This attractive drawing, epitomising Rossetti's early style, illustrates a poem by Heine as translated by the Irish poet William Allingham (1824-1889).
There was a King, an old King,
Chill his heart, and gray his head;
And that poor King, that old King,
A sweet young wife must wed.
There was a Page, a young Page,
Light of heart and bright of hair;
And that fair Page, that young Page,
The young Queen's train must bear.
But dost thou know the old song,
Old story, sad to tell? -
Death they found, they needs must die,
Who loved each other well.
The drawing was made in Allingham's rooms at 1 Queen Square, Bloomsbury, on 9 June 1854. The poet himself recorded the occasion as follows.
In the summer of 1854 I had rooms in quiet, shady little Queen's [sic] Square, Bloomsbury (corner house on the left as you come from Southampton Row), and there one afternoon appeared, as it often did, the welcome face of Gabriel Rossetti. 'Would I come out with him?' 'With the greatest pleasure, if he could wait a little while.' He took a book and sat silent. A quarter of an hour or so later (it was a scribbling book of mine that was in his hands) he had made a pen and ink drawing in it opposite to a translation of a poem of Heine's, twelve lines long, which he had never seen before. I think he was not dissatisfied with this rapid design, which he signed and dated... The size of the original is six inches by four and a quarter.
Allingham was one of Rossetti's closest friends at this time, and they saw much of one another when Allingham gave up his job in the Customs Office at Coleraine and moved to London early in 1854, determined to make his mark in the literary world of the metropolis. Rossetti was twenty-six, Allingham four years older, and they lived within walking distance of each other, Rossetti having been established at his bohemian 'crib' in Chatham Place, Blackfriars, since 1852. The best-known product of their friendship was Rossetti's illustration to Allingham's poem 'The Maids of Elfen-Mere', published in his Day and Night Songs in 1855. The design made a profound impression on William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones when they were undergraduates at Oxford, causing them to identify with the Pre-Raphaelites and, once they had met Rossetti early in 1856, to launch a second wave of the movement.
Allingham eventually published his translation from Heine in his Flower Pieces and Other Poems of 1888. The book also illustrates Rossetti's related drawing (six years after the artist's death), and relates the circumstances of its execution as quoted above.
When Allingham died in 1889, the drawing was inherited by his widow, Helen Allingham, the well-known watercolourist. She lent it to the 'special selection' of Rossetti's works exhibited at the New Gallery in the winter of 1897-8, and was credited with its ownership in Marillier's monograph of 1899. By 1911, however, she had given it to her son, Henry W. Allingham, who was the lender when the drawing was next seen in public, at the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition mounted at Manchester that year. The drawing remained in the Allingham family for many years, but had disappeared when Virginia Surtees published her catalogue raisonné of Rossetti's works in 1971. It resurfaced two years later when it was lent to the Rossetti Exhibition at the Royal Academy, mysteriously identified as belonging to the British Museum, and it was sold by an 'institution' at Christie's in 1994.