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Rossetti drawing will go on show at Fitzwilliam Museum after 150 years

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A chalk drawing by 19th century British pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti is to go on display at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. A museum spokesman said he could not estimate the current value of the drawing it is about to display, but said it was «priceless to us».

The artwork, called Ricorditi Di Me, Che Son La Pia (from Dante’s Purgatorio) was snapped up for £75 after being discovered in Edinburgh.


Rossetti produced the preparatory drawing for his oil painting Pia de' Tolomei late in his career, in 1868. The artist depicted one of his favourite models, Alexa Wilding, a dressmaker, whom he first met in the street in London and was captivated by her flowing auburn hair.

The subject is inspired by Dante’s Purgatorio. The woman, La Pia, is one of the souls that Dante encounters on his journey through purgatory. Unfortunately for Pia, her husband, Nello d’Inghiramo de Pannocchieschi, ordered her to be executed so that he would be free to marry his mistress at the time, who was the Contessa of Sovana and Pitigliano.
Rossetti worked on La Pia from 1868 to 1881. The final painting is now in the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas.
In 1881, Rossetti came to complete the final work and used Jane Morris, the wife of textile designer William Morris, as the model this time around. The pre-Raphaelite artist had fallen passionately in love with her. Rossetti wanted the world to believe the fantasy that he was deceiving himself — that Morris kept Jane against her will (he continued this theme in the famous Proserpine).

By the way, «Proserpine» was sold for £3,274,500 ($5,275,000) at Sotheby’s auction in London in 2013, setting a new record for the artist.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Proserpine
Proserpine
1878, 77.5×37.5 cm
The drawing was found in Robert Aitken’s shop in Edinburgh in 1956 by Sir Ivor Batchelor, professor of psychiatry at Dundee University, and his wife Honor, who spent decades collecting fine and decorative arts. It is part of an exceptional collection from the couple’s bequest, through the Art Fund, which is to go on display at the Fitzwilliam museum, Cambridge.

In an essay, Sir Ivor wrote that it was «a red letter day» when he purchased the «very fine and very large drawing».
Rossetti was «quite famous for his use of models, he had very obsessive relationships with his models». He had an affair with Jane Morris and «absolutely loved her», Ms Ward said, and had been «obsessed» with Wilding’s «bright auburn hair and her beautiful face». She had, according to a description by Rossetti’s assistant, «a lovely face, beautifully moulded in every feature, full of quiescent, soft mystical repose». Rossetti declared she had the type of face he had been seeking for so long.
The drawing shows Wilding sitting with her head tilted slightly back. He painted her many times, paying her a retainer to model for him alone, and she posed for some of his finest late works, including The Bower Meadow (1872) and The Blessed Damozel (1875−78).
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Pia de Tolomei. Sketch
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Pia de Tolomei (Jane Morris)
  • Alex Wilding for “Pie de Tolomei” from the Fitzwilliam Museum collection, 1868.
  • Jane Morris. This chalk sketch×A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
    So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? read more
    is kept in a private collection.
It shows that at that time Rossetti had come close to the final composition for the painting, which would eventually show Jane Morris, with her head hanging forward in a brooding, melancholy pose.
The drawing is still in its original frame and curators working at the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge have discovered a note by Rossetti on the back of the drawing which gives precise instructions for how it should be cared for, with the message reading, «This drawing not being ‘set' it will require the greatest care of the fragile nature of the pastel if ever removed from its frame."

As the museum’s Ms. Ward has noted, «It's quite nice that he put that little warning note.»
Gallery technicians install Ricorditi di me che son la Pia (from Dante’s Purgatorio) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA
Rossetti drawing will be on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum from December 4, 2018 until March 3, 2018 as a part of an exhibition called «Collecting And Giving: Highlights From The Sir Ivor And Lady Batchelor Bequest

Sir Ivor Batchelor died in 2005 aged 88. Lady Batchelor died in 2014. The couple first made contact with the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1990 and generously donated objects from their collection over the following decade. This will be the first time items from the Batchelor bequest are exhibited together.

The Fitzwilliam exhibition featured 86 objects from the overall collection of 461 items. Highlights from the collection will be on display for the first time, including drawings by Rossetti, John Ruskin, William Orpen, Walter Sickert and Gwen John, as well as stoneware, glass, bronze and pieces of English pottery.

Also in the display is a 26.7in (68cm) bronze statue of Perseus by Sir Alfred Gilbert, who famously sculpted Eros in Piccadilly Circus.

Left: Gallery technician Tim Matthews dusts a bronze statue of Greek hero Perseus by Sir Alfred Gilbert Credit: Joe Giddens/ PA

Based on materials from BBC, The Guardian, Fitzwilliam Museum official site.

Title illustration: The drawing by Dante Gabriel Rossetti «Pia de' Tolomei», 1868.
Artists mentioned in the article
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Biography • Artworks
William Morris Hunt
Biography • Artworks
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