This interesting drawing is a recent rediscovery. Never previously published or even correctly identified, it is clearly a cartoon, over life-size and bespattered with paint, for the head of Sir Lancelot in Rossetti's mural in the former debating chamber, now library, of the Oxford Union. Executed in the autumn of 1857, the painting shows Sir Lancelot's failure to achieve the Holy Grail because of his adultery with Queen Guinevere. Sleeping beside a well with his shield and helmet hanging beside him, he dreams that his vision of the Grail is blocked by the figure of the Queen, who stands with her arms extended in an apple tree in symbolic reference to the Fall.
In the painting, Sir Lancelot's head is slumped forward, while in the cartoon he seems to be looking up. This, however, is only because the cartoon has been mounted at the wrong angle. If it was turned anti-clockwise until the head was looking down, it would correspond to the position in the mural, as well as obviating the anomaly of a head looking up with closed eyes.
Rossetti's mural in the Oxford Union was of course part of a series, the painting of which is one of the most famous episodes in Pre-Raphaelite annals. Other paintings, all of which illustrated Malory's Morte d'Arthur, were executed by Arthur Hughes, Rossetti's two young followers Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, two pupils of G.F. Watts who had recently come under Rossetti's powerful influence, Val Prinsep and J.R. Spencer Stanhope, and John Hungerford Pollen, an older acquaintance of Rossetti's who, unlike any of his colleagues, actually had some previous experience of mural painting.
It is always said that Burne-Jones sat to Rossetti for the figure of Sir Lancelot in his mural, and indeed he is the model for the knight in a composition drawing now in the Birmingham Art Gallery (fig. 1). The head in our cartoon, however, is clearly taken from a different sitter, with a more retroussé nose than Burne-Jones's and curly hair where his was straight and lank. The answer, we believe, though Mrs Surtees was not quite so convinced, is that the model for the cartoon was another of the Union artists, namely Val Prinsep, whose own mural, Sir Pelleas and the Lady Ettarde, was immediately to the right of Rossetti's. A man of great physical strength, known as 'Buzz' because of his bristling hair, Prinsep is a familiar figure from photographs and portraits. He was the subject of one of the many photographs of artists by David Wilkie Wynfield that were recently exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery. A later photograph is illustrated in Jeremy Maas, The Victorian Art World in Photographs, 1984, p. 49, and a portrait by Prinsep's neighbour Henrietta Rae in Arthur Fish's book on this artist, 1905, facing p. 40. Prinsep also sat for another painting by Rossetti, appearing as Giotto in an unfinished version of the early watercolour Giotto painting the Portrait of Dante (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University; see V. Surtees, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1971, vol. 2, pl. 48).
Whoever modelled for the cartoon, its discovery explains what has long been a mystery: why, if Burne-Jones sat to Rossetti for Sir Lancelot, does the knight have curly hair and different features in the painting? (The mural itself is little reproduced because of its condition, but see the later copy by Rossetti's assistant Henry Treffry Dunn, formally thought to be a preliminary study by Rossetti himself, which is reproduced in Surtees, op. cit., pl. 118). The answer is clearly that while Burne-Jones posed for the preliminary sketch, Val Prinsep or some other curly-haired model sat for the cartoon which was made in order to transfer the design to the wall.