Wednesday, February 6, 2019

"How the Pre-Raphaelites Became Obsessed with the Wombat"

In 1857, the English artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti — central figure of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and by then a national celebrity — was commissioned to decorate the vaulted ceiling, upper walls and windows of the Oxford Union library. He mustered a large group of helpers, including his new Oxford undergraduate friends (and future leading artists) Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.

While the murals were being painted with scenes taken from Arthurian legend — rather badly, as it turned out, because they have since deteriorated beyond recognition — the glass panes of the windows were painted over to reduce the glare coming through onto the walls. These whitewashed surfaces were soon covered with sketches drawn or scratched into the paint, mostly depictions of one particular animal. The wombat.


Rossetti raised the animal-collecting stakes considerably. In November 1867, he was negotiating with his supplier of wild animals, Charles Jamrach. His object was to purchase a young African elephant, but he balked at the price of £400. Rossetti’s income for 1865 was £2000. Rossetti finally arranged to buy a wombat, again through Jamrach, when at length a suitable specimen became available. This wombat arrived when he was away in Scotland recovering from a kind of breakdown, largely precipitated by failing eyesight, insomnia, drugs, and above all his growing infatuation with Jane Morris, the wife of his old friend and protégé from the Oxford Union days.