This is a chalk version, somewhat narrower in format and with significant variations, of Rossetti's painting of the same title in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight (fig. 1). The picture was commissioned in 1865 by George Rae of Birkenhead, managing-director of the North and South Wales Bank, who had begun to form what would become a magnificent collection of Rossetti's work in 1862. By the time the painting was completed in December 1870 Rae also owned two more of Rossetti's finest female half-lengths of the period, The Beloved and Monna Vanna (both Tate Britain). To quote H.C. Marillier, Sybilla Palmifera shows 'a Sibyl bearing a branch of palm, and seated on a throne beneath a stone canopy overlooking a temple court. Above her is carved on one side a blinded cupid, wreathed with roses; on the other a skull, crowned with red poppies. She herself is robed in crimson, with chestnut brown hair drawn away from her forehead, and a dark green coif trailing from her head over her left shoulder. A burning censer, a flaming lamp, and two butterflies hovering near are (further) accessories'.
Stylistically the picture reflects the prevailing classicism of the late 1860s, unlike The Beloved and Monna Vanna, which represent the more 'Venetian' mode of which Rossetti had been a leading exponent a few years earlier. It was one of the first works to be modelled by Alexa Wilding (fig. 2), a young dressmaker whom the artist saw in the street and induced to sit for him in 1865. She was also the model for Monna Vanna and many other important works of the 1860s and 1870s. Unlike Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth or Jane Morris, Wilding played no part in Rossetti's emotional life, but from a purely artistic point of view her significance can hardly be overstressed. 'Miss Wilding's was a lovely face', wrote Rossetti's assistant Henry Treffry Dunn, 'beautifully moulded in every feature, full of quiescent, soft, mystical repose that suited some of his conceptions admirably, but without any variation of expression. She sat like the Sphinx waiting to be questioned and with always a vague reply in return; about the last girl, one would think, to have the makings of an actress in her; and yet to be that was her ambition.' Dunn also noticed that 'she had a deep well of affection within her seemingly placid exterior'. When Rossetti died at Birchington-on-Sea on Easter Day 1882, she was 'one of the few...who journeyed down...when she could ill afford it so that she might place a wreath on (his) grave.'
William Michael Rossetti quotes his brother as saying that he chose the picture's title 'to mark the leading place which I intend her to hold among my beauties'. The picture was started in 1866, and he refused to set a date for its delivery, remarking characteristically that there was 'no knowing in such a lottery as painting, where all things have a chance against one - weather, stomach, temper, model, paint, patience, self-esteem, self-abhorrence, and the devil into the bargain.' In May 1866 the canvas was enlarged in order 'to extend the idea of the picture', and by now Rossetti had written a sonnet which he intended to have transcribed on the frame:
Under the arch of Life, where love and death,
Terror and mystery, guard her shrine, I saw
The sonnet was, he said, 'to embody the conception' of the picture, 'that of Beauty the Palm-giver, i.e. the Principle of Beauty, which draws all high-toned men to itself, whether with the aim of embodying it in art or only of attaining its enjoyment in life'. First published under the title 'Sybilla Palmifera' in Rossetti's Poems of 1870, the sonnet was subsequently re-titled 'Soul's Beauty' and inserted into his great sonnet-sequence The House of Life. There it stood in opposition to 'Body's Beauty', a sonnet written to accompany his painting Lady Lilith (Wilmington, Delaware); which celebrates beauty of a more sensuous and carnal type.
The suriving label inscribed 'Mrs Valpy £200', formally on the old backboard, would appear to be reliable evidence that the present drawing is the version made for Leonard R. Valpy, another of Rossetti's most loyal patrons. Valpy was a London solicitor until his retirement to Bath in 1878. William Michael Rossetti described him as 'an estimable gentleman, (but) a little punctilious and fidgeting'. He was also intensely religious and had 'a particular objection to nudity', being 'disquieted even by a pair of bare arms'. Nothing could have been further from Rossetti's own personality, and his reference to Valpy as 'the Vampyre, greatly grieved by my commercial obliquities' suggests that they exasperated one another in equal measure. Nonetheless Valpy was an invaluable patron from 1867 until Rossetti's death in 1882. The last picture Rossetti worked on was a Joan of Arc (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) destined for Valpy.
Valpy's posthumous sale at Christie's on 26 May 1888 consisted of 121 lots, and this was by no means the full extent of the collection. His chief interest was English watercolours from Cox and John Varley onwards, and his greatest achievement was to put together a group of works by Samuel Palmer that included all the magnificent late illustrations to Milton. Pre-Raphaelitism was variously represented by William Dyce, G.P. Boyce, F.W. Burton and Burne-Jones, but Rossetti was undoubtably his favourite and in all he seems to have owned some twenty examples. Our drawing was typical in that nearly half of these were replicas. Pre-eminent among them was Dante's Dream (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), Rossetti's largest oil painting. An enormously blown-up version of a watercolour of 1856, it was acquired by Valpy in 1873 when the original owner, William Graham, returned it to the artist on the grounds that he had nowhere suitable to hang it; and Valpy himself returned it five years later on retiring and moving to a smaller house. One of the lesser but more accomodating works for which he swopped it was the Fitzwilliam Joan of Arc, which was again a replica. Other well-known Rossetti compositions that were represented in the collection by versions included Proserpine, Beata Beatrix, Pandora and La Pia.
The first printed reference to our version of Sibylla Palmifera occurs in William Sharp's Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Record and a Study, published in the year of Rossetti's death, 1882. He called it 'a finished study in tinted crayons', and pointed out that there was also 'a fine rendering in black chalk of this noble design'. Interestingly, he refers to our drawing as belonging to 'Mrs Valpy, senior', as if the solicitor had given it to his mother.
A year later both drawings appeared in Rossetti's memorial exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London. The black chalk drawing (no. 132), which was considerably smaller than ours, was lent by the Tynemouth collector Alexander Stevenson.
The identity of our drawing is confirmed by the details of medium and dimensions given in the catalogue. There is a slight discrepancy in that the monogram is said to be in the lower left corner whereas in fact it is at lower right, but this must be a slip of the pen on the part of the cataloguer; if one compares other entries, he is seen to have made several mistakes of this kind. As for the owner, she is now identified as Mrs Richard Valpy. The drawing was her only loan, and she was clearly quite distinct from Valpy himself, who lent four other works under his own name.
The drawing is listed again in two more books published in the 1880s: Joseph Knight's Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1887) and William Michael Rossetti's Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Designer and Writer (1889). In all four of these sources the drawing is dated 1864, while Knight and the compiler of the 1883 catalogue follow Sharp in calling it a 'finished study'. The latter underlines the point, opting for 'the finished study for the oil picture'.
Knight's list omits all names of owners, and by the time William Michael Rossetti compiled his, the distinction between L.R. Valpy and Mrs Valpy, senior Mrs Richard Valpy had been eroded; the drawing's owner is now simply given as 'Valpy'. Indeed when H.C. Marillier published his great monograph in 1899, 'the late L. Valpy' himself was credited with the drawing's ownership. Marillier still, however, followed Sharp and the other early sources in referring to the drawing as a 'crayon study' and dating it to 1864.
Marillier's dependence on previous authorities may reflect the fact that by this date the drawing (and indeed the one in black chalk, which he also mentions) had disappeared. This was certainly the case when Virginia Surtees published her catalogue raisonné in 1971, referring to the two drawings but describing their whereabouts as 'unknown'.
It remains unclear why the early authorities, including Marillier, were so adamant in dating the drawing to 1864. After all, the drawing itself bears no date, the picture was not conceived and offered to Rae until 1865, and Rossetti's meeting with Alexa Wilding did not take place until this year. Such a dating, in fact, must be incorrect, but there may well be something to be said for the claim that the drawing is, or at any rate was when it was started, a 'study for the oil picture'. Support for this theory lies in the differences between the painting (fig. 1) and the drawing. In the painting the Sibyl's drapery is far more expansive and elaborate, while the background has been opened up laterally to give more weight to the 'stone canopy' carved with a 'blinded cupid' and a 'skull crowned with poppies', emblematic of love and death. These variations could well reflect the fact that Rossetti had the painting's canvas enlarged in May 1866 in order to 'extend the idea' he wished to convey. In other words, the drawing may represent the composition as it was originally conceived, having been worked up over a study made before the artist had elaborated the Sibyl's drapery and 'extended' the background imagery. It is worth noting in this context that it is executed on two joined sheets of paper, as seems to have been Rossetti's almost invariable practice.
Whatever its origins, the drawing has undoubtably been worked up, or 'finished' as the early authorities put it, to form an independent, marketable version, and for this 'finishing' process Rossetti turned to his assistant, Henry Treffry Dunn. Ten years younger than Rossetti himself, Dunn was born in Truro, Cornwall, where he started his career as a bank clerk. However, he nursed artistic ambitions, and in the mid-1860s he came to London and enrolled at Heatherley's Art School in Newman Street, Bloomsbury. In 1867 he was introduced to Rossetti, who was looking for a replacement for his first assistant, W.J. Knewstub, who had recently left him to work independently. Apart from one unhappy period of estrangement, Dunn was to remain with Rossetti until the latter's death, doing preliminary work on his pictures, making replicas, and acting as a general factotum. He was, Rossetti told him, 'the best of fellows and my guardian angel'.
Dunn owed his introduction to Rossetti to Charles Augustus Howell, the Anglo-Portuguese adventurer who plays such a colourful and even sinister role in Pre-Raphaelite annals. Most memorably, it was Howell who oversaw the exhumation of Rossetti's manuscript poems from his wife's grave in Highgate Cemetery in October 1869. By this date he had established himself as a marchand amateur, 'placing' works by his artist friends with wealthy clients. Among these was Valpy, and it is from the published correspondence between Howell and Rossetti that we learn much about our drawing's development.
It is first mentioned on 15 February 1869, when Rossetti told Howell that it was to be 'substituted for the two drawings remaining due on the original bargain' with Valpy, plus a head of Jane Morris, 'making three in all'. Rossetti's dealings with his patrons tended to be tortuously complex, and this one was no exception. At this date, as we have seen, the painting was still on the easel. It was eventually completed in December 1870, but the drawing hung fire and Valpy became impatient. On 3 October 1872 Howell wrote to Rossetti: 'Without wishing to bother you, Dunn was working on the Palmifera for Valpy. Give it a few touches if you can and rid yourself and myself of that debt. (Valpy) does not worry for it but he sighs so. I am always saying "it is coming".'
On 22 October Rossetti replied that he had 'told Dunn to send me Valpy's drawing to finish'. Dunn had to 'send' it because Rossetti was currently at Kelmscott Manor, the Cotswold retreat he leased jointly with William Morris. He had lived there for much of 1871, and after suffering a nervous breakdown in June 1872 had returned the following September to enjoy a temporary idyll with Jane Morris and her two young daughters.
By April 1873 the drawing had still not been delivered, and Howell, chivied by the 'fidgety' Valpy, was growing desperate. 'All my future letters', he wrote to Rossetti on 7th, 'will be headed "Valpy's b....y Palmifera" until it does come. Its absence has cost me pounds of flesh, rivers of cold sweats, oceans of ink,...and barred the door to my asking Valpy for dozens of small helps in all sorts of ways that would have helped me along'. Moved by such a heartfelt plea, Rossetti, who was still at Kelmscott, replied two days later, but only to complain bitterly about the 'monstrous' amount being charged for the drawing's frame by his frame-makers, Foord and Dickinson. 'The drawing is here', he added, 'and I shall try and send it to (Valpy) by 20th', the date by which the solicitor particularly wanted it. Three days later he wrote again, implying that the drawing was at last all but finished, and that if Howell would send him 'a frame of some sort', he would forward it to London in time to meet Valpy's deadline. This is the last reference to the matter in the correspondence, nor is it clear how the question of the frame was resolved. All we know is that the remains of a Foord and Dickinson label, still carefully preserved, were on the backboard of the original frame.
Much about the drawing's later history also remains obscure. We have already glanced at the evidence which suggests that by the early 1880s Valpy had given or lent the drawing to a female member of his family, possibly his mother. It is therefore not surprising that it failed to appear in the posthumous sale of his collection which took place at Christie's in May 1888. However, whether the Mrs Valpy, senior Mrs Richard Valpy of 1882/3 is the same Mrs Valpy whose name appears on another label removed from the old backboard, is perhaps more debateable. The handwriting looks distinctly post-Victorian, suggesting that this Mrs Valpy may have belonged to a later generation. Nor do we quite know the significance of the figure £200 which is written after her name, although it is natural to infer that she was trying to sell the drawing for this sum.
The drawing was bought privately in New York in recent times, but it is unclear how long it had been in America. A chalk version of Sibylla Palmifera features in the correspondence of the American collector of Pre-Raphaelite pictures Samuel Bancroft, junior, and his mentor Charles Fairfax Murray, Rossetti's former assistant long since turned dealer. The drawing was shown to Bancroft in 1911 by the Philadelphia dealer Philip H. Rosenbach, later, with his brother A.S.W. Rosenbach, to found the Rosenbach Museum and Library in that city. There is little doubt, however, that the version Bancroft saw was not the present drawing. From his pejorative comments, it seems to have been of far inferior quality. Moreover if he was right in claiming that it was one he had already seen at the house of Ford Madox Brown during a visit to London in 1894, it had a totally different provenance (see Rowland Elzea (ed.), The Correspondence between Samuel Bancroft, Jr, and Charles Fairfax Murray, 1892-1916, Delaware, 1980, pp. 206-11).
We are very grateful to Virginia Surtees for help with this catalogue entry.