Born on this day; Gabriel Dante Rossetti

12th May 2020

Born on this day in 1882, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (born Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti) a British poet, illustrator, painter and translator. He’s perhaps remained best known, alongside his art, for co-founding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood along with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was one of the most influential movements of it’s day and remains not only as an influence in art today but also, as a period in history that remains to describe a whole group of artists united by a set of ideas and a great love of art.

The Brotherhood was founded in 1848 and in it’s second generation, included well known figures on this blog; William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Rossetti was a huge influence for both and was a main reason for their joining the Brotherhood.


He originally wanted to be a poet and went to King’s College School in London, but also had a talent and passion for painting. Hi sister Christina Rossetti did go on to be a poet; you’ll know her from a few of her works I assume, but particularly, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” (It was later set to music into our famous Christmas carol.) Back to Dante, he went on to study at Henry Sass’ Drawing Academy from 1841 – 1845. Then the Antique School of the Royal Academy. He then went on to study under Ford Madox Brown; they had a close lifelong friendship.

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

To explain the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, we can go ahead and let William Michael Rossetti, Dante’s brother do that for us. He summarised four declarations in an early doctrine as a statement of intent.

  1. To have genuine ideas to express
  2. To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them
  3. To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self- parading and learned by rote.
  4. Most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

Victorian Menagerie

One random fact we love about Rossetti that could only (or should we say, should only) be a part of the Victorian era was his eccentric menagerie. He had kangaroos, wallabies, armadillos, a raccoon and larger animals such as a zebu. He even is known to have discussed the potential of having an African elephant with Charles Jamrach. Jamrach was a leading dealer in wildlife, birds and shells in 19th century London. He’s also a fascinating read if you have time. All of this, in a garden in Chelsea!

His wombat is something that’s been well recorded about Rossetti, seemingly because of his affection for it. In writing to his brother he described it as, “a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness.” He named it “Top” after Morris who had the nickname, “Topsy.” Rather horribly, Top didn’t live long in England and died November 1869, after which, Rossetti had him stuffed and he was displayed in the entrance to the house. We mention the poor animal’s death because Rossetti’s self portrait mourning Top is a hugely famous piece of Rossetti’s work.

Personal Life

In 1860, he married Elizabeth Siddal (Lizzie) who was a Pre-Raphaelite model and one of his favourite muses. He even banned any other artists from using her as their model. She passed away in 1862 from an overdose of laudanum and afterwards, Rossetti increasingly spiralled into depression. Rossetti is well known for having a long lasting affair with Jane Morris – William Morris’s wife. This obviously caused great pain to Morris.

He held great influence within the artistic circles of the time. He remains a great influence amongst both artists and writers today. He was pioneering in his ideals, there’s just too much about him to fit into one blog! There was no shortage of eccentricities in his life and we encourage you to read more into his life and menagerie; it always really captures our imagination to think of the Victorian menageries, does it you?