Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) needs no introduction as one of the great Victorian poets. The younger sister of Dante Gabriel and William Michael Rossetti, respectively the author and first owner of this drawing, she produced some of the best loved lyrics in the English language: the early masterpiece Goblin Market; A Christmas Carol, so familiar in Gustav Holst's setting as the hymn 'In the bleak mid-winter'; Up-hill ('Does the road wind up-hill all the way?'); Song ('When I am dead, my dearest, Sing no sad songs for me'); or, perhaps most haunting of all, the sonnet Remember:
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Born in London on 5 December 1830, Christina was the youngest of four children; her father, Gabriele Rossetti, was an Italian political refugee and Dante scholar, her mother, Frances Polidori, whose brother had been Byron's travelling doctor, was also half Italian. The prevailing sadness of Christina's poetry, which constantly harps on the themes of loss, death and corruption, betrays the deep inner conflicts in her character. Though her life was outwardly calm and uneventful, she suffered severely from ill-health from adolescence onwards, She was also twice crossed in love, neither of two engagements, first to the Pre-Raphaelite painter James Collinson and later to the linguist and translater of Dante, Charles Cayley, resulting in marriage. By the late 1860s she had settled for spinsterhood, devoting herself to her mother, whose ardent Anglo-Catholicism she shared. Indeed, from an early date religion was the true centre of Christina's life, the focus of her powerful emotions and the inspiration for a large proportion of her work.
Despite a crippling shyness, Christina had many friends among the intelligentsia of the day, nor did her religious views, which could make her censorious, cut her off from the more liberal element of her circle. Though it is unlikely, as one over-excited biographer has maintained, that she nursed a hopless passion for the artist William Bell Scott, she was certainly on close terms with him and his mistress Alice Boyd, staying with them at their Ayrshire castle, Penkill. She was also friendly with the alcoholic and atheistical A.C. Swinburne, who was a passionate admirer of her work. Above all, she was devoted to her brother Dante Gabriel, turning a blind eye to, or perhaps not even being fully aware of, his bohemian lifestyle, and suffering deeply as she watched his mental and physical decline. He was equally attached to her, doing much to promote her career, including illustrating her poems, and recording her likeness in a long series of portrait drawings.
Virginia Surtees lists fourteen in her catalogue raisonné. They date from a pencil sketch of circa 1846, when the sitter was about sixteen, to the present chalk drawing, executed over thirty years later, and apparently the last study he made of her before his death in 1882. Christina was no conventional Victorian beauty but in her younger days, before illness took its toll, she possessed striking and refined good looks which mirrored her distinction of mind. This clearly appealed to Rossetti (significantly, he never seems to have drawn their plainer sibling, the fourth Rossetti child, Maria), and made her a natural choice when he needed a model for the Virgin in his two early Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849; Tate Gallery) and Ecce Ancilla Domini! (fig. 2). These paintings represents Christina's most celebrated appearance in her brother's work.
The present portrait was drawn during the autumn of 1877 when Rossetti was staying at Hunter's Forestall, near Herne Bay on the north Kent coast. Overwhelmed by depression and a prey to chloral, he had suffered a breakdown during the summer, taking to his bed and causing his family to fear for his life. His doctor, John Marshall, ordered him to leave London, and in mid-August he set out with his old friend Ford Madox Brown. After a false start in Herne Bay, where their landlady, according to Brown, proved a 'vixen', they moved to Hunter's Forestall, taking what William Michael Rossetti called 'a comfortable farm-residence', and Frederick Shields described as 'a very pretty cottage, with a pleasant garden in front and kitchen garden behind, with beautiful espalier apple trees and great walnut trees, covered with nuts'. There Rossetti remained until November, tended by a nurse, his mother and Christina, his assistant Henry Treffry Dunn, and such visiting friends as Brown, Shields and his solicitor Theodore Watts.
When Rossetti arrived at Hunter's Forestall, he was in a pathetic condition, sitting in semi-darkness in deep dejection, his hands trembling so badly that he was afraid he would never paint again. Christina herself was depressed by their surroundings, finding expression for her feelings in a poem entitled An October Garden. Gradually, however, her brother's dependence on chloral was reduced, and his interest in life revived. His hands regained their firmness, and he was able to make a series of drawings of Christina and their mother which, far from showing any uncertainty of handling, are brilliantly incisive, highly finished, and among his most accomplished performances in this field.
Theodore Watts later recalled how the drawings were the outcome of an innocent plot on the part of Rossetti's family and friends. There had been much discussion as to how they could induce him to begin work again, but the ruse that eventually worked presented itself almost by accident. Conversation turned one day on the subject of Bell Scott's loss of hair due to an attach of alopecia. 'Sketch Scotus's bald pate for us,' said Watts to Rossetti, who instantly drew a rapid and perfect image. 'Of course,' Watt's account continues, 'we made no comment upon the fact of his powers of work being suddenly restored, but the next day Christina was seized by a burning desire to have her portrait drawn in chalk. Simultaneously Mrs Rossetti was seized by a burning desire to possess a portrait of Christina in chalk. When Rossetti declared that he could not even hold a piece of chalk, Scotus's bald pate was pointed to. The result of the little plot was a very successful chalk portrait group of Christina and her mother... followed by another portrait of Christina, then by a portrait of Mrs Rossetti and then another of Christina.'
Once Rossetti had embarked on the drawings, they brought an enormous sense of relief not only to the artist himself but to his family. This renewed self-confidence is palpable in a letter he wrote to his brother on 11 October, reporting that a drawing of their mother, the first to be executed, had put an end to 'all serious anxiety as to my continued fitness for work'. Twelve years later, William Michael himself recalled how his brother had undertaken the drawings with 'great misgivings as to the result,' but that 'the experiment (had) turned out a complete success'. He perceived at once that nothing but an effort of will was needed to enable him to continue working at his art with undiminished faculty of head and hand.'
As Watts's account suggests, a total of four drawings were made, all similar in scale and technique. The largest, which William Michael Rossetti gave to the National Portrait Gallery in 1895, shows Christina and her mother, their heads almost in profile to the left (fig. 3). A second drawing, now in the Birmingham Art Gallery, is of Mrs Rossetti alone, seen full-face looking down (Surtees 451). A third shows Christina almost full-face, looking a little to the right (Surtees 431; illustrated in W.M. Rossetti (ed.), The Family Letters of Christina Georgina Rossetti, 1908, frontispiece). She wears the same dress and hat that appear in the present drawing, which is the fourth of the set.
There are further references to the drawings in Rossetti's contemporary letters. On 13 October he wrote to Watts: 'I have finished the drawing of my mother's head satisfactorily, I believe, and shall probably set about either a profile of her or a head of my sister.' A week later he told the same correspondent that he had 'finished Christina's portrait, in chalks, and it is quite a success, I think', while on 13 November, soon after he had returned to his house in Cheyne Walk, he informed his mother (and again we can sense a feeling of relief bordering on triumph) that 'the drawings I made of you and Christina in the country are greatly successful whenever seen'. Finally, on 14 December he reported again to Mrs Rossetti that W.A. Turner, a new Manchester patron introduced by Shields, had seen 'and much appreciated the drawings of yourself and Christina, of whose poems he is a reader. The drawing which it is proposed to publish in autotype is the last made of her at Herne Bay'. Since an autotype of the present drawing does seem to have been made, this is probably the one in question, establishing that it was the last of the group to be executed.
Christina's own approval of the portrait would appear to be confirmed by the fact that she gave signed reproductions of it, presumably based on the autotype, to friends and acquaintances (see Marsh, loc. cit.). William Michael Rossetti also admired it, writing that 'anything more close than the drooped head to the features and sentiments of my sister's face in her advanced years ... cannot well be imagined'. Yet more praise came from F.G. Stephens, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood back in 1848 who had long since abandoned his brushes for art journalism. In a monograph on Rossetti which was published by the Portfolio in May 1894, he reproduced it (probably again from the autotype) and described it as 'the best portrait of our poet-painter's devoted and constant sister, his refuge in dark and painful days.'
Stephens also maintained that 'time had not effaced from the lady's face the likeness of the Virgin in Ecce Ancilla Domini!' (fig. 3). Christina was still alive at the time (she died the following December), so perhaps there was a touch of gallantry in these remarks. Certinaly H.C. Marillier, writing in 1899, felt no such scruples, describing the two heads of Christina as 'showing the poetess as she is best remembered, with a sad and aged expression and features worn by illness.' The drawing undoubtably reveals the sitter's melancholy, so vividly reflected in her poetry, as well as the ravages of ill-health, in particular the Graves' disease from which Christina had suffered since 1871, the distressing effects of which include protrusion of the eyes and discolouration of the skin. Nonetheless, she still retains something of her early beauty, as well as the distinguished bearing that we see in her photographs (fig. 1). We are also aware of the sharpness of mind that could make her a formidable conversationalist - 'gently caustic of tongue', as she was described by Georgiana Burne-Jones. Nor was she in fact so 'aged', being only forty-six at the time.
Stephens states that the drawing appeared in the exhibition of Rossetti's work mounted at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1883, but Virginia Surtees corrects this, pointing out that the drawing in question was the full-face likeness, her no. 431.