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Dante Gabriel Rossetti Letters to William Houghton Clabburn

Call Number: MSS 31
Scope and Contents
The collection comprises 11 letters from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to William H. Clabburn written from 1863 to 1865. The last of these is addressed to Clabburn's wife, Hannah Louisa. The letters are accompanied by 8 envelopes addressed to Clabburn by Rossetti. Rossetti’s letters primarily relate to Clabburn’s commission of an oil replica of Rossetti’s Mary Magdalen at the door of Simon the Pharisee. The correspondence records in detail Rossetti’s artistic process pertaining to this work. In his letter on 6 July 1865, Rossetti provides an extensive interpretation of the work.

The Mary Magdalen replica is described in Surtees’s catalogue raisonné, in entry no. 109, R2 (page 65). Surtees notes: “Besides R. I, one, or possibly two, further oil replicas appear to have been begun in the early 1860s. The picture seems to have been commissioned by John Heugh in 1862-3, but was cancelled. It is uncertain whether the head and shoulders of the Magdalene had been painted on the canvas (M. p. 98). Clabburn, a Norwich manufacturer, who recommissioned the picture in 1863, denied that the painting had been begun. By July 1865 the replica was despatched to him but he doubted if it was the work of Rossetti’s hand. In 1872 it was bought off him by Fairfax Murray. …”

The letters demonstrate both Rossetti and Clabburn’s influential connections in the contemporary art world. Rossetti refers to his and Clabburn’s mutual acquaintance Frederick Sandys (of whom Clabburn was a close friend) and other prominent artists of the time including Valentine Cameron Prinsep, James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Alphonse Legros. Indeed, the correspondence indicates that, on occasion, Rossetti acted on other artists’ behalf. A letter dated 4 December 1864 reveals that Rossetti arranged for the sale of a Legros’s La mort de Saint François to Clabburn, with Rossetti remarking “You [Clabburn] must know I [Rossetti] have generally been his [Legros’s] business secretary”. In other instances, Rossetti proffers his opinion on cultural events and institutions, declaring lectures at the “Academy” (presumably the Royal Academy) to be “much of a muchness” and remarking upon exhibitions of the time (3 May 1865).

The letters disclose the more quotidian aspects of Rossetti’s work, detailing price justifications and forms of payment. In one letter, Rossetti describes at length, and in precise measurements, how the scaling up of a piece will affect its price: “If again I were to adopt measurements on a sufficiently increased scale to reach again a convenient proportion for the squaring off, the picture would reach a larger size than I could paint for 200 guineas” (15 June 1863). In another, he provides Clabburn with precise instructions for sending Rossetti payments for Mary Magdalen (1 May 1865). Rossetti and Clabburn’s correspondence provides further insight into Rossetti’s belief in his works’ worth, revealing Rossetti’s confidence regarding the future value of his paintings. In a letter dated 15 June 1863, Rossetti states that he cannot accept Clabburn’s commission for anything less than 200 guineas, on account of Rossetti’s opinion that “the importance of the large work … will greatly increase the value of any duplicate or work from the same design.”

The collection evidences the increasing prominence of technologies such as photography and the continued use of lithography in creating, duplicating and disseminating artistic works. For instance, in one letter Rossetti states that Legros has agreed to paint a companion picture to one of his works from a lithograph while in another Rossetti describes his process of creating replicas of pieces by working from photographs of the original (4 December 1864 and 15 June 1863).

In some of the letters, sections of the page have been removed. Generally these are sections containing Rossetti’s letterhead crest and monogram, or his salutation.

Broadly, the collection reveals a warm and friendly relationship between artist and patron, with Rossetti frequently enquiringly kindly after Clabburn’s wife and making reference to mutual friends. In one letter, Rossetti gives his profuse thanks to Clabburn for his gift to Rossetti of two live peacocks which he describes as “gorgeous beyond expression – real treasures!” (undated letter, likely written before 23 April 1864).

The letters are not included in William E. Fredeman's The correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Conditions Governing Access
The materials are open for research.
Conditions Governing Use
The collection is the physical property of the Yale Center for British Art. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund
The letters are arranged chronologically.
.42 Linear Feet (1 box)
Related Names
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882
Language of Materials