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Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s the Beloved

Dante gabriel rossetti, l'amata (la sposa), 1865 66FXD
History Reclaimed
Written by History Reclaimed

In recent years galleries and museums have been keen to reinterpret British social history. The letter below, which we publish with the kind permission of the author, demonstrates the danger of reinterpreting the past without careful consideration of linguistic context and historic usages which may be more complex than we assume, and which are certainly different from our own today. In an essay published in the catalogue to accompany the Tate’s new exhibition on the art of the Rossettis, the word ‘master’ has been misinterpreted. Ivo Hesmondhalgh, with great courtesy and insight, explains why.

Chiedza Mhondoro

Tate Britain

Millbank

London SW1P 4RG

 

16th April 2023

Dear Ms Mhondoro,

DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI’S THE BELOVED

Thank you for such an interesting and informative article about The Beloved in the catalogue to the exhibition. Whilst the PRB were known to be quite tough on their sitters (one only needs to think of what Millais put Lizzie Siddal through whilst she posed as Ophelia) the fact that Rossetti was able to carry on painting whilst his sitter was crying doesn’t show him in a very kind or compassionate light. For someone who was so sensitive about so many other things, this was quite odd and quite revealing.

Of the many interesting points that you made in your article, there was one where I wasn’t quite sure that you were right. You wrote:

The child in the painting first encountered Gabriel at the entrance to a hotel when he was with his ‘master’, from whom Gabriel sought permission to paint him.16 No archival evidence has been found to determine the legal status of the child, but the word ‘master’ at this time connotes servitude* [see OED definition of servitude as a footnote] and an obligation to a presumably white man.17 The child’s decision to sit for Gabriel was not his to take but his master’s.

In the middle of the 19th century in England, the word “Master” did not have the connotations of slavery that it would have had in America. The word “Master” was used more or less interchangeably with employer. One merely needs to think of masters and their apprentices or how people would ask, when knocking on the door of a house, if the master was at home. Viewed in that light, the child would have been employed by someone (probably for a pittance but not as a slave) so it would only have been reasonable for Rossetti to have asked the boy’s employer if he could use him as a model.

Whilst it is possible that, if the boy’s employer was American, the boy had been a slave, the moment he arrived in England he would have been freed. Whilst slavery was only abolished in America in 1865 (and only after the Civil War), slavery has never been permitted in England. Going back to the time of Elizabeth 1, in 1569 it was stated in the case of Cartwright that “England was too pure an Air for Slaves to breath [sic] in” which led to the common law assumption that slaves immediately ceased to be slaves when they landed in England. There were various cases after Cartwright in which the law was discussed but the final and conclusive case was in 1771 in the case of Somersett which was where Somersett, who was a slave, was held in chains on board a ship in the Thames. Lord Mansfield said that slavery was so odious that it could only be introduced by statute law (of which there was none) and ordered that Somersett be freed immediately.

The other issue that needs clarification is your note 17 where you said:

The Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833, but Black servitude was deliberately ambiguous at this time both in Britain and in the United States. Jan Marsh has argued that this ‘master’ was American. See Marsh 1999, p.291.

In fact, Britain’s attitude to slavery was wholly unambiguous and was resolutely against it and the slave trade. Of course, many British people at that time had troubling views on racial and cultural superiority, but that is very different issue to their attitude to slavery.  Britain was a very Christian country and all of the churches condemned slavery. This stance permeated society. To give just two examples:

On 1st June 1840 Prince Albert made his first speech as Prince Consort to the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilization of Africa, when he said:

“I deeply regret that the benevolent and persevering exertions of England to abolish that

atrocious traffic in human beings (at once the desolation of Africa and the blackest stain

upon civilized Europe) have not as yet led to any satisfactory conclusion. But I sincerely

trust that this great country will not relax in its efforts until it has finally, and for ever,

put an end to a state of things so repugnant”

Britain and its rulers didn’t just make platitudinous noises about the slave trade, they spent vast amounts of money in suppressing it. The respected economic historians Chaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape calculated that Britain spent approximately 1.8 per cent annually of its GDP between 1808 and 1867 in the suppression of the slave trade. By contrast we, today, spend 0.5% of Gross National Income (roughly the same as GDP although calculated differently) on foreign aid. No other country made any effort to abolish the slave trade and in many countries slavery continued to be legal until late in the 19th century. Brazil, for example, only abolished it in 1888.

On a lighter note, I wondered why the bride is described as wearing a kimono. Did Rossetti describe it as that? I ask, as every kimono I have ever seen has had high collars and wide open sleeves, whereas the green dress that the bride is wearing has neither.

If you have time, I would be very interested in hearing your views on the points that I have raised.

Yours sincerely

IVO HESMONDHALGH

*

Servitude is defined by the OED as

The condition of being a slave or serf; absence of personal freedom. Often, and now usu. with additional notion of subjection to the necessity of excessive labour. Also a (more or less rigorous) state of slavery or serfdom.

 

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History Reclaimed

History Reclaimed