Musings on Evelyn Waugh’s Rossetti: His Life And Works

Hey Readers,

It seems Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal are not leaving my mind! I’m utterly enthralled and fascinated by their lives and the artwork of The Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood and whilst I’m definitely no expert on the subject, I enjoy reading up on anything related to their life and times. Having recently read Hall Caine’s memoir on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Reflections of Rossetti, I thought I’d read Evelyn Waugh’s Rossetti: His Life and Works. I’m just going to affirm that what I’m musing upon is just purely my initial, instinctive reaction to Evelyn Waugh’s seemingly harsh criticisms on his pondering subject.

Let me begin by quoting Evelyn Waugh in regards to Rossetti and his reasoning for writing the book:

‘so Rossetti’s art, at fitful moments, flames into the exquisite moments of Beata Beatrix. It is the sort of problem that modern aesthetics does not seem capable of coping with. It has been the object of this book to state, though, alas! not to solve, this problem.’

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s aforementioned Beata Beatrix. Circa 1864 – 1870.

Now, I’m choosing to insert the painting here which was so closely inspired by Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s own turmoil and grief of losing his beloved wife Lizzie Siddal, who’s death often accompanied the Poet and Painter to varying degrees of haunting, pivoting him into despair and sadness throughout the remainder of his own life. The artist, might I mention, had no model pose for this portrait but recalled the details of his late wife, choosing to not represent her in death but ‘a sudden, spiritual transfiguration.’ I’m absolutely moved and fascinated by the piece and think it’s a wonderfully archaic, raw and powerful swan song for Rossetti’s beloved Lizzie!

I was completely bemused when I read in Rossetti: His Life and Works, that:

A) Evelyn Waugh dubs the life of Lizzie Siddal as pathetic. Naturally, I had many thoughts about that, all of which completely protested this abomination of a label, so I thought I’d take to my bookstagram and post a mini ramble about how much I disagreed here: https://www.instagram.com/p/CEdu1FBgEBp/?igshid=1e8qcl51ur1u – do check it out if you’d like to know more. For the record though, yes, she was sickly (a poor immune system), coupled with two stillbirths, so of course she’s not going to be glowing with health! But oh, she was a celebrated beauty in her own right and I’ve no doubt she and Rossetti loved one another as only two souls of their kind could!

And B) So in Waugh’s little summarising, closing sentence he suggests that he’s wanting to state that modern aesthetics of his time would find it hard to take on board Rossetti and the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood’s artwork Aesthetics (he actually quotes the PRB in their forming days as “not knowing how to paint”), which I think is quite laughable in itself, given the seamless flair that these gentleman and their female counterparts and Muses possessed!

Although I’m not hugely familiar with Evelyn Waugh, though I do know he’s celebrated in his own literary right and I understand he often equipped himself with a sarcastic, dry tone. As I found myself reading more of Rossetti: His Life and Works, I found myself speculating if Waugh felt like his objective was just to be low-key crass about his chosen subject, throwing shade and criticisms towards Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the part he played in the formation of The Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Also, for a biography that’s centred and indeed titled Rossetti: His Life and Works, I personally found about 75% of this book to not even be Dante Gabriel Rossetti specific! I thought that this would prove insightful as Rossetti’s beloved friend Hall Caine detailed, but I definitely (and unfortunately so) didn’t find it here! Through Waugh’s borderline scathing notations against Rossetti’s life, blatantly talking about how ineffective his artwork was (and again veering back to the finishing point, where I feel like Evelyn Waugh openly suggests that he wanted to get a (non existent, in my opinion) point across that Rossetti’s art doesn’t fit with the modern aesthetic of Waugh’s day, perhaps. Yet, wasn’t it The Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood that formed together in 1848, because they wanted to challenge the unimaginative and artificial historical paintings of The Royal Academy, believing art should mirror the real world as much as possible?!

So that concludes my second installment of babbling about Rossetti and The Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, this time as communicated rather vague through Evelyn Waugh’s Rossetti: His Life and Works. I look forward to reading more material on the subject and I hope you enjoyed reading my musings. ☺️

Happy Reading,

Brooklyn.

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