This drawing is an important and fascinating rediscovery. It appeared in Rossetti's studio sale, was listed by Marillier in his early monograph, and records of it up until the 1930s showed that it had a particularly interesting provenance; but it was missing when Virginia Surtees published her catalogue raisonné in 1971, nor had it ever been reproduced in the Rossetti literature. In fact it is illustrated here for the first time.
The subject could hardly be more characteristic. In the studio sale catalogue it was described as 'two lovers occupied with 'cat's cradle', seated close together on the grass; a boy approaches on tiptoe, seeming to warn them of imminent danger'. The lovers are indeed 'close together', the youth in particuar being unable to restrain his ardour. They recall Rossetti's comment on the illustration that Ford Madox Brown was to make for his poem 'Down Stream' in 1871, showing two rustic lovers embracing in a boat. 'You have certainly not minced the demonstrative matter', he told Brown, just as he himself has not 'minced it' here.
Unlike Brown, Rossetti introduces a strong element of symbolism into his design, making the game of cat's cradle a metaphor for the lovers' emotional entanglement. This was typical of his approach. The calf on its way to market in Found (begun 1854) is another striking example, although a closer parallel would be the game of dice being played by the two men in Hesterna Rosa (1853) (see Surtees, nos. 64 and 57, both illustrated).
But there is clearly some other dimension to the drawing that remains elusive. The child, so strangely standing on tiptoe, seems at first sight to be playing the role of Cupid, but the way in which he points to an unidentified object in his right hand, and the alarmed expressions of the lovers as they glance towards him, suggest a more complex and troubling narrative. He may indeed, as the studio sale catalogue puts it, be 'warning them of imminent danger', but there is surely more to it than that.
In due course Rossetti scholars may elucidate this problem, although it should be noted that neither William Michael Rossetti, the artist's brother, nor A.C. Marillier could offer a solution. Marillier, moreover, was being advised and assisted by Charles Fairfax Murray, whose knowledge of Rossetti was second to none. Marillier merely states that the drawing was 'probably (a) design for a picture', which may well be true, although so far as we know no painting based on it was ever undertaken.
Both Marillier and William Michael Rossetti dated the drawing to c.1855, and Virginia Surtees, with no first-hand knowledge of it in 1971, could only follow their lead. She now agrees, however, that this is a few years too early. The drawing is no longer in the medieval or 'Froissartian' style that Rossetti adopted in the mid-1850s, partly in response to studying John Ruskin's collection of illuminated manuscripts, partly under the influence of his two new-found acolytes, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, who were ardent medievalists long before they met Rossetti in 1856. Rather we have here a delightful expression of the more 'Venetian' idiom that had emerged in this circle by the end of the decade.
Charles Ricketts once wrote that he was 'convinced that Rossetti will seem a sort of Giorgione in the time to come', and Giorgione is certainly the artist we think of when we look at this scene of two lovers seated on the ground in an open-air setting. No less Giorgionesque is the pencil sketch at upper right of two girls reclining, one listening to the other playing a musical instrument. As early as 1849 Rossetti had written a sonnet on the famous Concert Champêtre, long given to Giorgione but now accepted as by Titian, in the Louvre; but it was not until the late 1850s, after he had outgrown his Dantesque and 'Froissartian' phases, that Venetian sources had an appreciable impact on his style. The key image is Bocca Baciata of 1859 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), which Rossetti himself admitted had 'a rather Venetian aspect'. A female half-length painted in oils instead of his usual watercolour, it marked a radical new departure both in style and mood, evoking a spirit of sensuousness, worldliness and hedonism that was to colour his work well into the 1860s. The flamboyant Monna Vanna of 1866 (Tate Gallery), originally called Venus Veneta and intended to represent 'the Venetian ideal of female beauty', may be said to represent the climax of this trend.
The Venetian style was complex in origin. It owed something to G.F. Watts, who had inherited a love of Titian as part of the legacy of the grand manner, and much to the atmosphere of opulent indolence cultivated at Little Holland House, of which so many Pre-Raphaelites were habitués by the late 1850s. (The portrait Watts painted of Mrs Prinsep at this period was actually entitled In the Time of Giorgione.) Equally important were a dramatic shift in Ruskin's aesthetic and moral values, and a series of foreign visits. Rossetti, back in Paris in 1860 for his honeymoon, took the opportunity to study Veronese in the Louvre. Burne-Jones visited Venice in 1859 and 1862, his steps on each occasion being directed by Ruskin. No-one in the circle remained immune to the style. Although Rossetti was one of the leading exponents, it found rich expression in the work of Watts, Burne-Jones, Val Prinsep (Watts's pupil and Burne-Jones's travelling companion in 1859), Frederic Leighton, Holman Hunt, Simeon Solomon, and others. Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs provide some superb examples.
Cat's Cradle must be more or less contemporary with Bocca Baciata. The female figure has a look of Fanny Cornforth, the handsome country girl of easy virtue who probably became Rossetti's mistress even before his marriage to Lizzie Siddal in 1860, and certainly moved into 16 Cheyne Walk as his housekeeper following Lizzie's death two years later. Changes of style and mood in Rossetti's work were nearly always connected with some emotional upheaval, and for him at least the advent of Fanny, with her coarse good looks and golden hair, was probably the catalyst for his adoption of an overtly Venetian mode. She was the model for Bocca Baciata and remained the muse of his Venetian phase, just as the virginal Lizzie had been that of his Dantesque period in the early fifties.
The dress worn by the girl in Cat's Cradle is recognisable as one that Rossetti used elsewhere. It is worn by the dying woman in Bonifazio's Mistress (Surtees 121), a watercolour of 1860 of which the title alone speaks volumes in the 'Venetian' context, and by Lucretia Borgia in a group of watercolours dating from 1858-68 (Surtees 48, 48. R.I. and 124). A similar dress is also worn by Marie Spartali in Hypatia, a photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron of 1867. The characteristic design of the dress, laced with ribbon and dotted with bows at regular intervals, seems to have been taken from Bernardino Luini's painting of Ippolita Sforza at prayer in the church of S. Maurizio, Milan. Burne-Jones saw this when he visited Milan with Ruskin in 1862; indeed he copied other figures from this very cycle of frescoes, working by candle-light in the dark church. But Rossetti, who never visited Italy, must have known of the painting earlier from a print or photograph.
The drawing is not only of great intrinsic interest but has an amazing provenance. At the Rossetti studio sale it was probably bought in by William Michael Rossetti, who recorded owning it in 1889. It is next heard of in the collection of J.P. Heseltine, appearing at his posthumous sale at Sotheby's in May 1935. Heseltine was one of the most respected connoisseurs of his day, and served as a trustee of the National Gallery for nearly forty years. Himself a talented draughtsman and etcher, he was a friend of many artists, notably Charles Keene. E.J. Poynter painted his wife, and his house in Queen's Gate, Kensington, was built by Norman Shaw. His enormous collection of old master and modern paintings, drawings, prints, coins and medals, took six days to disperse.
A picture by Millais from Heseltine's collection, The Farmer's Daughter (c.1863), was sold in these Rooms on 14 March 1997 (lot 57). It was his only Millais painting, but it was typical of his taste in that it represented an attractive female model. The collection was rich in works of this kind - by Boucher, Fragonard, Liotard, Boilly, Ingres, Corot, Birket Foster and others; and perhaps in the present drawing Fanny worked her charms for Heseltine just as she had for Rossetti himself.
At Heseltine's sale the drawing was bought by the artist William Rothenstein as a present for W.B. Yeats on his seventieth birthday. Rothenstein was acting on behalf of a group of the poet's admirers, one of whom, John Masefield, the Poet Laureate, took the drawing to Dublin and presented it to Yeats the following month. 'Hearing that his seventieth birthday was approaching', Rothenstein recalled in an essay entitled 'Yeats as a Painter saw Him', 'I consulted Masefield, and together we issued an appeal among Yeats's friends for a tribute to his eminence as a poet. It happened at this time that a sale of J.P. Heseltine's drawings was held at Sotheby's. Among these were some early ones by Rossetti, and I managed to secure the very drawing which would appeal to Yeats. Masefield, ever generous with his time, went to Dublin to attend the birthday dinner and presented the drawing on behalf of his English admirers'.
Rothenstein was right in thinking that the drawing would give Yeats pleasure. Yeats had been fascinated by Rossetti since boyhood, when, as he wrote in his autogiography, 'I was in all things Pre-Raphaelite'. 'I thank you for the generous gifts, from you and others, brought by Masefield', he wrote to H.J.C. Grierson on 7 July 1935. 'The Rossetti delights me because of its beauty and becuase of its subject. Lucretia Borgia has always filled me with wonder. The woman of infamous reputation described by Bayard as his ideal woman'.
It is interesting that Yeats immediately identified the female figure in the drawing as Lucretia Borgia. Having been acquainted for so long with Rossetti's work, he would have recognised that the figure's dress was the same that the artist had given to Lucretia in his watercolours illustrating the Borgia story. In fact two of these had belonged to members of his circle, which included many Rossetti enthusiasts. The first version of Borgia (Carlisle Art Gallery) had been bought by Charles Hazelwood Shannon at the Boyce sale in 1897, and having passed through the hands of W.L. Hacon, his partner in the Vale Press, and his patron Sir Edmund Davis, was now in the possession of another friend, the poet Gordon Bottomley. As for Lucretia Borgia (Tate Gallery), this had been given by Charles Ricketts, Shannon's lifelong companion, to the Tate Gallery in 1916 in memory of Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, the two women poets who wrote under the name of Michael Field.
All this would probably have brought these images to Yeats's attention, but was he right in his assumption vis-à-vis the present drawing? Could it be a sketch for yet another Borgia subject? It is worth noting in passing that it was described in the Heseltine sale catalogue as a 'study for (a) historical composition', just a hint that someone else was thinking along these lines. And there was, after all, a cult of Lucretia Borgia in Pre-Raphaelite circles from the late 1850s. Closely associated with the Venetian style, not least because Lucretia had the golden hair that was suddenly so much in favour, it would perhaps be truer to call it a cult of the evil femme fatale, since Meinhold's Sidonia von Bork was a heroine who captured the set's imagination with equal force. A.C. Swinburne, always so alert to any hint of sadism, was the cult's chief devotee, but Rossetti's Borgia watercolours and Burne-Jones's two well-known illustrations of Meinhold's bloodcurdling romance (1860; Tate Gallery) were also important expressions of this curious craze.
Moreover, there is another feature of the drawing that lends weight to Yeats's thesis. The male figure could be Cesare Borgia, Lucretia's brother, with whom she was accused of having incestuous relations. In fact she was said to have had such relations not only with Cesare but with her father, Pope Alexander VI, and Rossetti touches on this theme in Borgia, in which Lucretia is seen seated, playing a lute, while her father and brother lean lecherously over her shoulders. To find Yeats totally convincing, we would need to explain the presence of the tiptoe boy and identify the tantalisingly obscure object to which he is pointing. But it is just possible that a reading of the Borgia literature would shed light on these matters, and finally solve the riddle of the drawing's subject.
We are grateful to Virginia Surtees for her help in preparing this entry.