Will the Real Walter Pater Please Stand Up?

10 January 2021 by Julie Whyman

Elliott and Fry (1890s)
Walter Horatio Pater (1839 – 1894)
Half-plate glass copy negative.
NPG x81864

Although it is accepted that Rossetti “said almost nothing about the meanings hidden in his flowers”(Phelps Smith, 1978, 2) we dispense with this fact in light of an evaluation proffered by the much revered Victorian art critic, Walter Pater.  Buoyed by the kudos and reputation associated with this eminent commentator, both Sarah Phelps Smith and subsequently Debra Mancoff begin their investigations into the meaning of flowers quoting the great man himself as recalled by William Sharp in Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Record and a Study:

A flower (or rather the phantom of a flower, for even this bit of nature with Rossetti is dreamy) is sometimes introduced on his canvas or even on the frame of his picture.  To the initiated this flower speaks parables; to the ignorant (the many) it is an obtrusive enigma.

Sharp, 1882, see 116-118.

Phelps Smith explains that when “Walter Pater wrote this comment about Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he was fully aware of Rossetti’s practice of including flowers in his paintings as carriers of meaning”. (1978, 1)  Debra Mancoff, too, cites the critic’s insight, pointing to the fact that the:

influential art critic, Walter Pater, believed that the appreciation of Pre-Raphaelite art depended upon the viewer’s fluency in an esoteric language of symbols.  As an example, he noted that Dante Gabriel Rossetti often ornamented his canvases with flowers.  Pater lamented that many (“the ignorant”) saw the flowers as nothing more than “an intrusive enigma.”  But, he countered: “to the initiated this flower speaks parables.”

Mancoff, 2003 & 2012, 6.

There is, however, a fundamental problem with this joint premise, for on returning to William Sharp’s original text, the much-quoted art critic and Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, Walter Horatio Pater, was not responsible for this quotation.  Instead, as Sharp points out, these words were penned by William Edwards Tirebuck, a relatively obscure provincial journalist and freelance art writer.  Here is a fuller version of the text from Tirebuck’s own hand:

This artist [DGR] always seems to have been conscious of doing this specialised art.  We see very little of the man carried away by and in his subject, bringing it to a fervent issue by any means within reach, but we see the artist coolly selecting his deliberations, painting them in, painting them out, making one conception the tomb of another, and giving the world what infinite consciousness gave him.  So it comes about that the delight in Rossetti’s pictures is more delicately (to use a distorted and burlesqued word) than vigorously emotional; more the result of an affectation than an approach to nature and requiring a glossary of almost obsolete culture so as to surround it with comprehension before it can be presented with any entirety to the heart. The artistic or emotional appeal is thus not direct, but through avenues of what the majority of people regard as so much superfluous training, and that appeal to the extent of the indifference or ignorance of these people is therefore impeded.  To persons whose lives are more practical than symbolical his symbolism would be oppressive.  A flower (or rather the phantom of a flower, for even this bit of nature with Rossetti is dreamy), is sometimes introduced on his canvas or even on the frame of his picture.  To the initiated his flower speaks parables; to the ignorant (the many) it is an obtrusive enigma perpetually saying “Guess!” With him a shell is not a shell only, or a bird a bird; they are hieroglyphics, which even some of his admirers cannot interpret. They accept the signs in faith, and worship accordingly.  His pictures not only require titles but foot-notes and recognising this fact the artist has more than once called upon himself as the poet for an explanatory sonnet, which too, in its turn requires certain mental annotation before it can be understood, and even then, with a distant grey indefiniteness.  Is not this old-time symbolism a weakness in a speech of the artist? 

Tirebuck, 1882, 24-26

Tirebuck is fixated by Rossetti’s apparent cathexis: that of assigning meaning to everyday objects according to an almost forgotten cultural rubric. Crucially, he asserts that Rossetti was a symbolist, and, from a floral perspective, that he used flowers to convey meaning from a vague time in the past, utilising floral hieroglyphics which only he and a select few could possibly comprehend.  At no time does he refer to the Victorian language of flowers, preferring to focus on his inference that Rossetti was elitist, and that the artist was intent on playing with recondite meaning to demonstrate his superiority.  If Tirebuck’s postulations are accurate then the flower acts as little more than a signpost for initiates to interpret, thereby perpetuating a sense of alienation from art historical discourse for the majority, who, by definition, apparently lack such erudite insight.  Tirebuck does not, at any time, consider the proposition that perhaps Rossetti’s floral language is incomprehensible because the dictionary being used to interpret it is inappropriate or even inadequate.

Eleanor Susannah Wood (Before 1900)
William Edwards Tirebuck (1854-1900)
Oil on canvas 61 x 50.8 cm
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Although he was predominantly a regional editor at this time, Liverpudlian Tirebuck was an enthusiastic contributor to influential art journals including The Graphic, The Art Journal, Magazine of Art and The Academy: A Weekly Review of Literature, Science, and Art.  He had been researching his biography on Rossetti well in advance of the artist’s untimely demise for his work went to press with unseemly haste, even ahead of both Thomas Hall Caine and William Sharp.  Tirebuck may well have gained some satisfaction from usurping his former congenial school companion, Caine, whose Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti were slower to reach the printing presses. However, when asked by a local journalist to name his first publication of significance, Tirebuck’s response was not Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His Work & Influence (1882) nor his earlier offering of William Daniels, Artist (1879), but rather a later work, Great Minds in Art (1888), from which, lamentably, Rossetti is excluded. 

How far could this biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti have been, therefore, a precipitous foray by an opportunist journalist rather than a genuine and considered art critique of some bearing?  By 21 July 1882, William Michael Rossetti had already read Tirebuck’s offering, pronouncing his attempts to show “a sincere and up to a certain point, an intelligent admiration of Gabriel’s powers”. However, he considered them to be “decidedly bad,” and “overloaded in literary style”. (WMR to Frances Rossetti, 21 July 1882. In Peattie, 1990, 431)

Critically, it is time to reconsider the relevance of this unauthorised biography – an early commercial publication lacking gravitas, later overlooked even by the aspiring author/eventual novelist himself – not listed by the Rossetti Archive – and misattributed to Walter Pater – being cited as the pivotal statement relating to Pre-Raphaelite floral enquiry.  

Further reading:

Debra N. Mancoff, Flowers in Pre-Raphaelite Art (Munich and London: Prestel, 2003).

Debra N. Mancoff, The Pre-Raphaelite Language of Flowers (Munich, London and New York: Prestel, 2012).

R. W. Peattie ed. Selected Letters of William Michael Rossetti (London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990).

William Sharp, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Record and a Study (London: Macmillan, 1882).

Sarah Phelps Smith, “Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Flower Imagery and the Meaning of his Painting,” PhD dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1978.

William Tirebuck, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Work and Influence (London: Elliot Stock, 1882).