“How the Pre-Raphaelites Became Obsessed with the Wombat”*

From: Penelope Fitzgerald – a Life (2013) by Hermione Lee:

“…(Fitzgerald) went to every exhibition and every gallery she could reach where there was Pre-Raphaelite or nineteenth-century art, and her pursuit of Burne-Jones’s stained glass in churches and cathedrals all over the country was pleasure, as much as research. Mavis Batey remembered a funny search with her for Burne-Jones’s trademark wombats in the Christ Church cathedral windows; Jasmine Blakeway remembered looking for Burne-Jones in Salisbury Cathedral, and Penelope’s saying: “You’d think I could find a Burne-Jones window with my eyes shut.” Edward Burne-Jones (1975) was the beginning of her public, recognised literary career. But it also came out of a lifetime’s interest. In her will, she would leave her friend and publisher Stuart Proffitt her copy of Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture: he took it as an emblem of her life’s values.”

Fiona MacCarthy, biographer of Edward Burne-Jones (2011), wrote:

“In 1878 Burne-Jones designed two pairs of angels – Angeli Ministrantes and Angeli Laudantes – to be made in stained glass for Salisbury Cathedral. He invoiced these as “four colossal and sublime figures of Angels”, which indeed they are. In the early 1890s these designs were adapted to make tapestries.”

*Angus Trumble, former Director of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, wrote in The Public Domain Review of 10.1.2019:

“In 1857, the English artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti — central figure of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and by then a national celebrity — was commissioned to decorate the vaulted ceiling, upper walls, and windows of the Oxford Union library. He mustered a large group of helpers, including his new Oxford undergraduate friends (and future leading artists) Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.

While the murals were being painted with scenes taken from Arthurian legend — rather badly, as it turned out, because they have since deteriorated beyond recognition — the glass panes of the windows were painted over to reduce the glare coming through onto the walls. These whitewashed surfaces were soon covered with sketches drawn or scratched into the paint, mostly depictions of one particular animal. The wombat.

These soon vanished because, of course, when the frescoes were finished the whitewash was removed. Edward Burne-Jones was supposed to have done the best ones, and he continued to produce them for many years. A rather overheated Egyptological example, shown whizzing past the pyramids, was much later chosen by Lady Burne-Jones as an illustration for the part of her memoir that dealt with the Oxford Union episode.

…During its short life, the first of Rossetti’s two pet wombats secured a remarkable place in the mythology of his circle of friends. Rossetti gleefully reported to William Bell Scott on September 28, 1869, that the wombat had effectively interrupted a long and dreary monologue from John Ruskin by patiently burrowing between the eminent critic’s jacket and waistcoat. This must have been a marvellous thing to watch happen. Much later, James McNeill Whistler invented a silly story about how the wombat had perished after eating an entire box of cigars. Ford Madox Brown thought that Rossetti’s habit of bringing the wombat to dinner and letting it sleep in the large épergne or centrepiece on the dining room table inspired the dormouse in the tea-pot incident at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This is in fact impossible because Lewis Carroll wrote that chapter in 1863, and the novel, with its famous illustrations by John Tenniel, was published two years later in 1865. There were also stories circulating about the wombat’s diet of ladies’ carelessly discarded straw hats, and so on…”

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