Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
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Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

Portrait of Margaret Thompson, half-length, in profile to the right

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
Portrait of Margaret Thompson, half-length, in profile to the right
signed with monogram (lower left)
pencil on buff paper, arched
12 x 8½ in. (30.5 x 21.7 cm.)
James Hannay, and thence by descent to his granddaughter, Mrs Eleanor Witty, and to her niece; Mrs. R.W. Aitken, in 1968.
James Hannay's unpublished diary (family possession), under 8 December 1852.
Virginia Surtees, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Catalogue Raisonné, Oxford, 1971, I, p. 166, no. 322.
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Lot Essay

Margaret Anne Thompson (1833-1865) was the daughter of Joseph Thompson, a bank cashier, and the niece of the artist Kenny Meadows. By the autumn of 1851 she was being courted by James Hannay (1827-1873), a young Scottish writer and journalist who belonged to the Pre-Raphaelite circle. A year older than Rossetti, he often appears in the artist's early letters, although no letters from Rossetti to Hannay himself survive.

Hannay was a leading light in the Eclectic Club, a society devoted to debating and conviviality whose meetings the Pre-Raphaelites often attended. Dismissed as a youth from the Navy on grounds of insubordination, he was a natural bohemian and already a heavy drinker. At the same time he was an arch-Conservative in politics and a keen student of heraldry and genealogy. His literary heroes were Thackeray and Carlyle, and he seems to have shared Rossetti's enthusiasm for Blake.

In the 1850s Hannay made his name as a novelist, reviewer and essayist, writing for the leading journals of the day, and from 1860 to 1865 he edited the right-wing Edinburgh Courant. In later years he succumbed to depression and alcoholism, which exile as British Consul at Barcelona did nothing to relieve. He drank himself to death at the age of forty-six, and in 1874 Rossetti was contributing to a fund to support his younger children.

The present drawing belongs to the happiest period of Hannay's life. It was made on 8 December 1852, some eighteen months after he had met the sitter. Margaret Thompson lived at Islington, and in his diary Hannay recorded how Rossetti went with him that evening 'and made a drawing of M for me'. The fact that it was done on a December evening, no doubt by lamplight, explains the drawing's strong shadows. This was not Rossetti's only visit to the Thompson household. A fortnight later, on 21 December, he wrote to Madox Brown: 'I am very sorry that I was out when you and (Holman) Hunt called last night. I was spending the evening with the family of the "sugarplum of the universe",' as the fond Hannay called his fiancée.

Due to lack of funds, the engagement was a long one, but the couple eventually married on 24 February 1853 at the Scotch Church, River Terrace, Islington. They then settled in the same area, at 10 Pleasant Row, Canonbury, where they remained until they moved to Edinburgh in 1860. Having borne Hannay's six children, Margaret died at the early age of thirty-two in 1865. It was a devastating blow from which he never recovered, and which contributed much to his later decline. He remarried in 1868 on the eve of going to Barcelona, but his second wife also died two years later, having augmented his already large family with another daughter.

Everyone seems to have liked Margaret Hannay and Rossetti was no exception, describing her as 'one of the most beautiful and charming girls I ever met with'. The visit to Islington on which he made the present drawing is also referred to in a letter published recently for the first time in the new and much enlarged edition of his correspondence. 'Tonight I go with Hannay to Islington', he writes to Holman Hunt, 'to secure his girl for my picture.' This puts a rather different gloss on the visit to the entry in Hannay's diary, suggesting that Rossetti was not so much concerned with recording Margaret's likeness for his enamoured friend as with asking her to sit for one of his own pictures. Perhaps this was the original intention, which changed somewhat as the evening progressed. We do not know for which picture Rossetti hoped to 'secure' Margaret's services, but she was to pose for the dead Beatrice in his watercolour Dante's Dream (Tate Britain) of 1856.

The monogram in the lower left corner is very different in form from the one Rossetti later adopted, but it was characteristic of his work at this early date; see Virginia Surtees' catalogue, cited above, I, p. 238.

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