Posted 13th November 2018
Vision & Verse
Dr Susan Owens, Guest curator
This winter you might hear poetry drifting from the Watts Gallery, the words telling the haunting tale of two sisters, enchanted fruit, temptation, danger and salvation. It is a brilliant new recording of 'Goblin Market', specially commissioned by the Watts Gallery, and it will be playing throughout the course of this Winter's exhibition, Christina Rossetti: Vision and Verse.
Today Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) is among the best loved of Victorian poets. Her clarity and directness still have the power to surprise us, and her poems, from the joyful 'A Birthday' to the poignant 'Remember me', have become part of our shared culture. If I don't get to sing 'In the Bleak Midwinter' at Christmas-time – words by Rossetti, music by Gustav Holst – I feel disappointed. Earth as hard as iron, water like a stone; these vivid images are, for me, part of the Christmas tradition.
Rossetti's striking poetic imagery has also attracted artists, from the first moment she began to publish her work. In fact visual art was a vital part of her creative life – which is why we wanted to create this exhibition. For the show we have borrowed from public and private collections to bring together the art that surrounded Christina Rossetti: portraits, illustrations to her poetry and pictures inspired by her words, along with early editions of her books and examples of her own intriguing drawings.
Born in London on 5 December 1830, Christina Georgina Rossetti grew up in a lively and intellectual Anglo-Italian household. As a young woman she was the subject of portraits by her elder brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was to become one of the most influential artists of the Victorian period. The exhibition includes a group of drawings and an oil painting of her between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, as well as powerful coloured chalk portraits he made of her as a mature poet.
Rossetti studied art herself: at the age of twenty she enrolled at the North London School of Drawing. Although her formal training was short-lived, she continued to draw throughout her life. For the exhibition, we have been able to borrow a portrait she drew of her mother, Frances, alongside three animal studies – of a fox, a squirrel and a wombat that caught her eye at the London zoo.
When her brothers founded the radical art movement known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) in 1848, Rossetti was deeply involved. She wrote poetry for their magazine and acted as a model for their pictures.
When her poems began to be published in commercial journals, they were illustrated by members of the PRB and their associates, such as John Everett Millais. Later artists of the Victorian avant-garde who were inspired by Rossetti's enigmatic words and vivid imagery included the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
Central to the exhibition is Rossetti's first commercially published book, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862). Gabriel designed the book, producing an innovative cover design and evocative images as a setting for his sister's verse. 'Goblin Market' became a classic and was published in countless editions, with illustrations by artists including Laurence Housman, Florence Harrison and Arthur Rackham. It still inspires artists today: in the exhibition you will see recent wood-engravings by Hilary Paynter.
Rossetti also published a book of nursery-rhymes for children, Sing-Song, made up of lullabies, counting-songs, ingenious plays on words and gentle moral lessons. Every poem was illustrated by Arthur Hughes, an artist associated with the PRB and one of her favourite artists. A selection of his charming original drawings for her verses are on display.
Gabriel's portraits were not always serious: one drawing in the display shows his sister in the throes of a tantrum, breaking up the furniture and dancing in fury after reading a review of 'Goblin Market'. Researching this exhibition certainly made me see Christina Rossetti in a new light – we hope you too will find many surprises among some old favourites.