The drawing seems to bear a tangential relationship to Rossetti's painting Venus Verticordia (Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth), commissioned in 1863 or 1864 and finally completed in 1868. 'I can recollect', William Michael Rossetti wrote in 1884, 'that my brother, being on the look out for some person to serve as a model for the head and shoulders of his Venus, noticed in the street a handsome and striking woman, not very much less perhaps than six feet high... He spoke to this person, who turned out to be a cook serving in some family in Portland Place, and from her he at first painted his large "Venus Verticordia".' On 26 June 1864 the poet William Allingham called on Rossetti in Cheyne Walk and found him painting 'a very large young woman, almost a giantess, as Venus Verticordia'. The six-foot-high cook and the 'giantess' were almost certainly one and the same, and we seem to encounter her again in a study for the picture in the Witt Collection at the Courtauld Institute in London (Surtees, I, p. 234, Appendix, no. 6). The drawing is dateable on grounds of style to 1863-4, and the model, seen holding an arrow in her right hand and an apple in her left, just as she does in the painting, is indeed of massive proportions. Here is a Venus who asserts her sway by sheer physical bulk as much as by beauty or any other quality.
The present drawing clearly shows the same model as the Courtauld study; the features, hair style and dress, with its short sleeves and low-cut bodice, are all recognisable. The only significant difference is that the sitter is drawn facing the opposite direction. Possibly at this early stage of the pictures planning process Rossetti simply made an independent study by way of getting to know his new model's head. Or perhaps he had not yet decided which way the figure should face. Some colour is given to this theory by the fact that the sitter raises her right hand to her breast, as if she was already visualised holding an apple even if this is not actually sketched in. Either way, it would seem that our drawing was made before the Courtauld study.
In 1867 Rossetti reclaimed the picture from its owner, John Mitchell of Bradford, and repainted the figure of Venus from Alexa Wilding, another new model but one who, unlike the cook, was to remain a dominant presence in his work for many years to come. William Michael Rossetti thought this revision a mistake. 'I always regarded it as one of his masterpieces', he wrote of the picture in its original state, 'and was disappointed when, seeing (it) again in a saleroom..., I found that he (had) re-worked upon it very extensively, seriously damaging ... the harmony or keeping between the figure and the floral and other accessories, and impairing the freshness and spontaneity of the entire conception and treatment.' Few would quarrel with this assessment. A painting conforming to the Courtauld drawing would have been a far more compelling performance than the rather saccharine image that the picture presents today.
In her catalogue raisonné of Rossetti's paintings and drawings, Virginia Surtees lists and illustrates other studies for Venus Verticordia, made at various stages of the picture's complex development; and she suggests that one represents 'the cook from Portland Place' (Faringdon Collection, Buscot Park; Surtees no. 173B, pl. 249). Since the model here is clearly not the same as that in the Courtauld drawing and our related study, this would seem to contradict the theory advanced here. Two observations are worth making. First, the model for Surtees 173B was identified before the Courtauld drawing came to light (and was put into the catalogue's Appendix). Second, there is no documentary evidence for saying that the Courtauld drawing and the present drawing represent the six-foot-high cook and Allingham's 'giantess'. It is only the astonishing size of the sitter in the Courtauld study that inspires this conclusion.
The present drawing belonged to the artist L.S. Lowry, one of the keenest collectors of Rossetti's work in his day. He also owned Pandora, a magnificent chalk drawing of 1869 which was sold in these Rooms on 14 June 2000, lot 14 (£2,643,750) and again on 9 June 2004, lot 20.
We are very grateful to Virginia Surtees for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.