The drawing is one of a number of religious subjects that Rossetti executed in the 1850s. His first two pictures in the Pre-Raphaelite style, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-9; Tate Gallery) and Ecce Ancilla Domini! (fig. 2), had explored this area of subject matter. It was one that appealed powerfully to his romantic imagination, both at the level of picturesque Anglo-Catholic imagery and the more profound sense of mysticism that is never far from the surface of his work. These early paintings had been in oil, a medium that caused him immense difficulty, and when he came to develop other scenes from the life of the Virgin a few years later he adopted the less demanding techniques of watercolour or pen-and-ink. Our Annunciation, treating the same subject as Ecce Ancilla Domini! but in a totally different composition, is an oustanding example. Others are The Passover in the Holy Family (fig. 3), Mary in the House of St John (1858; Wilmington, Delaware) and Mary Nazarene (fig. 4) and Mary Magdalene leaving the House of Feasting, a pair of watercolours of 1857 (Tate Gallery). Rossetti was always fascinated by the theme of the fallen woman and the redemptive power of love, and Mary Magdalene is also the subject of his greatest pen-and -ink drawing of this period, Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon of the Pharisee, completed in 1859 (see lot 8, fig. 3).
John Ruskin (fig. 4) was a passionate admirer of these drawings. He believed that the great artist instinctively chooses noble subjects, and that none were more noble than scriptural themes. Unfortunately, in his view, too many of the old masters had been content to settle for empty conventions. As he put it in a brilliant chapter on 'The False Religious Ideal' in Modern Painters III (1856), Raphael's famous Charge to Peter was no more than 'a mere mythic absurdity', bearing no relation at all to the event as it must have occured. He then went on to describe his own version of the subject, at once sternly realistic and replete with symbolic meaning.
Rossetti is known to have admired this chapter, and for a brief period his work and Ruskin's theories went hand in hand. In The Annunciation, for example, Rossetti was expressing the Ruskinian ideal by showing the Virgin going about such a humble task as washing clothes in a stream. By approaching religious subjects in this way, Ruskin argued, Rossetti amd Holman Hunt were 'forming the first foundation that has ever been laid for true sacred art'. It was this belief that fuelled his dismay when, in the late 1850s, Rossetti seemed to abandon religious and Dantesque imagery for frivolous medievalisms inspired by Malory and Froissart. The reaction he engineered was to have profound repercussions not so much for Rossetti himself but for his follower Burne-Jones (see lot 8).
If Ruskin admired an artist's work, he wanted to own it. A Nativity that Rossetti painted for him in June 1855 is unfortunately missing, although an amusing letter survives in which Ruskin gives his protégé irritating instructions on how the watercolour could be improved and urges him to make the changes forthwith, as 'I want the Archdeacon of Salop, who is coming for some practical talk over religious art for the multitude, to see it.' Difficulties also arose over The Passover in the Holy Family (fig. 3). This again Ruskin comissioned, only to snatch it away when he thought Rossetti might spoil it, with the result that to this day it remains unfinished. He also wanted to buy Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee, a drawing he thought 'magnificent... in every possible way', and he made a bid to acquire our Annunciation.
The watercolour had been commissioned by Rossetti's friend and patron the landscape artist George P. Boyce, and when it was sold at Christie's in 1972 it had a letter from Rossetti to Boyce attached. Dated 30 March 1855, the letter starts by discussing a forthcoming visit by the two artists to Ruskin's house on Denmark Hill. Rossetti then continues:
Your drawing will be quite finished by tomorrow I feel confident, so do you like to call here in the afternoon and then proceed to R's. By the bye, R saw the sketch the other day, & was so impressed that he wanted to know whether you, whom I named as its owner, would be very vexed at yielding it to him. Perhaps he will mention this to you, but perhaps not, as I gave him no reason to think it likely you would part with it.
Boyce evidently refused to cede the drawing to Ruskin and it remained in his possession until his death in 1897. It then appeared in his sale at Christie's, but was bought in by his widow. A few years after it was finished in the spring of 1855 it seems to have been retouched by Rossetti, since according to Boyce's diary entry for 27 December 1858, the artist 'took away his... "Annunciation"... to work upon at his own proposing'. This might have led to the sort of damage that Ruskin feared in relation to his Passover drawing, but if Rossetti did retouch The Annunciation, it seems to have come to no harm.
The model for the drawing was Lizzie Siddal, and Rossetti seems to have used a study of her with irises in her hair that he had made when they were staying at Hastings in the summer of 1854, some six months before the watercolour was completed. They had gone to Hastings, Lizzie, as always, in search of better health, at the suggestion of their friend Barbara Leigh Smith; and it was during a visit to her at 'Scalands', her house on the Kent/Sussex border, on 8 May, that the drawing was made. In fact not only Rossetti but Barbara and her friend Anna Howitt, who was staying at 'Scalands', made studies of Lizzie on this occasion. Rossetti reported to Madox Brown: 'Everyone adores and reveres Lizzy. Barbara Smith, Miss Howitt and I made sketches of her dear head with iris stuck in her dear hair'.
Rossetti's drawing, now missing, is reproduced in Rossetti's Portraits of Elizabeth Siddal, exh. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1991, cat. no. 16; those by Anna Howitt and Barbara Leigh Smith are illustrated in Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists, exh. Manchester City Art Gallery, etc., 1998, cat. p. 57. For another drawing of Lizzie made by Rossetti during the visit to Hastings in 1854, see this catalogue, lot 2.