred times by finding fabrics and arranging dresses for models'. She performed similar duties for Rossetti, and we could well imagine him giving her the drawing by way of thanks, especially if the 'Indian dress' worn by the model was something she had supplied.
Aglaia lent the drawing to Rossetti's memorial exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1883, and presumably kept it until her death in 1906. Another Rossetti drawing she owned (Surtees 213A) appeared at Hampton's, a minor London auction house, on 21 November that year, and A Christmas Carol may have done so too. Research has yet to clarify this detail. Aglaia's death was violent and self-inflicted. She felt deeply the passing of her artist friends, Rossetti in 1882, Morris in 1896, Watts in 1904, as well as of her elder brother, Constantine, in 1901; and when her beloved daughter Calliope (also the subject of a portrait drawing by Rossetti) died on 19 August 1906, it was more than she could bear. The following day, like some heroine in a Greek tragedy, she took her own life by stabbing herself with scissors.
When the drawing was next exhibited, at Manchester in 1911, it belonged to Mrs Valpy, presumably the widow of Leonard R. Valpy whose posthumous sale had taken place at Christie's in May 1888. A London solicitor before his retirement to Bath in 1878, Valpy had mainly collected English watercolours; his greatest achievement had been to put together a magnificent group of works by Samuel Palmer, including all the artist's late illustrations to Milton. But he also had a passion for Rossetti, and, despite temperamental differences that they found mutually irritating, became one of his chief patrons from the late 1860s on.
The drawing was missing when Mrs Surtees published her catalogue raisonné in 1971, and since no measurements are given for the one shown at Manchester in the exhibition catalogue, she was understandably cautious in assuming that they were one and the same ('Possibly Mrs Valpy', etc.). However, any doubts were allayed when the drawing re-surfaced and was sold in 1990. The vendor was identified as a descendant of Mrs Valpy, and the drawing itself still has a label on the backboard stating that she lent it to the Manchester exhibition in 1911. The only anomaly is that the subject is described as 'Portrait of a Lady', presumably through ignorance on the part of some museum official.
The likelihood that the drawing did not enter the Valpy collection until 1906 prompts speculation. Valpy himself had always maintained a somewhat 'fluid' relationship with Rossetti, returning things to him from time to time, swapping them for others, and so on. Nor did he cease to acquire Rossettis on the artist's death in 1882. At least two items included in Rossetti's studio sale (Surtees 224.R.I.A and 260A) entered the collection later, presumably having been bought from the dealers who secured them at Christie's.
As for Mrs Valpy, she did not by any means sell all her husband's Rossettis in 1888. There were only seven examples in the sale, whereas no fewer than nineteen works in Mrs Surtees' catalogue either have or seem to have a Valpy provenance. This being so, it should probably not surprise us if Mrs Valpy was adding to the collection long after her husband's death. It is true that A Christmas Carol is a typical 'Valpy' Rossetti in that the solicitor had always had a fondness for versions, whether in oil or chalk, of the artist's better-known compositions. One, a chalk version of Sibylla Palmifera, largely by Rossetti's assistant H.T. Dunn, was sold in these Rooms as recently as 16 November 2006 (lot 218). Nonetheless, the history of our drawing does seem to shed new light on the Valpy collection, and to suggest that Mrs Valpy may have played a more prominent role in its creation than has hitherto been recognised.