Friday, June 8, 2012

Rossetti's Wombat

"The wombat is a joy, a triumph, a delight, a madness." -- Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

I decided to have Rossetti explaining his love for wombats to William Holman Hunt who is famously seen as being very unsympathetic to animals. (Poor goat...)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti loved animals. Loved animals. Infact, he collected them. Unfortunately, he didn't always know the proper ways to take care of them.

Rossetti especially fancied exotic animals and most of these were obtained from the infamous Jamrach's,,  a shop that supplied Victorian England with a plethora of strange critters alien to their shores.

After awhile, Rossetti had the neighbors near his home in Chelsea complaining about noises and nuisances caused by, among other creatures: kangaroos and wallabies, an armadillo, a raccoon, a deer, owls, a woodchuck, peacocks, a Japanese salamander, a zegu, two laughing jackasses, a Brahminee bull, etc. He even inquired into getting an African elephant and let's all hope he was just joking about that.
A common Australian wombat, which is what Top was.

But he had two wombats and the short-lived Top was one of them. (It's rumored he met his demise eating a box of Rossetti's expensive cigars. )

When Rossetti observed his cute, roly-poly wombat, he settled on what he thought was an appropriate name:
The other "Top" in Rossetti's life...
Luckily William Morris good-naturedly let a lot of the jokes made at his expense roll off his back (He had to put up with years of Edward Burne-Jones' cartoons and practical jokes, after all...)
"Mrs. Morris and the Wombat",
a cartoon by Rossetti.
However, Rossetti's humor at Topsy's expense was a bit more barbed-- Rossetti was quite infatuated with Morris' wife, Jane, and the two would have an affair for years.

And Morris was sadly quite aware of it.

Wombats provided a lot of inspiration for Rossetti and friends. There was discovered to be many cartoons of wombats underneath the faded Oxford Union murals that Rossetti and some other Pre-Raphaelite pals were commissioned to paint. The bulk of these were by Ned Burne-Jones, who was deemed the best at wombat-portraiture of the gang.

                                                     An example of some of Ned's wombat art:

This wombat has made it all the way to Egypt.

Top even found his way into Rossetti's illustrations for his sister Christina's famous poem, "The Goblin Market."

But poor Top:

Rossetti's cartoon of himself mourning Top.

For more than you ever wanted to know about wombats and Australian animals in Victorian England, I recommend this book: 
And rest assured that I, for one, will keep Top the Wombat alive and kicking for as long as I can here at Pre-Raphernalia.

Coming up next: Top the Wombat Daydreams...


  1. I have to ask, are there more of Ned's drawings of wombats? The Egypt one makes it seem like there are a series of wombat excursions, if that one made it all the way there. Or maybe that's just what I wish it were!

  2. Hi Sam! There are a few more wombat drawings by Ned out there-- he also came up with an imaginary creature called a 'Spression that is said to bear a striking resemblance to a wombat. But I've yet to find any of his 'Spression drawings in books or online!

  3. What cute drawings! I'd heard about Rossetti's wombat woes, but didn't realise he had a bunch of other animals too. Wombats ARE quite cute, I'll admit! I was wondering what #wombatfriday was on twitter, and found this post. Shared it on twitter to spread wombat love! ;) (@TigersSterne)

    1. Sorry I'm so late in replying, but thank you so much!! Yes, Wombat Madness must be spread. Go forth! :D