Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti was born in London May 12, 1828, to Gabriele and Frances (Polidori) Rossetti. He later changed the order of his name. His father was an Italian exile who became professor of Italian at King’s College, London, in 1831. The four children were fluent in English and Italian. In 1844, Dante entered the Royal Academy as a probationer becoming a full student in 1845. However he left after a year. Rossetti wrote to Ford Madox Brown in 1848 asking to become his student. Brown was suspicious and at first thought the approach was insincere, but finding it was genuine, offered his help. However Rossetti soon rebelled against the regime of steady, repetitive work, demanded by Brown. At this period he was divided as to whether to pursue a career as an artist or a poet.
In August 1848 he moved with William Holman Hunt to a studio in Cleveland Street and around September that year founded, with Holman Hunt and J.E. Millais, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He finished his translation of Dante’s Vita Nuova in October 1848. In 1849 Rossetti exhibited ‘The Girlhood of Mary Virgin’ inscribed with the initials PRB for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Rossetti’s sister Christina modelled for the Virgin, and his mother Frances for St Anne; the family’s odd job man sat for St Joachim (Mary’s father), and the angel was a child found by Rossetti’s friend James Collinson. William Holman Hunt had advised him on the picture, as had F M Brown, who had regularly called in at the studio to see its progress. It was bought by the Dowager Marchioness of Bath, to whom one of the Rossetti’s Polidori aunts was paid companion. In 1850 Rossetti exhibited ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini’ at the RA, but received negative reviews from most critics and from then on ceased to exhibit in public.
The task of painting the walls of the Oxford Debating Union with Arthurian murals introduced Rossetti to William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, and A.C. Swinburne in 1856 and Morris and Burne-Jones both joined the Pre-Raphaelite movement. He was a contributor to Morris’s Oxford and Cambridge Magazine.
Rossetti had a number of ‘muses’, ‘stunners’ who he painted. The first of these was Elizabeth Siddall who he met in 1848 and married in 1860. She was a model for Rossetti although she also was earlier the model for John Everett Millais’s Ophelia. She died in 1862 from a laudunum overdose. Rossetti buried his poems with her. Rossetti also had an intermittent affair with Jane Burden Morris, wife of William Morris over a long period. During the eighteen sixties, Fanny Cornforth was his model and mistress. All three women appear within pre-raphaelite paintings as ideal women. Jane Burden Morris was also a model for Burne-Jones.
Rossetti was also involved with Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in their attempts to return to medieval craftesmanship and contributed a number of designs particularly in stained glass. However, the firm was always in financial difficulties and was often subsidized by Morris. Rossetti was increasingly ill from the mid 1860ies. In 1869 he had his wife’s grave opened to retrieve his poems publishing them in 1870. His health finally broke down in 1872 and he spent long periods at Kelmscott Manor with Jane and William Morris. When the firm was finally re-organized in 1875, Rossetti was given £1000 as compensation. He had a bitter argument and separation from Morris over what he felt was the inadequacy of the sum. However, the background issue of his relationship with Jane Morris may also have been involved.
Rosetti’s design for Christ Church Southgate is in the South West corner of the church on the West wall where there are a pair of windows. The left hand figure of St James is the work of Burne Jones. St.James became a leading member of the Jewish Christian Church and traditionally the first Archbishop of Jerusalem. In the window he carries a model of the church as well as a long St. John’s cross. The right hand figure of St Jude, “a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James’ and a vigorous defender of the apostolic faithe, carries a halberd (a combined battleaxe and spear). This is the work of Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Both figures are surmounted by angels carrying shields and according to Sewter ‘the half length angels are undocumented but must be by D.G.Rosetti.’ The canopies are both by Philip Webb whose account book records, ‘extra work in ventilator pattern work to the west wall of aisle, Southgate….10/-‘.