Purchased from Murray Marks by G. Alderson-Smith of Scarborough for £170
Purchased in 1876 by George Rae of Birkenhead
Purchased in 1917 from the Trustees of the Estate of George Rae by William Hesketh Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme and thence by descent
Port Sunlight, Lady Lever Art Gallery, The Pre-Raphaelites – Their Friends and Followers – Centenary Exhibition, 1948, no.167 (lent by Viscount Leverhulme)
Newcastle upon Tyne, Laing Art Gallery, Dante Gabriel Rossetti – 1828-1882, 1971, no.65
London, Christie’s, Treasures of the North, 2000, no.70
Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, and Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 2003, no.109
Portfolio, May 1894, p.66
F.G. Stephens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1894, p.70
H.C. Marillier, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Illustrated Memorial of his Art and Life, 1899, pp.82, 131, 145-6, cat.no.187
H.C. Marillier, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Illustrated Memorial of his Art and Life, second edition, 1901, p.107, illustrated opposite p.106
Gowans & Gray (publisher), Masterpieces of D. G. Rossetti (1828-1882): Sixty Reproductions of Photographs from the Original Oil-paintings, 1923, illustrated p.38
Virginia Surtees, Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882 – The Paintings and Drawings – A Catalogue Raisonné, two volumes, 1971, Vol. I, pp.112-3, no.195; Vol. II, illustrated plate 284
Virginia Surtees (editor),The Diaries of George Price Boyce, 1980, p.46
Paul Spencer-Longhurst, The Blue Bower - Rossetti in the 1860s, 2001, p.22, illustrated p.21
Christ has been born today;
the Saviour has appeared today;
the angels sing today in the earth;
today the fair ones are happy saying:
Glory be to God in the heights, Hallelujah.
Vespers of the Christmas Day
A Christmas Carol was described by Rossetti’s studio assistant and friend Henry Treffry Dunn in his unpublished papers as: ‘a maiden in resplendent eastern dress of crimson with a gold thread pattern worked throughout, playing on a stringed instrument whilst she sings “Hodie Jesu Christus natus est Hallelujah”. Rossetti was a great digger of subjects from Early English Mysteries & I conjecture that he must have unearthed this fancy from such a source.’ (Virginia Surtees, Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882 – The Paintings and Drawings – A Catalogue Raisonné, two volumes, 1971, I, pp.112-3) It is one of Rossetti’s earliest of a series of half-length depictions of women in voluminous dresses playing musical instruments, which includes The Blue Bower of 1865 (Barber Institute, Birmingham), La Mandolinata of 1869 (sold in these rooms, 15 July 2009, lot 12), Veronica Veronese (Bancroft Collection, Wilmington Society of Fine Arts, Delaware) and Bower Meadow (Manchester City Art Gallery) both from 1872, La Ghirlandata of 1873 (Guildhall Art Gallery), Roman Widow of 1874 (Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico) and A Sea Spell of 1877 (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard).
The connection with female beauty, music and the fashion for exotic decoration and costume were central themes of the emerging English Aesthetic movement – the revolutionary artistic style of the 1860s and 1870s that combined elements of Renaissance, Oriental and Classical styles to create an époque that was to be as important in Britain as Art Nouveau was in Europe. Central to this movement was the female musician, lost in harmonic reverie allowing herself to be observed as she creates beautiful melody but also symbolises beauty itself in its most red-lipped and full-throated incarnation. Whether romantic or wistful, tragic or spiritual (as is theoretically the case with the present subject), the painter seeks to evoke mood induced by the unheard music, and by doing so provides an insight into the figure’s state of mind. Musical terminology and reference were frequently employed in the titles and critical discussion of the works in the 1860s.
The sensuality of music fascinated Rossetti in his Aesthetic canvases. Works such as The Bower Meadow of 1872 (Manchester City Art Gallery), Morning Music of 1864 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), which shows a young woman at her dressing table while being serenaded by a young man with a lute, and most famously The Blue Bower (Barber Institute, University of Birmingham), of a year later, use the motif of music-making in a suggestive way, and in both cases a strong sense of the sexual power of the figure is given. The way in which the elegant hands of the women caress the instruments and their parted lips, have strong sexual implications which are not accidental or merely a post-Freudian interpretation. There is also the suggestion that the act of creating music invites a relationship between the spectator and the viewer and although the melody is of course inaudible, the act of its creation is an invitation for mutual appreciation.
In the course of the Aesthetic movement, it was found that narrative elements in a work of art might be eliminated andinstead the attention of the spectator could be drawn by a sense of mood. By this means works of art might be made noumenal and self-contained – designed to suggest the feelings of the protagonists but denying prosaic or documentary information about them. Other artists among Rossetti’s contemporaries, for example Albert Moore and Frederic Leighton, were likewise exploring the possibilities of subjects with musical themes. Leighton’s Golden Hours of 1864 (Sir George Christie collection), shows music-making as a metaphor for the love-making of a young couple, while Albert Moore’s The Quartet: A Painter’s Tribute to the Art of Music, A.D. 1868 (private collection, Mexico), was perhaps the concluding masterpiece of this desire to explore analogies between pictorial images and musical notation. William Holman-Hunt’s Bianca (Hove Art Gallery) and George Frederic Watts’ portrait of Blanche, Lady Lindsay, 1877 (private collection) also exemplify the fashion for depicting women in the act of making music.
Rossetti’s first evocations of music were made in his earlier, Gothic style with pictures like Borgia of 1851 (Carlisle Museum and Art Gallery), Hesterna Rosa of 1853 (Tate) and The Return of Tibullus to Delia (private collection) but in these narrative pictures the musicians are peripheral. However, as the 1850s progressed music became more central to Rossetti’s emerging style. In the pen and ink drawing of St Cecilia made in 1857-7 (Birmingham City Art Gallery), the patron saint of music is grasped in the arms of an angel in an ecstatic pose that suggests more than simply the enjoyment of music and heavenly adoration. It was around the same time that Rossetti painted series of beautiful watercolours The Blue Closet (Tate), The Tune of the Seven Towers (Tate) and A Christmas Carol (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University), in which the playing of music is the central subject. These watercolours predate Rossetti’s Aesthetic period by almost a decade but they already demonstrate his interest in the idea of depicting women with musical instruments and although the style of his work and its execution was to change greatly in the 1860s, his subject remained essentially unaltered.
For his later ‘Venetian’ pictures of women Rossetti often adopted a shallow perspective of a foreground dominated by the figure set against an elaborate decorative background. In the case of Bocca Baciata the background is filled with golden marigolds to symbolise the blousy beauty of the model in full bloom. When he repainted Fanny Cornforth in Venus Verticordia he replaced the marigolds with roses which are so fleshy and voluptuous that they are almost erotic. For The Blue Bower he filled the background behind her golden head with Chinese titles of white prunus flowers against deep blue, thus creating his most quintessential Aesthetic image. The employment of the tiles of flowers meant that Rossetti was able to contrast the rounded and natural beauty of the woman with the simplified and flattened perspective of a design of flowers. This was recreated in Regina Cordium of 1866 (Glasgow City Art Gallery) in which the model Alexa Wilding was set against a wallpaper painted with a trellis of budding cherry-blossom. This wall-paper, and the silver medal hung upon it, prefigured A Christmas Carol with its tapestry of woven grape-vines. This tapestry also appears in Marigolds of 1874 (Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery). It is likely therefore that the tapestry existed and was one of the eclectic mixture of items that decorated Rossetti’s Chelsea home. The coiled pearl brooch adorning the musician’s hair appears in numerous pictures by Rossetti, including The Beloved, Monna Vanna, Fiammetta, Joli Coeur, Mariana, Bower Meadow and La Bella Mano. Of this brooch it has been written that; ‘He was exceedingly fond of it. [Murray] Marks remembered seeing it when Rossetti first purchased it ; in fact, he was so excited at the possession of that particular ornament that he sent down to Marks for him to come at once to see it’ (Dr G.C. Williamson, Murray Marks and his Friends, 1919, p.83).
George Price Boyce recorded Rossetti’s progress on A Christmas Carol in February and March 1867. The first mention of the painting occurred on 10 February when Boyce visited Rossetti at Tudor House in Cheyne Walk and dined there with him and his mistress Fanny Cornforth. Boyce noted: ‘He is doing a beautiful picture of Ellen Smith, playing a musical instrument and singing a Xmas carol.’ A month later, on 10 March, Boyce returned to Tudor House and found Rossetti still working on the painting.
Rossetti’s biographer H.C. Marillier referred to the present painting, emphasising that it was a completely different subject and composition to the earlier watercolour of the same title (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University). Marillier described the composition of the 1867 Christmas Carol: ‘This is a half-length figure of a girl, draped in a gold and purple robe of Eastern stuff, and playing upon a species of lyre suspended round her neck. With head thrown back she carols out a joyful Christmas hymn. On the frame is the following inscription culled from the ‘Winchester Mysteries’: “Here a maid, well-apparelled, sings a song of Christ’s birth with the tune of Bullulalow: - Jesus Christus hodie Natus est de Virgine.”’
One of the lesser known of Rossetti’s 'stunners' was the model for A Christmas Carol a laundress named Ellen Smith ‘discovered’ in a Chelsea street by Rossetti in 1863. Ellen’s beauty was very different to Rossetti’s other regular models, although her rounded features and full mouth had some allusion to those of Fanny Cornforth whose beauty was beginning to fade in Rossetti’s eyes by 1863. Jane Morris had a dark, brooding exoticism, Annie Miller and Ruth Herbert had strong, defiant beauties and Alexa Wilding’s features were sharper and angular. In contrast, Ellen’s features were soft and more gamine – more sensually alluring than sexually aggressive. In all of the paintings that Rossetti conceived to display her beauty, she is enticing, comely and unthreatening. She would have been wholly inappropriate to convey the tragedy of Pandora or Helen of Troy (roles adopted by Jane and Annie) or the terrifying power of the goddess Astarte (Jane again) or even the withdrawn mystery of Lilith or the Sibyl (posed for by Alexa). A Christmas Carol was among Rossetti’s last images of Ellen and the most elaborate of all the depictions of her that he would ever make. The subject seems to have been inspired by an ornate oriental-style mandolin which was part of Rossetti’s collection of curios. This two-stringed instrument had been painted by Rossetti and Smetham in the 1866 The Mandolin Player (where it was given an extra string) and clearly remained in Rossetti’s possession as it appears again in Forced Music of 1877 (private collection). However it was an item that Rossetti had owned for many years and appear in the background of The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice painted in 1853 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). Rossetti dressed Ellen in the same gown that she wore in The Beloved and with a similar emerald necklace at her throat. Unlike his depiction of amorous sirens or courtesan minstrels that he painted in other pictures of female musicians, he here depicted Ellen as singing a holy song in celebration of Christ’s birth, her head upturned to Heaven and her face almost touching the silver icon of the Holy family.
A Christmas Carol was among Rossetti’s last images of Ellen and the most elaborate of all the depictions of her that he would ever make. The subject seems to have been inspired by an ornate exotic instrument which was part of Rossetti’s collection of curios. It has been identified as a short-neckked fiddle, a rabab probably Algerian or Tunisian and played with a bow rather than plucked. This same instrument had been painted by Rossetti and Smetham in the 1866 The Mandolin Player (where it was given an extra string) and clearly remained in Rossetti’s possession as it appears again in Forced Music of 1877 (private collection). However it was an item that Rossetti had owned for many years and appear in the background of The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice painted in 1853 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). Rossetti dressed Ellen in the same gown that she wore in The Beloved, a loose Indian banyan-style dress decorated with the boteh motif (a design based on a stylised small flowering bush) and a similar emerald necklace at her throat. Unlike his depiction of amorous sirens or courtesan minstrels that he painted in other pictures of female musicians, he here depicted Ellen as singing a holy song in celebration of Christ’s birth, her head upturned to Heaven and her face almost touching the silver icon of the Holy family.
The first owner of A Christmas Carol was Mr Prange, of whom little is known. It did not remain in his collection for long and in 1872 it was acquired in part-exchange for another picture with Murray Marks, a man of great discernment and taste who also owned one of Rossetti’s most beautiful late oil paintings La Bella Mano. Marks was born into a distinguished Dutch family and became a prominent dealer and collector of fine art who introduced Rossetti and Whistler to the beauty of Chinese and Dutch blue-and-white porcelain, and it was said that; ‘The boast that he was intimately concerned in the formation of every great collection in London and in Paris was certainly not far exaggerated.’ (Andrea Rose, Pre-Raphaelite Portraits, 1981, p.123) Rossetti and Marks became close friends and the artist came to rely upon Marks for all sorts of advice from obtaining decorative items to be painted in his pictures, buying a dog for him (it was too noisy and soon returned) to recommending a reliable plumber to fix a leaking bathtub. Marks’ personal art collection was displayed in his houses in Egerton Crescent in London and in Brighton.
Marks sold A Christmas Carol to Mr Alderson-Smith, who was apparently an owner of steam-trawlers in Scarborough who from 1879 lived at Holbeck Hall on the cliffs at Scarborough and later at Wheatcroft Cliff. He was the father-in-law of the Scarborough artist Ernest Dade who was a generation younger than Rossetti but had been part of the Chelsea set who lived in the studios around Manresa Road. It may have been through Dade that Alderson-Smith met Rossetti who drew a portrait of Mrs Alderson Smith in 1875 (Leicester Museums and Art Gallery). Another source identified the Alderson-Smiths as a family from Northamptonshire who may have been introduced to Rossetti by Barbara Bodichon.
The third owner of A Christmas Carol was George Rae, a wealthy Scottish art collector who had bought a new house in 1879 in Birkenhead to house his growing art collection; this included at least seventeen paintings by Rossetti including Venus Verticordia, Monna Vanna, The Beloved and The Damsel of the Sanc Grael. Letters between them show a genuine fondness and when Rossetti heard that Rae had bought A Christmas Carol from Alderson Smith, he wrote 'I must make The Christmas Carol all right for you now you have got it.’ (W.M. Rossetti, D.G. Rossetti as a Designer and Writer, 1889, p.81) Rae’s wife shared her husband’s enthusiasm for art and her reaction to it was even more intense. He wrote; ‘It is my belief that she spends half the day before the picture [The Beloved] as certain devout Catholic ladies had used to do before their favourite shrines in the days of old.’ (F.W.H. Myers, ‘Rossetti and the Religion of Beauty’ in Essays Modern, 1883, p.325)
In 1917 the executors of George Rae’s estate sold his collection of pictures at Christie’s and it was here that it was bought by the first Viscount Leverhulme with Sibylla Palmifera (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), a watercolour version of Venus Verticordia, Death of Breuze, Fight for a Woman (Detroit Institute of Fine Arts) and Salutation of Beatrice (Fogg Art Museum). Lever already owned two drawings by Rossetti and he continued to buy pictures by Rossetti, purchasing in 1920 Mary Magdalene (Delaware Art Museum), Madonna Pietra (Sotheby’s, New York, 1 June 1989, lot 125) and the watercolour Mona Rosa (Christie’s, 24 November 2004, lot 30). However, none of these came close to the magnificence of Sibylla Palmifera or A Christmas Carol and he did not have an opportunity until 1922 to buy another when he bought The Blessed Damozel (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight). The Blessed Damozel and Sibylla Palmifera made their way into the art gallery that he built as a memory to his wife the greatest legacy of his philanthropy and of the energy and enthusiasms that drove him throughout his life. However, A Christmas Carol was kept in Lever's personal possession for his private contemplation and has remained within the Lever family until now.
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