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Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828–1882

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Letters to Ellen Heaton, 1855-1875.

Physical Description:
53 letters (1 box)
Rare Books and Manuscripts
MSS 47
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
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Copyright Status:
Copyright Not Evaluated
Related Content:
View a description and listing of collection contents in the finding aid
Archives & Manuscripts
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was an English poet, painter and translator. In 1848, alongside William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and others, Rossetti founded the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, a group of English painters, poets and critics. The Pre-Raphaelites sought to reform British art through a return to honest simplicity and the use of luminous colors and literary themes. In addition to his drawing and paintings, Rossetti was a prolific writer, publishing many of his own poems and sonnets and producing a number of translations of Italian medieval poetry, including that of Dante Alighieri.
The recipient of the letters, Ellen Heaton (1816-1894), was a Leeds based art collector and philanthropist. Heaton began collecting art after inheriting a significant amount of money and property following the deaths of her parents. Heaton's attention was first drawn to Rossetti's work by John Ruskin, a friend of Heaton's and someone from whom she often sought art collecting advice. Heaton was among the first to commission work by Rossetti and patronized, or considered patronizing, work by other artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, including Arthur Hughes, J.W. Inchbold and Edward Burne-Jones. Heaton was often referred to as having had a unique personality. In an 1863 letter to his father, Ruskin wrote, “Miss Heaton is -- Miss Heaton, and always will be” (Sublime and Instructive, 151). Heaton was friendly with a number of writers and artists of her era, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. Heaton never married. She traveled extensively throughout Great Britain and Europe, often with her domestic partner, Fanny Haworth. In addition to her direct support of artists through commissioned paintings and drawings, Heaton engaged in acts of cultural philanthropy, including providing the financial means for working men to attend lectures and supporting impoverished lace artisans in Leeds.
This collection is open without restriction.
The letters are transcribed in: The correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti / edited by William E. Fredeman. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK ; Rochester, NY : D.S. Brewer, 2002-2009.
Related material: John Ruskin Letters to Ellen Heaton (MSS 46), Yale Center for British Art, Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts.
The material passed from Ellen Heaton to her nephew John Heaton, and subsequently to his brother Beresford Heaton, then to Katherine Ogilvy Heaton, and finally to Elizabeth Maud Sackville Robertson. Sold at auction, Christie, Manson & Woods, July 16, 1969 (see catalog entry no. 117).
The collection comprises 57 letters from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Ellen Heaton written from 1855 to 1875 (the bulk from 1855 to 1864). The letters primarily pertain to works by Rossetti, including a number of his works commissioned by Heaton. Works referenced include: Beata Beatrix, Beloved, Bethlehem Gate, Dante's dream at the time of the death of Beatrice, Dante's vision of Rachel and Leah, How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival were fed with the Sanct Grael; but Sir Percival's sister died by the way, Joan of Arc, Mary in the house of St. John, Salutation of Beatrice, and St. George and the Princess Sabra. The letters reflect Heaton's reputation as an important collector and patron. Rossetti recommends (and, in some instances, requests) that she acquire work by many other artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, including Arthur Hughes, William Holman Hunt and Ford Maddox Brown.
Rossetti's financial conduct and affairs are made apparent through his detailed instructions for Heaton regarding payment methods and frequency, his justifications for the price of works and his commentary on associations with art dealers and other patrons, including Thomas Plint, Walter Dunlop and the influential art critic John Ruskin. In addition to his business dealings, these letters offer insights into Rossetti's artistic process. In one letter, Rossetti expresses his relative displeasure for painting specially commissioned subjects, which often “never interested” him, and articulates his preference for painting subjects of his own devising (1856 March 12). Also evident in the correspondence is Rossetti's penchant for frequently altering his drawings and paintings, a trait which, in a letter to Ellen Heaton, Ruskin complained often resulted in these works developing “odd faults” (John Ruskin letter to Ellen Heaton, 1855 November 8). Rossetti's motivations behind his artistic decisions and alterations are described. For instance, Rossetti justifies his alteration of the size of Dante's feet in Dante's Dream on the Day of the Death of Beatrice as correcting their previous state of “being (I know not by what hallucination of my part) of the canoe class in shape and size” (1863 November 21). Another letter conveys his impatience to amend the “incautious use of red lead” in St. George and the Princess Sabra (1863 June 25).
Rossetti expounds upon his thoughts on art and literature, recommending particular exhibitions, texts and works to Heaton. He encourages her to visit an 1856 exhibition of William Ward, Earl of Dudley's collection at the Egyptian Hall, London and -- in the same year -- recommends the works of Giotto on display at the Crystal Palace, London as the “finest sacred art I ever saw” (1856 May 12). The letters also convey the importance placed by Rossetti upon the contemporary British artistic and literary cultural scene and record his musings about his place within it. Rossetti makes frequent references to his and Heaton's mutual friends, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and gives his opinion that their writing is “glorious” and “almost beyond anything for exhaustless poetic resource,” respectively (1865 November 13 and 1856 November 21). Rossetti explicates his philosophy that, while admiring the work of his contemporaries, he does not believe that artists should depict literary scenes created by writers working in their own period, remarking that he “never illustrate[s] modern writers as a rule, though once or twice I have done so with Browning only, from especial love of him. Such mingling of contemporary ideas is like the intermarriage of the same families, sure to lead to degeneracy” (1863 May 22).
Rossetti makes frequent reference to John Ruskin, who initially introduced Heaton to Rossetti's work. The important role played by Ruskin in facilitating the relationships between the Pre-Raphaelites and their patrons is apparent; often, Rossetti desires Ruskin to view and approve of his completed works before sending them on to Heaton. In the second letter in the series, Rossetti expresses his indebtedness to Ruskin for first drawing Heaton's attention to his work.
The correspondence also reveals the increasingly prominent role played by photography in documenting and distributing art as well as the limitations of the technology available. Rossetti frequently responds to Heaton's requests to have works photographed with the opinion that the subject in question will not photograph well. At one stage, Rossetti proclaims the attempt to photograph Dante's dream at the time of the death of Beatrice as a “bogie with a vengeance,” bemoaning the darkening of one side of the image, arising as a result of “bungling.”
In some of the letters, sections of the page have been removed. These are often pieces containing Rossetti's crest and monograph, or his autograph signature. Presumably, Heaton wished to preserve these especially and in one letter Rossetti begrudgingly agrees to send samples of his signature to her, despite his “real horror of autography” (1863 November 21).
The letters are arranged chronologically. Item numbering corresponds to that given in Fredeman.
Subject Terms:
Art -- Collectors and collecting.
Art appreciation.
Ashburton, Louisa, Lady, 1827-1903.
Barrett, Arabella, -1868.
Brown, Ford Madox, 1821-1893.
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett, 1806-1861.
Browning, Robert, 1812-1889.
Burne-Jones, Edward Coley, 1833-1898.
Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321.
Heaton, Ellen, 1816-1894 -- Correspondence.
Hughes, Arthur, 1832-1915.
Hunt, William Holman, 1827-1910.
Millais, John Everett, 1829-1896.
Morris, Jane, 1839-1914.
Painters -- Great Britain.
Painting, British -- 19th century.
Plint, Ellen, -1861.
Plint, Thomas Edward, 1823-1861.
Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Rose, James Anderson, 1819-1890.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882. Beata Beatrix.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882. Beloved.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882. Bethlehem Gate.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882. Correspondence.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882. Dante's dream at the time of the death of Beatrice.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882. Dante's vision of Rachel and Leah.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882. How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival were fed with the Sanct Grael; but Sir Percival's sister died by the way.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882. Joan of Arc.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882. Mary in the house of St. John.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882. Salutation of Beatrice.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882. St. George and the Princess Sabra.
Royal Academy of Arts (Great Britain)
Ruskin, John, 1819-1900.
Seddon, Thomas, 1821-1856.
Siddall, Elizabeth.
Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson, Baron, 1809-1892.

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