Arts Arts & Books

How a shy poet became a Victorian muse

Christina was the model for The Annunciation, by her brother Gabriel Rossetti

David V Barrett on the reclusive, frail and devout Christina Rossetti

Today we know Christina Rossetti for two well-loved carols, In the Bleak Midwinter and Love Came Down at Christmas. In her lifetime (1830-1894) she was regarded as one of the greatest British poets of her day, rivalling Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She wrote on both secular and religious themes, and for children.

She was born into an astonishing family. Best known is her artist and poet brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her sister Maria was a writer on Dante. Her other brother, William, was a biographer and editor, and a major contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Her father Gabriele was an Italian nobleman, poet and professor – and a founder of the Carbonari secret society. Her mother Frances was the sister of John Polidori, Lord Byron’s physician and creator of the first vampire story.

Frances and her daughters shared a deep religious faith; Gabriele and his sons were freethinkers and agnostics.

From her earliest days Christina was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), founded by her brothers Gabriel and William, with John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and others in 1848. Although she was never a member, she referred jokingly to her “double sisterhood”. She published poems in the PRB journal under a pseudonym, and its members illustrated her books of poetry.

Her long narrative poem Goblin Market was illustrated by artists as diverse as her brother Gabriel and Arthur Rackham. Interpretations of it differ, from a feminist (even lesbian) allegory to a Christian one of temptation, love and redemption.

Different editions of Goblin Market feature among much else in Christina Rossetti: Vision & Verse at the Watts Gallery, near Guildford. Christina was an accomplished artist herself, and the exhibition has some of her drawings, including delightful studies of a fennec fox, squirrels and a wombat, but it focuses more on the art that she inspiredin others, including paintings and drawings of her by her brother Gabriel. She was a model for many Pre-Raphaelite paintings, particularly in sacred roles, such as the Virgin in two of Gabriel’s early major works, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation).

She was one of several models that Holman Hunt used for the face of Christ in his Light of the World, for her “solemn expression”. She “promised to help me with some shade of earnestness I aimed at getting”, he said.

There are numerous paintings and drawings of Christina, especially by her brother Gabriel, by her on-off fiancé James Collinson, and by another suitor, John Brett. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), a close friend of the family, took several charming photographs of Christina with her mother and brothers.

Her influence on other artists is shown both in the exhibition and in the beautiful accompanying book – far more than a catalogue – Christina Rossetti: Poetry in Art. We see her impact in their illustrations for different editions of her books of poetry, and the many paintings inspired by her poems, such as Arthur Hughes’s The Mower, while in art photography, Julia Margaret Cameron based her charming The Minstrel Group on one of her poems.

Christina was a devoted Anglo-Catholic from her teens. The church where she was confirmed in 1845 was a leading centre of Tractarian (or Oxford Movement) thought and practice. She broke off her engagement to James Collinson in 1850 when he converted (for the second time) to Catholicism, and turned down her friend Charles Bagot Cayley’s proposal some years later because of his agnosticism. Remaining single and living at the family home, her health deteriorated when, in the early 1870s and in her early 40s, she contracted Graves’ disease, a serious thyroid condition. Her skin became discoloured, her neck swollen and her
eyes protuberant.

Christina was very close to her older sister Maria. They gave up their time to a Home for Fallen Women in Highgate, London. In 1873, Maria became an Anglican nun, joining the All Saints Sisters of the Poor. She died three years later, aged just 49.

Christina had always been retiring – “My tastes are somewhat stay-at-home,” she wrote at the age of 21 – but now, with the double blow of her illness and the loss of her sister, she became almost reclusive.

In a remarkable measure of her standing, GF Watts, to whose works this gallery is dedicated, wanted to paint Christina’s portrait for his Hall of Fame at the National Portrait Gallery. She would have been the only woman in such elite company as Cardinal Manning, William Gladstone and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as well as artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, Frederic Leighton and John Everett Millais. But she had recently had an operation for cancer and was too unwell to sit for Watts. She died two years later, aged 64.

Christina Rossetti’s legacy consists of far more than a couple of Christmas carols. It’s been argued, with some justification, that her thin face and slight figure were strong influences on the distinctive look of women in early Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Christina Rossetti: Vision & Verse is at the Watts Gallery, near Guildford, Surrey, until March 17. Christina Rossetti: Poetry in Art, edited by Susan Owens and Nicholas Tromans, Yale University Press 2018, £30