Today is the anniversary of the death of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, probably the most famous of the Pre-Raphaelites and one of the leading figures in the renovation of William Blake’s reputation during the Victorian era.
Rossetti became interested in Blake after reading Allan Cunningham’s biography on Blake in The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1830), and in 1847 purchased Blake’s Notebook (sometimes called the Rossetti Manuscript) from William Palmer, brother of the artist Samuel who had known Blake in the engraver’s final years. Along with his wombats, this was probably the most famous purchase that Rossetti ever made.
Like Blake, Rosetti was both painter and poet and appears, like Algernon Swinburne, to have also been fascinated with the Romantic’s reputation as a rebel. Blake’s attacks on artists such as Titian, Rembrandt and Joshua Reynolds appear to have partly inspired Rossetti’s own rebellion as part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and in 1849 he wrote a short poem to Blake:
To the memory of William Blake, a Painter and Poet, whose greatness may be named even here since it was equalled by his goodness, this tablet is now erected – years after his death, at the age of sixty-eight, on August 12th, 1827, in poverty and neglect, by one who honours his life and works.
ALL beauty to pourtray
Therein his duty lay
And still through toilsome strife
Duty to him was life –
Most thankful still that duty
Lay in the paths of beauty.
This sentimental verse has found few admirers since, and some critics have remarked just how much it binds Blake into what Robert Essick calls “a heaven of Victorian sensibility”. Meeting Swinburne and then Alexander Gilchrist in the 1850s, Rossetti made the Notebook available to them and also began work with Gilchrist editing what was to become the most important early biography on Blake – Life of William Blake, Pictor Ignotus. As well as providing descriptions of various illustrations, with his brother, William Michael, he also edited Blake’s writings for the second volume of the Life and provided a series of introductions, or “Headnotes”.
In his descriptions of the designs, Rossetti emphasised the Gothic elements of Blake’s work, and his version of Blake’s poetry was heavily edited: this was partly guided by the desire to make Blake more readable for the Victorian public, a policy of freely rewriting Blake which drew criticism from contemporaries, most notably Richard Herne Shepherd. The Rossettis, as with Gilchrist and Swinburne, had an important role to play in reviving the reputation of Blake for a Victorian public, although Dante Gabriel was as guilty as Swinburne for also encouraging a view of aspects of Blake’s art as only accessible to an aesthetic elite.