Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Wombat Mania

Tonight I wish to consider the common wombat, not perhaps as most Australians know it, a healthy and characterful burrowing marsupial, much in evidence in much of the south-east of the continent and in Tasmania and on the islands in Bass Strait where it was first observed, nor indeed as a symbol in the national iconography, although this is a very intriguing subject. In their pockets and purses Australians carry around lots of large and comparatively heavy coins, of which the best designs were produced in the mid-1960s by the gold and silversmith Stuart Devlin. The kangaroo and emu, the platypus, echidna and lyrebird are all represented. The koala and kookaburra made it onto rare high-denomination gold and platinum coins. The two-cent frilled lizard and the one-cent feather-tail glider, also known as the pygmy possum, were victims of inflation.

Native fauna have also been used on decimal banknotes. Kangaroos and lizards were prominent on the reverse of the old one-dollar bill, liberally harvested from Aboriginal bark paintings, and from unacknowledged drawings of rock art sites originally published in the German archaeological literature.

The iconic merino ram was on the front of the two-dollar note, native flora sprouted on the old five-dollar bill with Sir Joseph Banks, and brumbies gallop wildly across the modern plastic ten-dollar note. And while by convention Her Britannic Majesty the Queen occupies the obverse of every coin, the wombat is conspicuously absent from the currency, and is likewise rarely included among our national or heraldic symbols.

I suspect not many of you will know the marvelous roundels that separate the arches in the courtyard of the old Institute of Anatomy building of the Australian National University in Canberra, currently occupied by ScreenSound Australia. Though many people mistake them for the heads of koalas, they are in fact wombats. As well, there are The Muddleheaded Wombat books by Ruth Park, and such rarities as a glamorous old fashion photograph by the high-style Sydneysider Max Dupain, in which the wombat is reinvented as an accessory. But on the whole, as in life, the wombat is surprisingly fugitive.

The one exception to this rule is place names. Australian gazetteers offer up dozens of topographical features that carry the name of wombat. There is the town called Wombat, the so-called Wombat Pinch and the Wombat Range, all of which are quite close to Canberra in the southeast corner of the continent. There is Mt Wombat (nearly 1,000 feet), between Euroa and Strathbogie, and the Wombat Spur in the Great Dividing Range, both in the state of Victoria. Wombat Hill is in the Parish of Wombat, not far from the Wombat State Forest near Daylesford, which before 1854 was itself called Wombat. There is Wombat Point on the northeastern coast of Tasmania. Five Wombat Creeks flow in Victoria, three in New South Wales and one in Tasmania, while South Australia has a Wombat Dam, a Wombat Homestead, and places called Wombat Tank, Wombat Flat and Wombat Wallow. There may be others I have overlooked.

I suppose it is not hard to understand why, when nineteenth-century settlers found such plentiful opportunities to exploit the name and distinctive character of the dependable wombat, twentieth-century Australia should have paid so much more attention to the kangaroo – which is far better for airlines, and more in keeping with the mood of a society increasingly enthralled with the idea of velocity.

So there is much to consider in relation to the construction of the identity of the wombat in modern Australian literature and art, not to say kitsch, but I am sure you will be relieved to know that this is not what I propose to do this evening.

Instead, I would like to invite you to join me on a journey into the English imagination, where during the whole course of the nineteenth century the wombat was not only greeted with interest but thrived also, thanks to that remarkable group of young artists and poets who from 1848 called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The group consisted of the art student Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his brother the critic William Michael, and the sculptor Thomas Woolner. F. G. Stephens, who is mainly remembered as an influential art critic, not as an artist; the art student John Everett Millais; his eccentric art school friend William Holman Hunt, and James Collinson, a relatively minor figure complete the line-up. Rossetti, Hunt and Millais formed the nucleus of the group, who all at first agreed to sign their work “PRB” as a sign of corporate identity.

The Pre-Raphaelites were much influenced by the charismatic older artist Ford Madox Brown, and the great critic, author and nineteenth-century British art-world colossus John Ruskin. In their different ways Brown and Ruskin served as catalysts, mentors and early supporters of the PRB. Brown was an outsider artist, a loner, rather gloomy, from the wrong side of the tracks, and something of a crank. Ruskin was worldly and ambitious and brilliant and powerful, both within the circle of artists who clustered around him and, perhaps for this reason, in the wider world. Ruskin’s was the world of Oxford, which hitherto tended to exclude artists, but it was also the world of the elite drawing-room, the Athenaeum, and the Royal Academy. He was a mover, certainly, if not exactly a shaker.

It may be a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but he most important and striking fact about the seven Pre-Raphaelite Brethren was that they were all very young: Millais was 19 years old; Rossetti was 20, and Hunt 21. The others weren’t much older. Their stated aim – couched in the breathless language adopted from time to time by students who suddenly realize that they have as if by accident taken possession of a great moment – their aim was to resuscitate painting in England by committing themselves to the truthful study of nature, and to the example of fifteenth-century Italian painting. They blamed the High Renaissance painter Raphael for first introducing the cumbersome repertoire of grand classicizing gestures that, they felt, lingered like marsh gas in the institutional art world of modern England, and they turned for guidance instead to art before Raphael, hence the term Pre-Raphaelite. That so basic thumb-nail description is even possible points to several important facts about the PRB: Except for their mentor Ruskin, none of these young men knew much at all about Raphael, about fifteenth-century Italian painting, nor indeed about the institutional art world of their time (except for what they saw at the annual summer exhibition of the Royal Academy). And from the vantage point of London, it might also be argued that the very concept of nature was pretty fuzzy. Their likes were passionate; their dislikes couched in almost violent terms of utter rejection, loathing, and so on. There was a time not so long ago when university students still adopted these inconvenient, provocative, maddening even, but essentially healthy modes. For the PRB, it catapulted them into instant notoriety and success.

Much later, in 1857, by which time he was a national celebrity, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was commissioned to decorate the vaulted ceiling, upper walls and windows of the Library of the Oxford Union. He mustered a large group of helpers, including his new Oxford undergraduate friends, the future artists Ned Jones, the future Sir Edward Burne-Jones baronet, and William Morris, as well as the artists Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Arthur Hughes and John Hungerford Pollen. Recalling the hugely enjoyable experience of working in the Oxford Union, another artist–helper Val Prinsep recalled: “Rossetti was the planet around which we revolved, we copied his way of speaking. All beautiful women were ‘stunners’ with us. Wombats were the most beautiful of God’s creatures.”

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. These whitewashed quatrefoil surfaces were soon covered with sketches drawn or scratched into the paint, mostly of wombats.

Ned Burne-Jones was supposed to have done the best ones, and he continued to produce them for many years. This rather overheated Egyptological example, shown here whizzing past the pyramids of Gizeh, was much later chosen by Lady Burne-Jones as an illustration for the part of her memoir that dealt with the Oxford Union episode.

Another one recently came on the market and though tempting – indeed at the Art Galloery of South Australia in Adelaide, where I then worked, we seriously contemplated bidding for it – the sheet proved too crumpled and faded to be seriously contemplated. Still, it remains a valuable document of Burne-Jones’s continuing interest in what must have seemed a very odd subject indeed. Maybe the National Gallery of Australia should buy it. The hammer price was gigglingly low.

“Wombats were the most beautiful of God’s creatures.” This strange remark is worth considering for a moment because while it was to some extent a joke, and a private one, nevertheless I think it strikes a very strong note that echoes from the nineteenth century with insistent clarity. In his great book The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, Owen Chadwick drew attention to the revolutionary way in which every strand of intellectual life in Britain was during this period gradually receding from engagement with the Church of England and contracting instead towards entirely secular preoccupations. In this light, Val Prinsep’s remark about wombats and God could never have been uttered even fifty years earlier – and not under any circumstances in a humorous vein. Yet we have no reason to think that his recollection was not at the same time sincere. The Pre-Raphaelites and their friends were committed to the wholly abstract notion of natural beauty and, through Ruskin, to the essentially moral and Christian foundation of aesthetics as well. In short, this strange remark, which holds in balance the concepts of “wombat” and “God,” leaps out of the nineteenth century, hits us on the head and tells us that the Victorian mind was, at least in some respects, open to just about anything.

Why were Rossetti and his protégés so interested in wombats? The sculptor Thomas Woolner, an original member of the PRB, may conceivably have sparked their interest. Woolner was very important to the group, and it is not often remembered that the first item in the first issue of the Pre-Raphaelites’ ambitious new art and poetry journal The Germ, which appeared in January 1850, was Woolner’s poem “My Beautiful Lady.” Like many such student ventures, The Germ, a monthly journal dedicated to art, poetry and literary criticism was hugely overambitious, flamboyant, and recklessly irresponsible. It was largely made up as they went along. The printers were driven mad by editorial hold-ups, and last-minute brainstorms. After the first three months, there was a long gap before a fourth issue gamely appeared in May. But that was the last, and The Germ was never resuscitated. It was good while it lasted, and Woolner’s part in it was central.

But unlike Hunt, Rossetti and Millais, whose careers went from strength to strength, largely thanks to the public support of John Ruskin and excellent sales at the Royal Academy summer exhibitions, in the early 1850s Woolner’s career as a sculptor was going nowhere. Stylistically, his Classicizing portrait heads were perhaps the least attuned to the PRB aesthetic. He spent months pursuing influential portrait commissions such as the poet Alfred Tennyson, but failed to win the success that he hoped might come from being associated with such a celebrity subject. Instead he decided to emigrate to Australia, prompted to do so by his friends the artists Bernhard Smith and Edward La Trobe Bateman, who were going to Victoria to seek their fortune on the goldfields.

Millais, Hunt and Rossetti saw Woolner off at Plymouth, and his departure prompted Ford Madox Brown to paint his famous emigration roundels called The Last of England. Though Woolner was still a bachelor, Brown used him as the model of an emigrant father, contemplating the magnitude and dangers of the coming voyage. In due course the Pre-Raphaelites and their friends met regularly to read aloud from the letter–journals that Woolner sent home from the Victorian goldfields.

He had no luck at all, and did not like the Australian landscape. He thought it topsy-turvy. The seasons were the wrong way around, as were the times of day. The birds, he claimed, did not sing, cherries grew with their stones on the outside of the fruit, the trees shed their bark, not their leaves, and so on. On one occasion he was shocked to encounter the fragrance of lilac because he had made his mind up that Australia was scentless, barren, “a land without fruit or vegetable.” Moreover, prospecting for gold was very hard work, something that does not seem to have occurred to him before he lifted a shovel at the Ovens diggings. And it was dangerous. A man was killed in the tent next to Woolner’s, and on their way back to Melbourne one of their travelling companions drowned in a waterhole.

On his arrival in Melbourne, Woolner gained access to the circle of Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe, largely through Bateman, who was La Trobe’s cousin, and in due course he produced a number of portrait medallions, at the bracing price of 25 guineas each. La Trobe was Woolner’s first sitter. During his long stay in Melbourne in 1853, Woolner lived in the household of Dr and Mrs Godfrey Howitt at the top end of Collins Street, and was further entwined in the Howitt–Cole–McCrae circle which provided such a remarkable model of intellectual, artistic and social life in early Melbourne.

Woolner fell in love with the Howitts’ daughter Edith, much encouraged by Mrs Howitt, who thought he was wonderful, and in due course he proposed marriage and became engaged. Dr Howitt was dismayed, because at this time Woolner was poor, had few prospects, had spectacularly failed to make his fortune on the goldfields and, he thought, was opinionated and pushy. This was without question true. Nor was he impressed by Woolner’s shameless lobbying of Phoebe Howitt, to whom he sent pages and pages of poetry about Spring in Regent’s Park, a tactic which was spectacularly successful.

The wombat had been prominent among the indigenous animals that captured the attention of English naturalists, as soon as they were made aware of them through the efforts of early settlers and explorers from the time of first contact. The word wombat was first recorded near Port Jackson, and though variants such as wombach, womback, the hyphenated wom-bat and womat were noted, the present form of the name stuck very early, from at least 1797. Beautiful drawings by Ferdinand Bauer and Charles-Alexandre Le Sueur survive from the 1802 voyages of the
Investigator and Le Géographe.

These were engraved and carefully studied at home. Wombats were killed and eaten by white settlers following the example of Aborigines. It seems they tasted of pork, pretty tough pork. But they were also admired for their stumpy strength, their patience, their placid, not to say congenial manners and also a kind of stoic determination. Occasionally they were thought clumsy, insensible or even stupid, but these isolated observations, which are out of step with the majority of nineteenth-century opinion, must constitute a glaring case of the pot calling the kettle black.

From about 1803, a steady trickle of live wombats reached Europe. We know there was a wombat among the birds and animals that were delivered to the menagerie of the Empress Joséphine Bonaparte at Malmaison, near Paris. So from first decade of the nineteenth century the wombat was, though not particularly familiar, at least observable in Europe. An early wombat owner was the naturalist Everard Home, whose paper on the subject, “An Account of Some Peculiarities in the Anatomical Structure of the Wombat,” appeared in March 1809 in the
Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts. Hume’s wombat, a male, was in fact caught by George Bass, probably on King Island, where we know Bass and his companions shot several other specimens. Once provoked, this particular wombat put up a splendid struggle, tearing strips off Bass’s coat sleeves and making loud ‘whizzing’ noises. Evidently he took ages to calm down. Bass kept him alive, evidently looked after him well, and sent him to England. There, in London, he lived in what Home described as “a domesticated state for two years.” The following description is no less charming today than it must have struck English scientific readers nearly two hundred years ago. The wombat, and I quote,
burrowed in the ground whenever it had an opportunity, and covered itself in the earth with surprising quickness. It was quiet during the day, but constantly in motion in the night: was very sensible to cold; ate all kinds of vegetables; but was particularly fond of new hay, which it ate stalk by stalk, taking it into its mouth like a beaver, by small bits at a time. It was not wanting in intelligence, and appeared attached to those to whom it was accustomed, and who were kind to it. When it saw them, it would put up its forepaws on the knee, and when taken up would sleep in the lap. It allowed children to pull and carry it about, and when it bit them did not appear to do it in anger or with violence.
Some misconceptions lingered for some decades. In 1827 an engraver working for the Museum at Newcastle had the wombat sitting up like a kangaroo. This was not something that merely escaped notice throughout the galley and page proof stages of publication. The Newcastle specimen, which still exists – a rather sad and dusty relic – had been stuffed and mounted erroneously but with strange logic in the manner of a kangaroo.

A great deal of confusion arose as to the exact nature of the relationship between the wombat and the koala, as this French engraving amply demonstrates.

The most important development in the establishment of the wombat’s English reputation was the publication in 1855 of John Gould’s de luxe
The Mammals of Australia. Gould was in Australia much earlier, in the 1830s, and it was certainly through Gould that the great artist Edward Lear, who illustrated Gould’s Birds but unfortunately not the Mammals, made a wonderful sheet of drawings of the “Inditchenous Beestes of New Olland,” a rarity which is today in the collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Here are plausibly accurate caricatures by Lear of various species of kangaroo and wallaby, the platypus, the “possum up his gum tree,” the Tasmanian Devil, as well as mad renderings of the bandicoot, echidna and native cat, not to mention representative appearances in the margin of the cow, the dog, the sheep and the horse. Splendidly rotund and occupying the largest amount of space towards the bottom centre of the sheet is the wombat, with his “i”.

Gould’s 1855 description of the wombat is almost as captivating as Everard Home’s fifty years earlier. “In its habits it is nocturnal,” wrote Gould,
living in the deep stony burrows excavated by itself, during the day, and emerging on the approach of evening, but seldom trusting itself far from its stronghold, to which it immediately runs for safety on the appearance of an intruder. The natives state, however, that it sometimes indulges in a long ramble, and, if a river should cross its course, quietly walks into the water and traverses the bottom of the stream until it reaches the other side...In its disposition it is quiet and docile in the extreme, soon becoming familiar with and apparently attached to those that feed it; as an evidence of which, I may mention that the two specimens which are now and have been for a long period living in the Gardens of the Zoological Society in the Regent’s Park, not only admit the closest inspection, but may be handled and scratched by all who choose to make so intimate an acquaintance with them.
It is worth noting that most people who know anything about wombats, or come into regular contact with them, continue to be utterly charmed: Mr. And Mrs. Doug Howitt of Grafton in New South Wales used to sleep with their pet wombat Franklin. According to Mr. Howitt, Franklin liked to suck a human ear-lobe while sleeping, but eventually got too big and eventually started to push them out of bed.

In September 1869, Dante Gabriel Rossetti bought the first of two pet wombats. This was the culmination of well over twelve years’ enthusiasm for the exotic marsupial. If not from Thomas Woolner, whose view of the Australian landscape was pretty bleak, Rossetti and his friends may well have derived their particular enthusiasm for wombats from Gould’s or some other captivating description. Or maybe they simply fell in love with the wombats at the Regent’s Park Zoo. In the 1860s, Rossetti often took his friends to visit the wombats at the zoo, sometimes for hours on end. On one occasion Rossetti wrote to Ford Madox Brown: “Dear Brown: Lizzie and I propose to meet Georgie and Ned [the Burne-Joneses] at 2 p.m. tomorrow at the Zoological Gardens – place of meeting the Wombat’s Lair.” In this period a number of new wombats arrived at the Regent’s Park Zoo: a rare, hairy-nosed wombat on 24 July 1862, and two common wombats despatched from the Melbourne Zoo on 18 March 1863. As well, Rossetti made regular visits with his brother, William Michael, to the Acclimatisation Societies in London and Paris, to keep an eye on the hairy-nosed wombats residing in both places. This was no passing fancy.

Earlier, in 1862 Rossetti had moved to Tudor House, at 16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. Spacious, with plenty of room for family and friends including George Meredith and the poet and semi-professional extrovert and experimental sadomasochist Algernon Charles Swinburne – he liked to slide naked down the banisters – the house had four fifths of an acre of garden, with lime trees and a big mulberry. As soon as he arrived, Rossetti began to fill the garden with exotic birds and animals. There were owls, including a barn owl called Jessie, two or more armadillos, rabbits, dormice and a racoon, which hibernated in a chest of drawers. There were peacocks, parakeets, kangaroos and wallabies. There was a Canadian marmot or woodchuck, a Pomeranian puppy called Punch, an Irish deerhound called Wolf, a Japanese salamander and two laughing jackasses. There was a small Brahmin bull that had to go when it chased Rossetti around the garden, and, at length, in September 1869, a long-awaited wombat.

Shortly before this date there had been a number of animal deaths at Cheyne Walk. So Rossetti raised the animal-collecting stakes considerably: In November 1867, he was negotiating with his supplier of wild animals, Charles Jamrach of Ratcliffe Highway, Stepney (modern St George’s Street – the name was changed because of the notorious Ratcliffe Highway murders). His object was to purchase a young African elephant, but he balked at the price of £400. Rossetti’s income for 1865 was £2,000.

Rossetti finally arranged to buy a wombat, again through Jamrach, when at length a suitable specimen became available. This wombat arrived in September 1869, just when he was away in Scotland. Rossetti was recovering from a kind of breakdown, largely precipitated by failing eyesight, insomnia, drugs and his growing infatuation with Jane Morris, the wife of his old friend and protégé from the Oxford Union days.

A remarkable drawing of Jane Morris and the wombat in the British Museum illustrates the degree to which lover and pet merged in Rossetti’s mind as objects of sanctification. Each of them wears a halo. But Jane has the wombat on a leash, and it seems clear that Rossetti also used his pet wombat as a cruelly comical emblem for Jane’s long-suffering, cuckolded husband. Since university days Morris was known to his friends as Topsy; the name Rossetti chose for his Wombat was Top.

Still shaky, Rossetti could not wait to get back to Chelsea from freezing Scotland. He wrote to Jane:
Oh! How the family affections combat
Within this heart; and each hour flings a bomb at
My burning soul; neither from owl nor from bat
Can peace be gained, until I clasp my wombat!
Meanwhile, within days Rossetti’s sister Christina had sent him breathless verses in Italian entitled “O Uommibatto,” in which she described the animal as “agil, giocondo,” (nimble, cheerful), as well as “irsuto e tondo” (hairy and round). Paying silent tribute to his remarkable sister’s enthusiasm for the wombat, in due course, Gabriel (as he was known) thoughtfully included the wombat in a design of (really in many ways) quite exceptional kookiness for the frontispiece of Christina’s 1862 book Goblin Market and Other Poems. When, years later, in 1893, Christina wrote to Macmillans to object to an illustration for a new edition of Goblin Market by Laurence Housman consisting of “masks,” she asked pointedly: “Would not a study of my goblins as they stand – she was talking about her brother’s original frontispiece design – supply an adequate variety and versatility of expression, a roguishness easily transformable into atrocity? My brother’s frontispiece exhausts my ambition in this direction: he reproduced cat, rat, wombat, cockatoo, and added an owl, all alike facing us with their undisguised faces.

Writing from Scotland a few days after Christina sent her verses in September 1869, Rossetti asked his brother William Michael to thank their sister also for the “shrine in the Italian taste, which she has reared for the wombat. I fear his habits tend inveterately to drain architecture … It appears the wombat follows people all over the house!” Unfortunately we know nothing about Christina’s shrine. At last, Rossetti returned to London on the 20th, and the next day wrote to William Michael his most famous and suggestive remark about the new addition to his menagerie: “The wombat is a joy, a triumph, a delight, a madness.” Unfortunately the poor wombat was also an invalid.

From the beginning William Michael had sensed that something was wrong: “I went round to see the beast, which is the most lumpish and incapable of wombats, with an air of baby objectlessness – not much more than half-grown probably. He is much addicted to following one about the room, and nestling up against one, and nibbling one’s calves or trousers.” Top the wombat also got on well with the other animals, particularly the rabbits. Here are drawings of them all together by William Bell Scott.

Soon, however, Top the wombat was ailing. William Michael wrote: “The wombat shows symptoms of some malady of the mange-kind, and he is attended by a dog doctor.” The next day: “Saw the wombat again at Chelsea. I much fear he shows already decided symptoms of loss of sight which effects so many wombats.” At length on 6 November the wombat died. Rossetti had him stuffed and afterwards displayed in the front hall.

Rossetti’s famous self-portrait with Top the deceased wombat is satirical, but was apparently prompted by genuine grief. The accompanying verses are bleak indeed:
I never reared a young wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet and fat
And tailless, he was sure to die!
These verses are in fact Rossetti’s parody of the opening lines of “The Fire Worshippers” a poem that appeared in a curious novel by Thomas Moore called Lallah Rookh, published in 1817, which is all about the betrothal of Vina, a Persian princess, and the journey she undertakes to meet her future husband. The poem is spoken by Vina:
I never nurs’d a dear gazelle
To glad me with its soft black eye,
But when it came to know me well
And love me, it was sure to die!
The substitution of the wombat for Moore’s gazelle is typical of Rossetti’s self-indulgent humour, and he clearly had no trouble adapting for himself the lovelorn mood of Vina, the gloomy Romantic heroine.

During its short life, the first of Rossetti’s two pet wombats secured a remarkable place in the mythology of his circle of friends and family. Rossetti gleefully reported to William Bell Scott on 28 September 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 in the centre of 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 also 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. As my colleague David Marshall has also pointed out, either Rossetti’s epergne was enormous or the wombat dramatically small. As well, there were stories circulating about the wombat’s diet of ladies’ carelessly discarded straw hats, and so on.

Many years later, recalling the high jinks at Cheyne Walk, Max Beerbohm devised a series of ridiculous caricatures, with the garden menagerie as the setting. We do not know if this bizarre animal with enormous floppy ears was Beerbohm’s bizarre tribute to the wombat, but it seems possible.

In the short term, the Canadian woodchuck made up for Rossetti’s failure to preserve his two pet wombats. The woodchuck lasted much longer. For a long time it was mistaken for the wombat. On 9 February 1871, William Bell Scott observed the woodchuck nestling in Rossetti’s lap and made a charming pencil drawing on Cheyne Walk letterhead (London: Tate Britain). He always assumed it was a wombat. I would say that it was, in fact, the woodchuck that slept peacefully in the epergne in the middle of the dining-room table, not the wombat.

Indeed it is the very idea of the wombat, not so much the creature himself, that consistently captured the imagination of visitors to Cheyne Walk, and stood out among the various Bohemian props with which Rossetti surrounded himself. The wombat craze of the fifties and sixties, while confined to a relatively small group of friends, represents a fascinating by-product of the British colonisation of terra australis incognita.

Australian birds and animals were very seldom noted in the London press.
Palmer’s Index to The Times newspaper lists only one reference each to a possum and an echidna in the whole extent of the nineteenth century, while kangaroos are likewise seldom mentioned – though these are so bizarre that they are worth mentioning. The first reference comes in February 1834 and concerned an old woman who lived alone in a house on Castle Hill in South London, and awoke on the morning of the 14th “to find a strange animal lying at her back, with one of its paws laid over her shoulder. Screaming with affright, she left her bed, and seizing a towel, she beat it with all her might, when, with one bound, it sprang to the furthest corner of the room, and at length took refuge in another bed which stood in the same apartment.” This rather nonchalant kangaroo turned out to have escaped from Mr Wombwell’s wild beast show, which had lately occupied The Mound. The old lady later accepted Mr Wombwell’s offer to pay for the kangaroo’s board and lodging.

The second reference comes sixteen years later, in October 1850, and likewise concerns a kangaroo escapee, this time from a menagerie that belonged to a newly-elected Member of Parliament, W. J. Evelyn, of Wotton, near Dorking in West Surrey. Raising the alarm, Evelyn called out the local hunt, replete with huntsmen, a pack of beagles, whippers-in and so forth. The kangaroo sought refuge in a place called the Duke of Norfolk’s copse, but was flushed out and cornered at Abinger Rectory. “Here the animal’s peculiar mode of progression was exhibited in a style which astonished the field – a singular succession of leaps carrying it over the ground at a rate perfectly startling. Those who were well mounted alone were enabled to go the pace, and they speedily found themselves at the top of Leith Hill, where the kangaroo took to the road, and for about a mile and a half they all dashed along, ‘the field’ rapidly augmenting in numbers as they proceeded in their novel chase. At last, hard pressed, the animal took refuge in a pond on High Ash Farm, Abinger, where a groom succeeded in capturing him, though not without receiving a fraternal embrace, from which his shoulder suffered for some days.”

There was a certain amount of interest in Australian botany. For example, the widowed Lady Hotham gave the sculptor of her late husband’s extravagant tomb monument (destined for Melbourne) the address of a London nursery where he could find Australian “ferns” to copy. However episodes of this kind are somewhat unusual.

By contrast, as an Australian curiosity in Britain, the wombat seems to have attracted far more attention than any other animal or plant, and reached into the recesses of the imagination – at least among that group of artists who in the 1850s and 1860s clustered around Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
This is the text of an illustrated lecture for the American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia, which I delivered at the Consulate-General of Australia, 150 East Forty-Second Street, New York City, on Monday, March 7, 2005. Earlier versions were delivered in 2002 at a dinner at the Adelaide Club, and in 2003 at the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

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