Books: Mortal wombat

Matthew Sweet delves into Rossetti's life - and finds a menagerie: Dante Gabriel Rosetti: Painter and Poet by Jan Marsh Weidenfeld pounds 25
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Crazy name, crazy guy. He founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, conjured up a reputation for genius without ever staging a public exhibition of his work, and ended his days a hunted paranoiac who used whisky and chloral hydrate to silence the voices in his head. "Rossetti was the planet around whom we revolved," enthused Val Prinsep, an Oxford student who fell under his spell. "All beautiful women were 'stunners' with us. Wombats were the most beautiful of God's creatures."

Like the Bloomsbury set and the Yellow Book crowd, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood have always been as much a biographical as an artistic entity. To know their painting is usually to know their intimate histories: how Effie Ruskin left her vaginaphobic husband for John Millais, Jane Morris drifted away from William into an affair with Rossetti, and Simeon Solomon was arrested for cottaging.

Over the past 15 years, Jan Marsh has established herself as the high priestess of PRB biography. The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (1985), Jane and May Morris (1986), The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal (1989) and her new book now form a Rashomon-like account of Victorian England's most influential artistic and literary movement. Her cast is the same, but there are still a few surprises. Few readers will know that George Wardle, the manager of the Rossetti and Morris wallpaper company, married the murderer Madeline Smith (as a teenager, she used three hefty doses of arsenic to prevent herself being blackmailed by a young lover). Nor will they know the precise details of how Rossetti's legendary household menagerie became an unwitting Darwinian experiment.

The register of deaths is compendious. Jessie the owl had her head bitten off by a raven. A young kangaroo was suspected of matricide. The armadillos burrowed into the neighbours' garden, where they were poisoned by prussic acid. The raccoon was disgraced when it ate a drawerful of manuscripts, and had its cage secured with a block of marble. Two parakeets, a salamander, a lizard, a dormouse, a tortoise, a rabbit and two pigeons escaped, expired, or were killed by jittery servants. Most lamented of all were the wombats. Marsh provides the artist's cartoon of himself weeping over a prone beast, with the lines: 'I never reared young Wombat / To glad me with his pin- hole eye / But, when he was most sweet & fat/ And tail-less, he was sure to die!'

Marsh is too tolerant of Thomas Hall Caine, a parasitic mediocrity and moderately successful novelist who, in the 1880s and 90s, smarmed his way on to the Christmas card lists of several of the century's ailing literary giants. Caine lived rent-free in Rossetti's home on Cheyne Walk, in exchange for making himself available to pop down King's Road for bottles of whisky and choral hydrate. She also suggests that, for Rossetti, the suicide of the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon was "a tragic warning of what failure could mean". But she doesn't inform the reader that Haydon's suicidal depression came on after the experience of renting gallery space at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly during the same week as the celebrated dwarf performer, General Tom Thumb. Tom Thumb's punters queued around the block to see him dance the gavotte and do his impression of Napoleon Bonaparte, but nobody turned up to be uplifted by Haydon's grand historical canvases. After Haydon blew his brains out in his studio, eminent commentators such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning offered mournful apostrophes about the slaying of giants by dwarfs. So, as an image of artistic tragedy, Haydon is equivocal.

When she deals with the question of Rossetti's mental illness, Marsh's sensitivity redresses a historical imbalance. According to the painter's great-niece, the orthodox view of Rossetti's final years pictured him as a "drug-sodden and degenerate wretch, bankrupt in character and reputation, who led a ghastly, posthumous existence behind closed doors in Cheyne Walk, abandoned by decent-minded people".

Marsh portrays a man struggling bravely with paranoia and depression. It was a sudden collapse, triggered, it seems, by a bad review, which persuaded him that there was a widespread conspiracy to discredit his painting. Removed to the country, he was convinced that the wainscots were hollow and sunk with spy holes; that the house was surrounded by boys, who communicated in bird whistles.

Unloved by a public which was never given a chance to view his work, Rossetti's reputation died with him. Now, however, after years of critical neglect, his admirers are everywhere. His poetry is back on the university syllabus. The Blessed Damozel has been noteletted into ubiquity by stationery companies. For some, Val Prinsep's assertions are as true as ever. Rossetti is the planet around whom pub interior designers revolve. In the Sun, at least, all beautiful women are "stunners". On the question of wombats, however, the jury is still out.