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Art History in the Pub

— February 2014

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, 1864-70. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Art History in the Pub is back for 2014 – Monday 24 February, 7.30p.m.

The extent of Pre-Raphaelite participation in the cult of spiritualism has never been thoroughly recognized. Above all, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was driven by a guilty passion to re-establish contact with his dead wife Elizabeth Siddal and an understanding of that passion provides a key to the interpretation of several major poems and pictures. This talk traces the degree to which Rossetti was encouraged by the widespread spiritualist cult of the 1860s.

Since her death in 1862, Rossetti had felt the ghostly presence of Elizabeth Siddal, adding her presence to several ‘bogie’ pictures including  Beata Beatrix. The climax of his spiritualist activity, however, occurred in the annus terribilis of 1868. His affair with Jane Morris intensified his guilt about his dead wife, producing strong psycho-pathological symptoms. This state of mind was exacerbated by a friend’s suggestion that his manuscript poems might be wrested from Siddal’s coffin in Highgate Cemetery. At this point Rossetti turned temporarily from painting and back to poetry, embarking on one of his most important yet enigmatic sonnet sequences, ‘Willowwood’. In the light of these events and underpinned by Freud’s famous paper, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, the sonnets that go to make up ‘Willowwood’ can be seen as directly linked to the spiritualist activity in Cheyne Walk.

Barrie Bullen is Professor Emeritus of Reading University and currently Chair of English Literature and Culture in the Department of English Literature, Royal Holloway, University of London. He is author of Raising the Dead: Spiritualism and the Poetry and Art of Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Curated by Christina Bradstreet (Sotheby's Institute of Art) who is the current Guest Curator for Art History in the Pub.

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