Poetry and the frame: Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel and its altarpiece setting
Three contemporary British poets respond to Rossetti’s work: Patricia McCarthy, Editor of Agenda and winner of the 2012 National Poetry Competition; Sarah Doyle, Poet in Residence at the Pre-Raphaelite Society; and Jim Bennett, Managing Editor of the online resource, The Poetry Kit and its satellite magazines. Read the poems, and then read the history of the painting and its frame.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Blessed Damozel, 1875-79, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight (National Museums Liverpool)
The history of the frame
Rossetti’s works, which blend together poetry, painting, frame, and often reach out to embrace the interior in which the whole object is destined to hang, express one concern of the Pre-Raphaelites: to create a piece of art which is greater than the sum of its disparate parts, fitting into and reflecting a sympathetic environment, and invoking a further world – literary, spiritual and ideal. F. M. Brown’s and Holman Hunt’s paintings, with their frames – often designed for one specific painting and inscribed with quotations – reflect, to varying extents, the same concerns; whilst Rossetti’s poem and paintings on The Blessed Damozel are central to and epitomize his particular Platonic and Dantesque vision.
He had written the first draft of his poem, ‘The Blessed Damozel’, around 1847. After an initial suggestion by his patron, T.E. Plint, which he resisted, he was eventually commissioned by another patron, William Graham, to create a pictorial version of it, and began working on the subject in 1873, a couple of years after the initial commission. He finished it in 1878: this is the work now in the Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University.
Danta Gabriel Rossetti, The Blessed Damozel, 1875-78, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.202; photo: Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College
This version has one of Rossetti’s late medallion frames, consisting of a cassetta with a canted frieze, across which are sited five roundels carved like ‘the seed formations of an exotic fruit’. It has the format of a Renaissance sacra conversazione altarpiece with a predella panel beneath the main image; this is separated in the Fogg Blessed Damozel by a simple moulding, as though the picture were a modern window with two unequal panes. The predella had been commissioned by Graham in 1877, after the painting of the Damozel herself had been finished, so that the split image was fortuitous rather than an intrinsic part of the composition; this possibly accounts for the rather cursory conversion of the frame into a predella structure. Rossetti had reworked his poem in 1870, and the first four stanzas of this version were inscribed on the bottom rail of the frame, between the two lower medallions:
Rossetti, The Blessed Damozel, Fogg Museum of Art, detail, bottom rail of frame
THE BLESSED DAMOZEL.
The second version, now in the Lady Lever Gallery, was begun as a (slightly smaller) copy of the first one, in the late 1870s. Rossetti may have worked on it simultaneously with the first painting, but more probably started it after the latter was finished and almost certainly after Graham had commissioned the predella; so that the double image was therefore a more integral aspect of this particular work. It was bought in 1880 by Frederick Leyland, the shipping magnate and another of Rossetti’s patrons, and was delivered in to him in February 1881.
This double image, with its striking aedicular frame, became – unlike its prototype – more that the simple acquisition of a painting. It was hung as part of a spectacular triptych hanging, reminiscent of the earlier Pre-Raphaelite triptych which emerged almost fortuitously when Thomas Combe acquired Millais’s Return of the dove to the Ark (1851) and Collins’s Convent thoughts (1851), and hung them on either side of Holman Hunt’s A converted British family sheltering a Christian missionary… (1850) [these works now hang together in the same relative positions in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford].
Reconstruction of Thomas Combe’s triptych hanging on his white wall
In the latter case, Millais had designed Collins’s frame for him, and probably also his own frame for Return of the dove. Hunt’s painting had a conventional stock frame (although he inscribed it with appropriate quotations), but all three works shared a thematic relationship (Millais’s was representative of Hope, with green the dominant colour; Hunt’s stood for Charity, with a strong note of scarlet; and Collins’s, which was mainly white, represented Faith). The two upright figure paintings by Millais and Collins made convincing ‘wings’ to Hunt’s larger work.
Rossetti, Portrait of F. R. Leyland, 1879, coloured chalks, courtesy of Leicester Galleries
The triptych hanging of The Blessed Damozel was one part of a grouping of Rossetti’s works in the drawing-room of his most faithful and prolific patron, Frederick Richards Leyland, at no. 49 Prince’s Gate, London. As well as the Damozel, it consisted of two single-figure paintings, Mnemosyne and Proserpine, and was set on the wall between the door and the chimneypiece – which was flanked in its turn by Veronica Veronese and Lady Lilith. The painting to the left of the door was Monna Rosa. Mnemosyne and Proserpine were both framed in Rossetti’s medallion frames, and – as in Thomas Combe’s triptych hanging – were related to each other and to the Damozel by their themes of memory, loss and love.
F.R.Leyland’s drawing room, 49 Prince’s Gate, 1892, photograph by Harry Bedford Lemere, courtesy of The English Heritage Archive, no. BL1152849
This triptych was not the original arrangement envisaged by Leyland, however. In 1876 he moved into 49 Prince’s Gate, which he had bought nearly two years earlier, and which had been dramatically remodelled on the inside, first by Thomas Jeckyll and subsequently by Richard Norman Shaw. In 1876 the construction of the drawing-room as seen in Bedford Lemere’s photo was still to come, but Leyland wrote to Rossetti in April that year asking for ‘…my pictures so that I may get them hung’. Four days later Rossetti dispatched Treffrey Dunn, his studio assistant, with four of them: Veronica Veronese, Proserpine, The Roman widow (Dis Manibus), and Lady Lilith; the fifth painting was A sea-spell, which he was finishing.
Almost a year later, in March, 1877, he wrote to Leyland about the still-unfinished Sea-spell, which had apparently been held up by his lack of inspiration for the sonnet for ‘the frame so decorated with Ford [sic] & Dickinson’. He added, ‘You know this frame matches the Veronica one, and both flank the new lengthened picture à merveille.’ The ‘new lengthened picture’ was Mnemosyne or La ricordanza, which had begun as a study for Astarte Syriaca. This, in its medallion frame, would therefore have been supported on either side by A sea-spell and Veronica Veronese, both paintings of women with musical instruments, both framed in ‘Watts’ frames with scrolling foliate punchwork on the frieze. This triptych would have been thematically much to Leyland’s taste, as he seemed to like the combination of women and music, but it would have been much smaller and less significant.
No. 49, Prince’s Gate
In 1879 Leyland turned to Norman Shaw to work on the first-floor drawing-room at Prince’s Gate. The result was a large, tri-partite, U-shaped space, which was divided by screens for daily purposes into three separate rooms. The eastern room held his collection of Old Masters, and the western, his Pre-Raphaelites, including Rossetti’s; a small windowless, top-lit anti-chamber (the ‘portico room’, above the front door) held more Pre-Raphaelites, including a set by Burne-Jones. The walls were hung with dull gold silk above the dado rail and panelled below, and the ceiling was coffered in an intricate fret of dark walnut inlaid with gilded ornament, from which Jacobean-style lamps depended. It was a dark, rich, masculine confection, and the western room reached a highlight in the overmantel looking-glass, with its huge crested frame reaching to the ceiling and its pendent swags. The earlier triptych, with Mnemosyne in the centre and the two smaller paintings either side of it, would have been dwarfed by this towering panel of giltwood and glass, and may have triggered the idea of a more assertive and balanced replacement.
When this bout of Leyland’s remodelling began, The Blessed Damozel was still under construction. Rossetti seems first to have mentioned it in a letter to his mother, 27 April 1879: ‘…I have been working on three pictures, viz.: a new version of The Blessed Damozel…’; however, it must have been well under weigh, if not finished by then. By November of that year, he was already fretting that it hadn’t sold, referring to it in a letter to Janey Morris as ‘the Blessed Blowed Damozel’. By the next June, it was still unsold and Leyland was refusing to be seduced:
‘I have been trying to make up my mind to buy your picture but I really cannot. I have put so much money in pictures already that I do not care to put any more; and I shall fill up the new room with pictures from the office…’.
Five days after this, Rossetti wrote to Watts-Dunton: ‘…Leyland was here yesterday and made a sort of a bite at Bd Dame but I dont believe he’ll gulp it down…’.
He had been engaged at this point in finishing La Pia de’Tolomei for Leyland, and had been blocked, or unable to get going on another commission, ‘the Hero picture’. Leyland – in other respects a ruthless businessman – seems to have accepted Rossetti’s vacillations and delays with more patience than might have been expected, and wrote, on 11 October 1880,
‘When are you going on with the Hero picture? You don’t seem to me to be entirely satisfied with it and I fear it is not a labour of love to you. What do you think of letting me have the Blessed Damoiselle instead. I would be willing to pay you something more; but consider you have already had £840. I suggest this as I really want a picture at once to finish my drawing room and this and La Pia will fill up all the wall space I have left…’
Rossetti, who had a household, mistresses, and an unfeasible style of living to support, appears to have balked at this accountant’s memory for past payments. He wrote the next day to Watts-Dunton, ‘…I have just heard from Leyland, characteristically’ , and replied to Leyland, about a week later,
‘I should have answered your former note earlier, but did not see my way to the proposal, of which you may speak, if you like to do so, when we meet… [La Pia will] doubtless proceed rapidly to a finish; & in finishing I shall require the frame. Do you like me to order this for you from Ford [sic] & Dickinson, who are the only people whose work gives one satisfaction?’
La Pia dragged on and on, despite its final payment arriving on 14 December 1880; after which Rossetti must have sensed a lean time approaching, and returned to the ‘proposal’ of Leyland’s buying The Blessed Damozel. He wrote to Frederic Shields on 30 January 1881, ‘…Leyland was here again today and seems likely to buy the Blasted Damdozel!’, and the very next day Leyland did indeed send him ‘…a cheque for £500 in payment for the “Blessed Damoiselle”,’ and added, ‘… I should like you to go on at once with what has to be done to the picture and to La Pia so that I may have them home’. As indicated above, Rossetti had already had £840 from Leyland for the non-appearing ‘Hero’ picture, so that The Blessed Damozel actually cost £1340 (more than the first and larger version).
F.R.Leyland’s drawing room, 49 Prince’s Gate, London,1892
In all this correspondence, however, there is no mention of the frame of the latter. La Pia was given a medallion frame, like that of the earlier Blessed Damozel, and of Mnemosyne and Proserpine (both the latter seen in Bedford Lemere’s photo of Leyland’s drawing room). Lady Lilith, cut by the right-hand edge of the photo, can also be seen in its medallion frame. In 1877 Rossetti had warned Leyland that ‘I have lately charged frames to the purchasers’, and that was in respect of a much simpler, even if individual, pattern. The lavish, decorative frame of The Blessed Damozel must surely – if it were Rossetti’s design – have occasioned some to-ing and fro-ing of letters? unless, of course, those letter have been lost.
However, the continuing correspondence between Leyland and Rossetti reveals that the hang in the Lemere photo wasn’t the original position for The Blessed Damozel. In July 1881 Leyland (who still hadn’t received La Pia), reported that,
‘The Blessed Damozel is placed and looks superb. The light suits it admirably and if you could only see it you would be pleased.
I want you to finish the glazing of La Pia and let me have it before I go away.
The Blessed Damozel occupies one wall of the portico room [the small room above the front door, top-lit & also at some point containing a set of Burne-Jones’s paintings]; the Eve of St Agnes [by Millais] another and the remaining one is waiting for La Pia…’
This might indicate that, in the name of balance, The Blessed Damozel may have originally had a medallion frame and have faced La Pia, also in its medallion frame. Certainly, there seems an unwillingness amongst some art historians to accept that the current aedicular frame is Rossetti’s choice or design. A note on the website of Liverpool Museums suggests that,
‘The gold frame may not have been designed by Rossetti. The heavy baroque pediment and narrow columns are motifs that differ radically from his other frame designs. The overall format is reminiscent of seventeenth-century stone memorial plaques on church walls. Originally the picture hung in Leyland’s London house in a drawing room full of gilt furniture. This may in part have dictated the frame’s appearance.’
The Rossetti Archive says of the painting, ‘It differs in some notable ways from the first version, however, not least in the baroque frame (not by DGR) which so detracts from this painting.’
However, if The Blessed Damozel had been sent to Leyland in a medallion frame – one of those frames so carefully designed for each painting, with an individual arrangement of medallions in many cases, the gilding and the colour harmony of the picture carefully calibrated, poems hand-lettered onto the friezes – why would this patron, who was also a friend, make such a radical change to the whole work of art? Even if he rehung his paintings in the main drawing room, and found the medallion frames dwarfed by the looking-glass, why would he risk upsetting what Val Prinsep, Leyland’s son-in-law, called, ‘the one real friendship in his life’?
Rossetti was exceedingly controlling, not to say bossy, when it came to his paintings and their display. He may not have gone as far as Degas, who, having dinner with a patron and seeing that one of his paintings in the room had been reframed, took it down from the wall and walked out of the house; but he did send swatches of Morris wallpaper to clients, told them how to light his work, generally ordered the frames himself, and suggested to the authorities of Llandaff Cathedral that they should paint the east end of the cathedral black to show off his altarpiece. He would not have stood for Leyland reframing his work in his lifetime, and Leyland, who, ruthless in so many ways, respected Rossetti and put up with far more from him than he would have from others, would have been even less likely to do such a thing after Rossetti’s death. And how would he have done it? He might have known which framemakers to go to, as Foord & Dickinson had been mentioned so frequently by Rossetti, but it seems extremely improbable that he would have chosen a design so different from the medallion frames, and from the frames on other Rossettis in his collection.
There is another possibility, and that is that the frame is a joke.
Leyland had acquired Frederic Leighton’s monumental work of 1865-66, The Syracusan bride leading wild beasts in procession to the Temple of Diana (private collection). However when he bought 49 Prince’s Gate and began to create a palace of art from it, he must have realized that it would be extremely difficult to find a place within the rest of his collection for a painting fourteen feet wide without its frame. He sent it to Christie’s to be auctioned in June 1974, causing a flutter in Rossetti’s dovecote when it sold for more than two-&-a- half thousand pounds (about £125,00 or $280,000 today). He wrote to Leyland, ‘By the bye, WHAT a haul you did make with that blessed Leighton, the frame did it!’; and to F. M. Brown, ‘His big Leighton fetched – what do you think? £2,677! and the thing is really bad even of its own kind! I believe that flash frame he put on it did the job!’
Sadly, we don’t know what the flash frame looked like, as it’s gone the way of so many frames, and The Syracusan bride… is now in a heavy moulding frame with a dog’s-tooth ornament [click & scroll down to page 61], rather like a cod Alma-Tadema.
However, whilst The Syracusan bride… was being carried off to Christie’s, Leighton was commissioned by the banker, James Stuart Hodgson, to paint another processional work, The Daphnephoria (1874-76, Lady Lever Art Gallery). This one is even larger, at nineteen feet across, and it is set in a vast aedicular frame – an extraordinary confection, with fluted pilasters supported by cloven hooves and crowned by modillions carried on grotesque masks.
Frederic Leighton, The Daphnephoria, 1874-76, details of frame, top and bottom left, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight (National Museums Liverpool)
Although these lateral rails must be a foot or so wide, because of the immense scale of the painting the frame appears overall to be proportionately puny – a fault which Leighton resolved with his later ‘Bassae’ frames. In spite of this skimpiness, it still manages – at least, at the sides – to look overblown and slightly incoherent as a design. And this was a decade later than The Syracusan bride…, so Rossetti (even allowing for professional envy) was probably quite accurate when he described the latter as having a ‘flash frame’: it was almost certainly a long way from the chaste minimalism of his own medallion frames.
And yet…and yet… Leighton’s painting had sold: sold so well that Rossetti sniped at Leyland, ‘You must feel rather tempted to give up buying other pictures to keep, & buy nothing but Leightons to sell’. Perhaps a small part of him thought that if he put The Blessed Damozel in a classical aedicular frame like Leighton’s, his painting would stratospherically outsoar the latter (‘bad even of its own kind’). Perhaps he also thought that he would cock a snook at Leighton, the parvenu who was producing his own frames like Rossetti and F.M. Brown had done, 30 years earlier. Possibly he was even cocking a very small snook at his best client, who kept such a bank-managerly grip on the details of payments received, and was very slightly boring in close company. Perhaps he just wanted to see how far the joke would stretch…
This was also, by now, post-Grosvenor Gallery England. In May 1877 the first exhibition had taken place in Sir Coutts Lindsay’s custom-built palazzo on New Bond Street. It showed groups of works by individual artists spaced comfortably on its crimson silk walls, as if in some grand private mansion; so unlike the cluttered and crowded exhibitions at the Royal Academy. And many of its exhibitors, like Burne-Jones (The Days of Creation), Strudwick (Love’s music), Walter Crane and Spencer Stanhope (Eve tempted), showed their work in Renaissance-style frames, a number of them aedicular. Rossetti was not drawn into this first exhibition, but must have been aware of this framing trend – Leyland had lent his large Burne-Jones, The beguiling of Merlin, to the Gallery, in its carved and pierced 16th century Venetian-style swan’s-head frame. For six years these exhibitions continued, and one of the established frame patterns for mythological, history and aesthetic paintings became the Renaissance-style altarpiece frame. By 1881, Rossetti might have felt more than a slight irritation with this competing trend, and inclined to blow a raspberry at it.
His frame for The Blessed Damozel can therefore (unlike Leighton’s) be interpreted as verging on the parodic. Instead of flat pilasters, it has engaged fluted columns supported on bosomy curved modillions, decorated with large acanthus leaves; the outer back moulding has a branch of olive or myrtle leaves wandering up it; the columns are crowned with fiddly composite capitals, and the entablature and broken pediment are freighted with ornament. The entablature frieze is decorated with an undulating grape vine spreading from a central mascaron, there are cherubs’ heads above the capitals, and a swag of figs and other fruits around the central shell in the crest. The predella has been properly integrated into this Baroque vision with a sill and supporting mouldings; further multiple runs of ornamental mouldings punctuate the design from top to bottom. It is completely and utterly over the top.
And it must surely be this that Rossetti meant when he wrote to Watts-Dunton in June 1881, ‘Oh Leyland’s frame! My stars, satyrs, cherubim, cauliflowers, and all other decorative constellations! I dropped awfully hard on him, but he took it well and only called for whisky and water…’ This is referred by Doughty & Wahl, the editors of Rossetti’s Letters…, to La Pia; but that has the same type of medallion frame that Leyland had been paying separately for since 1877, and could hardly have cost so surprisingly much all of a sudden. The Blessed Damozel, however, really has got – if not satyrs – cherubim, cauliflowers and several constellations of ornament on its frame, and must have cost enough to make Leyland’s eyes water.
Perhaps there is no other documentary evidence of the frame because Rossetti made this visit to Leyland to let him know the damage face-to-face, and to come away with an immediate cheque; looking at the letter to Watts-Dunton it does seem most probable that The Blessed Damozel and nothing else is its subject. For further back-up, the olive or myrtle on the back edge of the frame is remarkably similar to the foliate decoration on the frame of Dante’s Dream (1871, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). This must indeed be Rossetti’s own design; a small but opulently Baroque joke, which ironically fitted to perfection the space it finally occupied in Leyland’s grand Medicean salone.
Reconstruction of the triptych hanging of Mnemosyne, The Blessed Damozel and Proserpine on the dull gold silk walls of Leyland’s drawing room, 49 Prince’s Gate
With sincere thanks to the poets who have given their time and work to enhance this article: Patricia McCarthy, Sarah Doyle and Jim Bennett…
Patricia McCarthy has lived in Washington DC, Paris, Dacca, Bangladesh, Kathmandu, Nepal & Mexico. She now lives in East Sussex, where she was Head of English at a girls’ school. Her poetry collections include A second skin (Peterloo Poets 1985), Rodin’s shadow (Clutag/Agenda Editions 2012) and Around the Mulberry Bush (Waterloo Press; to be published). She won the 2012 National Poetry Competition with “Clothes that escaped the Great War”. She is the editor of the poetry magazine, Agenda.
Sarah Doyle specializes mainly in formal poetry. She reads frequently at poetry events in and around London, and is co-host of The Sunday Edition, a series of jazz-poetry events at Enfield’s Dugdale Theatre. Publications include the Poetry Society’s Poetry News, Unspoken Water, The Dawntreader and Orbis, as well as anthologies; and she has been placed in national poetry competitions: Poetry on the Lake (2008 and 2012), the Pre-Raphaelite Society Poetry Prize, the Ware Poets’ Open Poetry Competition, Cannon Poets’ Sonnet or Not Competition, and Forty Hall’s Poetry Postcard Competition 2012. In May 2012 she was appointed the Pre-Raphaelite Society’s first Poet-in-Residence.
Jim Bennett lives near Liverpool in the UK and is the author of 63 books, including books for children, books of poetry and many technical titles on transport and examinations. His poetry collections include: Drums at New Brighton (Lifestyle 1999), Down in Liverpool (CD) (Long Neck 2001), The Man Who Tried to Hug Clouds (Bluechrome 2004 reprinted 2006), Larkhill (Searle Publishing 2009), The Cartographer / Heswall (Indigo Dreams 2012). He has won many awards for his writing and performance including 3 DADAFest awards. He is also managing editor of www.poetrykit.org, one of the world’s most successful internet sites for poets. Jim taught Creative Writing at the University of Liverpool and now tours throughout the year giving readings and performances of his work.
..and thank you to all the institutions who have helped with images (especially the Fogg), and also, once more, to Alastair Johnson, for huge generosity with images of frames.
Part I: Pre-Raphaelite frames > here
Part II: More Pre-Raphaelite frames > here
Part III: A final look at Pre-Raphaelite frames > here
Restoring a Pre-Raphaelite frame > here
What artists, critics & collectors say about frames: Part 2> here
Love in the frame: the portraits & frames of John Brett > here
Poetry & the frame: May morning on Magdalen Tower > here
Two Pre-Raphaelite paintings from the Leverhulme Collection> here
A Victorian Obsession…The Pérez Simón Collection > here
 Alastair Grieve, ‘The applied art of D.G. Rossetti: I His picture-frames,’ Burlington Magazine, CXV, January 1973, pp.16 ff.
 The Rossetti-Leyland letters, ed. Francis L. Fennell, jnr, Ohio University Press, 1978, p.76.
 Ibid., p.80.
 Veronica Veronese, now in the Delaware Museum of Art, Wilmington, no longer has its ‘Watts’ frame; A sea-spell (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard) does.
 Letters of D.G. Rossetti, ed. O. Doughty & J.R. Wahl, no. 2037.
 Ibid, no.2142.
 Fennell, op. cit., p.86, 10 June 1880.
 Doughty & Wahl, op. cit., no.2279, 15 June 1880.
 Fennell, op. cit., p.87, 11 Oct. 1880.
 Doughty & Wahl, op. cit., no.2343, 12 Oct. 1880.
 Fennell, op. cit., 18 Oct. 1880 (?)
 Doughty & Wahl, op. cit., no.2401, 30 Jan. 1880.
 Fennell, op. cit., p. 88, 31 Jan. 1881.
 Ibid, p.79, 19 March 1877.
 Ibid, p.89, 12 July 1881.
 Ibid, p.x.
 He died only 8 months after Leyland had written to say how well The Blessed Damozel looked, on 9 April 1882.
 Fennell, op. cit., p. 66, 22 June. 1874.
 Doughty & Wahl, op. cit., no.1501, June 1881.
 Fennell, op. cit., p. 66, 22 June. 1874.
 Doughty & Wahl, op. cit., no.2502, 26 June 1881.
 All it really needs is a small carved wombat rampant; the ultimate star in Rossetti’s decorative constellation, and an unarguable signature….