The Downward Spiral of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (12 May 1828-9 April 1882) or Upon the Death of Gabriel

 Dante Gabriel Rossetti by W. & D. Downey
albumen cabinet card, December 1862, NPG

We will never truly know what caused Gabriel’s mental destruction and physical deterioration. Was it a culmination of life experiences, i.e. the death of his wife, Lizzie Siddal, and Jane Morris leaving him ending their love affair? It is with sadness that I look upon the last ten years of his life wondering what happened?  Was he self-medicating to kill his grief and pain over lost loves? He was still painting and writing poetry, shedding light on his mental capacity to harness his creativity.  His friends observed his changing behavior and mannerisms not knowing what to do or how to help their friend. The word ‘madness’ was tossed about, physical incoherency and bouts of paranoia abound. Ex lover, Jane Morris observed, ‘when I found that he was ruining himself with chloral and that I could do nothing to prevent it I left off going to him on account of the children.’  Even though, Jane Morris would remain friends with Gabriel, he needed to always have women around him whether as a muse or to quell his loneliness and insecurities. Enter back in the frame, a woman who never truly left in spirit, Fanny Cornforth. 

We do know that Gabriel tried to fight his dependency on chloral hydrate with treatments consisting of night walking and hypnosis. Nothing helped. He started to believe there were people plotting against him. One surviving story describes Doctor John Marshall removing his testicles making him bed ridden for two months and convalescing at a seaside resort in Herne Bay. His mother and sister Christina stayed for twelve weeks in support. The sad thing is Gabriel’s Pre-Raphaelite circle of artist friends remained in his life even after his numerous attempts to push them away and isolate himself; a direct result of the drugs. He surrounded himself with his close friend Frederick Shield and G.F. Watts, Fanny Cornforth and his own family members. 

 Algernon Charles Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti,
Fanny Cornforth and William Michael Rossetti (1863)

By 1879, Gabriel’s melancholy and drug dependency worsened and caused an overdose in October causing Fanny Cornforth to withdraw from him becoming involved with John Scott a recent widower. Thomas Hall Caine described Gabriel’s appearance, ‘corpulent body, full round face deathly pale, large black eyes, massive forehead, thinning hair and grey streaked beard with a weak and shaky gait’. He was only fifty-one years old but appeared much older. As if this were not enough, artistically, the demand for Rossetti’s paintings fell as his income dwindled. 

By the summer of 1881, Fanny Cornforth appeared back in Gabriel’s life, still addicted to chloral and he spent the night train’s journey to London discussing his remorse over Lizzie’s death and the opening of her grave. Even with a new publication of his poems and a sale of his largest painting to public collection, his brother observed, ‘no scintilla of pleasure or cheerfulness seemed to come from this double achievement; the curtains were drawn round his innermost self and the dusk was fast darkening into night.’ Instead of being treated with chloral he was now taking morphine resulting in opium dreams. William Bell Scott recorded a visit to Rossetti where he, ‘found him half dressed, twisted up on the sofa and attended by Fanny, emaciated and worn out. This is evidently the result of anxiety and deranged sensibility about the exhibition of his picture at Liverpool and his volume coming out at the same moment.’ Medically, today Dante Gabriel Rossetti would be diagnosed with renal failure, the malfunctioning of his kidneys slowly poisoning him. 
 W. B. Scott, John Ruskin, and D. G. Rossetti by William A. Downey
June 29, 1863, Albumen Print, NPG

Around February 1882, John Seddon, architect friend of Gabriel’s offered him a bungalow at Birchington on the Kent coast and along with Hall Caine, his mother, his brother William Michael, his nurse, and his sister Christina, he arrived. 
 The Rossetti familyby Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)
albumen print, 7 October 186, NPG
 The Rossetti Bungalow where Dante Gabriel Rossetti passed away, 1910 photograph
Birchington-On-Sea, Kent, England

Diary entry 10 April, 1882, by his brother William Michael Rossetti from the bungalow, Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, England, the day after his brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti passed away, 

“Went in to Gabriel soon afterwards, and sat with him a considerable while the nurse Mrs. Abrey in and out of the room. His complexion was much more natural and less livid then the previous day, but the lips not a good colour; less wheezing than on Friday, and not more than on Saturday; eyes somewhat clearer. He talked but little at any time of the day. Did not seem extremely melancholy, but languid, and not roused to any serious effort of attention; utterance indistinct (same on two previous days). He said twice during the day to me, “I believe I shall die to-night,’ in a calm voice, not emotional. Also said, ‘Yesterday I wished to die, but to-day I must confess that I do not.’ I replied that he ought not to wish to die, but rather to continue working with energy, and producing fine things. Every now and then he would sit up and forward on the bed, and sometimes nurse rubbed his back with a circling motion of the hand. I was in and out of the room various times, with Leyland once or twice. Went up on the roof with Caine, to remedy the flapping of a tarpaulin which lay along there, being part of an awning which Martin had on previous day erected outside Gabriel’s window. I asked more than once to read to Gabriel (intending to propose Ecclesiastes), but he did not wish it; said, ‘Perhaps later.’ Towards 5 I assisted nurse to put on his loins a large linseed and mustard poultice, and his drawers were put on at same time both processes much against his will, as he disliked and dreaded the heat in bed. He often demanded to have both off; but this was wrong, and could not be granted. Nurse and I both reasoned with and coaxed him on the subject. I was called to dinner towards 7; and, lingering afterwards in talk with friends, did not re-enter Gabriel’s room till (say) 10 minutes to 9 my mother, Watts, and nurse, then with him. The poultice had by that time been renewed, but I was not aware of the fact.  He was drowsy, and not taking any particular part in what was going on. My mother having said that she was to leave the room at 10, and Christina to succeed her through the night, I said I would come at 10, and stay till 2, and then Christina could succeed me; and meanwhile I would lie down till 10. Entered drawing room just about 9, lay down on sofa, and pretty soon dozed. Was roused towards 9.20 by Shields rushing into the room, and loudly summoning me to come at once to Gabriel. Found him with head leaning over towards right, eyes starting but nearly closed, mouth open and twitching. He drew hard breaths at intervals. Shields ran for Dr. Harris, who came in towards 9:30. On entering he replied to our enquiries that Gabriel was still alive. He then proceeded to use the stethoscope, but it did not give the indication of breathing, and Harris pronounced Gabriel dead. Gabriel had, just before Shields entered the drawing-room for me, given two violent cries, and had a convulsive fit, very sharp and distorting the face, followed by collapse. All this passed without my personal cognizance. He died 9.31 p.m.; the others Watts, mother, Christina, and nurse, in room; Caine and Shields in and out; Watts at Gabriel’s right side, partly supporting him.”  -- William Michael Rossetti continues, “To these details painful to write, to remember, and to transcribe I am only disposed to add that on the evening of Good Friday my brother had, under the guidance of Mr. Watts, made his will, and I fancy he had never done the like before. He left all his property in equal shared between Christina and myself. Christina, being at once apprised of this, absolutely refused to have her name, rather than that of our mother, in the will. As to any money details arising out of the will, I limit myself to saying that, after paying off my brother’s debts and after the sales of his household and decorative effects and of his remaining works of art, there was a substantial sum divisible between the legatees. Two exhibitions of his paintings and designs, covering the whole of his career, were held, but not under the control of the family; one being at the Royal Academy’s winter exhibition of 1883, and the other at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in the same year; there was a third, a private speculation, called the Rossetti Gallery, in Bond Street.”   Dante Gabriel Rossetti His Family Letters with a Memoir By William Michael Rossetti, Volume 1, London, Ellis and Elvey, 1895

SOURCE:   Dante Gabriel Rossetti His Family Letters with a Memoir By William Michael Rossetti, Volume 1, London, Ellis and Elvey, 1895


Pamela Britley said…
What a sad ending for such a talented man. I love the quotes you included. Thanks for another great post!
Hels said…
Since Rossetti was in chaos for a long time before he died, I don't suppose his later years were filled with art and creativity. However you mentioned two exhibitions of his paintings and designs after his death. So now I wonder if he did manage to produce anything beautiful during those last 10 years.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Pamela,
Nice to see you here again. Thank you for your compliments and for commenting. Much appreciated.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Hels,
Oh but his later years were definitely filled with art and creativity. This just wasn't my focus this time around.

Rossetti painted: The Blessed Damozel 1875-8, Astarte Syriaca with Jane Morris 1877, Beatrice with Jane Morris 1879, La Donna della Finestra (Thhe Lady of Pity) with Jane Morris 1879, The Salutation of Beatrice Jane Morris 1880-1, A Vision of Fiammetta 1878, two versions of The Day Dream Jane Morris 1878 and 1880, Mnesmosyne with Jane Morris 1881.

I'm so glad you stopped by and commented. Always love your astute comments, Hels!
WoofWoof said…
Thanks for a fascinating and moving account. It seems to me that in some ways William Michael and the family became over protective of Rossetti towards the end, and tried to keep him away from his friends like Fanny. It's sad that Fanny wasn't allowed to visit him in that last year. I wonder if financial reasons were behind it. It's interesting in your account the WM makes special mention of the will. After Rossetti's death WM was embroiled in various disputes with Fanny who had taken possession of several of Rossetti's works. Finally, I believe Rossetti holds the distinction of being the first person in England to die in a bugalow!
Julie Whyman said…
Fascinating account - thank you so much for posting this. Have I understood correctly - that Dr Marshall castrated Rossetti a few months before he died? Or was that a result of Rossetti's paranoia?!
DM Denton said…
Wonderful article, Kimberly! The Rossetti's were such a fascinating, talented, and troubled family - their art and poetry and other passions are - even as they didn't make their lives easy - a rich legacy for the ages. I look forward to writing (fiction) about Christina in the not too distance future, which will, of course, include her brother Dante Gabriel. It often seems the greatest talents have difficult lives and tragic ends. Yet, somehow they leave such light and beauty in their wake.
Kimberly Eve said…
Thank you for the comments and for sharing your thoughts on my article and Rossetti's behaviour toward the end of his life. His family did what we all inevitably do which is protect our family and loved ones amidst illness and death. The hardest part is watching your loved ones mentally and physically deteriorate and feeling helpless. Thankfully we have his legacy of art and poetry to sustain us.