Christina Rossetti

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13 November 2018 - 17 March 2019
Watts Gallery

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13 November 2018 – 17 March 2019
Watts Gallery

Rossetti is now perhaps the most popular Victorian poet. Her very personal vision, her existential urgency and musical clarity are all deeply valued today. She is read more than ever, and scholars from all over the world are seeking to interpret her work.

Rossetti's young womanhood was spent in close contact with the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the pre-eminent avant-garde movement in Victorian painting. Her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti was her regular collaborator. While ostensibly reclusive, Rossetti was very well connected in the British art world, and cared deeply about how her poetry was illustrated, as it was regularly from the 1850s onwards.

At least from the 1860s, oil paintings inspired by the poems also began to appear at the London exhibitions, offering freer interpretations of Rossetti's words than was usually possible with printed illustrations. Sometimes the results alarmed her, but by the end of the century a European artist of the stature of Fernand Khnopff had based one of his most mesmerising Symbolist masterpieces on her poem 'Who Shall Deliver Me?'

Jan Marsh, art historian and Rossetti biographer, has defined “the unmistakeable Rossettian note" as being “at once simple and hauntingly enigmatic, suggestive of depths beneath the lyric surface." Artists were drawn to seek to excavate those obscured meanings, often challenging themselves to materialise imagery far stranger than their regular work demanded. A good example of this is the Pre-Raphaelite artist Arthur Hughes whose charming paintings contrast strongly with the disturbing illustrations he created in collaboration with Rossetti.

It is no exaggeration to call Hughes's illustrations collaborative because many of them are based upon the visual ideas of the poet herself. Rossetti was in fact a fascinating artist in her own right: untrained and technically unsophisticated, to be sure, but able to generate intriguing emblematic imagery which is in effect an original contribution to Pre-Raphaelite iconography.

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