The Rossettis at The Tate: A Feast of Poetry and Painting

Words by
Lisa Barnard

31st August 2023

If opulence, sensuality and a riot of voluminous, auburn hair are your thing, there is still time to visit The Rossettis at The Tate, a Pre-Raphaelite extravaganza, before the exhibition closes at Tate Britain on 24 September. Lisa Barnard selects some of the highlights and our advice to SPHERE readers is: Catch This While You Can.

Rossettis Tate La Ghirlandata Dante Gabriel Rossetti
La Ghirlandata, Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1873

The Rossettis at The Tate

The Rossettis exhibition at The Tate throws a spotlight on the three best-known protagonists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, the poet Christina Rossetti, the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the artist Elizabeth Siddal, who married Gabriel and deserved to be better known in their day. It is a deep dive exploration into the fascinating story and rich creative output of this extraordinary family. The exhibition ambitiously combines poetry and painting, including sensor-operated audio readings from the gallery floor of Rossetti’s verse, which unfurls in script across the walls.

Rossettis Tate The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1848-9, featuring Christina and mother Frances

The Rossettis: A Family Affair

Crikey, what a family! The father Gabriele was a political refugee from Abruzzi in Italy, who no doubt ignited the fire in the cultural and conceptual bosom of the family. There were four children growing up in mid-19th century London, although William and Maria play cameo roles in this exhibition. Art and poetry, along with doctrine, featured in Christina and Gabriel’s lives since children (Gabriel was his given name, and he adopted Dante as a teenager). They both had radical social agendas: Christina supported former prostitutes through her charitable activities and her brother took to painting such women on the street. Sometimes the two siblings collaborated together. Christina appears as the Virgin Mary in her brother’s daring interpretation of The Annunciation, and in Gabriel’s first Pre-Raphaelite painting, he pairs a poem and picture of the same name, casting Christina and their mother Frances, as Mary and St Anne.

Highlights of the The Rossettis at Tate Britain

We select some of the must-see works for SPHERE readers

Rossettis Tate Found Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Found, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1859. A

Found, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1859

A chance encounter between a “fallen woman”, crouching on the pavement by Westminster Bridge and her former lover, a farmer taking his captive calf to market.  The woman is at a crossroads – will she be rescued by her childhood sweetheart or continue in her low life? We will never find out how the story ended. One of the most moving paintings by Rossetti, some may class as sentimental, and based on William Bell Scott’s poem “Rosabell”, it encapsulates the Rossettis’ empathy for the plight of such women, their championing of social justice and their anti-establishment stance in the contect of a new Victorian era.

The Raven Angel Footfalls, Rossetti, Edgard Allen Poe
The Raven: Angel Footfalls, D G Rossetti, 1846 inspired by Poe

The Raven: Angel Footfalls, D G Rossetti, 1846

Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s poem ‘The Raven’ this is a series of drawings, distinct in style, which became a defining moment in DGR’s artistic career. Above and below, two pen and wash drawings. The illustrations are keyed to different passages of Poe’s poem and were drawn at different times.

Rossetti Tate Angel Footfalls, DG Rosetti The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe 1848
Angel Footfalls, DGR’s illustration of The Raven poem by Poe 1848

Beata Beatrix, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864-70

DGR was obsessed about the Florentine poet, Dante Alighieri - their father was a lifelong scholar and translator of his works. So it was hardly surprising that DGR turned to Dante Alighieri to express his grief over the death of Elizabeth Siddall, his wife, muse and collaborator, inspired by Alighieri's despair over the death of Beatrice, his unrequited love. The result is a portrait of Elizabeth in the character of Beatrice. Haunting and hazy, Dante hovers in the background as an angel. In the distance shimmers Florence’s Ponte Vecchio. Beatrice’s doom is symbolised by a red dove with an opium poppy, poignantly clasped in its beak. Siddall died of an overdose of laudanum, an opiate addiction, which was not uncommon, but not widely known. 

Rossetti Tate Beata Beatrix, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddall
Beata Beatrix, Elizabeth Siddall as Beatrice, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864-70

The Beloved, ‘The Bride’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 1865-6

Illustrating lines from the Bible Song of Solomen: “My Beloved is mine and I am his”, the ornate goddess-like bride, dressed in an exotic kimono and a Chinese head-dress is centre stage, unveiling herself to meet her groom. The King (whom we do not see, the viewer takes his place). Her adorned attendants surround the bride and the boy, reminiscent of Manet's Oympia, offers her the King’s gift of a vase of roses. The painting departs from the biblical geographical setting; the bride is white and the boy is black. It is no surprise that The Tate has been careful to head off any colonial sensitivities in this painting's symbolism, as expressed in the accompanying caption: “Viewed today the work is sometimes seen as idealising whiteness.”  

Rossettis Tate The Beloved, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Beloved, ‘The Bride’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 1865-6

Dantis Amor, Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1860

Dante Gabriel Rossetti had a life-long relationship with William and Jane Morris. When the couple moved into their new home The Red House, he created a set of three medieval-style panels to decorate a chair, inspired by Dante Alighieri’s poem ‘The New Life’. In 'Dantis Amor' he evoked Beatrice’s death, with his love represented by the sun and moon. In an interesting take, DGR boldly modelled Christ on himself and Beatrice on Elizabeth.

Dantis Amor, Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1860
Dantis Amor, Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1860

Jane Morris 1868, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Caption Jane Morris 1868, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Caption Jane Morris 1868, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Rosetti was not just friends with the Morris’s. He became the lover of Jane “Janey” Morris, and this intensified after the couple moved to London to be closer to their burgeoning design firm. The young Mrs Morris was a frequent visitor to DGR’s house and studio in Cheyne Walk and often modelled for him, including this chalk work. The affair ended in 1876, largely due to Rossetti’s decline in mental health.

SPHERE Verdict: Why Visit The Rossettis at The Tate?


Proserphine, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1877
Proserphine, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1877

The Rossettis are not to everyone’s taste – for some, the Pre-Raphaelites are perhaps too cloying and unsubtle. Personally, I loved this exhibition and came away uplifted and sated by the rich tapestry, the echoing verse, the love of romance and the captivating tale of this family. It is closely focused on the three Rossetti protagonists and I would have liked to learn more about the ideas behind the Pre-Raphaelite movement and their role in a wider context. That would give a more complete experience. But if an exhibition inspires you to explore more about its topics, that is no bad thing. SPHERE verdict: Catch This While You Can.


The Rossettis, Radical Romatics, Tate Britain, Until 24 Sept