Dante Gabriel Rossetti
12 of 29 portraits of Dante Gabriel Rossetti
- Extended catalogue entry
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
by D Brucciani & Co
Plaster cast (death mask), 1882
13 in. (330 mm) high
Inscriptionback to top
Incised underneath: ‘D.ROSSETTI / 1882’.
This portraitback to top
‘If I die suddenly at any moment … [l]et no cast be taken on any account of my face or head,’ wrote Rossetti in 1876.  He died six years later, on 9 April 1882 at Birchington, Kent, where family members had gathered for his last days. The following day, Easter Monday, his mother’s diary records that ‘a telegram sent by William [Rossetti] brought from London a man from Brucciani’s to take a cast of Gabriel’s head and hand. Gabriel looked quite peaceful, with a tendency towards a smile.’  The decision was William’s: as he wrote three days later, ‘On Monday I got the face and hand moulded – a thing which ought not to be omitted for men of a certain degree of mark.’ 
The mould/s appear to have been taken virtually in the round, including both ears and some hair behind them, the back of the head only having been completed without a mould. The neck forms the base, but requires support for the head to be upright, and as the present cast has no other base, the head lies back, as in a coffin.
Brucciani’s was the Galleria delle Belle Arti, the noted shop established by Domenico Brucciani (d.1880), then in Covent Garden. The plaster moulds were taken from Birchington to the workshop, where plaster casts were produced and delivered to William’s home in Endsleigh Gardens. The exact number of original casts is not known; in 1885 when Brucciani’s could not locate the moulds, William lent his originals, from which new moulds were prepared, but it is not known if any second-generation casts were made.  The new moulds were subsequently destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. In 1894, ‘three or four copies’ were said to have been originally cast, of which one belonged to William, one to Hall Caine and one (probably) to Theodore Watts-Dunton.  Then in the possession of the donor, Alice Chambers, the present copy must represent the fourth. One now in Princeton University Library, bequeathed by Janet C. Troxell, is that formerly with W.M. Rossetti.  The present cast is somewhat finer than others, with smoother skin surfaces and crisper eyebrows, but the differences are not significant.
Later, William recorded his opinion of the original: ‘These casts [i.e. of head and hand] were taken with no less skill than that with which the Brucciani firm always command; but it is a fact that the head proved extremely disappointing to all of us, and seems barely to suggest what my brother was like.’  He also wrote: ‘I should say that my family and myself do not at all like the version of my brother’s face presented by the mould and cast. In especial, singular though it may sound, the dimensions of the forehead seem woefully narrowed and belied. But of course, from a certain point of view, the cast tells truth of its own kind.’ 
The donor, Alice Mary (‘May’) Chambers (b.1855) was an artist closely associated with Charles Augustus Howell, D.G. Rossetti’s former friend, whose executor she became in 1890, but it is not clear from whom she acquired the mask. In 1913 she wrote from Vincent Square, London, offering to the National Portrait Gallery the ‘post mortem cast of the head of the late Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Poet and Painter’, explaining that it was given to her ‘by a friend of Mr Rossetti’s about 25 years ago’.  In a second letter she added, ‘I was informed that it was taken for purposes connected with the statue afterwards executed…’  To an enquiry as to the maker, W.M. Rossetti replied briefly to the NPG director that ‘That death-mask was taken by the Brucciani firm at my order. Some mention of made of it in my Memoir (p.400) of my Brother, annexed to his Family-Letters’. 
Dr Jan Marsh
Footnotesback to top
1) Rossetti memorandum to G.G. Hake, 30 Apr. 1876; Fredeman 2002–10, vol.7, letter 76:80, p.271.
2) F.L. Rossetti Diary, 10 Apr. 1882; quoted Rossetti 1895, vol.1, pp.399–401.
3) Letter from W.M. Rossetti to W.B. Scott, 13 Apr. 1882; Peattie 1990, no.336, p.416. W.M. Rossetti possibly acted in anticipation of the memorial sculpted by F.M. Brown (see ‘All known portraits, Posthumous portraits, 1885–7’).
4) Letter from W.M. Rossetti to his wife, 23 Aug. 1885; Peattie 1990, no.388; the new moulds were deposited with W.M. Rossetti for safe-keeping. In December 1889, he told F.H. Day that ‘either Brucciani or myself (I think it is myself but could not speak certainly without some little enquiry) possess the moulds. Casts of the moulds could of course be taken…’ (MS note in NPG RP 1699, c.1964 citing information from Janet Troxell). There seems to be no record that any such casts were made, and NPG 1699 was almost certainly in existence by 1889–90.
5) Hutton 1894, p.122, apparently on the authority of W.M. Rossetti, whose copy Hutton illustrated in an unusual profile view. Without identifying the third owner, Hutton in fact identified G.F. Watts as owner of cast 4, apparently in mistake for Watts-Dunton. T. Hall Caine, who was in the house when D.G. Rossetti died, later claimed to possess ‘the cast’ taken at Birchington (Caine 1928, p.254) and may have owned an original; this was offered at Sotheby’s, July 1970 (The Times, 7 July 1970), was later in the Roy Davids Coll., and at Christie’s, 7 June 2007 (39), after which it was (2009) acquired by a private collection. No cast is at the Watts G., Compton.
6) Ex 88, Box 44, ‘From the original death mask by Brucciani in possession of W.M. Rosssetti’ and ID95027 ‘2 [sic] death masks of Rossetti from the original by D. Brucciani in possession of W.M. Rossetti’. Although now with the death masks collected by Hutton (1843–1904) this particular item came from Janet Troxell, whose notable collection of Rossettiana was bequeathed to the university. A total of four casts seems most probable, of which that belonging to W.M. Rossetti is now with Princeton U., that owned by Hall Caine is in a private collection, that owned by Alice Chambers is NPG 1699, and that presumed to have belonged to Watts-Dunton is unlocated and may be that said to have been in the collection of the late W.E. Fredeman.
7) Rossetti 1895, vol.1, p.399.
8) Quoted Hutton 1894, p.122.
9) Letter from A.M. Chambers to C.J. Holmes, 12 Mar. 1913, NPG RP 1699. Twenty-five years previously gives the date of 1888; subsequently, Chambers stated that the friend from whom she received the cast had died about four years later, c.1892. If these dates are exact, Howell was not the source, but perhaps all were approximations.
10) Letter from A.M. Chambers to C.J. Holmes, 24 Mar. 1913, NPG RP 1699.
11) Letter from W.M. Rossetti to C.J. Holmes, 2 May 1913, NPG RP 1699; see Rossetti 1895, vol.1, p.400.
Physical descriptionback to top
Head, after death.
Provenanceback to top
Possibly from C.A. Howell c.1888 to Alice Chambers, by whom gifted in 1913.
Exhibitionsback to top
Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painter and Poet, Royal Academy, London, 1973 (371, another cast).
View all known portraits for Dante Gabriel Rossetti