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Lot 30: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

Important British Art

by Christie's

November 24, 2004

London, United Kingdom

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Description: Monna Rosa
signed with monogram and date '1867' (lower right)
pencil and watercolour heightened with bodycolour
22 1/2 x 16 in. (57 x 40.7 cm.)

Notes: THE PROPERTY OF A LADY

This picture is a watercolour version of Rossetti's portrait of Mrs F.R. Leyland, executed in oil on panel in 1867 (see Virginia Surtees, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Catalogue Raisonné, Oxford, 1971, no. 198, pl. 289). A wealthy Liverpool shipowner, Frederick Leyland (fig. 1) was a key figure in the development of the Aesthetic movement. He was not an altogether attractive character. A ruthless self-made businessman who masked his humble origins behind a chilling reserve, he was highly unpopular in Liverpool on account of his commercial practices, and his marriage ended in divorce. Nor was his taste in pictures beyond reproach. Like many men of his type, he tended to like large important works, which he acquired at least partly as status symbols. Nonetheless, he had a genuine feeling for painting, and was prepared to listen to those who knew more about it than himself. He began his career as a collector by buying conventional pictures of the day, and it was Rossetti who directed his energies into more adventurous channels. He was also heavily dependent on the marchands amateurs Murray Marks and Charles Augustus Howell. With their guidance and that of the architect Norman Shaw, he was to create two great Aesthetic interiors in London houses in the Knightsbridge area, at 22 Queen's Gate from 1868 and at 49 Prince's Gate from 1874. The latter was a particularly sumptuous scheme, in which he realised his dream of living 'the life of an old Venetian merchant in modern London'. He also had a fine country house, Speke Hall, near Liverpool.

By the time Leyland died in 1892, he had amassed a superb collection of paintings by Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Albert Moore, Whistler and others, as well as some fine old masters. Whistler painted both him and Mrs Leyland in 1873 (fig. 2). He also executed the celebrated Peacock Room at Prince's Gate, a brilliant piece of interior decoration but the cause of a bitter quarrel between these two overweening egotists. Rossetti and Burne-Jones fared better. Rossetti was still engaged on work for Leyland at his death in 1882, and Burne-Jones had commissions from Leyland on his easel when the shipowner himself succumbed a decade later.

Rossetti's portrait of Mrs Leyland was painted the year before the move to 22 Queen's Gate. Aesthetic values were rapidly gaining currency, and the portrait was treated accordingly. Far from being a character study or an expression of the sitter's personality, it was essentially an object designed to take its place in a carefully contrived decorative ensemble. As Rossetti himself described it, 'the lady, richly dressed, is cutting a rose to put it in her hair'. To distance it from conventional portraiture, the picture was called Monna Rosa, 'the lady of the rose', and associated by Rossetti with some lines of poetry by Poliziano. Indicative, too, is the impersonal way in which Rossetti wrote of the sitter to her husband. 'I have now given the figure a flowing white and gold drapery, which I think comes remarkably well, and suits the head perfectly'. Not much searching for the inner woman here. Indeed, this 'white and gold drapery' seems to have been the same that Rossetti had used a year earlier for Monna Vanna (fig. 3), one of his most grandiose Aesthetic works aptly described by the artist as 'perhaps the most effective (picture) as a room decoration that I have ever painted'. A very similar piece of white-and-gold damask plays an equally prominent role in Frederic Leighton's Noble Lady of Venice (fig. 4). This had been exhibited in London in 1865, and may well have been known to Rossetti, prompting similar effects in the two 'Monnas' of 1866 and 1867.

Nor does this exhaust the list of the portrait's Aesthetic attributes. The rose bush grows from a blue-and-white Chinese porcelain jar decorated with the familiar prunus-blossom pattern. The association of Aestheticism with blue-and-white need hardly be stressed. It was one of the movement's defining characteristics, and both Rossetti and Whistler were passionate pioneer collectors, firing the enthusiasm of men who either became fellow collectors (Leyland, Sir Henry Thompson, the Newcastle industrialist James Leathart) or leading dealers in the field (Murray Marks). A number of pieces from Rossetti's own collection survive (fig. 5), and several were shown at the Rossetti Exhibition mounted at Liverpool last winter. Other details in the picture expressive of Aesthetic taste are the bamboo and red-lacquer stand which holds the blue-and-white jar and the peacock-feather fan hanging on the wall. We are already in a world that George du Maurier would ridicule week after week in Punch a decade later and Gilbert and Sullivan send up in their comic opera Patience (1881).

Our picture is signed and dated 1867, the same year as the oil. It must therefore either be exactly contemporary or, more likely, a fraction later. Rossetti's letter to Leyland setting out his proposals for the original is dated 18 June 1867, leaving a good six months for the completion of both versions.

Although the signature shows clearly enough that Rossetti accepted the picture as his, there are certain passages, such as the handling of the arm, that suggest there may have been some studio intervention. The case is very similar to that of the version of The Loving Cup that was sold in these Rooms on 26 November last year (lot 17). The original painting (National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo) was again an oil painted in 1867 for Leyland, and our version was one of three, all watercolours, painted the same year. It was not only signed and dated by Rossetti but further inscribed by him on the back. Yet the other two watercolours have been attributed in part to Rossetti's assistants, one to W.J. Knewstub, the other to H.T. Dunn.

Psychology also plays a part in these discriminations. The model for the oil version of The Loving Cup, easily recognisable from her frequent appearance in Rossetti's work, was Alexa Wilding, but the watercolours all show the more homely features of Ellen Smith, a laundry-maid of uncertain virtue who sat to many artists at this time. Similarly the model for the present picture does not seem to be Mrs Leyland but a more generic type of Pre-Raphaelite beauty.

The picture has a very good provenance. Although it did not appear in Rossetti's studio sale held at Christie's in May 1883, a year after his death, the auction house sold it immediately afterwards to Agnew's, together with another work by Rossetti, an illustration to the story of St George. Perhaps Rossetti's brother William Michael was disposing of works in this way. Certainly it suggests that the watercolour version of Monna Rosa remained in the artist's possession until his death.

The following year the picture was included in Agnew's annual watercolour exhibition and bought by John Sanderson, a wealthy banker and wool-merchant whose house, Bullers Wood, at Christchurch, Hampshire, had been decorated by the firm of William Morris. Obviously it was the perfect complement to an interior of this kind, rich in Morris wallpapers and carpets, and it can be seen hanging on the left-hand wall of the drawing-room in an old photograph (fig. 6). Bullers Wood has since been turned into a school, but the picture has descended in the Sanderson family to this day.

The picture was included in the Rossetti exhibition held at the Royal Academy and the Birmingham Art Gallery in 1973, the first such attempt at a re-appraisal inspired by the Victorian revival and the only exhibition solely devoted to Rossetti until the recent show at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

We are grateful to Virginia Surtees and Dr Elizabeth Prettejohn for their help in preparing this catalogue entry.

No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 17.5% will be added to the buyer's premium which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis

Provenance: Bought by Agnew's through Christie's, 1883 (see below).
with Agnew's, London, 1884.
Bought by John Sanderson from Agnew's that year, and by descent to the present owner.

Artist or Maker: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

Exhibited: London, Agnew's, Annual Watercolour Exhibition, 1884, no. 72.
London, Royal Academy, and Birmingham, Museum and Art Gallery, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painter and Poet, 1973, no. 315.
Sheffield, The City Museum and Art Gallery, August 1979-April 2004, on loan.
Sheffield, Ruskin's Century, 1989.

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