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How the Pre-Raphaelites Became Obsessed with the Wombat

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Angus Trumble on Dante Gabriel Rossetti and firm’s curious however longstanding fixation with the furry oddity that’s the wombat — that “most beautiful of God’s creatures” which discovered its method into their poems, their artwork, and even, for a quick whereas, their houses.

eDante Gabriel Rossetti’s frontispiece, full with wombat, for his sister Christina’s lengthy poem Goblin Market, which incorporates the line “One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry” — Supply.

In 1857, the English artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti — central determine of the Pre-Raphaelite motion and by then a nationwide movie star — was commissioned to embellish the vaulted ceiling, higher partitions and home windows of the Oxford Union library. He mustered a big group of helpers, together with his new Oxford undergraduate associates (and future main artists) Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.

Whereas the murals have been being painted with scenes taken from Arthurian legend — slightly badly, because it turned out, as a result of they’ve since deteriorated past recognition — the glass panes of the home windows have been painted over to scale back the glare coming by way of onto the partitions. These whitewashed surfaces have been quickly coated with sketches drawn or scratched into the paint, principally depictions of 1 specific animal. The wombat.

These quickly vanished as a result of, in fact, when the frescoes have been completed the whitewash was eliminated. Edward Burne-Jones was alleged to have executed the greatest ones, and he continued to supply them for a few years. A moderately overheated Egyptological instance, proven whizzing previous the pyramids, was a lot later chosen by Woman Burne-Jones as an illustration for the a part of her memoir that dealt with the Oxford Union episode.

Recalling the massively satisfying expertise of working in the Oxford Union, one other artist — helper Val Prinsep — recalled: ‘Rossetti was the planet round which we revolved, we copied his approach of talking. All lovely ladies have been “stunners” with us. Wombats have been the most lovely of God’s creatures.’

wombat burne jonesWombat sketch by Edward Burne-Jones featured in Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones (1904) by Georgiana Burne-Jones — Supply.

How did Rossetti and his protégés come to be so obsessed with wombats?

Solely one among the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood truly visited Australia — the sculptor Thomas Woolner who, after failing to earn a correct dwelling with his artwork, emigrated there to hunt his fortune on the goldfields. The Pre-Raphaelites and their buddies met often to learn aloud from the letter–journals that Woolner despatched residence. He had no luck in any respect, and didn’t like the Australian panorama. He confided to his diary that he thought it topsy-turvy. The seasons have been the mistaken means round, as have been the occasions of day. The birds, he claimed, didn’t sing, cherries grew with their stones on the outdoors of the fruit, the timber shed their bark, not their leaves, and so forth. On one event he was shocked to come across the perfume of lilac as a result of he had made his thoughts up that Australia was scentless, barren, “a land without fruit or vegetable”. Though wombats don’t get a selected point out in the surviving letters, it’s fairly potential he introduced phrase of the unique marsupial residence with him when he moved again to England only a yr later.

In fact, the Pre-Raphaelites weren’t the first English to turn into enamoured by the uncommon creature. Wombats captured the consideration of English naturalists as quickly as they came upon about them from early settlers, explorers, and naturalists at the time of first contact. The Aboriginal phrase wombat was first recorded close to Port Jackson, and although variants resembling wombach, womback, the wom-bat and womat have been famous, the current type of the identify caught very early, from at the least 1797. Lovely drawings survive from the 1802 voyages of the Investigator and Le Géographe. Ferdinand Bauer, who sailed with Matthew Flinders, and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, who was in the rival French expedition of Nicolas Baudin, each drew the creature. These have been engraved and punctiliously studied at residence. Wombats have been admired for his or her stumpy power, their endurance, their placid, to not say congenial manners, and in addition a sort of stoic willpower. Sometimes they have been thought clumsy, insensible and even silly, however these remoted observations are out of step with the majority of nineteenth-century opinion.

wombatEngraving of wombats after a drawing by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, plate 58 in the Voyage de Découvertes aux Terres Australes (1824) by Arthus Bertrand — Supply.

From about 1803, a gentle trickle of stay wombats reached Europe. We all know there was a wombat amongst the birds and animals that have been delivered to the menagerie of the Empress Joséphine Bonaparte at Malmaison, close to Paris. One other early wombat proprietor was the English naturalist Everard Residence, whose paper on the topic, “An Account of Some Peculiarities in the Anatomical Structure of the Wombat“, appeared in March 1809 in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts. Home’s wombat, a male, was in fact caught by George Bass, probably on King Island, where we know Bass and his companions shot several other specimens. Once provoked, this particular wombat put up a splendid struggle, tearing strips off Bass’s coat sleeves and making loud “whizzing” noises. Evidently he took ages to settle down. Bass stored him alive, taken care of him properly, and despatched him to England. There, in London, he lived in what House described as “a domesticated state for two years”. The next description is not any much less charming immediately than it should have been for English scientific readers almost two centuries in the past.

[The wombat] burrowed in the floor each time it had a chance, and coated itself in the earth with shocking quickness. It was quiet throughout the day, however continuously in movement in the night time: was very smart to chilly; ate all types of greens; however was notably fond of latest hay, which it ate stalk by stalk, taking it into its mouth like a beaver, by small bits at a time. It was not wanting in intelligence, and appeared hooked up to these to whom it was accustomed, and who have been sort to it. When it noticed them, it might put up its forepaws on the knee, and when taken up would sleep in the lap. It allowed youngsters to tug and carry it about, and when it bit them didn’t seem to do it in anger or with violence.

Some misconceptions lingered for many years. In 1827 an engraver working for the museum in Newcastle had the wombat sitting up like a kangaroo, one thing that clearly escaped discover all through the galley and page-proof levels of publication.

However the most essential improvement in the institution of the wombat’s English popularity was the look in 1855 of John Gould’s de luxe The Mammals of Australia. Gould was in Australia a lot earlier, in the 1830s, and it was definitely by means of Gould that the artist Edward Lear, who illustrated Gould’s Birds however sadly not the Mammals, made an exquisite sheet of whimsical drawings of the “Inditchenous Beestes of New Olland”, a rarity which is at the moment in the assortment of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. These are plausibly correct caricatures of varied species of kangaroo and wallaby, the platypus, the “possum up his gum tree” and the Tasmanian Satan. There are additionally mad renderings of the bandicoot, echidna, and native cat, to not point out consultant appearances in the margin of the cow, the canine, the sheep, and the horse. Splendidly rotund and occupying the largest quantity of area in the direction of the backside centre of the sheet is the wombat, with “his i”.

Lear australia wombat kangarooPortraites of the inditchenous beestes of New Olland, undated drawing by Edward Lear, although possible someday throughout 1831 to 1837 when the artist spent many months at a time recording the contents of the thirteenth Earl of Derby’s well-known menagerie at Knowsley, close to Liverpool — Supply.

Gould’s 1855 description of the wombat is nearly as fascinating as Everard House’s fifty years earlier.

In its habits it’s nocturnal, dwelling in the deep stony burrows excavated by itself, throughout the day, and rising on the strategy of night, however seldom trusting itself removed from its stronghold, to which it instantly runs for security on the look of an intruder. The natives state, nevertheless, that it typically indulges in an extended ramble, and, if a river ought to cross its course, quietly walks into the water and traverses the backside of the stream till it reaches the different aspect … In its disposition it’s quiet and docile in the excessive, quickly turning into acquainted with and apparently hooked up to those who feed it; as an proof of which, I’ll point out that the two specimens which at the moment are and have been for an extended interval dwelling in the Gardens of the Zoological Society in the Regent’s Park, not solely admit the closest inspection, however could also be dealt with and scratched by all who select to make so intimate an acquaintance with them.

If not from Thomas Woolner, whose view of the Australian panorama was fairly bleak, Rossetti and his associates might properly have derived their specific enthusiasm for wombats from Gould’s or another interesting description. Or perhaps they merely fell in love with the wombats at the Regent’s Park Zoo.

In the 1860s, Rossetti typically took his buddies to go to the wombats at the zoo, typically for hours on finish. On one event Rossetti wrote to Ford Madox Brown: “Dear Brown: Lizzie and I propose to meet Georgie and Ned [the Burne-Jones] at 2 pm tomorrow at the Zoological Gardens—place of meeting, the Wombat’s Lair.” On this interval quite a lot of new wombats arrived at the Regent’s Park Zoo: a uncommon, hairy-nosed wombat on July 24, 1862, and two widespread wombats despatched from the Melbourne Zoo on March 18, 1863. Rossetti additionally made common visits with his brother, William Michael, to the Acclimatisation Society in London and its counterpart in Paris, to regulate the hairy-nosed wombats residing in each locations. This was no passing fancy.

christina rossetti wombatSketches from the zoo (presumably Regent’s Park) by Christina Rossetti, together with, in fact, at the backside a wombat, ca. 1862 — Supply.

Earlier, in 1862, Rossetti had moved to Tudor Home, at 16 Cheyne Stroll, Chelsea. Spacious, with loads of room for household and buddies together with George Meredith and the poet and semi-professional sadomasochist Algernon Charles Swinburne — who favored to slip bare down the banisters — the home had four-fifths of an acre of backyard, with lime timber and an enormous mulberry. As quickly as he arrived, Rossetti started to fill the backyard with unique birds and animals. There have been owls, two or extra armadillos, rabbits, dormice, and a racoon that hibernated in a chest of drawers. There have been peacocks, parakeets, and kangaroos and wallabies, about which we all know frustratingly little. There was a Canadian marmot or woodchuck, a Pomeranian pet referred to as Punch, an Irish deerhound referred to as Wolf, a Japanese salamander, and two laughing jackasses. We all know the neighbours have been tolerant up to some extent however Thomas Carlyle, for one, was pushed mad by the noise. At size there was a small Brahmin bull that needed to go when it chased Rossetti round the backyard, and, in September 1869, a long-awaited wombat, the end result of nicely over twelve years of enthusiasm for the unique marsupial.

Shortly earlier than this date there had been various animal deaths at Cheyne Stroll, so Rossetti raised the animal-collecting stakes significantly. In November 1867, he was negotiating with his provider of untamed animals, Charles Jamrach. His object was to buy a younger African elephant, however he balked at the worth of £400. Rossetti’s revenue for 1865 was £2000. Rossetti lastly organized to purchase a wombat, once more via Jamrach, when at size an appropriate specimen turned out there. This wombat arrived when he was away in Scotland recovering from a type of breakdown, largely precipitated by failing eyesight, insomnia, medicine, and above all his rising infatuation with Jane Morris, the spouse of his previous pal and protégé from the Oxford Union days.

A exceptional drawing of Jane Morris and the wombat in the British Museum illustrates the diploma to which lover and pet merged in Rossetti’s thoughts as objects of sanctification. Every of them wears a halo. However Jane has the wombat on a leash, and it appears clear that Rossetti additionally used his pet wombat as a cruelly comical emblem for Jane’s long-suffering, cuckolded husband. Since college days William Morris was recognized to his buddies as “Topsy”; the identify Rossetti selected for his Wombat was “Top”.

Jane Morris and Top wombatDrawing by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of Jane Morris and Prime, 1869 — Supply.

Nonetheless shaky, Rossetti couldn’t wait to get again to Chelsea from freezing Scotland. He wrote to Jane the following mock-heroic strains:

Oh! How the household affections fight
Inside this coronary heart; and every hour flings a bomb at
My burning soul; neither from owl nor from bat
Can peace be gained, till I clasp my wombat!

In the meantime, inside days, Rossetti’s sister, Christina, had despatched him breathless verses in Italian entitled “O Uommibatto”, during which she described the animal as “agil, giocondo” (nimble, cheerful), in addition to “irsuto e tondo” (bushy and spherical). Writing from Scotland a number of days later, Rossetti requested his brother William Michael additionally to thank Christina for the “shrine in the Italian taste, which she has reared for the wombat. I fear his habits tend inveterately to drain architecture … It appears the wombat follows people all over the house!” Eventually, Rossetti returned to London on September 20, and the subsequent day wrote to William Michael his most well-known and suggestive comment about the new addition to his menagerie: “The wombat is a joy, a triumph, a delight, a madness.” Sadly, the poor wombat was additionally an invalid.

rossetti wombatChristina Rossetti’s “O Uommibatto” wombat poem as revealed in the Sydney paper The Bulletin, Vol. 25 No. 1262 (21 Apr 1904) — Supply.

From the starting, William Michael had sensed that one thing was fallacious: “I went round to see the beast, which is the most lumpish and incapable of wombats, with an air of baby objectlessness — not much more than half-grown probably. He is much addicted to following one about the room, and nestling up against one, and nibbling one’s calves or trousers.” Prime the wombat additionally acquired on nicely with the different animals, notably the rabbits.

Quickly, nevertheless, Prime was ailing. William Michael wrote: “The wombat shows symptoms of some malady of the mange-kind, and he is attended by a dog doctor.” The subsequent day: “Saw the wombat again at Chelsea. I much fear he shows already decided symptoms of loss of sight which effects so many wombats.” At size, on November 6, the wombat died. Rossetti had him stuffed and afterwards displayed in the entrance corridor.

Rossetti’s well-known self-portrait with Prime, the deceased wombat, is satirical however was apparently prompted by real grief. The accompanying verses are bleak certainly:

I by no means reared a younger wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
However when he most was candy and fats
And tailless, he was positive to die!

Dante Gabriel Rossetti wombat Top Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s self-portrait with his deceased wombat Prime — Supply.

These verses are the truth is Rossetti’s parody of the opening strains of “The Fire Worshippers” a poem that appeared in a curious, however massively in style novel by Thomas Moore referred to as Lallah Rookh, revealed in 1817, which is all about the betrothal of the Emperor’s daughter to a overseas prince, and the journey she undertook from Delhi to Kashmir to satisfy her future husband. On the means she meets a ravishing minstrel with whom she falls in love and, in fact, it seems in the finish that he’s none aside from the prince in disguise. These strains are sung by Lallah Rookh:

I by no means nurs’d an expensive gazelle
To glad me with its smooth black eye,
However when it got here to know me properly
And love me, it was positive to die!

The substitution of the wombat for Lallah Rookh’s unique gazelle is typical of Rossetti’s self-indulgent humour, and he clearly had no hassle adapting for himself the temper of a lovelorn oriental princess.

Throughout its brief life, the first of Rossetti’s two pet wombats secured a exceptional place in the mythology of his circle of associates. Rossetti gleefully reported to William Bell Scott on September 28, 1869 that the wombat had successfully interrupted an extended and dreary monologue from John Ruskin by patiently burrowing between the eminent critic’s jacket and waistcoat. This should have been a marvellous factor to observe occur. A lot later, James McNeill Whistler invented a foolish story about how the wombat had perished after consuming a whole field of cigars. Ford Madox Brown thought that Rossetti’s behavior of bringing the wombat to dinner and letting it sleep in the giant épergne or centrepiece on the eating room desk impressed the dormouse in the tea-pot incident at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Celebration in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That is the truth is unimaginable as a result of Lewis Carroll wrote that chapter in 1863, and the novel with its well-known illustrations by John Tenniel was revealed two years later in 1865. There have been additionally tales circulating about the wombat’s weight-reduction plan of women’ carelessly discarded straw hats, and so forth.

Max Beerbohm Rossetti“Mr William Bell Scott Wondering What It is Those Fellows Seem to See in Gabriel”, from Max Beerbohm’s Rossetti and his Circle (1922) — Supply.

A few years later, recalling the excessive jinks at Cheyne Stroll, Max Beerbohm devised a collection of ridiculous caricatures, with the backyard menagerie as the setting. We have no idea if this weird animal with monumental floppy ears was Beerbohm’s weird tribute to the wombat, nevertheless it appears attainable.

In the brief time period, the Canadian woodchuck made up for Rossetti’s failure to protect his two pet wombats. The woodchuck lasted for much longer. For a very long time it was mistaken for the wombat. On February 9, 1871, William Bell Scott noticed the woodchuck nestling in Rossetti’s lap and made an enthralling pencil drawing on Cheyne Stroll letterhead. He all the time assumed it was a wombat. I might say that it was, the truth is, the woodchuck that slept peacefully in the épergne in the center of the dining-room desk, not the wombat.

Rossetti's Wombat woodchuckRossetti’s Wombat Seated in his Grasp’s Lap (1871), by William Bell Scott — Supply.

Certainly it’s the very concept of the wombat, not a lot the creature himself, that persistently captured the creativeness of tourists to Cheyne Stroll, and stood out amongst the numerous Bohemian props with which Rossetti surrounded himself. The wombat craze of the 1850s and 1860s, whereas confined to a comparatively small group of pals, represents an interesting by-product of the British colonisation of Australia.

Australian birds and animals have been very seldom famous in the London press. Palmer’s index to the Occasions newspaper lists just one reference every to a possum and an echidna in the entire extent of the nineteenth century, whereas kangaroos are likewise seldom talked about — although the few mentions are so weird that they’re value repeating.

The primary reference got here in February 1834 and anxious an previous lady who, dwelling alone in a home on Citadel Hill in South London, awoke one morning to seek out

a wierd animal mendacity at her again, with certainly one of its paws laid over her shoulder. Screaming with affright, she left her mattress, and seizing a towel, she beat it with all her may, when, with one sure, it sprang to the furthest nook of the room, and at size took refuge in one other mattress which stood in the similar condo.

This slightly nonchalant kangaroo turned out to have escaped from Mr Wombwell’s Wild Beast Present, which had these days occupied The Mound.

The second reference comes sixteen years later, in October 1850, and likewise considerations a kangaroo escapee, this time from a menagerie that belonged to a newly-elected Member of Parliament, W. J. Evelyn, of Wotton, close to Dorking in West Surrey. Elevating the alarm, Evelyn referred to as out the native hunt, replete with huntsmen, a pack of beagles, whippers-in and so forth. The kangaroo sought refuge in a spot referred to as the Duke of Norfolk’s Copse, however was flushed out and cornered at Abinger Rectory. The report is value quoting:

Right here the animal’s peculiar mode of development was exhibited in a method which astonished the area—a singular succession of leaps carrying it over the floor at a fee completely startling. Those that have been nicely mounted alone have been enabled to go the tempo, they usually speedily discovered themselves at the prime of Leith Hill, the place the kangaroo took to the street, and for a few mile and a half all of them dashed alongside, “the field” quickly augmenting in numbers as they proceeded of their novel chase.

Against this with these uncommon sightings of kangaroos, as a curiosity in Britain, the wombat, “the most beautiful of God’s creatures”, appears to have attracted much more consideration than another Australian animal, and reached into the recesses of the creativeness — a minimum of amongst that group of artists who in the 1850s and 1860s clustered round Dante Gabriel Rossetti.


Angus Trumble is a former Director of the Nationwide Portrait Gallery in Canberra. Beforehand he was Senior Curator of Work and Sculpture at the Yale Middle for British Artwork in New Haven, Connecticut, and, earlier than that, Curator of European Artwork at the Artwork Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide.


Public Area Works

  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Illustrated Memorial of his Artwork and Life (1899) by Henry Currie Marillier.
  • Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones (1904) by Georgiana Burne-Jones.
  • Rossetti and His Circle (1922) by Max Beerbohm.
  • Goblin Market, and Different Poems by Christina Rossetti.
  • An Account of Some Peculiarities in the Anatomical Construction of the Wombat (1808) by Edward House.
  • Mammals of Australia (1863) by John Gould.

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