A Tale of Two Trees: Sycamore or Willow? (part 2)

It was several years later in 1877, when his tenancy of Kelmscott was but a memory, that Rossetti dreamt of a way to acquire much needed ‘tin’. It occurred to him that it might be lucrative ‘to try to work out some of these drawings as pictures, using any nature at hand for the mere surface and light-and-shade of the flesh’, and critically, to adhere ‘in all respects to the drawing as a guide’.[1] When Constantine Ionides commissioned Rossetti to create an oil from the drawing Rossetti forged ahead in this manner. To give the painting gravitas, he considered giving the commission the title of Vanna Primavera, and ‘making the tree a spring sycamore, which is so beautiful in detail’.  It is surely this ‘making the tree a spring sycamore’ that is the primary contention.  Why would he need to make the tree a sycamore if it was already a sycamore?  The simple answer is he doesn’t; he is not changing the tree, but rather changing the season.  

A Vision of Fiammetta (1878)
Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 139.7 cm
Andrew Lloyd Webber collection.

On one of the few other occasions when a tree is intrinsic to the structure of a composition, as in A Vision of Fiammetta completed around the same time as this drawing, Rossetti filled the canvas with the figure alongside the trunk of an indistinct, but I would claim, actual apple tree.  Only later did he add the apple-blossom and foliage, waiting until the perfect flowers were in season.[2] A similar approach is adopted in this drawing.

Comparing The Day Dream (1880) with the drawing (1878)

If we look closely at the structure of the background tree in the drawing and compare it with the resplendent tree in the final oil version, the similarities are quite striking: the forked principal branch Jane holds and the v-shaped branch spanning across her right arm are at a similar angle in both as are the branches immediately behind her shoulders.  In the foreground the tendrils of the lower left branch skim her skirt in both versions, while the tips of leaves caress her left sleeve in the lower right-hand corner.  Obviously, the most significant difference is that while the central structure remains, the leaves are detailed in the oil version.[3]

This is the most striking evidence yet.  However, the leaves in the lower right of the foreground are still problematic; they do not have three to five lobes as we might expect from sycamore leaves.  It is possible, of course, that the original small trees in the foreground of the drawing may be something completely different: Jane sitting between two or more trees/bushes to give the illusion of sitting in a tree.  Having acknowledged this possibility, there is a small detail in the oil which seems to correspond to the drawing’s anomaly: 

Comparison of leaf detail in The Day Dream and lower right branch in the drawing.

This small branch in the oil may reflect some of the qualities of this curious twig in the drawing? When writing to Jane in 1880, he mentions that ‘it is a fact that many of the largest leaves were on the tree together with the smallest’[4], and in the poem he composes to accompany the painting, he points out in the first two lines that: ‘The thronged boughs of the shadowy sycamore/ Still bear young leaflets half the summer through…’[5] as if, from a pragmatic point of view, he is explaining the apparent incongruity of budding and mature sycamore leaves existing simultaneously on the same tree. Or could it be, after all, that the leaves in the drawing are actually a study of willow?

Comparison of willow branch in Water Willow and unidentified branch in drawing

Their shape seems similar, although the willow leaves are longer, thinner and more delicate in Rossetti’s Water Willow than in this drawing.

I am still to have a really close look at the drawing, and hope to do so when the exhibition opens, but there may yet be another aspect to consider:  the bark of both trees is quite distinctive (the willow growing in ridges and the sycamore displaying a jigsaw effect). When I am able to examine the drawing itself, I hope to discover if Rossetti included any indication of this fine detail in the shading.

Willow trunk (left) and sycamore trunk (right)

Currently, there does appear to be sufficient evidence to reach the conclusion that the main tree in the background of the drawing is most likely to be a sycamore, and on balance, the branch(es) in the foreground are most probably sycamore, too.

But why does any of this matter?

First, a positive identification of the tree demonstrates Rossetti’s method: the concept began life as a sycamore, and was realised in oil as a sycamore; he did not change his basic composition; the form of the tree was more important to Rossetti during the compilation stage than the species of the tree; the tree’s initial importance lies in its ability to frame the subject; the lady comes first, and detailed nature is secondary.  That does not at all suggest, however, that the tree was unimportant.  Time and time again Rossetti proves that floral details are critical, and as he incorporates trees so rarely in his work, I find it difficult to believe that this beautiful drawing would have been created without the artist being totally aware of the significance of his tree choice. To be convincing, the lady in the tree (something Rossetti had decided as early as September 1872, if not before) would have to be painted with the same species of tree before her and behind her.

Second, identifying the tree reduces the risk of biographical fallacy.  The more we learn about Rossetti, the greater the temptation to read his choices as reflections of the vagaries of his own life and relationships.  In this case, the willow was clearly a dominant image during those halcyon days in the Cotswolds, but elm (common in the area), apple trees, other fruit trees, and the self-seeding sycamore were also in abundance, along with numerous other species in their shared paradisal garden. We may naturally associate willow with Rossetti more than sycamore given our knowledge of Water WillowWillowwood, and the riverbank at Kelmscott, but  perhaps there are other associations with sycamore we are missing? 

The return of spring was traditionally celebrated on May Day, highlighted in the first stanza of Rossetti’s homage to Tennyson, ‘The River’s Record’, penned at Kelmscott during that first season:

Between Holmscote and Hurstcote

  The river-reaches wind,

The whispering trees accept the breeze,

  The ripple’s cool and kind:

With love low-whispered ‘twixt the shores,

  With rippling laughters gay,

With white arms bared to ply the oars,

  On last year’s first of May.[6]

May Day commemorated ‘a collective return to the woods at daybreak to gather branches of sycamore and hawthorn to trim doorways, church, and street’. This encouraged couples to linger in the forest ‘with its shade and the absence of civilization’ offering ‘sanctuary to moral abandon’ and ‘a keener awareness of nature’.[7] Is this “shady sexuality”(represented by the sycamore) and a heightened sense of rising sap and fruitful procreation (embodied by the honeysuckle) fashioning Rossetti’s day dream?[8]

The Day Dream detail (1880)
Oil, 158.75 x 92.7 cm
Victoria & Albert Museum

Finally, accurate identification enables a greater appreciation of the delicacy of Rossetti’s metaphorical language.  It is much more about nuanced wisps of allusion than seeking definitive meaning. For example, ‘the forgotten book’, as Rossetti so ironically describes it in his poem to accompany the picture, is often overlooked.[9]  Could it be a Shakespearean text, or perhaps a translation of Plutarch, both of which Rossetti and Jane read avidly at Kelmscott,[10] or maybe it is a book of poetry by Tennyson, lauded by Rossetti during his first visit as ‘the most quotable poet about natural beauty’.[11] When Rossetti sought to immortalise Jane as spring personified could there be a poetic phantom of Tennyson’s poem The Day-Dream (1842) made flesh in the painting’s final title?:

O LADY FLORA, let me speak:

A pleasant hour has passed away

While, dreaming on your damask cheek,

The dewy sister-eyelids lay.

As by the lattice you reclined,

I went thro’ many wayward moods

To see you dreaming ­­­­­– and, behind,

A summer crisp with shining woods.

In investigating this tale of two trees, my final thought (for now) is that it is supremely ironic that Rossetti concluded his life’s work with The Day Dream. He created this ‘cuckoo throb, the heartbeat of the Spring’,[12] celebrating the pagan festival of renewal[13] ‘or more correctly … the disappearance of the horrible darkness of winter’,[14] even as the shadow of his own demise on Easter Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, whispered ominously in his ear. Ultimately, that is the moot point: could Rossetti have sent us a final message in his choice of tree: willow for sorrowpain and abandonment, or sycamore for joy, celebration and hope?

[1] DGR to Jane Morris, 19 December 1877.  In Fredeman, Correspondence, vol. 7, 471 (letter 77.175).

[2] See Fredeman, Correspondence, vol. 8, letters 78.69, 78.94, and 78.121.

[3] According to Surtees Rossetti made a study for a young sycamore tree in 1879 (sold in the Rossetti sale of 1883 and now sadly lost). 

[4] DGR to Jane Morris, 8 July 1880.  In Fredeman, Correspondence, vol. 9, 221 (letter 80.237).

[5] Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Day-Dream (For a Picture).

[6] DGR to William Bell Scott, ca. 26 July 1871.  In Fredeman, Correspondence, vol. 5, 86-89 (letter 71.107).

[7] Cheryl New, “Within Midsummer Nights: Dichotomies in the Collective Dream,” The Corinthian (2008) vol. 9 , article 6. 
https://kb.gcsu.edu/thecorinthian/vol9/iss1/6  accessed 20 March 2021.

[8] See my article on Venus Verticordia.

[9] DGR to William Bell Scott, 17 July 1871.  In Fredeman, Correspondence, vol.5, 81 (letter 71.100).

[10] DGR to William Bell Scott, 13 August 1871.  Ibid, 114 (letter 71.123).

[11] DGR to Ford Madox Brown, 16 July 1871.  Ibid, 77 (letter 71.97).

[12] Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Ardour and Memory’: Sonnet LXIV, House of Life.

[13] See the eight separate versions of DGR’s Proserpine (1874-1882).

[14] Jane Morris to DGR, March 1879. In Frank C. Sharp and Jan Marsh, The Collected Letters of Jane Morris (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2012), 86 (letter 61).