The composition illustrates Othello, Act IV, Scene 3. Emilia, Desdemona's faithful maid, prepares her mistress for bed, arranging her in her 'nightly wearing' and combing out her long hair. Desdemona, depressed by Othello's groundless accusations of infidelity but eager to comply with his demand that she retires to bed, sings the so-called 'willow song' that she had learnt as a child from a maid of her mother's who had been deserted by her lover:
The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow
She leans forward, a comb and necklace in a box before her, a mirror dangling from her right hand. On the wall behind hang a buckler and scimitar in reference to her husband's military prowess, while to the left a curtain billows into the room, hinting symbolically at the doom that awaits her when Othello comes to her bedside and smothers her in a fit of uncontrollable jealousy. Before he murders her he asks her if she has prayed and sought pardon for her sins, as 'I would not kill thy unprepared spirit'. This passage seems to be anticipated in the drawing by the crucifix on an altar to the right, a candle burning before it.
As early as March 1872 Rossetti had offered to paint this subject for the Liverpool shipowner F.R. Leyland, one of his wealthiest and most admiring patrons. Leyland had been creating a sumptuous Aesthetic interior at his London house, 22 Queen's Gate, since 1868, and was to go on to commission an even more grandiose scheme when he moved to another Knightsbridge address, 49 Prince's Gate, in 1874. The musical theme of the proposed picture was highly appropriate since it not only reflected the Aesthetic notion that, as Walter Pater was to write five years later, 'all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music' but was a compliment to Leyland's personal devotion to music and his skill as an amateur pianist. 'I am quite resolved', Rossetti told him, 'as to painting the Desdemona's Death-Song, and this would form a splendid centre for other musical pictures in your drawing rooms. Shall I view the matter in this way for you? The Desdemona will shortly be commenced... The figures would come of a moderate life-size, without interfering with its conveniently taking place over your piano'.
Despite the appropriateness of the subject in relation to Leyland and Rossetti's evident enthusiasm for carrying it out, the picture hung fire and was still unfinished at the artist's death ten years later. Virginia Surtees lists a total of eight related drawings, including two preliminary sketches (op. cit., pl. 379-80), finished studies for the figure of Desdemona, one full-length, the other of her head only (figs.1 and 2), and the present sheet. Both Jane Morris and Marie Stillman have been associated with the picture as models, although neither is particularly recognisable in the surviving drawings.
Although Rossetti's letter to Leyland of March 1872 suggests that by then the composition was fixed, no such early date has been assigned to any of the existing drawings, which are usually placed between circa 1874 and circa 1881. The present example was dated 1875 when it appeared in Rossetti's studio sale at Christie's in May 1883, but no reason for this was given and Marillier, possibly on Fairfax Murray's advice, preferred the later and more inclusive date of 1878-81. This is followed by Virginia Surtees and the cataloguers of the 1973 exhibition, except that they are more cautious still, opting for circa 1878-81.
Work on the picture certainly gained a new momentum in 1878, a full six years after the overtures to Leyland, when, according to Marillier, 'a beginning was made to paint the subject on canvas' immediately after Rossetti had finished work on A Vision of Fiammetta (Lloyd Webber Collection). Although the new painting was never completed, a head of Desdemona in oil on canvas, formerly in the possession of the late Professor Fredeman, who was given it by Rossetti's niece (Surtees 254H), is presumably a surviving fragment. Many of Rossetti's later works suffered a similar fate, especially the more complex compositions like this one, which were too taxing to carry through to fruition in his present state of mental and physical decline. Desdemona's Death-Song illustrates the point with particular poignancy, being mentioned in a letter that Rossetti dictated to his sister Christina during his last illness at Birchington-on-Sea; the recipient was F.G. Stephens, once a fellow member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but now for many years art critic on the Athenaeum. 'In reply to your enquiry as to a subject picture', Rossetti wrote, 'I designed and began painting lately a good-sized picture of Desdemona singing the Willow Song while Emilia dresses her hair. I cannot say in (my) present state of health when I might be able to carry it on. But it is not yet in a sufficiently advanced state to show. I have made a black and white design for it, but rather a rough one. When finished it will certainly be one of my best and most attractive things.' The letter was written on 28 March 1882. Within a fortnight he was dead.
Is it too fanciful to suggest that Rossetti's interest in Desdemona's 'willow song' sprang not from any particular musical instinct but from an association in his mind between the word 'willow' and Jane Morris? In December 1868 he had written a sequence of four sonnets entitled 'Willow-wood', in which he had pondered on their fraught relationship; and in the summer of 1871, less than a year before he proposed the Desdemona subject to Leyland, he had painted Jane as Water-Willow (Bancroft Collection, Wilmington), with Kelmscott Manor, the scene of their closest and most carefree intimacy, in the background.
Certainly Rossetti's work was often autobiographical, or 'autopsychological', as he himself would have put it. In fact we encounter this trait again even if we consider the design merely in terms of his use of Shakespearian subject matter. Not surprisingly for someone whose roots lay so deep in the Romantic movement, Rossetti drew inspiration from Shakespeare throughout his life. Hermia and Helena, the two human heroines of A Midsummer-Night's Dream, was the subject of a sketch dating from a year or two before the foundation of the PRB in 1848 (Surtees 26). By 1850 he was contemplating a watercolour illustrating Much Ado about Nothing (Surtees 46). Only a pencil sketch was made, but had the watercolour materialised it would have been a major expression of Pre-Raphaelite values, comparable to Holman Hunt's Valentine rescuing Silvia (from The Two Gentleman of Verona) of 1851 (Manchester) or W.H. Deverell's masterpiece of 1850, Twelfth Night (formerly Forbes Collection; sold Christie's, London, 19 February 2003, lot 36). Indeed Rossetti himself was closely involved with the latter picture, sitting for the figure of Feste the jester and allegedly helping Deverell to paint the head of Viola from Elizabeth Siddal.
She, of course, was to be the presiding genius of Rossetti's own work throughout the 1850s. She posed for the figure of Ophelia returning her lover's letters in Hamlet and Ophelia (fig. 3), an exquisite pen-and-ink drawing of 1858, and despite the fact that her tragic death had taken place in 1862, her features still appear in The First Madness of Ophelia, a watercolour of 1864 (Oldham; Surtees 169). More than any other Shakespeare play, Hamlet haunted Rossetti's imagination during his early maturity. In particular, he was obsessed with the themes of rejection and betrayal so central to the relationship between hero and heroine, returning again to the subject of the 1858 drawing in a watercolour of 1866 (Surtees 189). It is hard to resist a suspicion that here was a metaphor for his own guilt-ridden feelings towards Lizzie, aroused long before their marriage in 1860 as a result of his dalliance with Fanny Cornforth and others, and dramatically intensified by her death, almost certainly suicide, two years later.
In 1870 Rossetti painted Mariana (Aberdeen; Surtees 213), using a minor figure from Measure for Measure to give a vestige of literary context to what is essentially an Aesthetic composition modelled by Jane Morris. But within a year or two his approach to Shakespeare had shifted radically. If by 1872 he was contemplating the theme of Desdemona singing her 'death-song', an image replete with menace and dark forboding, by 1875, with Desdemona still very much at the planning stage, he was evolving an even more angst-laden composition, The Death of Lady Macbeth (fig.4), in which the murderous queen expires amid demented waiting-women and monks frenziedly invoking heavenly intercession. Taken together, these two disturbing and mannered designs seem to tell us as much about the artist as the Hamlet subjects of 1858-66, reflecting the paranoia, drug addiction and physical deterioration from which he suffered so grievously in later life.
Desdemona's Death-Song fetched 24 guineas when it appeared at Rossetti's studio sale at Christie's in May 1883. Within a few years it belonged to Charles Fairfax Murray, who had worked as a copyist for Rossetti in the past and was now a successful dealer, handling many Pre-Raphaelite drawings. He seems to have had it by 1893, when he told Samuel Bancroft of Wilmington that he had recently 'purchased privately a fine chalk drawing for the "Desdemona" never painted'; but if this was a hint that Bancroft might like to buy it, the American did not take it up. Murray apparently still had the drawing in 1899, when he was credited as the owner in Marillier's monograph, but before long it belonged to Sir Thomas Wardle (1831-1909), the head of a prosperous silk-and cotton-printing business at Leek in Staffordshire.
Wardle was a typically protean and energetic Victorian entrepreneur. Tireless in his efforts to promote the silk industry, he wrote numerous books on the subject and had visited Bengal in the mid-1880s, suggesting major improvements in Indian sericulture and reviving the European trade in Asian wild silk. He was also a keen geologist and collector of fossils, a deeply religious man who composed church music, and, like so many of his kind, a pillar of his local community, serving as JP. He was knighted in 1897.
It is hardly surprising that someone with so many interests collected pictures, and it would be interesting to know what else Wardle owned. His purchase of a Rossetti was probably related to the fact that he had established a close friendship and working partnership with William Morris. Between 1875 and 1878 Morris had paid several extended visits to Leek, staying with the Wardle family and learning the techniques of textile dyeing at first hand. Conversation must sometimes have turned on the subject of Rossetti, even though the artist was increasingly alienated from Morris because of his relationship with Jane and the acrimony surrounding the dissolution of the original Morris firm in 1875.
Or perhaps it was Mrs Wardle who was the moving spirit behind the acquisition. An accomplished needlewoman who was to found the Leek School of Embroidery under Morris's influence, Elizabeth Wardle had married in 1857. She was a distant cousin of her husband and, like him, a forceful personality, deeply involved in local good works. She was also the sister of George Wardle, who had been manager of the Morris firm since it had moved to Queen Square, Bloomsbury, in 1865. By this date Rossetti, one of the firm's original partners, had more or less ceased to contribute decorative designs, but he was still on good terms with Morris and a visitor to Queen Square, where the Morris family lived 'above the shop'. Elizabeth Wardle may well have encountered him there during a visit to her brother in London, giving her a sentimental reason for acquiring one of his works after his death.